Never a man tortured by self-doubt, Derren Brown introduced his latest special Pushed to the Edge (Channel 4, Tuesday) as a fascinating psychological experiment about the dangers of ‘social compliance’ — our willingness to do what authority figures ask, however morally dubious. In fact, much of what followed was a weird, and itself rather morally dubious, mix of Candid Camera, Fawlty Towers and something pretty close to entrapment. But from time to time, it also proved, annoyingly enough, a fascinating psychological experiment about the dangers of social compliance.
The central aim was fairly straightforward: to see if a member of the public could be persuaded to shove a stranger off a high roof. The set-up, though, was anything but — involving, among other things, 70 actors, two Hollywood special-effects artists and the creation of a fictional charity. And all the time, Brown directed events with a sadistic glee that he tried hard to disguise as a high-minded concern with human weakness.
For all his omniscience, one mystery that Brown never attempted to solve was why anybody would want to appear in his shows. Yet when he advertised for volunteers here, thousands of people replied — without knowing what they were volunteering for. Having cunningly tested their compliance levels, Brown secretly chose four who fitted the bill nicely, but told everybody they’d been rejected.
Then, back in his everyday life as a designer, Chris Kingston was approached by Tom, the director of a new children’s charity called Push (geddit?), and asked if he could provide a suitable app. Once he’d agreed, Chris was invited to the grand Push launch, which is where, as the only non-actor present, his troubles — or, more accurately, his hideous soul-scarring nightmare — began.
Before long, Tom was blithely giving Chris orders and, to Brown’s mournfully expressed delight, Chris was obeying them. At first, the orders were reasonably harmless. But they soon darkened when Tom and Chris met Bernie, the reclusive millionaire backing the charity, who keeled over with an apparently fatal heart attack. From there, Chris’s duties included shoving the corpse into a crate, impersonating Bernie when the time came for Bernie’s speech, reclaiming the body from the crate while a charity auction took place and arranging it artfully at the bottom of a flight of stairs. (Incidentally, the corpse in question was where those special-effects people came in — by supplying an entirely convincing dead Bernie.)
Next, in what seemed the weakest point of Brown’s increasingly baroque plot, Bernie’s wife showed up with some pills and the news that, without them, her husband had funny turns that temporarily made it seem as if he’d died. Sure enough, when Tom and Chris returned to the stairs, the corpse was no longer there.
The pair now confessed to the other Push board members what they’d done and all concerned headed to the roof where Bernie had gone for a post-heart-attack cigarette. Unfortunately — what with all that being shoved in and out of crates — he’d decided not to support Push anymore. As he obligingly sat on the roof’s edge hundreds of feet above the street, the board had a hurried confab, the upshot of which was that the only way to save the charity was for Chris to shove him off.
Happily, if somewhat anti-climactically, Chris refused. But then Brown revealed he’d also run the same experiment with each of the other three unwittingly chosen volunteers, and rolled the film. All of them had pushed the man to what they thought would be his death — before Brown appeared and chortlingly assured them that Bernie was dangling safely from a harness.
Personally, if I’d not only tried to kill someone, but been filmed doing it for primetime television, I might need a moment (or possibly a lifetime) to get over it. Instead, the three cheerfully acknowledged that they’d had an important learning experience about the need to think for themselves. The programme closed with a little homily from Brown telling us not to do what other people tell us — except, presumably, when it’s him telling us not to do what other people tell us. ‘It’s not about who pushed and who didn’t,’ he added in a particularly shameless attempt to pretend that what we’d seen was some abstract piece of moral philosophy, rather than a kind of psychological version of Embarrassing Bodies (Embarrassing Souls perhaps).
In other words, to the ethical dilemmas that the programme raised, we can add a couple that it deftly ignored. Was it right, for example, to turn the anguish that Chris suffered into entertainment, complete with cliffhangers before every ad break? And, more ironically, why did none of Brown’s huge team, which must have included a psychologist or two, refuse to do what he told them? Have they never heard of the dangers of social compliance? Unless, that is, the trick was on us.