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Sep. 19th, 2009

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Britain is only big enough for one magician at a time. When I was a kid there was David Nixon, then- for the longest time- there was Paul Daniels- and now there's Derren Brown. The USA is large enough to support a number of big time magicians- right now you've got David Blaine and David Copperfield and Penn and Teller and that guy who got eaten by a snow leopard- but in Britain there can only ever be one- which is a pity really. It would be fun to have two star magicians on the go at once, trying to out-perform one another with ever bigger and more mind-boggling tricks- as in that rather good- and very informative- movie, The Prestige.

But, anyway, Derren Brown is the man of the moment. I love Derren Brown. I love him so much I even bought one of his books in the hope that he'd tell me some of his secrets. Fat chance! Currently he's running a series of live shows called The Events. In the first event he predicted the outcome of the National Lottery, in the second, last night, he broadcast a hypnotic piece of film with the aim of gluing viewers to their seats; it apparently worked, though not on me. In future shows he's going to be looking at psychic spying and showing us how to break a casino.

It's hard to review magic. In the last analysis a trick either works or it doesn't. There are two ways to stand out from the pack. One- which is David Copperfield's way- is to stage enormous, headline grabbing stunts- like making the Empire States Building disappear. The second- which was Paul Daniel's way- is to be an accomplished entertainer who just happens to do magic.  Derren Brown covers both bases. His stunts are ingenious- the Lottery prediction really grabbed the public imagination- and his persona- pitched somewhere between Bond villain and nerdy boy next door- is engaging. This makes him pretty much the complete showman.

Even so, after a while, you come to realise he doesn't really have that much material in his locker.  He's a "mentalist" which means he controls people's behaviour and predicts outcomes. And that's all he does. He dresses the trick differently each time, but it's always  the same trick. In the Events- as in some of his earlier shows- he purports to explain how he does it. These explanations are also tricks. At least I think they are. Last night, for example, he predicted that a girl would pick a certain toy out of the three floors worth of toys in a London megastore and then wanted us to believe he'd done it by plying her with persuasive verbal and visual clues . I don't believe him. I don't believe you could guarantee a result that way. I think the real solution is mechanical and if we knew it we'd go, "Oh my god, is that all there is to it!."

I've watched The Masked Magician. I've watched the Prestige. I know that most tricks are absurdly, even squalidly simple in their execution and that the magician is never in any real danger of failing or drawing blood, but this doesn't stop me coming back for more. I love to have my sense of wonder excited.  We all do. We long for the transcendent, the otherworldly, the more than quotidian- and this is something every priest, politician and artist from the dawn of time has exploited. Magic- by which I mean the appearance of magic- is a human need almost as basic as sex. 

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