'Russian roulette' was nothing more than a mug's game

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The Independent Online

To everyone's relief but not, one imagines, to anyone's enormous surprise, Derren Brown, Channel 4's ratings-grabbing illusionist, will be available for another series.

One assumes that the network, or at least its lawyers, must have canvassed the possibility that the first live broadcast of a game of Russian Roulette might go wrong and that Brown's formidable grey matter would get the wrong kind of exposure. But after one dramatic and perfectly contrived slip-up, Brown demonstrated again there is an art to read the mind's construction in the face. He swivelled fast and discharged the only live bullet into a sandbag.

He'd also answered one of the larger questions raised by the event. Not "Why?" The answer to that lies in Mr Brown's bank account, or in the shrouded recesses of his own psychology. The question was, "How on earth do you make a one-in-six gamble fill a whole hour?" Even more pertinently how do you do it when you show the viewers the trick in the opening five minutes?

At a street market, Brown invited a passer-by to hide a bracelet under one of six numbered mugs. Once the chain was concealed and the mugs rearranged to the punter's satisfaction he was asked to count to six. From tiny clues in the man's voice and expression Brown identified the correct mug.

Just before 10pm he proposed to do exactly the same thing with a live round and the six chambers of a Smith and Wesson.

The intervening 50 minutes were taken up with Brown's attempt to select an assistant from the 12,000 who had volunteered to load the gun. One hundred finalists were sifted and, after an impressive piece of psychological profiling, he chose his assistant - a young boy of billboard expressiveness.

Channel 4 billed it as "possibly the greatest television magic trick ever" and you couldn't be sure how far the trickery stretched. But even so the final sequence was pulled off with some aplomb. Brown'scoup de grace was the moment when he aimed away at the third shot as if certain this was the fatal chamber and then heard only a click. He sat motionless for two minutes, absorbing the implications of his own fallibility, then rapidly fired an empty chamber at his head and the live round away from him. What followed was curiously anti-climactic. A failure would have offered proof that he really wasn't cheating. The success showed only that he could do a trick he's actually done many times before.

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