Could Derren Brown convince an ordinary person to commit ‘murder’ by pushing someone off a building? Early on in his latest psychological experiment, Pushed to the Edge, Derren’s main subject (guinea pig? Victim?) Chris was persuaded, rather too easily, to stick little green flags into a platter of meaty sausage rolls and pass them off as vegetarian.
“I’m not particularly surprised that someone who will deliberately mislabel sausage rolls is also capable of pushing someone off a building”, I said at the time – which was dumb because I’ve seen plenty of Derren Brown shows and should know by now that there’s always a twist in the tail.
Before the pay off, though, we saw the increasingly huggable Chris put through the psychological wringer, and as his evening at a made-up gala dinner – for made-up charity ‘Push’ – quickly escalated from hiding sausage rolls to hiding a dead body, it was difficult to decide whether you should be horrified or having a laugh.
When we reached the scene where Chris and the secret actor who was leading him through this surreal nightmare were seen pushing the (fake, as it turned out) body of charity organiser Bernie, lifeless arms flailing, past the guests in a wheelchair, it finally clicked – the whole thing had been an elaborate set-up for a joke about 80s comedy classic Weekend At Bernie’s.
https://media.immediate.co.uk/volatile/sites/3/2017/08/97397.jpeChris was the hero of the piece because his compliance was often mixed with a degree of bravery. From stepping in to do a speech he really didn’t want to do, and even managing to finish with a joke, to hiding a body (‘dead’ due to natural causes), he had viewers cringing and then eventually panicking along with him as they secretly wondered exactly how they would have coped in this nightmare situation (I would have refused the speech, but out of fear not courage).
But in the end – despite a barrage of psychological programming, a gang of peers crowding round him urging him to do it and a ‘charity’ video of celebrities (David Tennant, Stephen Fry, Martin Freeman, national treasures every one) repeating “Whatever it takes – Push!” on a loop in the background – he didn’t.
Should we really be congratulating a man for not being forced into murder? Well maybe, because the real twist turned out to be that the three other people Derren had run the experiment with did end up pushing Bernie off the roof – shaking and crying as they did so but going through with it anyway (only to have it revealed that he was safe and sound, dangling on the end of a rope, and that the whole thing had been a set up).
A rollercoaster ride for viewers who, judging by Twitter, were feeling shock and awe in equal measure at Derren’s genius and deviousness. But also an unnecessarily cruel ordeal for the subjects?
They did of course volunteer to be involved in one of Derren’s projects, even if they weren’t aware – could never have imagined – exactly how extreme it would be. But in the end was this just psychological manipulation for shock value (and some good laughs), viewers asked. Even if you thought so, Derren’s final sign-off put the whole thing into a wider context that made us focus on something much scarier than being manipulated by him.
Speaking over cut-together footage of war, mob violence, Isis, Derren warned us to be more self-aware in our daily lives, to remember that we are all exposed every day to potential psychological manipulation aimed at far worse than entertainment – and to urge us that when people tell us to push, sometimes we need to push back.