Despite a daring dalliance into the world of horse racing, Derren Brown’s comfort lair has always been in the manipulation of human perceptions. Perhaps his venture into predicting the National Lottery numbers indicates he’d bored of coercing simple humans into committing armed robberies and now wishes to bend the will of unthinking, mechanised leviathans.
At least that was what we thought prior to watching him explain how he did it. He opened with an over-exaggerated dismissal of all the theories that had been brainlessly concocted in the previous two days, tossing his arms up in a nervous exclamatory fashion as if to meekly disclose that such mendacious skulduggery was beyond his sweet persona (and his geniality and charisma is one of the reasons he keeps the public largely on his side, and accordingly makes his act more potent).
Initially it seemed as though there was a paucity of meat on the bones; he started off with two experiments to show how humans are more predictable when under pressure through a woman avoiding choosing the box that contained a ‘mouse’. It didn’t really just a card with a mouse drawn on it; this was meant to evince Derren’s compassion that he wouldn’t dare risk putting the poor woman – who had a phobia about mice – under any real duress, just the threat of duress to make her more predictable.
This is one of Derren’s popular conceits, the perception that one of his illusions could go wrong in order to make him seem fallible, and therefore the illusions more amazing when they come off; something he repeated when he said he hoped to get just five rather than all six of the Lottery numbers. There was no possibility that either trick would fail.
This conceit was repeated when a man was asked to stamp on paper cups laid out in lines on the floor, one of which was primed with an upturned knife. Again Derren proceeded with the rigmarole of a ‘tetanus’ injection and the promised of £500,000 in compensation should the man be injured. Again Derren is tried so hard insert a glimmer of risk through the meticulous, almost paranoid, preparation but the problem is that he is so good at what he does – and exactly what that is we’re not quite sure – that there’s very little tension in these sideshows.
After coercing a group of human guinea pigs into believing that they’d altered the toss of the coin through their willpower alone, and perhaps too duped the watching audience that it was achieved through ‘deep maths’ (i.e. something that was too complex to explain to us mere mortals) he finally got on to ‘winning’ the Lottery.
The only element of ‘failure’ apparent in the whole show was that it took his 24 test subjects a few tries before Derren’s ‘method’ for guessing the numbers slotted into place. In short, he asked the subjects to put down their six guesses and then adds them up and divides each of the six numbers by 24. This only yielded fruit once the subjects had been induced into using ‘automatic writing’ – the sort of hokum Derren has made a career of debunking – that miraculously got them four correct numbers. Again this could perhaps have been instilled to create the tension and anxiety in the viewers that Derren had laid down earlier in the show, thus making their perceptions easier to predict.
On the night, Derren repeated the use of automatic writing but this time did the calculations himself and scurried away to his live show with no independent scrutiny of the calculations, where, as history will record, he predicted all six numbers. But this disappointing denouement elicited the possibility that the prediction was merely a means to and end rather than an end in itself.
Is Derren’s true purpose to manipulate and coax the British populace to employ his technique for getting the numbers? There’s little doubt that any number of Lottery syndicates are meeting and scrawling random numbers on a sheet of paper, their optimism elevated, along with the same sort of anticipation and excitement that Derren earlier claimed made people’s behaviour easy to predict. If so, there’ll be about 500 jackpot winners.
Or is it even more esoteric than that, and his intention was really to inspire people predictably to devise ever more absurd solutions to the quandary he set on Wednesday, something he even encouraged through his dismissive, provocative mockery as he opened the show. And that his trap, into which we’ve fallen headfirst, was not to show people how to win millions of pounds but instead to scorn the enduring human obsession to wilfully fabricate ridiculous chimeras for every mystery, a trait that stretches back to the very origins of humankind.
If it was, it shows that he’s succeeded. Again.