Derren Brown: Miracles For Sale

The immaculately goateed Brown's talents may have once got him dunked into a lake for witchcraft, but his latest foray into exposing the tricks of faith-healers should be commended.
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I’ve never known quite what to make of Derren Brown. The Perma-suited illusionist and proud advocate of immaculately trimmed goatees is undoubtedly a talented showman, but something about him unsettles me. In times past Brown’s talents would’ve seen him tossed into a big lake and weighed down with stones, but today he’s afforded a string of TV shows. We’ve seen him not get shot in the face during a live game of Russian Roulette, predict the winning Lottery numbers yet frustratingly fail to buy a ticket, and lure all sorts of innocents to do everything from rob banks to fight zombies. He’s Britain’s answer to Uri Geller, which is odd, because Uri Geller isn’t really a question. He’s also the kind of guy I’m incredibly wary of writing mean things about. Frankly, his powers scare me a little.

Recently Brown’s tack has changed and instead of pulling the wool over our collective eyes he’s started to expose those who use the tricks of his trade to con others. We’ve seen him confront a ‘medium’ in Liverpool intent on taking money from the bereaved, a ghost hunter in the US, who just really liked ghosts from what I recall, and now, faith healers in the heart of Texas - those who believe they are chosen by God to spread his word, cure people’s ailments and fuck off with all their money.

So how does one expose such a nefarious industry? Simple really: you take a scuba instructor called Nathan and in six months train him to become a faith healer. It’s a wonder nobody thought of it before.

Nathan, who looks a bit like Jesus but probably isn’t, is selected after responding to an ad looking for charismatic people to star in their own TV show – a sure fire way to fill a room with twats if ever I heard one. The initial group, a cross section of Britain’s Got Talent castoffs and am-dram lifers, is whittled down and the decidedly un-twatty winner is given a new identity as Pastor James Collins – brother of Justin Lee, son of God, probably. He is also given acting lessons, a back-story including a fake Ministry, his own website and the ability to hypnotise strangers.

Then the bit we’re all waiting for happens. With his new protégé under his wing, Brown illustrates exactly how the blind are cured, the deaf are made to hear and those with one leg slightly shorter than the other – which is apparently a common problem – are given an even footing.

He begins by healing a deaf woman named Sophie, who he informs us has an ability to lip read but can’t hear. “I hate those devils of deafness,” he groans, grabbing her head and blowing in her ears a bit, possibly assuming it’s just cobwebs causing the problem. Somehow, it works, and for a short time at least, I’m amazed.

We’re treated to one sermon which seems like a half-way point between a hip-hop battle and a rather pious episode of Phoenix Nights.

Following this he restores the sight of a blind man named Ian, this time aiming his rant at the “devils of blindness”, which is interesting because I had no idea that demons had such specific vocations. He shows him a yellow hanky and then holds two fingers up to him - initially I find this rude until Ian counts them and I realise that it’s not an act of bullying at all, but in fact, a miracle.

Again I’m astounded, but it’s soon revealed that Sophie was only moderately deaf, which seems like a bit of a cheat, and Ian did have some limited sight. So instantly, what could have been the most impressive moment in television history turns out to be a bit crap. It does however illustrate exactly how easy it is both to fool and be fooled. And how easy it is to make a woman that can hear, hear.

Brown goes on to make someone’s leg grow by slightly loosening their shoe and illustrates how certain faith healers receive insider information on their subjects, passing it off as the word of God. Disappointingly, this simply involves a tiny earpiece, and it’s hardly ever God speaking to them through it, as it’s well documented he thinks hands-free is for fuckwits.

Despite the fact the insider secrets are somewhat underwhelming, the real crux of the show comes from Nathan himself; a morally upstanding Christian who is essentially being made to lie for the greater good. As he’s put in ever increasing positions of stress, learning the tricks of the trade and being asked to fully embrace the concept of dishonesty, it’s easy to see his discomfort. At one point he gets so angry he starts referring to himself in the third person – a sure sign of the devil. Derren reacts by instantly tying him to a bed and splashing him with holy water whilst the production team perform some sort of ritual two-step within the confines of a magic circle. Although, none of this actually happens. It should have, for the sake of good TV, but it didn’t.

