Illusionist defies critics to perform TV gun stunt

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The Independent Online

The mind-control expert Derren Brown played Russian roulette on live television last night, despite critics' fears that the act would encourage copycat stunts resulting in deaths.

Brown aimed a Smith and Wesson revolver at his head and pulled the trigger three times after asking a carefully picked volunteer to load it with a single bullet.

The only clue the magician appeared to use to decide which chamber of the gun was loaded was to ask the volunteer, named only as "James", to count from one to six after loading the six-chambered gun.

Brown had claimed before the stunt that "sophisticated psychological techniques" would enable him to decide with certainty where the bullet was loaded.

However, as the trick was broadcast on Channel 4, Brown appeared to be struck by doubt. After squeezing the trigger twice on two empty chambers, he fired the third chamber away from his head, only to find it was empty.

After a lengthy pause, in which he appeared to wrestle with doubt, the magician fired another empty chamber at his head and then fired the live round away from his body.

The show went ahead in the face of condemnation from police and psychologists.

Chief Superintendent Rick Naylor, of South Yorkshire Police, who is vice-president of the Police Superintendents' Association, said: "It sends entirely the wrong message. This is just a stunt. You're going to get copycat kids doing this and we're possibly going to end up with some tragedies."

Philip Hodson, a spokesman for the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, said the trick might encourage vulnerable people to consider suicide.

He said: "The subliminal message that will be carried to young men is that guns are glamorous, risk-taking is masculine, depression is cool and suicide is sexy. Throwing knives in the circus is one thing. Mimicking a public execution on live TV is potentially a freedom too far. Channel 4 is a public service broadcaster. In this instance I think they are doing the public a disservice."

The writer Graham Greene played Russian roulette as a young man, recalling it gave him a drug-like high, and critics also point out that in some gangland killings, the victims have been forced to play Russian roulette. Last night's stunt was preceded by a warning from Channel 4 that it should not be attempted at home, and every commercial break carried a similar announcement.

Brown insisted the stunt was not irresponsible. "There could not be any more warnings on the show," he said.

"We explain that it was done in a controlled environment and under the supervision of firearms experts.

"It's all about non-gun violence; about not getting hurt. There are things that glamorise violence much more than this."

The trick was shown on Channel 4 with a short time delay so the screen could be blanked if anything went wrong. Twelve thousand people had volunteered to load the bullet into the revolver.

Brown, who studied law and German at Bristol University and was once a fundamentalist Christian, presents his mind reading as a psychological skill rather than as a psychic phenomenon. In 1999 he was plucked from the obscurity of the pubs-and-clubs circuit by Kevin Lygo, who was Channel 4's head of entertainment.

Previous stunts have included correctly guessing someone's PIN number and spotting a lie from three statements made by a salesman.

Magicians killed doing Russian roulette stunts include an American known as Chung Lee Su, who died in London.