Derren Brown – Leeds Grand Theatre 28 March 2014

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Writing about Derren Brown’s latest show is slightly challenging for a couple of reasons. First, it is hard to get across the detail of his act when the nature of the “magic” is very much contained in the amazement that the performance brings. Second, even were I to be a sufficiently skilled writer to convey this, he asked those attending not to spoil things for future audiences (live and probably on DVD or TV) by giving away what he did. So, with those two caveats in mind, here are my thoughts. At least with the space of a couple of weeks between seeing the show and writing about it, the latter will be easier to do!

DB’s magic is magic in the sense used by Richard Dawkins in his book, The Magic of Reality. Those who have seen the many different TV specials DB has done will know that he is of the modern school of magic which involves demystifying the act by showing how the tricks are done. However, as with Dawkins’ explanations and descriptions of nature, knowing how amazing things are done doesn’t make them less amazing – indeed, done well, as DB does them, they make the audience more amazed that he can actually do them. Prodigious feats of memory and manual dexterity can be more wonderful than the mere channelling of unexplained mystical forces by a Harry Potter, where much of the magic is rendered mundane in the magical world (and where a few eccentric wizards like Arthur Weasley are perceptive enough to see the wonder in things we muggles consider mundane, like electricity). The biggest targets for criticism by DB are the mystics and clairvoyants for their charlatanism – just as the everyday use of Divination is generally derided in the Harry Potter books (even if in that magical world there are rare acts of genuine and terrifying prophesy).

In his latest show, DB goes a stage beyond the core of previous shows of his I’ve seen on TV. Those often tended to rely on the basic tricks of the trade for close magicians of sleight of hand and misdirection. Both are, of course, used liberally in this show too. However, the underlying theme of DB’s commentary here is about how predictable people are and how we are “easily” misdirected because we don’t know or let ourselves believe that we are predictable. We’re all individuals, or so we’d like to think. Yet, as advertising executives, marketeers and politicians know, we also, however much we deprecate the idea, fall into various categories where we are similar to other people – if we’re in our 40s we’ve probably thought about whether the career we have chosen is the one we want to carry on doing for the next 25 years, if we’re in our late 20s, we probably find our parents less irritating than we did when we were young adults and so on.

This simple message drives the various tricks and demonstrations through much of the show both directly and indirectly. The message is communicated indirectly in the highly personal monologues about DB’s own childhood and how he developed his skills – a clear theme is how he is or was something of an outsider, doing things most thought odd and how it has taken him a long time to become comfortable with and capable of using that fact rather than trying to conform with categories he didn’t fit into. So, we hear of his struggles with coming out as gay and other such things. He is, like Harry Potter, the boy that lived.

The central part of the act is deceptively simple and involves inducing a trance state in audience members. This is something which has been done by many mesmerists in the past, although DB is clear that he is not hypnotising anyone. Unlike an end of the pier hypnotism act, there’s no making the subject pretend to be a dog or do other cruel things for the amusement of the rest of the audience. Yet, the overall effect is still spectacular. I could possibly describe it further without really spoiling the act for anyone. I went with Mrs B who had heard all about the act from colleagues who had been to an earlier show in the tour last year, one of whom on that occasion was selected by DB as the subject to go on stage for the trance. Another of those colleagues was also with us. Yet, when Mrs B and I disappointedly realised that we hadn’t had the trance state induced in us, we noticed that our friend, who had seen the show and seen his colleague up on stage during the same part of the show, had also succumbed to the trance. This made the point, without it being part of DB’s actual act, that knowing about what happened and how, would not be a defence against the power of the illusion.

If you have seen DB on TV and enjoyed it or if you just want to be amazed at what can be achieved without magic in the sense of the inexplicable, I’d strongly recommend going to one of the shows in the remainder of the Infamous tour.

3,2,1,0 – Northern Disappointments

Once again we are reaching the final stages of a season and once again, Brentford entered them in positive form. Two seasons ago we were just outside the play-offs but with some winnable games ahead, which, alas, we failed to win. Last season, well, probably best not to go there again after the drama of the final seconds of the final match of the season and the seemingly inevitable play-off final defeat. Just over a week ago we were lying in second place within striking distance of Wolves and with a 3 point cushion above Orient with the rest of the pack seemingly too far back for the race to automatic promotion to be anything other than a contest between us and those two other teams. Then came a string of three northern away games in 8 days, first at Rotherham, followed by Oldham and Sheffield United.

Now, after those 3 games, we have had 2 draws, one defeat and have scored no goals. The defeat at Rotherham continued the Millers’ great run which has brought them to within a point of Orient while at the same time, Preston have also caught up so that Brentford finished the sequence looking over its shoulders not just at a fading Orient but also at a pair of teams charging up the table and with the confidence to challenge for automatic promotion. Wolves have put 6 points of clear space between first and second and although the gap between Brentford and the chasing pack has grown to 5 points, somehow a chasing group of three seems more threatening than when we only had to worry about Orient.

