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It’s all in the mind

16 November 2012

By Sarah Meyrick


WHEN is it fair to mislead the participants in a TV documentary? When you're Derren Brown, "illusionist, mentalist, hypnotist, painter, writer, and sceptic", as Wikipedia would have it.

And Brown goes to considerable lengths to mislead. For his latest programme, Fear and Faith (Channel 4, Friday of last week), he created an entire drug company, (Cicero) complete with swanky offices and doctors in white coats, and a wonder drug (Rumyodin) that he claimed had been developed for the military to remove the experience of fear. He then took a number of people with phobias - heights, bridges, and singing in public - and offered them the chance to treat their anxiety with an initial injection, and a follow-up course of blue capsules.

The participants kept video diaries, and, unknown to them, Brown ramped up the triggers to their fears. So a pub brawl was staged by actors when Nick - who suffered from acute social anxiety - was trying to enjoy a quiet drink with his mates. He came up trumps. Dan, who was terrified by heights, was persuaded to walk over a scarily high bridge over a river.

The participants did not know that they were swallowing sugar pills - nor, indeed, that others were being treated with the same so-called wonder drug for allergies and smoking. The success rate was remarkable, except for the case of Katie, who was terrified of singing in public, and did not seem to benefit from the sugar pills. So Brown hypnotised her, and she put on a sparkly dress, got on stage, and sang very creditably.

There is something innately suspect about illusionism when it is on TV. Personally, I find Brown insufferably pleased with himself. But the interesting thing was to see the positive power of a placebo so clearly demonstrated. For all Brown's showmanship, you were left with the distinct impression that some of the participants really had benefited immeasurably through the experience. Next week, we are promised an investigation into the greatest placebo of all time - God.

Learned behaviour is out in force in those shows that have been round the block a few times. The twist with Young Apprentice (BBC1, Wednesdays) is that the contestants know what is expected of them, but cannot help but regress to adolescent behaviour as the pressure mounts. Some of the mistakes the candidates make are pretty drastic (let's pass over Patrick's wetsuit-kimono combination), and their judgement can be spectacularly off kilter.

Last week, one group almost killed a good idea for a student cookbook by its inability to spell "courgette", among other words. But it is interesting to see a more humane Lord Sugar in operation. He is clearly under orders to be kind to the candidates.

ITV, meanwhile, must be rubbing its hands in delight. Not Schadenfreude, one hopes: surely every broadcaster has just enough humility not to rejoice in the downfall of George Entwistle. It is rather that the renegade MP Nadine Dorries has done such a cracking PR job to promote I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here (ITV1, Fridays). It is not quite Downton, but you can bet that, up and down the country, Sunday nights are not feeling quite the yawning chasm that they once did.

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