Friday, August 8, 2008

Derren Brown Flashback: Russian Roulette, Part 2

After months of publicity, Derren Brown's Russian Roulette special aired on October 5, 2003, at 9 PM. It was broadcast in the Netherlands and Australia, as well as Great Britain.

In Great Britain, the special was preceded by a documentary that dealt with the topic of suicide. Between the two programs, Channel 4 ran an advertisement encouraging people with thoughts of suicide to call a help-line number provided. The network was understandably accused of insensitivity when it proceeded to broadcast a game of Russian roulette.

The Show

The broadcast described the process of selecting Derren Brown's assistant. From an initial pool of 12,000 applicants, five people were selected. Over the course of the broadcast, Derren performed tricks using these five, and ultimately selected a single volunteer to assist in his stunt.

Like the other finalists, the winning volunteer, a reserved man named James, had been investigated and analyzed by psychologists prior to his selection.

Derren lifted the gun to his head and pulled the trigger once, and then a second time. He fired the third shot away from himself, only to reveal that the bullet was not in that chamber, either. He again raised the gun to his head and pulled the trigger.

Nothing happened. Then he aimed at a sandbag and pulled the trigger a fifth time, this time correctly identifying the location of the bullet. Sand flowed out of a hole in the sandbag.

Did he intentionally make an incorrect guess on the third shot, or was it truly a mistake? The error heightened the drama of an already tense situation by making it appear that Derren did not know which chamber the bullet was in.

A spokeswoman for Channel 4 reportedly commented, "If it was a mistake, so what? At least he made the mistake with the sandbag and not with his own head."

After the show, a representative of Derren Brown delivered the following message from Derren: "I'm relieved it's all over. I'm off to have a few whiskies." Brown's parents were reportedly relieved, as well.

Public Reaction

For Derren, the good news kept coming as it was reported that approximately 3 million UK residents had tuned in for the event (12% of the viewing audience), with 3.3 million watching the critical last few minutes of the show.

On October 7, 2003, the Guardian reported that Derren Brown's special had not been filmed in a jurisdiction immune from British gun laws. In fact, the show was filmed in Jersey and police there made certain that no gun laws were violated. Channel 4 reportedly assured the Jersey police that there was no risk of danger. According to the Guardian report, the Jersey police verified that the bullet loaded into Derren Brown's gun was a blank – not a real bullet.

This, of course, contradicted the pre-show hype in which both Channel 4 and Derren Brown claimed that a real bullet would be used. A Jersey police officer was quoted as saying: "This programme was made by a TV company very experienced in pyrotechnics, in making smoke and bullet holes appear. It was no different to film which uses special effects."

Derren's Reaction

Despite the accusations that his trick was a sham, Derren was pleased, specifically commenting that he was delighted with the press coverage his special had generated:

"Coming back after the weekend and seeing this press question of whether it was real or not real, I could not have hoped for a better response… [T]o have the question of was the whole thing real or was it not real, was it a hoax, then that is great. Any magic performer out there in the country would just give their right arm for that. As a performer you want to create a piece of really riveting television and an event that people will talk about."

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