Rotherham 3 Brentford 0

The less said about this game the better. Fortunately, due to traffic caused by the Manchester derby which meant that Mrs B couldn’t get back from working in Manchester in time to let me go to Rotherham, I missed the game. I was a little disappointed as I’d have liked to have gone to the New York Stadium, if only to tick it off the list and to have the novel experience of seeing us play them away at a nice ground (their fans might have feelings of nostalgia for Millmoor, but as an away fan it was a grim experience walking into it through a scrapyard and a narrow cobbled alleyway where a Swansea fan had been trampled to death by a police horse a few seasons before and the less said about the experience of games at the Don Valley Arena the better). Just a bad day at the office for the Bees and a good game not to have made.

Oldham 0 Brentford 0

Boundary Park is normally a chilly and dreary place to visit. Uncharacteristically, this game was played in mild and watery but still warming sunshine. I had to watch half of it in sunglasses! I was surprised to find that one stand had been demolished and was in the early stages of being rebuilt. I was also pleased to find that Oldham had ditched its policy from the last time I visited of categorising the away stand as being the best in the ground and charging a then extortionate £25 a ticket (even if it did mean I got to saw a rare Paul Brooker goal). Perhaps it is too cynical to say the reason for this was that due to the rebuilding works involving relocating home fans in half of the stand the club realised it couldn’t get away with charging that much.

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The game itself was fairly nondescript. Tarkowski played well in front of his former club. Dallas, who’s gradually developing into a decent player, but still not quite at the level needed for regular starts, was denied a clear chance on goal late on by an excellent reflex save from Rachubka. Otherwise, the team played neatly and comfortably in its now familiar methodical passing and probing style without looking particularly threatening, especially during the first hour before Grigg was replaced by Trotta. It isn’t that Grigg does anything particularly wrong, he just doesn’t really look like he’s going to score. As the team is set up to try and pass the ball into the goal, it needs a centre-forward with skill and guile to be at the end of each move or to be pulling defenders out of position to allow the midfielders and wide players to deliver the coup de grace. Trotta just fits that bill much better. We’d need to be set up very differently to play to Grigg’s strengths. McCormack was restored to central midfield but seemed a little out of sorts and he and Douglas, rather than commanding the centre of the pitch, seemed to get in each others ways a little. Diagouraga came on later in the game and McCormack looked more comfortable going back to right back in place of Yennaris (who had looked good and up to the pace of the game despite his youth and inexperience). Diagouraga showed his customary energy and drive, but also looked a level below the skill of the rest of the team in terms of his ability to make telling short touches of the ball, although his longer passes seem to have benefited from his time on loan at Portsmouth.

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OMB enjoyed the game although as you can see from the photo, by the end he had taken to drawing monsters to entertain himself rather than holding out hope that his pre-match prediction of a 4-2 win would come to fruition. Probably the real highlight of the game was the constant and generally amusing banter between the home fans to our right and a vocal Bees contingent. A ten minute vocal battle between competing chants of Lee Johnson/Warburton’s Barmy Army, accompanied by the Oldham fans’ drummer which turned into a krautrock style drone with the voices seeming to feedback on each other was the standout here. The result was fair, particularly considering that Oldham had managed to draw away at Orient while we were being beaten by Rotherham, but at this stage in the season, after so many disappointments most Bees just want wins.

Sheffield United 0 Brentford 0

 

The games away against Sheffield United over the last three seasons have been for me, something of an indicator of our general level and the extent to which we have progressed. I admit that in part that is because it is one of my local games and the only fixture that I have been able to compare three seasons in a row! Two seasons ago, in the very early days of Uwe Rosler’s time at the club, we were comfortably beaten and while there were signs for optimism it was clear we weren’t quite good enough to challenge seriously for promotion. Last season, we witnessed the tremendous Battle of Bramall Lane, where the heroic draw we managed ended up feeling like a Pyrrhic victory as it deprived us of Donaldson for a game and drained the team of energy just when it was most needed. Could we go one better this time round? In a word, no.

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It was always going to be a tough game. After their abysmal start to the season where they managed to have an even worse play-off hangover than we did, Sheffield United have had a great second half including a forthcoming FA Cup semi-final. Perhaps we’d have had a better chance had the game been played when first scheduled, earlier in that cup run and with the team in relegation danger. In the end the game was between two very evenly matched teams, both playing incisive passing football and defending strongly, with Sheffield United being content to rely on counter-attacking much of the time. In those circumstances it was unsurprising that the teams cancelled each other out. The two outstanding moments were excellent pieces of play by defenders. One, a perfect interception by Tarkowski off the toes of a United striker on the edge of the six yard box with an open goal in front of him. The other, far more contentiously, a tackle by Freeman to dispossess Trotta when clear through the middle and bearing down on goal.

