Sherlock: The Reichenbach Fall

“I may be on the side of the angels, but don’t think for one second that I am one of them.”


The Reichenbach Fall is the epic conclusion to the second series of Sherlock. This is where the antagonism, the “great game”, between Sherlock and Moriarty moves into the endgame. Moriarty is determined to “burn” Sherlock, to beat him once and for all, and my, you have to admire the sheer genius of the character.

I’ve said this before, but it merits being said again: Andrew Scott as Moriarty is my favourite fictional villain ever. He’s like Steerpike from Gormenghast, Edmund from King Lear and Derren Brown all rolled into one. He’s blackly funny – “You’re insane,” says Sherlock. “Oh, you’re just getting that now?” comes the reply – and full of a terrifyingly manic energy which gives him a hugely disproportionate influence on the series as a whole, given that his total screen time adds up to maybe 45 minutes in 6 hour-and-a-half episodes.

There’s not much else that I can say about this episode without spoilers. The dialogue is brilliantly scripted and deeply dramatic (see the quote above). The plot has that kind of clarity and sense that is only found in the very best murder mysteries, and there’s that final puzzle at the end (trying not to include spoilers!) which, I think, will give rise to many hours of happy consideration (how did he do that?). I can’t wait until the next series. Unfortunately, that may not be shown until Christmas.

The Curious Case of the Clark Brothers

“It’s the theatrical
Comeback in broad day
To the same place, the same face, the same brute
Amused shout:
“A miracle!”
That knocks me out.”

Sylvia Plath

Right. Well, this is going to be quite a depressing post, unfortunately, because this was a rather depressing documentary. It’s about the Clark brothers (as you might have guessed from the title), who, due to a rare genetic disease called leukodystrophy, are, like Benjamin Button, “aging backwards”.

Actually, that’s not quite true. They’re not ageing backwards, precisely; they’re regressing to a childlike mental state while ageing normally.

At times, watching this felt like the highest form of voyeurism. Hey, everybody, says Channel 4, let’s watch a family’s grief as their world falls apart around them! Hooray!

(That bit was sarcasm, by the way. Just to avoid any misunderstandings.)

But then, on the other hand, the family presumably did agree to be filmed…

And there’s the question. When does documentary-watching turn into voyeurism? When the subjects don’t know they’re being filmed? (Derren Brown, I’m looking at you.) When the documentary is more about entertaining than informing? (I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here definitely falls into this category.) Or when the documentary is shoehorned into a traditional narrative which doesn’t fit it properly, as happens here? There is, for instance, a massively inappropriate optimism at the end of the programme – “at least they’re not travelling alone” – which has clearly been introduced so that it doesn’t spoil the viewers’ evening too much. “These people have a degenerative terminal disease – but there are others going through the same thing, so that’s all right then.”

The Curious Case of the Clark Brothers was interesting and sad and thought-provoking. But I’m surprised by the insensitive name C4 chose for it, given that the boys’ mother protested vigorously against the Benjamin Button comparisons. Perhaps that’s where the problem lies – the sensationalisation of the truth.

Derren Brown: The Experiments: Assassin

“I do not shoot with my gun. She who shoots with her gun has forgotten the face of her father. I shoot with my mind.”

Stephen King

Yes. Yes, it’s another Derren Brown post. Why? Because he is a genius, that’s why. (Also because there wasn’t anything else on.)

This is quite an old episode, but I hadn’t seen it and it’s still on 4OD, so I do feel justified in reviewing it. It’s called Assassin, as you might have guessed, and, according to the blurb,

Derren Brown investigates hypnosis and asks if someone could be hypnotised into killing a celebrity.

The answer is yes. This is not a spoiler. The answer is always yes with Derren Brown. Can he make someone rob a bank? Yes. Can he survive Russian roulette? Yes. Can he make a randomer kill Stephen Fry? Yes. And you know this from the beginning of the programme. So. Not a spoiler.

He starts off with a big audience and chooses his assassin from amongst them – apparently the most suggestible person in the audience. As part of the selection process he makes them sit in literally freezing water while convincing them (by hypnosis) that they can’t feel it. That was horrible. It didn’t help that Derren kept happily informing us that those temperatures could kill. And they couldn’t even feel it! *shudder*

Of course, he manages to narrow the field down to one, who he chooses, we are told, because “there’s something of a blank slate about him”. Well, that’s nice. How would you feel if you were told you had something of a blank slate about you? Exactly. Rude.

Anyway. Another good episode from the master headologist, complete with Historical Reference – the shooting of Robert Kennedy by Sirhan Sirhan, who claims that he can’t remember a thing and was brainwashed by the CIA into the assassination. This claim is somewhat undermined by the fact that he later says that he remembered the trigger (a woman in a polka-dot dress) for hypnotising him. Which is definitely a flaw in the argument.

But the point of the episode was to establish if Sirhan’s claim was theoretically possible.


And, what do you know, it is. There’s a surprise. It’s really quite scary what you can make people do with the right words. But then, of course, words can change the world.

Derren Brown: Fear and Faith

“We each live an extraordinary and improbable life.”

Derren Brown

What? you may be thinking. Hasn’t The English Student already reviewed Fear and Faith? Is she going mad?

The answer, Constant Reader, is no. Or, at least, no more than I was already. Fear and Faith is actually a two-parter. Last week was “Fear”; this week is “Faith”. I’ve no idea why the two shows were lumped together like this; Brown’s explanation that religion is the biggest placebo of all (given that last week’s show was dedicated to demonstrating the placebo effect) seems somewhat contrived. But then, what do I know?

