Zombie hell

10 November 2012

9:00 AM

10 November 2012

9:00 AM

Derren Brown is a great big cheating liar. Or so my old mucker Rod Liddle reckoned last week in his Spectator blog. Derren Brown’s Apocalypse was ‘clearly, demonstrably, faked’, declared Rod. Well, I guess that settles it then. Or does it? First some background for those of you who missed it. (Though my advice for those of you who did is: stop reading now and watch both episodes immediately on Channel 4’s 4oD catch-up site.) Derren Brown’s Apocalypse (Channel 4, last Friday) was — or, pace Rod, purported to be — an extraordinarily bold TV experiment. Part horror movie, part therapy session, its aim was to turn around the life of a selfish, boorish waster called Steven using the novel method of persuading him that he was one of the few humans left alive in a world taken over by zombies.

If this sounds implausible I’d quite agree. But not impossible, as anyone familiar with Brown’s meticulous working methods would know. First, Brown selects his targets carefully, from a large group of volunteers who have proved susceptible to hypnosis. Second, he goes to enormous lengths to lay the groundwork for the psychological trick he is about to play on them.

In the case of Apocalypse, the trick was to persuade Steven that our planet has been struck by a meteor shower carrying some kind of space virus that has turned all those it touches into zombies. Travelling by coach to what he thought was a rock concert, Steven instead found himself entering a nightmare: explosions all around as those meteors crashed to earth; screaming, terrified passengers. What he didn’t know was that they were all actors and that the stranger who sidled up to him in the mayhem and whispered a cue word in his ear was Derren Brown, putting him into an hypnotic trance state.


Waking up, alone, in the ward of an apparently empty hospital, Steven spent the rest of the two-part series experiencing every post-apocalypse cliché going: rubbish-strewn corridors; eerie noises off; emergency broadcasts on TV; the dawning realisation that he’s one of the few people left alive; the felicitous discovery of a fellow survivor, in this case a 14-year-old girl called Leona.

But Leona — along with all the other characters Steven would meet on his journey through zombie hell — including, of course, the massed ranks of the walking dead — was played by an actor with a vital, schematic role in Steven’s psychodrama. Leona’s job — being young and vulnerable — was to kindle his sense of altruism and responsibility. A bit later, Steven would meet Iain, whose job was to teach him leadership and decisiveness. And finally he’d meet the feckless, selfish loser Danny — a kind of living aversion therapy, designed to make Steven disgusted with his old ways and to seek a new beginning through sundry acts of contrition, heroic self-sacrifice and redemption.

This might sound rather heavy and worthy but it wasn’t in the slightest. If you’ve ever been amused by watching a stage hypnosis victim thinking he’s a chicken, imagine how much more fun it is watching a young man utterly convinced that he is the hero of his very own, true-life zombie movie. To this you must add the sense of beguiled wonderment as you continually asked yourself: ‘How on earth did they manage to conceal all those cameras from him? And however did all those actors stop themselves from cracking up and giving the game away?’ And what you had was a recipe for some of the most simultaneously shocking, funny, involving, frightening and genuinely moving TV entertainment in ages.

I suppose it’s inevitable that something so bold, ground-breaking and hard-to-pull-off should have given rise to accusations of fakery. There’s just no way, people are saying — Rod among them — that Steven wasn’t complicit in the exercise. And they’ve found apparently corroborating evidence that his CV lists attempts at being an actor, and that they’ve seen him in a TV advert (a case of mistaken identity, it turns out, but never mind), that the editing isn’t kosher, and so on.

To which I’d reply, sure: if you put your mind to it you can ‘prove’ that almost anything was faked from the moon landings to 9/11. No, really, though. I’ve read some of that stuff and it’s desperately persuasive — the ‘wrong’ shadows in the photographs, the wind on the US flag….Except the thing is, the moon landings weren’t faked. Nor was 9/11. Nor, I believe, was Derren Brown’s Apocalypse.

