The trailers on television this week are low-key enough, but their bald content is intended to be dramatic. The cute pixieish figure of Derren Brown speaks directly to the camera. On 26 October, he will make world television history - by playing Russian roulette live on Channel 4. All he needs is a member of the public who is prepared to load a real bullet into a real pistol. He will then hold the gun to his head and repeatedly pull the trigger until he comes to the chamber he believes contains the bullet; he will then fire the gun away from himself. Would you be prepared to load the gun for him?
Those who crave their 15 minutes of fame can go to the Channel 4 website for details of how to apply. Do so and you will find three questions that will reveal enough about your intimate psychological make-up to allow Brown to decide whether you are the member of the public, whom he will get to know and trust, to load the gun.
There will, of course, be a health warning before the programme to dissuade viewers from copying the stunt. Which is odd. Thinking back to the magicians of my childhood, such admonitions were never considered necessary. Everyone from the avuncular David Nixon to the cheeky chappie Paul Daniels seemed perfectly happy to do something as perilous as sawing a women in half on air without feeling the need to tell viewers "don't try this at home, folks".
But in those days TV magic was pretty cheesy stuff. It was all lovely, leggy assistants, sparkly sequins, variety and light entertainment. It was hard to think of any one regarding Sooty and his magic wand as role models worthy of emulation with sharp equipment in the kitchen or toolshed.
Everything is different today. Since then we have had Penn & Teller and David Blaine. Magic has moved into the late-evening slots, winning a younger audience with a blend of what one media commentator calls "baffling tricks, stylish filming and lurking menace".
The latest, Derren Brown, dapper and vaguely gothic in black, with his goatee beard neatly trimmed and his hair in gelled spikes, looks every inch the sexy sprite of Shakespeare's Tempest. He first appeared on our screens in three one-off specials aired over Christmas 2001 and regularly repeated to build a cult following. His subsequent series, Mind Control, won two million regular viewers in its Friday-night slot. This year, it won the 2003 Montreux Silver Rose and Brown embarked on a 28-date national tour which sold out weeks in advance. Now comes the Russian roulette.
"It's just going to be me, the other person and a gun in a bunker," says Brown. "If you put six items on a table and ask someone to pick one, I can always work out which one they chose. As long as I don't think about the gun, I'll be OK. I'm just going to have to get used to guns before I do this."
It is, of course, all codology - a process in which Channel 4 is happy to collude, and one which the media is eager to feed. "Russian roulette", we are told, portentously, by the BBC, "involves a single bullet placed in a chamber of a revolver. The gun is then aimed against a person's head, the chamber spun, and the trigger pulled." A broadsheet paper claims: "The stunt may have to be filmed on the Isle of Man, Jersey or Guernsey because the gun laws in mainland Britain prevent Brown performing the stunt." It will, says a breathless internet site, "be pre-recorded in case something goes wrong."
So will there be anything dangerous about Brown's roulette, or is it just an illusion? "I can't answer that," says a spokeswoman for Channel 4. "To answer would ruin the whole event." Shall we take that as a No, then? "Derren's confidence in his psychological powers means that anything going wrong is a highly unlikely scenario. Derren and the team have a number of failsafe measures in place to minimise risk to a level that Channel 4, Derren and the production company consider to be acceptable. A stunt of this nature, however, can still be dangerous and Derren has considered this and accepts all responsibility for any accidents." So that's definitely a no, then?
We are, of course, confident that things won't go wrong," says the programme's producer Andrew O'Connor, a former Young Magician of the Year who now heads up one of Britain's fastest-growing independent production companies. "Even so," he has said, "Channel 4' s decision to go with it is brave." It certainly is. But then C4 has a history of brave decisions when it comes to illusion and hype. It has just weathered a row about its ads for the second series of the US show set in a funeral home, Six Feet Under, which funeral directors condemned as "distressing and provocative".
Then there was C4's recent broadcast of an autopsy, conducted by Professor Gunter von Hagens, the preposterously hatted showman who created the Bodyworlds exhibition from plasticated human remains. And it was C4 which staged Brass Eye's Crimewatch-style spoof on paedophilia, which provoked so many calls it became the most controversial programme in British TV history. But that may well be challenged by religious crusaders later this year when Brown, supposing he survives the gun-toting, plans to hold a seance in which viewers will be encouraged to join in at home.
Channel 4 is po-faced in its attempt to justify all this. Yesterday, it issued a statement to address the criticism that it is unethical, not to mention distasteful, to air a stunt involving a gun, especially at the hands of an attractive cult figure such as Brown, with all the risks of emulation.
The TV station says: "Channel 4 will run strong warnings around the show, pointing out that this is being done in a very controlled environment with full co-operation from firearms experts. We will be at pains to point out that outside such a highly specialised and controlled environment this stunt is extremely dangerous and shouldn't in any circumstances be replicated."
All of which merely ups the hype surrounding the event. There is, however, a much more serious charge to answer. The science writer Simon Singh recently challenged Brown to repeat two of his "psychological feats" in a controlled environment. The language of Brown's promoters, who speak of "a unique fusion of neuro-linguistic programming, magic tricks and pop psychology that even leaves magicians baffled", is tosh, Singh says. In reality, Brown is merely a fast-talking magician who gives science, and Channel 4, a bad name.
Brown is canny about how he describes himself. "Magician isn't right, but psychic isn't right either," he has said. He constantly says such things to add to the mystique of his character, which is part of what has transformed magic from light entertainment to the new reality TV - which is, like all reality TV, decidedly unreal. "Brown is a psychological illusionist and well known for his extraordinary skills," said C4 yesterday. He purports to have a highly developed intuitive understand of psychology that gives him an uncanny ability to predict and control human behaviour. He makes out, says Singh, that he can read your mind, tell if you are lying, plant ideas in your head and mess with your subconscious.
"The audience is told this is all down to Brown's stunning understanding of psychology," says Singh. "And yet, repeatedly, his psychological explanations do not stand up to scrutiny. Viewers are left with a false understanding of psychology and an exaggerated idea of what is achievable through the power of the mind."
So long as the viewing figures continue to rise, C4 probably does not care. In the world of television, hype and illusion are sometimes all that are required.
Derren Brown plays Russian roulette live on Channel 4 26 OctoberReuse content