Trigger-happy television

Has Derren Brown's live Russian roulette stunt paved the way for more extreme life-and-death entertainment?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The self-styled "psychological illusionist" Derren Brown described his Channel 4 performance with a loaded revolver as "a stunt". Channel 4 made no higher claim. "This is a unique stunt that he really wanted to do," a station spokesman said before transmission on Sunday night. "It is theatre. We have every faith that it will be exciting and dramatic." It was that, if not nauseating as well.

Brown's performance was expertly calculated. Having selected his gun-loader from among a shortlist of 100 volunteers, he seated himself at an austere wooden table and stared at the weapon. One chamber contained a bullet that could kill him. Only James, the volunteer, knew which one it was. Brown claimed to be able to deduce the critical information by listening to James count from one to six.

He raised the gun to his temple, declared that he was confident that chamber three was empty, and pulled the trigger. There was a click. Next he declared chamber four to be safe: another click. Then came a moment of nerve-jangling indecision. Brown pointed the gun away from himself and pulled the trigger on chamber five. He had guessed wrong. The fifth chamber did not contain a live round.

Even if Brown was deploying hidden techniques more certain than his claimed ability to use intuitive psychology to determine which chamber contained the bullet, this moment appeared agonisingly realistic. Would he have the nerve to point the weapon at his head again having already demonstrated that his first guess was wrong? After an elongated period of apparent mental torment, calculated to maximise the audience's sense of impending doom, he did. Brown fired chamber six at his head, proving that it was empty, and then instantly pointed the gun at a sand bag and fired the live round into it.

Stephanie Marriott, of the Media Research Institute at Stirling University, says: "It did the business. That was a moment when I felt completely gripped. The last seven minutes were pure white knuckle. One got completely sucked into the sense that even television did not know what was going to happen."

That, of course, was the intention. Despite numerous warnings to viewers not to copy Brown's antics, Channel 4 maintained throughout the suggestion that he really was risking his life.

It was Alfred Hitchcock who claimed that "television has brought back murder into the home - where it belongs". But he was describing fiction and, until Sunday night, even the most adventurous production companies have been hesitant about treating the prospect of live death as a ratings winner. It has happened. In America, CBS's 60 Minutes' team broadcast an assisted suicide by lethal injection carried out by the euthanasia campaigner Dr Jack Kevorkian. But the justification was that this was not macabre voyeurism. It was designed to inform debate about mercy killing of the terminally ill.

So, was Brown's stunt qualitatively different? Is there a crucial difference between depicting the reality of war or disease and staging an event purely for entertainment. Channel 4 left the ethical dilemma cleverly unresolved. Derren Brown's insistence that his performance was about "non-gun violence" seems fanciful.

Channel 4 describes the stunt as "a fantastic performance"; 2.9 million viewers watched it, 48 per cent of them from the commercially significant ABC1 category. Against an average audience of 2.3 million in the slot, that makes the show a ratings success.

By the end of Brown's performance few viewers can really have believed that the stunt could go wrong and leave him dead. It was made clear that, if that happened, the slight delay in transmission would have denied the audience that gory horror.

So, all bases were covered? A lingering doubt remains that, on television, every stretching of the bounds of acceptability brings new extremes closer. Channel 4 has set a precedent that it will be hard to exceed. A live execution might suffice, but even in America, where that prospect was much discussed before the execution of Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh, that is yet to happen.

Britain has no death sentence, but Derren Brown's stunt raises the question of how long it can be before the ratings war persuades a producer to beam live pictures from somewhere that does. Death Of A Terrorist - Live, anyone?