Derren Brown: The Heist
We’ll miss Derren Brown when he’s gone. Responsible for some of the most audacious, subversive and challenging television of recent times he stands alone like a tiny bearded colossus, utterly unique. Pseuds like David Blaine aren’t even dealing in the same currency.
"…he stands alone like a tiny bearded colossus, utterly unique. Pseuds like David Blaine aren’t even dealing in the same currency."
Now it’s the time to marvel at the shameless criminality of The Heist where, under the guise of a motivational seminar, he attempts to persuade four participants to steal £100,000 in what they believe is a genuine armed robbery. Brown clearly has an evolved sense of the ridiculous along with a taste for the macabre.
We see the process of him weeding out strong-minded individuals from the seminar to leave the most suggestible.
“His evil masterplan is to focus his middle management guests unconsciously on the idea of stealing while convincing them that the exercises are for authentic reasons.”
The seminar includes some genuinely useful material on personal effectiveness; memory techniques, triggering positive states and the like. It all goes swimmingly.
The evil masterplan, it transpires, is to focus his middle management guests unconsciously on the idea of stealing while convincing them that the exercises are for authentic reasons so they stay responsive.
This section is very entertaining and doubles as a critique of these laughable management seminars and the cult of personality surrounding business gurus.
The first babysteps into the underworld are taken when Brown sends the eager cabbages to shoplift some sweeties from a newsagent (the owner is aware of the theft though his staff are not ). Those successful at the tea leafery experience a rush of euphoria and, crucially, no sense of guilt. So far, so good.
"One by one the participants administer fatal electric shocks because a man standing in a white coat tells them to."
As the herd thins, Derren runs them through a version of The Milgram experiment – the classic social obedience demonstration where participants give increasingly deadly electric shocks to an unseen screaming subject, giving some idea of the depth of their conformity.
One by one the participants administer fatal electric shocks because a man standing in a white coat tells them to. Watching them happily frying strangers is intriguing as it is funny and just a little chilling.
Throughout the show, Brown deftly uses neuro-linguistic programming and hypnosis techniques to plant a feeling of invincibility, risk-taking and want, take, have in his subjects – a feeling which will be triggered by a certain cues – the colour green, a security van and, bizarrely, the Jackson Five‘s "Can You Feel It?"
With the original gang whittled down to four, the heist opportunity is constructed in central London on deserted Gresham Street where a security van with actors playing the security guards awaits our seminar folk. One by one they walk down the street, a car playing the Jackson Five song on the stereo is cued to drive past.
As the first participant, Victoria, a previously law-abiding press officer, pulls the toy gun Derren handed out at the seminar on what she believes to be a genuine security guard and deadpans "I think you should get on the floor" you realise once again the depth of Derren Brown’s dark powers.
She sprinted up the road, with £100,000 of cash in two cases, to be apprehended by Derren and his flunkies who quickly took her to become deprogrammed.
“There’s an amoral automaton inside all of us – it’s just closer to the surface in some than others.”
Phil, a security operations manager and Danny, an IT consultant, both follow suit. Ally, a business development manager, walks past the security van without robbing it. Good for him but you suspect in different circumstances he’d be blasting heat with the best of them.
Maybe there’s something about middle-management types and their submission to authority that makes them particularly susceptible to this. There’s an amoral automaton inside all of us – it’s just closer to the surface in some than others.
Armed robbery can get you 15 years. In a couple of weeks, a small man with a beard turned law-loving middle-management types into Ronnie Biggs. You wonder how he persuades TV executives give this type of thing the go-ahead.
Then you realise.
The best thing about it: The demonstration of the power of suggestion.
The worst thing about it: The knowledge that it could be you.
The verdict on Derren Brown: The Heist : Masterful mindfuck.
Marks out of 10: 8