After the incredible refereeing antics of last season’s fixture, this latter tackle provided an opportunity for more referee madness. As Trotta went over, the referee immediately pointed to the penalty spot and brandished a red card. Not unexpectedly, being right in front of the home end, this was received with howls of anguish from the Blades fans. However, while I was just praying that Forshaw would claim the penalty, the game seemed to have stopped for far too long. After what seemed like an eternity, the referee was persuaded by his assistant that Freeman had in fact got the ball, so he reversed his decision and awarded a drop ball instead. It looked a clear penalty from the away end and the referee was looking at the incident from a similar angle, but the radio commentators and also Brentford Manager, Mark Warburton agreed that from a better angle it was clearly a great tackle. Ultimately the right decision was made, but after the unfairnesses of the previous game at Bramall Lane I can’t have been the only Bee to have thought we could have done with luck levelling itself out for us just this once!

There were a number of chances for the Bees to have won the game in the second half, but somehow each shot seemed tamer than the last. It was good to see Craig back in central defence and to see Tarkowski continuing to excel. Dallas was a good replacement for Judge, even if he ought to have done better with a chance he dragged across the goal. Diagouraga again provided energy while looking not quite good enough for the team we now have. That’s despite him clearly working hard and having improved as a player. It’s just that the team has progressed from being one where he was one of the better players to one where he no longer is likely to be.

Again, 0-0 was a fair result. After a meagre 2 points from three games the gap for the chasing pack to make up is bigger than it was and it would not take stellar results in our remaining 7 games to prevent them from being able to make up the five or six points they need. But, 20 years of watching Brentford contrive to fail to get promoted from League 1 means it is hard not to be pessimistic. I fear that anything short of six points from the two upcoming home games against Notts County and Crawley will have the fans fearful, even if that is unfair on what is probably our best team in 20 years.

Miranda – Leeds Arena 22 March 2014

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I have to admit that it took a lot of nagging from Mrs B and OMB before I got into Miranda Hart’s eponymous TV series. For some reason they loved it and after endlessly watching and rewatching the three series on DVD when outvoted in the living room eventually I grudgingly gave into its rather old fashioned blend of silliness, catchphrases and slapstick. I suppose it was inevitable after Miranda used Mrs B’s “world’s worst joke”. Not because Mrs B sent it in or anything like that, just because they independently came up with it and so showed a certain alignment in their senses of humour. For what it is worth, the joke goes: Knock knock – Who’s there? – Doctor – Doctor Whoooooooo! Rubbish really, but it makes us giggle and in Mrs B’s defence she’s a Chartered Accountant rather than our leading prime-time TV comedienne.

Anyway, when I saw Miranda was taking her stand up show on tour it sounded like a good idea as a Christmas present and it provided a first chance for us to go to the brand new Leeds Arena. The Arena itself is pretty impressive, certainly a nicer place to go than my memory of going to gigs at Wembley Arena. The nature of such venues is that they encourage you to look at the screens more than at the performer directly, although we were sat close enough to be able to do both. Stewart Lee has satirised Arena gigs as paying a load of money to go and watch people off the telly on big tellies but while superficially right enough, it isn’t the damning critique it sounds – one could just as easily make the same point about going to watch football at modern grounds with screens showing replays of the action rather than just staying at home and putting on Sky Sports.

The show itself was OK. She started with a bit of audience participation to recreate the ambience of an upper-class party, which warmed the audience up. Although it was mocking posh people, it was doing so incredibly gently and almost apologetically. This is unsurprising considering that Miranda herself is about the poshest person most in the audience would be likely to come across. Class war isn’t going to go very far in a country where thousands can go to Leeds and laugh along to the idea that posh people, bless ‘em are just adorably silly. Not that that is a bad thing.

Otherwise, the set was fairly unmemorable with lots of fart gags and catchphrases from her TV show. The one (probably) unscripted part was her attempting to matchmake audience members either side of the interval where she ended up with two men, one of whom had come with the mother of the other’s ex-partner. Curiously she seemed to be a bit thrown by the first saying he was gay (having asked for a single straight man) and the female audience member initially brought on stage to have a date with him saying that she was also “a little gay”. The segment seems from reviews to be in each show but using real audience members so it is hard to tell how scripted if at all it was. It was less glib than the rest so probably not scripted.

The best part came right at the end where filmed vignettes of the social awkwardnesses which had been the main subject matter of the show were played on the video screens. The stand out one of these was the office game of getting from one side of the room to the other without touching the floor, using desks as walkways, hitching a piggy back lift off a colleague, whizzing across on a spinning office chair and so on. These had the feel of the TV series and showed that the best of Miranda’s comedy is in the visual slapstick rather than words alone. This also, to me, highlighted that the charm of the TV series also came from the slick way it works as an ensemble piece. “Such fun” as a catchphrase works better when said by Patricia Hodge as Miranda’s embarrassing mum. Miranda galloping round an empty stage is a lot less amusing than her doing it alongside the “freakishly small” Sarah Hadland. A posh party is funnier if it has Sally Phillips doing star jumps while pouring custard down her knickers. Maybe watching someone off the telly on a big telly isn’t as good as just watching telly.