5th October 2003

Derren Brown plays Russian roulette on live TV

When Derren Brown promised to play Russian roulette on live TV, three million viewers tuned in to Channel 4 to see whether he would survive. The premise was simple: a member of the public loaded a single bullet into a revolver and handed it to Brown, who would aim it at his head and pull the trigger several times, only firing into a sandbag when he believed that the live chamber was in place.

As the Irish Independent explained on the day after the broadcast, “a member of the public was picked to load the gun with a single bullet – Brown trusted his mental powers to alert him to the live chamber and the act was shown on Channel 4 with a short time delay so the screen could be blanked if it went horribly wrong. It didn’t. Bad news for the raitings.”

Jersey is finally revealed

The stunt took place at a secret location, later revealed to have been a farmhouse in Grouville, and Brown apparently succeeded, safely pulling the trigger twice without incident, firing once into the sandbag, again at his head and then, finally, at the sandbag, which split and started to lose its contents.

However, the stunt was later reported not to have been all that it seemed. On 8 October, the Irish Independent reported, “on the Channel Island of Jersey, where the show was made, Deputy Chief Officer Lenny Harper of the States of Jersey police said Channel 4 informed his department of the stunt in advance and used a prop gun that did not contain any real bullets.”

The previous day, The Guardian had run a similar story, quoting a Jersey police spokesperson saying, “there is absolutely no way that the States of Jersey police would allow anybody to put themselves at risk and shoot themselves dead. This programme was made by a TV company very experienced in pyrotechnics, in making smoke and bullet holes appear. It was no different to film which uses special effects.”

Nonetheless, the tension-filled show later featured in several retrospectives looking at the most memorable moments in television history.


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