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A life transformed?

02 November 2012


THINK the book of Job; think Mephistopheles and Faust; think playing God. Since the illusionist is never one to hide behind false modesty, the greatest comparisons are invoked by Derren Brown: Apocalypse (Channel 4, Friday). Here he sets himself a challenge that is the stuff of fantasy: to turn someone's life around. Brown is seeing how far his profession of manipulation can be taken - not merely, this time, to trick a subject into acting in a way that he or she will later snap out of, and look back on with amusement, but actually to encourage lasting transformation for good.

I understand that Brown used to be an enthusiastic Evangelical Christian, and you can see that he still wants to effect conversions, but now to entirely secular ends. He has set up the most extraordinarily complex scam, first choosing, from among thousands of unsuspecting people, his perfect victim - Steve, a suggestible young man whose life is essentially selfish and idle; then, with his family's collusion, hacking fake news items that warn of a catastrophic meteor strike into Steve's TV, mobile, and car radio.

A cast of thousands is employed to convince Steve that he is one of the few survivors of this disaster. By engineering this total crisis, Brown aims to shock Steve into living a new life as a responsible, caring, valuable member of society.

What strikes me is how far removed this is from illusionism. Nothing could be more real than sending out fake news items, or printing fake newspapers. We have seen only part one so far; so we do not know if the ploy will be successful; and already newspapers are claiming that the whole thing is a set-up.

In terms of effecting change in someone's life, I wonder if this is how some people imagine God to work - manipulating everything to this one end. It seems a bit over the top to me.

Homeland (Channel 4, Sundays) - a tale of how CIA operatives manage to foil (or will they?) an Islamist terrorist strike - is hailed by most commentators as a superior espionage thriller. It takes place in the United States at the highest levels, but this plot of betrayal and double-cross simply does not grab my attention.

It suffers badly in comparison with our home-grown Hunted (BBC1, Thursdays), which is maturing very nicely - if you can cope with an unprecedented level of gruesome violence. Homeland seems far more clichéd and glossy, its dialogue more portentous and posturing, and relying on an underlying conviction that all Muslims are out to get you, and that the US and its values cannot be questioned.

I suspect that its final episode has a shocking twist in store, but the fact that even I can see it coming suggests how formulaic it is. Hunted is much darker, clearly signalling spying and subterfuge as sordid and morally ruthless. The story and the set-up are equally preposterous, but, if you like that sort of thing, then this is infinitely superior.

Dame Fanny Waterman: A lifetime in music (BBC4, Friday) reminded us that, sometimes, a simple interview gives the most satisfying TV. Dame Fanny, sprightly at 90, and still teaching, looked back over her founding and nurturing of the Leeds International Piano Competition. Here is a life that is giving genuine opportunity and transformation to all around her.


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