Nicola Monaghan's news, events and general thoughts about life and writing.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

How did he do it?

If you don't know what I'm talking about then I can only assume that you A. have been gravely ill or asleep for more than 48 hours, B. took a trip to another solar system last night or C. are not from the UK and no one else is bothered. But that's okay, because you can watch the footage of Derren Brown 'predicting' the UK National Lottery numbers live on Channel Four here and catch yourself up.

Of course, the entire world wide web is buzzing this morning with theories and ideas about how he might have pulled this off. The one that seems to have convinced most people is this idea. It fits with what Derren said, that this illusion took a year of his time to set up. He only ever promised to get five numbers right so that massively cuts down the permutations of numbers he'd have to film, right? And it fits with the footage if you watch it carefully. Derren switches off the TV when he's written the numbers down, he pauses and stands still. There's even a gap in his speech at this moment.

There's just one problem with this theory. In the second, supposedly spliced on, pre-recorded TV clip, Derren would have to carry in his hand a card with the actual lottery numbers on it. He's supposedly just written them down from the TV a moment ago, so they have to be right. His prediction can be one number out, but the writing on the card can't be. This takes us right back to our 14 million little recordings, though, doesn't it?

Whatever the explanation is on Friday, it is even cleverer than that. And most of the nation will watch with bated breath to find out how he did it. I'm going to watch it, that's for sure.

Which brings me to the actual subject of my post. Because I wasn't really talking about his trick with the numbers. Derren Brown is a master illusionist and I've seen him do stranger things. They always end up being viable, explanable illusions and, sometimes, he reveals his methods to us. Bringing us in on the secret makes us feels as clever as him, and we like him all the more. We don't feel cheated because his methods are so intelligent and novel, so that we can only admire him.

I think he pulled off a much bigger trick than predicting the lottery numbers last night. I'm the kind of person who doesn't buy in properly to popular culture. I've never watched Big Brother, for example, and couldn't give a toss what the current status is between Peter and Barbie (although, admittedly, I do know there is something going on there despite my total lack of interest...) But last night I was hooked. I was completely fascinated with how he was going to pull it off. Then I was completely obsessed by how he might have done it. I even dreamed about it.

He had us. All of us, completely hypnotised and transfixed. How did he do that?

This one I can have a go at explaining. For a start, he chose the lottery. How many people can honestly say they've never bought a lottery ticket or at least dreamed of winning it? It could be you. Probably the most successful marketing gimmick of the last two millennia. Yes, of course it could be you, but the actual chances that it will be are around 14 million to one per line of numbers, so it's not very likely. What always puts this in perspective for me is the plain old laws of probability that say the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 are just as a likely to come out as any others. Last week's numbers are just as likely to be drawn again as the ones on your ticket. I remember back in the 80s some cynical comedian flushed a pound coin down the loo and said 'You're just as likely to see that back as win the lottery' and that's about right. (All of this, of course, ignores the fact there are other prizes to win, some of them well worth having, and these are much more likely to happen to you.)

The National Lottery (or Lotto, I suppose I should say) is something that has already captured our imaginations. We are already hypnotised by its power, the possibility that our lives could be completely transformed. Derren Brown was already compellingly famous but we would have tuned in to pretty well any old Joe Bloggs saying he could predict the lottery numbers and convincing Channel Four to give him a time slot to prove it.

And then this is the thing. Not only does Brown not predict the numbers in time for us to get rich (of course, that wouldn't be allowed, Channel Four have even banned him from buying himself a ticket pffftttt!) he doesn't 'predict' the numbers at all. He shows us a set of balls and reveals the correct numbers are indeed stuck to them after the lottery's been drawn. The whole thing felt a bit Paul Daniels, for me. 'I put the card you are going to choose in this box.' Basic Magic Circle stuff.

Is the world ablast with 'what a crock?' this morning, then? It turns out not. Wherever you look on the web there are hoards of people saying how brilliant Brown is. Most people talking about this agree he's a genius, and the best illusionist we've ever seen. There are others who seem to genuinely believe he has some kind of psychic power. Even the cynical ones who are saying 'prediction my ass' are convinced he's going to blow us away with his denouement in the show on Friday and are looking forward to finding out what he did.

And, by some remarkable coincidence, Brown's new TV series started last night. I wonder what the viewing figures were like for that? Tickets went on sale for his latest tour. I bet them there phone lines were quite busy. I don't want to but I have to say it - the man is a genius!

There's no doubt in my mind whatsoever that he has the nation well and truly hypnotised. Truth be told, I'm not really sure how he did that either. I'd kill to know.

Look into the eyes, in the eyes, not around the eyes, into the eyes, you're under. Buy my books. Buy my books. Buy my books....


Dion Gifford said...

For as long as I've been aware of illusionists and magicians, I've shied away. It’s even annoyed me at times – simply because I couldn’t be absolutely sure of the science behind the illusions.
I know that's the whole point, but it's my head, and I bloody well need to be sure! (I could suggest a new hidey place where Copperfield might like to put the Statue of Liberty...)
I'm also wary of putting my lot in with the (small, large?) number of people who believe that there is an element of actual magic, or other-worldly forces at play. It's a bit like not watching Most Haunted - you know damned well that it's tosh but you also know that there are people who actually swallow it. Tarred with the nut-job brush / no thanks...
Having said all of this, I find Derren Brown intriguing rather than annoying.
I find the way that he manipulates people, absolutely fascinating. It’s a very powerful thing to be able to bend others to your will, yet to do so willingly, if that makes sense.
I suspect he’s spent an awful lot of time getting to know what makes us tick, our motivations, our acceptances. Of course we’re all different, but by tapping into the things we share (eg The Lottery = greed) he controls the masses. Who wouldn’t want to be able to pick the numbers? I’d also like to be able to travel back in time in the deLorean with the baseball results and do a bit of sports betting too...
The other facets of just as admirable, if not moreso. His attention to detail, the slick leave-nothing-to-chanceness, the marketing, the hype.
Yet he polarises some, I think because we don’t like smugness, and this is perhaps where the admiration becomes grudging for some.
If you’re very very good at what you do, I imagine it must be difficult to rein in your confidence...I’ve never been one for false modesty anyhow.
I see what he does as experiments in psychology, on a grand scale.
I look forward to the next one!

Niki M said...

Absolutely Dion. He is so slick and good at what he does. I am looking forward to finding out the gen tomorrow.

Jimmy Howe said...

About 10 years ago Paul McKenna done something like this on his paranormal show. He picked random 5 numbers and then asked the audience and the nation to visualise the numbers all week. As I remember he got about 3 or 4 right. The explanation at the time had hints of 'the secret' and all that thought-manifestation malarky. I dont know how Derren has done this, He is very good at what he does though.

Jimmy Howe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Niki M said...

Hi Jimmy - isn't he just. A very, very intelligent bloke and a brilliant showman. This is the best and most interesting promo stunt I've ever seen. I'm looking forward to the show tomorrow because I think the explanation he'll give us will be very clever indeed.