Derren Brown is a genius, an illusionist, a magician that does no magic, a man that uses reason like other folk wield hand guns. In one of his earlier shows he got a man to shoot him. But he’s still alive and still at it. Making his own shows, his own productions and selling the product to Channel 4. If the premise of his show can’t be described in one sentence it’s usually a dud and not a Derren Brown classic. In this one he’s going to get someone to push someone else off the edge of a tall building to their death—so they believe.
We the audience know that is not the case. In the Sting (1973) Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) teams up with o Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) to take revenge on the ruthless crime boss Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw) responsible for their mutual pal’s death by stealing his money. Here the victim of the sting is not a ruthless crime boss, but an innocent member of the public. I’d guess we’re looking here at Stanley Milgram’s authority study (1974) which tested a paid subject’s conflict between what he or she thought was right or wrong and the prompting of an authority figure, in this case a teacher, who urged the subject to inflict increasing levels of pain on another subject when ostensibly researching responses to stimuli and the affect on memory. This in essence mimicked German’s citizen’s response to Nazi authority and in particular the claim ‘I was only doing what I was told’. This abdication of responsibility conducted at Yale University using ordinary Americans was expected to be a failure. In other words, few or very few subjects would move through the gears and throw a switch in which another subject experienced increasing levels of electric shock which begun at 15 volts, and ended with XXX 450 volts, and presumably death, as the setting before it warned of Danger: Severe Shock. The actor or confederate who was playing the part of the person being shocked was asked to make his pain more realistic by shouting and screaming and begging for mercy. Sixty-five percent of the sample tested, despite this, when verbally urged to throw the switch by the teacher, or authority figure, did so.
I didn’t catch all of Derren Brown’s programme, but caught the end of it, when the subject of the sting, Chris Kingston, 29, being duped and urged to push an old man off a building, refused to do so. But this is a trick that backfired for Derren Brown and his script team. Mr Kingston meets Derren Brown and his courage is lauded. He has done what 35% of subjects in Milgram’s study did, refuse to bow to authority and maintained their autonomy and judgement. So far so good. But then Derren shows the viewer the same experiment, but run with another three members of the subject cohort. Two middle-class woman and a man did push an old man off a building. We see them doing it. The difference between Milgram’s experiment and Derren Brown’s is the former was anonymous. The subject gets to walk away knowing what he or she has done and how they’ve been duped. Here the social media sting comes into effect. Those subjects that pushed the old man off the building are known. What they have done is in the public sphere and likely to have countless adverse effects on their long term career. No amount of de-briefing of counselling can take that away. This is a disappointment which belongs more to the Jeremy Kyle school of lets laugh not with them, but at them. This is poking people’s inadequacies with sticks and I don’t like it. But I don’t have to life with it. The people taking part do.