In 1950, New Yorker television critic Philip Hamburger wrote about a new programme called Candid Camera, in which members of the public were gently pranked by the disguised host, Allen Funt. Hamburger was appalled. "Mr Funt bases his programme, purely and simply, upon deceit," he wrote. "Persuading his subjects that he is something he is not, he succeeds in making them look foolish, or in forcing them to struggle, against unfair odds, for some vestige of human dignity. Candid Camera, is sadistic, poisonous, anti-human and sneaky."
Ha. Mr Hamburger was concerned with "human dignity." What a wuss. What would he make of dignity-free 21st-century television? What would he make of Derren Brown: Pushed to the Edge (Channel 4, Tuesday), in which Brown convinces a member of the general public to commit a murder?
Nowadays television respectability isn’t granted by respect for “dignity” – trampling on dignity has been the stuff of television entertainment for decades – but by calling something a “social experiment”. Television executives love social experiments.
Why don't we repeatedly punch these kittens in the face, get Keith Chegwin involved and call it Celebrity Kitten Punch? Why would we do that? It's a social experiment.
Why don't we get Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall to live in a filth-filled barrel for six months and call it Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Filth Barrel? Why would we do that? It's a social experiment.
Who would win in a fight: a grade-two civil service servant or an armoured chimpanzee with an iron bar? Get the cameras rolling and let's find out. Shut-up. It's a social experiment. It's science (this definitely should be a real programme if it isn't already. I would call it Monkey Means Business).
Coerced into murder
Pushed to the Edge is an elaborate ruse in which unsuspecting strangers are coaxed into what they think is murder by dozens of actors and the mentalist Derren Brown. It's a social experiment. And it's depraved.
I can’t imagine how it got made. Actually, I can. I imagine Brown outlined the idea in whip marks on the flayed back of the Channel 4 gimp, while a dead-eyed executive looked drowsily up from his panda- burger and opium pipe to say: “Well, why not? We’ve done everything else.”
It’s not an entirely new idea. In the 1960s in Yale University the psychologist Stanley Milgram encouraged volunteers to administer what they thought were lethal doses of electricity to screaming strangers in another room. Milgram’s findings on obedience to authority were overshadowed by public horror at his ethics; 21st-century television has fewer scruples.
In Pushed to the Edge, Brown selects candidates from a larger group based on their high levels of obedience and suggestibility, before choosing likeable, ineffectual Chris Kingston, "not the kind of person you would think would push a man off the roof". He then tortures Chris in the manner of a whimsical god.
Chris thinks he's been hired to assist with a charity auction. The charity is called Push and throughout, video endorsements from celebrities such as Martin Freeman, David Tennant and Stephen Fry entreat us to "push" and to do "whatever it takes" (these bits reminded me a little of Brass Eye's fake charity ads, only nowadays the celebrities are in on the joke and are helping to deceive a civilian).
From the start, as Brown gleefully notes, Chris’s moral boundaries start to erode. Chris laughs at his boss’s bad jokes. Chris labels meat-filled hors d’oeuvres as vegetarian. Then Chris helps hide the body of “Bernie”, a reclusive millionaire donor, in a crate before adopting his identity in front of a room full of people.
Welcome to hell
Chris does it all, convinced by the actor playing his employer that it is necessary for the event to go ahead despite Bernie’s apparent heart attack. Chris is easily led. Chris is eager to please. Chris is also clearly in hell and embroiled in a horrific farce.
He ends up bidding thousands on the corpse crate at the auction and finds himself pushing the propped up, sunglasses wearing body of Bernie in a wheelchair, Weekend at Bernie's-style (the name can't be accidental), through an obstacle course of drunks. After hiding him a second time, Chris meets the fictional corpse's fictional wife who tells him that Bernie has a fictional illness that makes him appear dead. Chris and his fictional boss rush to where they left the fictional corpse, followed by the fictional board of the fictional charity (who for vague reasons have been appraised of the situation), only to find that Bernie isn't fake dead and is actually fake shouting about being mistreated and about calling the police.
I know what you’re thinking. If this was you, you’d have killed everyone in the building hours ago. Chris is a man of great patience, however. As angry Bernie inexplicably goes to hang out at the edge of the roof of the building, Chris listens as the actors tell him that he has no choice but to push Bernie to his death.
“Kill him, Chris!” I shout at the television. “In fact, kill them all and then take your spree out to the street.”
Instead, poor, suffering, confused Chris decides he’s had enough and walks away. Derren Brown emerges like the arsehole-ex-machina he is and congratulates Chris for not being a murderer (this is a pretty weak compliment).
It isn’t the end of the story. Derren reveals that he re-enacted the scenario four times. All three of the other subjects push Bernie from the roof. We see footage of all faux-murders. The “killers” shake and cry. Bernie is, in fact, attached to a harness (Brown presumably decided that actual murders might be going too far).
These are not evil people. They are people-pleasers who have people-pleased their way to committing (fake) homicide. They are all shaken by the experience. It’s unlikely they’d have arrived at this murderous point without the help of Brown, but Brown has outed them as potential killers and they can do nothing about this existential horror except tell the camera they’ve grown as people (I was surprised they signed the release forms, until I remembered the people convincing them to do this had already convinced them to push a man off a roof).
Derren Brown looks pleased with himself. He hopes we've all learned something. I certainly have. Not that people can be peer-pressured into murder, because I knew that from history books, but that Derren Brown is happy to torture strangers for our entertainment. In Pushed to the Edge, Derren Brown reveals how far he is willing to go. I hope he wasn't tricked into doing so. That would be, to echo Mr Hamburger, "sadistic, poisonous, anti-human and sneaky".