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Reminiscence – How Derren Brown Does Pretty Much Everything

Derren Brown is a stage magician who dresses some of his work up in terms of mind-reading or neuro-linguistic programming. He sets himself up as a modern Sherlock Holmes, able to perform extraordinary deductions, feats of mental gymnastics and control over his environment. But at some point in the show he will always state that what he does is a mixture of showmanship and magic, and it goes right to the beginning.

Reminiscence - How Derren Brown Does Pretty Much Everything
Reminiscence – How Derren Brown Does Pretty Much Everything

He published a book called Pure Effect, the first printing of which contained a trick called Reminiscence, removed from subsequent printings for what now seem obvious reasons. The trick, in essence, can explain pretty much every Derren Brown trick or illusion since – or at least give you an inkling into the reality behind it. Of course, this is the internet and nothing can be hidden forever.

But to carry out the trick takes a ridiculous amount of skill, and demonstrates just how good Derren Brown was then – and how he has improved in the decades since, either burying any suggestion that this may be how he accomplishes an illusion, or lampshading it, making it part of the act so that people don't realise it is the act.

Reminiscence takes an audience member, and hypnotises them., asks them to recall a romantic memory of their lives in specific detail, while Derren then predicts everything they are going to say by writing it on a white board, out of their sight, moments or minutes before they actually say it, getting increasingly detailed.

The trick is to present two sets of realities. The volunteer has been hypnotised and persuaded to believe that they are looking at the 'Romance' card in front of them and mentally projecting the words on the card to the audience before repeating them. The audience doesn't know there are words on the card and believes that Derren is predicting what the volunteer is going to say through mind reading. And very specifically, every phrase that Brown says can be read a different way by the two separate audiences for it. A little fogging of memory at the end to prevent the volunteer from telling everyone they were just reading from a card and it's done, seemingly inexplicable.

And once you realise that Derren Brown is as a matter of course finding suggestible people and hypnotizing them to take part in an illusion but with a different version of events that everyone else gets – something he quite openly does in some of his shows such as Reminiscence, but not always – so many tricks become clearer. And so much of the explanation for why or how things are happening become distraction and showmanship, instead he's turning random volunteers into stooges, then making them think they were doing everything they did from their own volition, is insanely complicated and a real juggling act. Knowing – or having an idea at least – of how he accomplished his tricks, doesn't in any way distract from them, they are still just as awesome to experience.

Because knowing how some of them are accomplished is one thing, being able to perform these illusions is another thing. Having such a control of the stage or recording area, creating multiple narratives for different audiences with the same words, sometimes on the fly is another.

Here is that trick being performed by a lesser magician and performer – it is still impressive. This is the only version of it online, Derren's own version can be seen on the Derren Brown Magic Lecture DVD. 

And that's even before we get onto 'Lift'…

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Rich JohnstonAbout Rich Johnston

Founder of Bleeding Cool. The longest-serving digital news reporter in the world, since 1992. Author of The Flying Friar, Holed Up, The Avengefuls, Doctor Who: Room With A Deja Vu, The Many Murders Of Miss Cranbourne, Chase Variant. Lives in South-West London, works from Blacks on Dean Street, shops at Piranha Comics. Father of two. Political cartoonist.
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