This week, the inimitable Derren Brown goes on a crusade against religion.

(Geddit? A crusade…against religion? No? Note to self: do not try any more obscure historical jokes.)

OK, that’s possibly a slight exaggeration. But only a slight one. Brown’s objective is to explain religious experience using psychology. A formidable undertaking for a 45-minute programme, you might think. But, by means of a series of demonstrations (many of them adapted from bona fide scientists’ work) Brown has a pretty good stab at it. There is the buzzer experiment, which involves one of those electrified-wire games that makes a noise when you touch the wire with a loop…in fact, I’m just going to put a picture up. That’s much better. Anyway, the experimentees got left alone with it and told to record the number of mistakes they made. Three out of four lied. But when another group doing the same thing were told that one of the chairs in the room was possessed, no-one lied, despite the fact that none of them believed the chair was actually haunted. This is used as evidence that we are “hard-wired” to believe. Fairly convincing.

And then there was the peppermint test. Ah, yes, the peppermint test. Brown told his viewers (including me) that playing a very low sound makes you smell peppermint, and that doing such things as closing windows, turning up the bass on the TV, etc., would enhance this effect. So I, and probably about a million other people, went through this rigamarole, hoping to smell peppermint (because there’s nothing like audience participation). In other words, we all forgot Rule One.

Rule One: Derren Brown lies.

There was no bass sound. If you smelt peppermint, you were suggesting it to yourself. I did not smell peppermint. At first, this disappointed me, but then it occurred to me that it was probably a good thing. I am not so easily manipulated! Mwahahaha!

Anyway. What did I think of the programme?

It was good. Better than last week’s, because it involved more “headology” (Terry Pratchett, Wyrd Sisters, if you want to understand this reference), which is the real reason I watch Derren Brown. The popular-science line did annoy me a little, because it occasionally seems dumbed-down – there’s a highly condescending cartoon about Why Altruism Was A Good Idea Evolutionarily that never actually seems to explain why altruism was a good idea evolutionarily. (Is that even a word?) But – thank God – there were none of those endlessly repetitive “recaps for viewers who’ve just joined us” which are a bore to watch and, combined with the adverts, mean that out of 45 minutes of TV you’re only seeing maybe half an hour of new content. And I do love Derren Brown. He’s like a real-life Sherlock.

Derren Brown: Fear and Faith

“Welcome to the real world.”

The Matrix

Derren Brown is back, and with a vengeance. At first, Fear and Faith looks like a documentary about a “wonder drug” that removes fear – interesting, but hardly Brown’s usual fare.

But nothing is ever that simple in Derren Brown-land. The wonder drug, Rumyodin, is actually a placebo, or, in less scientific terms, fake. The question is, can a sugar pill help someone get over a debilitating phobia?

So we’re introduced to a group of people who have chosen wholly inappropriate professions given their respective phobias. We have a journalism student who can’t talk to strangers and an actress who can’t sing in public. They do know you’re meant to choose your career based on your strengths, right?

Anyway, the group duly take their daily doses, and soon amazing things begin to happen. A person with a fear of heights crosses a tall aqueduct. The journalism student defuses an argument in a pub. Et cetera.

But the best bit, as always with Brown’s shows, is when the victims participants are told it’s all a lie, and that Rumyodin is actually an anagram of “your mind”. (Hahahaha!) And that the fake drug has been given to other groups for different purposes – giving up smoking, boosting intelligence, curing allergies – where it had equally remarkable results.

Of course, there’s nothing really new in all this. The placebo effect has been known in scientific circles for years, and popular science books like Bad Science and 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense have introduced the concept to the masses, or, at least, to a significant proportion of the masses. But Brown’s show is still worth watching because even if you knew about the placebo effect before it’s still quite amazing exactly what it can do and in how short a time. And, as they say, seeing is believing.

Fear and Faith is so much better than Apocalypse, Brown’s last outing. I’m not going to go over everything that was wrong with Apocalypse, because that would take too long, but my review of it is here if you want to read it and compare. Basically, all the stuff that I hated in Apocalypse has been rectified in Fear and Faith. Happy reading.

Derren Brown: Apocalypse

“From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggity beasties, and things that go bump in the night, may the good Lord protect us.”

Old Cornish prayer

A suitably spooky review for this Hallowe’en night. Derren Brown: Apocalypse, featuring celebrity conman Derren Brown, takes an ordinary person (Steve, from Buckinghamshire, apparently) and makes him think that Britain has suffered a meteor strike and everyone is dead or turned into zombies, in order to teach him an object lesson in Appreciating What You Have.


Well, firstly, as far as I can remember none of Derren Brown’s shows have ever sought to teach a moral lesson in this way. (I may be wrong, since I haven’t seen everything he’s ever done.) And I think this one suffers for it. Because instead of the showmanship and virtuoso psychological tricks Brown is so good at, we have, basically, one of those wacky Channel 4 documentaries like The Audience (where 50 people follow someone around to help them make a decision) or The Plane Crash (where some scientists crash a real plane – without passengers, obviously – to see what happens). Literally anyone could have presented this. OK, Derren does his “making someone fall asleep randomly” thing, but that was about 5 seconds of television. The rest is just B-movie claptrap, voyeurism and tearful family testimonials. It’s hard to believe this is a Derren Brown production at all.

Happy Hallowe’en to all, and to all a good night.