There is something about Nathan that you can’t help but admire, though. He’s not afraid to stand his ground, has a firm understanding of what’s right and wrong and looks like he’d flat out refuse to grow a goatee or wear a waistcoat. Towards the end of the show he’s even man enough to kick up a fuss about his backing band, knowing full well that after the deaf are given the gift of hearing the last thing they’re going to want to hear is Christian rock. At least I think that was his point. He may just have been angry at the constant surprises thrown at him by the production and reflexively taken to effing and blinding in front of the group. Regardless, this is where the most interesting aspect of the programme lies; with Nathan battling his enforced hypocrisy in an effort to pursue a just cause....and maybe get himself on TV, just a little bit.

Ultimately it’s refreshing to see someone have such a strong sense of morality, especially when contrasted with a seemingly never-ending slew of Pastors intent on making money from deception and misplaced faith. We are constantly reminded, though, that there is good reason for Nathan’s charade; the story of a 14 year-old MS sufferer who was told after an unsuccessful faith healing that she had sin in her body, leading her to dowse herself in gasoline and set herself alight, acts as a stark reminder that, to those with faith in abundance, these people are dangerous.

He then cures a man who’s ever so slightly deaf in one ear by screaming into it like a loon, causing him to fall to the floor in a display of histrionics normally reserved for BBC period dramas.

We’re of course shown numerous snippets of the pastors themselves; a part comic, part terrifying whistle-stop tour of Texas’s most colourful con-men. We’re treated to one sermon which seems like a half-way point between a hip-hop battle and a rather pious episode of Phoenix Nights. The preacher, whose name I can’t remember but will refer to as Pastor Little Richard, screams and hollers in front of a devoted audience, conveying important messages like, “homosexuality is not okay. I don’t care what Oprah Winfrey says,” not only declaring himself as a bigot but also possibly as a massive Montel fan. He then cures a man who’s ever so slightly deaf in one ear by screaming into it like a loon, causing him to fall to the floor in a display of histrionics normally reserved for BBC period dramas.

The two then go on to visit the complex of Kenneth Copeland, a man who teaches something called The Prosperity Gospel – essentially one of those self-help cretins who seems to be straining for a massive crap every time he speaks, painfully enunciating each syllable as if he’s talking to an elderly, deaf relative whilst enjoying a particularly aggressive and relentless stroke. Although he probably doesn’t have any elderly, deaf relatives, because presumably they’ve all been faith healed.

Copeland is an example of the riches healing can bring, and possibly the greatest argument for the bombing of the Bible Belt yet. He has his own jet, a fleet in fact, and a complex with marginally more security than the Nellis Air Force Base. Pretending not to notice this, Derren and Nathan decide to drive onto the airfield, presumably in search of some TV conflict, and are pulled over by the flesh incarnate of Officer Barbrady from South Park. They are issued with a criminal trespass warning and are told not to come back.

Witnessing the way these people conduct themselves provides a strange paradox - as much as you dislike them, you are simultaneously watching the hero of the piece, Nathan, imitate them. At no point is this more evident than when he’s sent out on the street to heal the citizens of Dallas. He develops confidence by healing one man’s leg before awkwardly high-fiving him in a way only an Englishman can. He then goes on to ‘cure’ everyone he touches of their ailments. It’s terrifying how much faith people put into him, and also how easy it is to get strangers to let you touch them if you have a TV crew with you. To that extent, Brown’s experiment is a worthy one. The faith bit, I mean, not the touching.

And so, after six months trimmed down to just fifty minutes, it’s time for the final performance. A crowd of at least a dozen people is warmed up by a fellow healer before Nathan, or Pastor James Collins as he is now, takes the stage. He performs all the tricks he was taught, even talking to God and calling out specific members of the audience. “Is there a Moses here?” he asks, without a hint of irony. Lo and behold there is, and I make a bet with myself that his ailment probably has something to do with a burning bush he encountered and he’s trying to avoid a trip to the clinic. People worship and faint and are healed at will, and there is no discernable way of distinguishing Nathan from the other frauds we’ve seen, other than the fact that in the end he comes clean before him and Brown leg it out the back door like a couple of naughty schoolboys.

Frustratingly the programme ends still crying out for someone to confront the fraudulent faith healers Brown and Co. Encountered. When Derren himself is called on stage to partake in a healing ritual I’m certain the moment will come. I visualise a quick kick to the face as the Pastor tries to lengthen his leg but it’s not to be. Crucially though, Brown’s latest effort may help to highlight the deceptive nature of such charlatans in a way that kicking a man of the cloth in the head might not have achieved. It may not be as exciting as shooting zombies or averting plane crashes, but it’s certainly making a valid point and for that he should be commended. And just to think, all Uri Geller did was bend a spoon or two.

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