Would you push a man to his death? Could someone persuade you? Could the pressure be suffocating enough for you to murder someone out of self-interest? These are the questions posed by Derren Brown: Pushed to the Edge. The show follows Chris Kingston, a 29-year-old bachelor and co-director of a printing and design company, as Brown tries to nudge him to that place. The point? To illustrate the dangers of social compliance, and warn people against trusting authority figures to the point that they against their better judgement.
Chris auditioned for a Derren Brown show several months earlier, passed compliancy tests with flying colours, and was told he didn’t get it. Lulled into a false sense of security, producers then used contacts at his place of work to introduce him to the actors who would encourage him on the night.
To pull off the stunt, Brown admits he needs “a team with special skills: special effects artists, a stunt coordinator, a troupe of professional actors, and an impressive venue” and, of course, “famous faces”. So, he engineers a fake charity auction, full of official-looking directors running around in suits and high heels (one of whom is the “work contact” Chris has been meeting over the last few weeks). He gets celebrities like Stephen Fry and David Tennant to video themselves endorsing this fake charity, which, by the way, is called Push. They slip subliminal messages into the endorsments: “Push. Do whatever it takes.” He also meets Push’s main donor, a stressed millionaire, who suddenly keels over and dies. They plant little compliance tests for Chris: will he carry the millionaire’s bags like some sort of servant? How about incorrectly label sausage rolls as vegetarian?
That’s when things get complicated: the millionaire “dies” when he doesn’t take some medication, and instead of calling an ambulance, Chris is pressured into hiding the body in a trunk to save the event. He also agrees to pretend to be the millionaire, giving a speech and bidding on items. He wheels the body around in wheelchair, lays it in a stairwell, and even meets the millionaire’s wife (or is it widow? I’m struggling to keep up), who hands Chris some pills and tells them that if her husband doesn’t take them, he passes out and looks dead. So our millionaire isn’t dead after all, and Chris rushes away from the widow (sorry, wife) to find him, only now he’s not in the stairwell, he’s alive and kicking, and on the roof, and full of fury, and he recorded the whole affair on a dictaphone, and he’s definitely going to sue Chris for everything he’s done. On the roof, the charity directors all agree that the only possible solution is to push the millionaire off and say he collapsed after not taking his medication. Got it?
Obviously, the chaos of this drama is partially necessary: Chris needs to be so confused that he stops behaving rationally. And, yes, it’s a genuinely shocking watch. But the sense of spectacle dilutes Brown’s original point.
Derren Brown started off making low-key programmes that used basic principles of persuasion and suggestibility to change the way people think in clear, simple ways, then explaining his techniques. I’ve been a fan of his from the beginning, and one that always stuck in my mind was this short scene, where he gets Simon Pegg to believe that his dream Christmas present is and always has been a BMX bike, minutes after Pegg wrote on a piece of paper that he’d like a leather jacket.
With each series Brown has become more and more adept at achieving increasingly dramatic and shocking results: tricking people into robbing a bank or believing they are witnessing the end of the world. To achieve this particular sensation, Brown needed more than 50 cameras, 70 actors, hidden rooms, earpieces, Oscar-winning special effects artists (to create the fake dead body) not to mention the equipment and specialists needed on site to protect the pushee in question.
To his credit, these elaborate scenarios often rely on the same basic principles: slipping certain words into his volunteers’ ears, encouraging them to associate certain places or sounds with specific actions, putting them in situations where they feel compelled to follow instruction. But the more money, famous friends, body doubles, and rooms full of actors are required to pull off a trick, the less relevant it becomes to everyday life. The idea that someone could persuade you to murder is a horrific one, but when that involves a situation as elaborate and unlikely as “man dies in your care, and no one lets you call an ambulance, and you help a crazy person hide his body, but he’s not really dead, and also he hates you because someone told you to kick him, and you’ve committed fraud by hiding his not-actual-death, and he didn’t take his pills – you know, the pills that in their absence made him seem dead – so he could technically die at any second anyway” also makes it seem slightly too far-fetched to worry about.
The programme’s opening sequence, which used a different example to make the same point about social compliance, scared me a lot more. A man called a cafe pretending to be a policeman, and encouraged a waiter to steal a child from someone the fake policeman insisted was a child abductor. He went from helpful citizen to actual baby thief in a few seconds flat. If I believed someone was a policeman, I’d probably do whatever they said too.
The sheer spectacle of the programme made it clear that this was pure entertainment. Yes, this is a fine and noble endeavor in itself, but it makes the stress the participants went through seem more distasteful, and the show’s own mission statement less sincere. Certainly, Brown’s rousing closing words feel hollow:
The point is, we’re all profoundly susceptible to this kind of influence, whether its driven by our peer group or an ideology. It’s like we’re handed other people’s scripts of how to live our lives, to achieve their ambitions and beliefs. But by understanding it, by understanding how we can be manipulated, we can become stronger, we can say no. We can push back.