Tuesday 26 April 2011

"Miracles for Sale" — Derren Brown — Channel 4

Derren Brown is first and foremost a showman. He may be a skeptic, and he may be seriously concerned about widespread fraud apparently perpetrated by so-called faith-healers predominantly in America, but his own claim to fame is as a stage mentalist. His TV shows are often highly controversial but they are primarily entertainment. So whether we think that what he demonstrated on TV on Monday night was a good thing, an ethical thing, or perhaps a cynical thing — or not — we should not lose sight of the fact that it was a TV production with the aim of maximizing ratings.

We know from Brown's book Tricks of the Mind that he's serious about fraudulent psychics, mediums and faith-healers, so we can take it at face value when he says his aim in Monday's show is to demonstrate that anyone — without paranormal ability — can perform what appear to be miracles of healing. To this end Brown spent time to train someone to pretend to be a preacher, and together they went to the US to hold a faith-healing service — and to heal the sick.

The premise of the show was similar to that of Brown’s recent “Hero at 30,000 Feet” and to a lesser extent his series “Trick or Treat” — taking an ordinary member of the public and training him or her up to do something extraordinary. In some respects those shows were more straightforward entertainment, because the audience knew that it should expect the unexpected. “Miracles for Sale” was different. It set out with a specific agenda, and expectations were such that anything less than spectacular success was bound to be a disappointment. And so it proved.

Perhaps it was over-hyped. If it had been presented like Brown’s previous “Messiah” the audience could enjoy the suspense of whether the scam could be pulled off at all, without being too concerned with the ethical considerations. Trying to mix up a reality TV show with a fly-on-the-wall documentary and an attempt at hard-nosed investigative journalism just didn’t work, because it was impossible to tell what it was actually about. Brown has done the exposé before, and done it well. The series "Derren Brown Investigates" about the Bronnikov method, Joe Power and Lou Gentile were examples of concerned ethical journalism that worked. But perhaps he doesn’t want to be treading too much on the toes of Jon Ronson and Louis Theroux.

Will "Miracles for Sale" have any effect in curbing the activities of fraudulent faith-healers? Are the people who are taken in by the fraudsters the kind of people who watch a Derren Brown TV programme? There may be some marginal raising of awareness, but I doubt that faith-healing scams will much diminish as a result of the show. As Derren Brown explained in his programme, James Randi exposed preacher Peter Popoff's faith-healing fraud live on the Johnny Carson show in 1986, but Brown also mentioned that Popoff is back today doing the same faith-healing routine much as before. This is disheartening to a skeptic. It shows that there's still much work to be done — educating and informing people about critical thinking. It isn't enough to expose the frauds. Their victims' unwarranted credulity needs to be exposed too, which may yet prove to be the most difficult task of all.

Watch Derren Brown's "Miracles for Sale" at Channel 4's 4od: