Master of manipulation Derren Brown has made his human guinea pigs do all manner of unlikely things over the years.
They’ve gone as far as pleading guilty to crimes they didn’t commit and carrying out an armed robbery, but in his new Channel 4 special, Pushed to the Edge (Tuesday, January 12), Derren, 44, sets out to lead his subjects towards possibly the darkest deed of all – nothing less than cold-blooded murder.
For an astonishing social experiment, Derren enlists a cast of actors to stage a fund-raising charity dinner, hoping that four unsuspecting attendees will be manipulated to such an extent that they will be prepared to push someone off a rooftop!
It’ll come as no surprise that Channel 4 have asked TV Times to keep the exact details under wraps, but they did grant us an audience with arch-trickster Derren to question him about what lies behind The Push and how he feels about encouraging others to kill…
The Push’s charity dinner is very convincing – it’s easy to see why the four innocent people didn’t suspect it was all a set-up…
“That’s because the actors are so good. We put in a huge amount of work to make sure that the reality wasn’t broken. But, actually, a lot would have to go wrong for someone to really make the connection that it was all fake. Even if a cameraman fell through the wall you wouldn’t necessarily think, ‘Ooh, he’s filming.’ You’d probably just carry on.”
Can you tell us what inspired the show?
“Every day we’re seeing that essentially good people are doing bad things. This is a show very much about social influence, and how people respond when they’re in a world of authority figures. Just the fact that all these charity diners are in tuxedos makes the others feel they are worth less somehow.”
Could the techniques you use be dangerous in the wrong hands?
“It’s not so much about one person’s power, but our own susceptibility, how easily we fall into these traps. The fact that we generally do what we’re told keeps society ticking over. All of us driving on the right side of the road, for example, is very useful and positive.”
The show makes the distinction between compliance and conversion. What’s the difference?
“When we convert to something our inner world changes as well, our values change, so we conform to what we’re being told in the outside world, but we also change our inner values. With compliance that tends not to happen. We fit in with what’s demanded of us, but internally we are still saying, ‘No, this isn’t right.’”
How did the four ‘guinea pigs’ feel afterwards?
“I don’t think we used it in the show, but when they first came out we kept the cameras rolling from a distance, and we sat down with everybody to just talk about it and see how they were feeling.”
So are the techniques used so effective that they could lead almost anyone into committing an act that they would normally think of as immoral, or just plain wrong?
“Not everyone, I think probably three-quarters of people would do it.”
This is dark stuff, is there anything positive we can take away from The Push?
“It’s like we’re handed someone else’s script – whether it’s your parents’ script, or that of the church or school. They’re not necessarily things that ultimately allow us to step into fuller versions of ourselves. It’s not even about a happy life, it’s a bigger issue than a happy life, it’s just about living a full life. To do that we have to recognise that sometimes we’re living other people’s lives.”