What, after all, would have been the point? Why would Channel 4, Derren Brown, a film crew and dozens of actors have squandered 30 days of solid filming and a budget running into several hundred thousand pounds in order to fake an experiment that could only possibly have had any interest or value if it wasn’t faked. I think Rod owes Derren an apology.

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Show comments
  • Andy Reed

    Absolutely! Why can’t some peolple just enjoy things for what they are meant to be?

  • David Bowen

    Twas the best thing on TV in a long old while! agree with you: faked – shmaked…

  • PoodleFace

    Surely the point was that Steven was given what he expected to see. He knew what the rules were so was able to interact with it. Why would he go snooping around for hidden cameras?

  • MarkAllett

    “Why would Channel 4, Derren Brown, a film crew and dozens of actors have squandered 30 days of solid filming and a budget running into several hundred thousand pounds in order to fake an experiment”

    Because it wasn’t an experiment, it was a TV show. And the producers wouldn’t risk that kind of money on it all going wrong in the many many ways it could have done had the guy not been an actor.

    • Deadflesh

      And you are? Oh yes an internet troll how exotic.

      • MarkAllett

        You think that having an opinion on something that is presumably different to your opinion is trolling? You’re going to struggle in life with that attitude mate.

  • Ross

    For those interested, some of the specific conspiracy theories are outlined and shot down here:

  • neverforget

    to me, this was almost a second series to “hero at 30k feet.” Why didn’t anyone make this type of fuss when that program aired? The methodology was nearly identical

  • Shazrazz

    piss off, did you forget that derren is always honest about his dishonesty? Great episode though.

  • Andy

    Next you’ll be telling me the shining isn’t about the moon landing!

  • Jonny

    Interesting.. says article is from the the 10th of november its only the 8th?

    Anyway. who cares if it was fake or real. It was good entrainment, better than anything else on tv recently. I personally don’t think it was fake, just very selectivly (and well) edited with certain bits removed and such

  • Ben

    I’ve not seen this yet but I do think that it’s entertainment an should be taken as such. No-one is complaining that Avatar didn’t have real 9ft tall blue aliens in it

  • Michael Roberts fRAS

    I particularly like James Delingpole’s line:

    “To which I’d reply, sure: if you put your mind to it you can ‘prove’ that almost anything was faked from the moon landings to 9/11. No, really, though. I’ve read some of that stuff and it’s desperately persuasive.”

    That pretty much what I feel when I read “Watermelons”. 😉

  • zenna

    Im just confused on the date … time travel, Derren meets the Doctor?

  • The Duped1

    I do find that anything Derren has to offer (unless I’m heading to mars for a weekend break)…..I never ever miss it if I can help it as I think his objective is clear he obviously has skills and he likes to keep us the audience guessing……Charlatan or genius ? I’m not sure but what I do know is he’s thoroughly entertaining and this is all that matters to me. Keep up the great work Mr Brown.

  • Becca

    Surely if what derren id doing is fake wouldn’t his audience from live shows come back and tell friends and family and post evidance online but no one has because its not fake hes an illusionist he has always said he is illusionists arnt magic men there trick artists ment to trick the mind thinking its real. But evreyone has an opinion.

  • WrenP

    I thought it was brilliant and made me a believe when usually I am the first to mock and call it all a load of rubbish. It was good entertainment and got our office talking for a whole week. That’s the point in shows like this and I think this one really worked! 🙂

  • Christopher

    That’s entertainment. I felt the resent Star Wars movies were faked, but you don’t see me complaining.

  • Zlimm123

    Rod Liddle has underestimated the power of placebo. He’d also underestimated Derren Brown’s meticulous preparation. As a clinical hypnotherapist, I see miracles happening on a regular basis.

  • Khalid

    You’d think someone with his experience and years of study could have come up with something that wasn’t only about the controversy. Cringing if you think about it… He could have put all those resources to good use by creating brilliant TV as opposed to more of the same valueless TV.

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