Friday, August 17, 2007

Bad Magic

I was "fortunate" to catch a segment on the Sci-Fi channel a couple of days ago, featuring this Derren Brown chap, who "they" claim can do amazing things seemingly by mind control. Given all the hype this bloke has had over the last month, I was expecting a baffling but entertaining few minutes of conjuring distraction. Hah

The trick as advertised: Brown would pick Simon Pegg's1 ideal birthday gift without being told. The selection would aslo be written down, put in a sealed envelope and kept by Pegg for the week before the program was filmed, so we could check it wasn't a cheap trick. Sounds great, no? The stuff of great magic.

What really happened: Brown did a long spiel about how he gets his "marks" to change their mind about what they want and pick something he, Brown, has selected instead. Simon Pegg was asked what he wanted. He said a BMX bike. A red one. The box is opened and the red bike is produced. The signed, sealed envelope is produced, and proves to contain a letter, written in what Pegg describes as his own handwriting, that says "Leather Jacket". Brown insists that Pegg originally wanted a leather jacket but had his mind controlled to pick the bike.

As he explains this, the video of his spiel is re-run with selected subtitles pulled up to show that the message "Red BMX Bike" was hidden all over the place in it. Exit Pegg, wheeling the bike and saying "why I would choose a leather jacket is beyond me. I have loads of them."

I hope, for Brown's sake, that the rest of his act is better than this, 'cos this was a stinker. Even the Pegg wasn't convinced,as his comment shows2.

What I think the clever part was: Brown being able to duplicate Pegg's handwriting. Even cleverer would be to somehow get Pegg to write "Leather Jacket" himself, though that would be a bit dodgy unless Pegg is in on the trick from the get-go (then, why go to all the trouble of sealed notes?).

How I think the trick was done: Pegg wrote down "Red BMX Bike" and sealed the envelope. The envelope was gipsy-switched3 with one containing the "Leather Jacket" note. Pegg signs envelope (we didn't see this bit happening so I can't be more precise). Now all brown has to do is buy the bike, wrap it and book the studio time.

Look, getting together with the actor a week before is OK. The trick can still be a stunner at that point. Selecting the ideal gift: A great (if old) effect. Socks off all round. The trick was busted with the lame, totally obvious "changed mind" gimmick. The same device is used by psychics (I was going to write "fake psychics" but really, why waste the font on a redundant adjective?) and is called "one ahead". If memory serves you can find out how to do that trick in Penn and Teller's excellent "How to Play With Your Food".

I can't see that anyone would be fooled by this awful trick, but if you were, please drop me a line. If enough people are that conjuring-trick blind that this was entertaining for them, I may have a future in television.

  1. The actor from "Shawn of the Dead"
  2. It goes without saying that Pegg didn't select "Leather Jacket" as an ideal birthday gift, Brown did
  3. Or switched in some other fashion. The Gipsy Switch4 can be learned in all its glory by purchasing and studying The Klutz Book of Magic
  4. Along with a bunch of other stuff that will knock this stunt of Brown's flat on its backside

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