Times have evolved and the trick of pulling a rabbit out of a hat is about as astonishing as news that Angelina Jolie is trying to adopt another baby in Africa.

With such magical feats regarded as passé, unless you fall into the under-five age bracket, illusionist/mentalist acts are making serious in-roads on the entertainment circuit.

With programming across the board in television breaking new ground – especially in the reality genre – the expectations of viewers breach the “exceedingly hard to please” mark. And they are constantly on the prowl for something fresh, jaw-dropping and, while perhaps also a little bewildering, also engaging.

Although the desire transcends mediums, from television to live stage shows, there is no ignoring the allure of the TV shows of David Copperfield, or David Blaine, for that matter.

Someone who is fast gaining popularity for his mental exploits in this field is the UK’s Derren Brown.

Until 1999, Brown was known for his magical acts mostly at the University of Bristol. Interestingly, he was studying law and German at the time.

He says: “I got into magic in my first year at university and I decided to give it a go knowing that I had (a career in) law to fall back on.

“I don’t know about formal training, there might be more of that thing around these days than when I started out.

“I learnt the basics by studying every book I could get on the subject and there are probably courses around now, too. I was just that guy and ‘that’ – hypnosis and magic – was my thing.

“For me, it ticked the box about controlling people. I think I was quite insecure and attention-seeking and something like that was a quick way to impressing people.

“That impulse makes you want to put in the thousands of hours of practice.”

As his reputation grew so, too, did the demand for his skills.

“By the end of university I was doing magic shows at other universities and close-up magic in bars and restaurants. So I was earning a living. I gradually got better and better at a local level and from there got to perform at private parties.

“Because I got into the area of psychological magic, or mentalism (or whatever you want to call it), and not many people were doing it, I’d written a couple of books for magicians about the approach with a much bigger emphasis on the psychological aspect, which meant that my name became known in the magic world.

“At the end of the 1990s, there was a TV crew looking for somebody who could do that kind of thing as they wanted to launch a mind reader in the UK on the back of David Blaine having done his thing in America and it was very popular.”

With an array of TV series and specials since making his debut in 1999 with Mind Control, Brown has cemented his success – not forgetting his stage shows as well.

He, of course, concedes that landing a show is a big deal, but ensuring that it lives up to expectations is the clincher.

On ensuring that fans are “wowed”, he says: “I made a conscious decision at the beginning to not go with whatever’s in at the time because these things are generally cool for a couple of years and then annoying because they become silly after a while. So we try to avoid that.

“A few years ago, the programmes were very much more a case of ‘Hey, look at me!’.

“Although I enjoyed making them, they were really more about what the channel wanted me to do. Now I go with whatever I am interested in – it’s a nice position to be in. I can do a documentary, a big public stunt and more impossible stuff. Or I can do something much more personal. It’s nice to have the option.

“At the moment, I’m looking at the stunts in movies and seeing whether they can be created in real life.”

With fame comes the challenge of basking in the good aspects as well as coping with the backlash. Fortunately, Brown has managed to strike a balance, and that’s no illusion. Neither is his success!

• Season two of Derren Brown: Trick of the Mind airs on BBC Entertainment (DStv channel 120) on March 2 at 9.30pm.

ALSO IN ON THE ACT:

DAVID COPPERFIELD

Copperfield’s illusions are underscored with a story. To date, the American illusionist’s TV shows have earned him more than 21 Emmys awards.

Copperfield, 55, has more than 30 years’ experience, holds 11 Guinness World Records and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

His most notable illusions, created and performed, include making the Statue of Liberty and a passenger car of the Oriental Express disappear and walking through the Great Wall of China.

CRISS ANGEL

He is famed for his TV show Criss Angel Freak, which he created, directed and executive produced. A very hands-on person, the 44-year-old Angel, who has appeared on a plethora of talk shows, TV dramas and reality shows and has written a book, made a big impression for: walking on water, floating between two buildings, making a Lamborghini disappear, walking away unscathed from an exploding C4 crate and surviving being run over by a steamroller while lying on broken glass. |Talk about living dangerously, eh?

DAVID BLAINE

Referred to as a modern Harry Houdini, Blaine has broken several world records with his feats as an illusionist and an endurance artist. His acts that have left fans stupefied include: being buried alive in an underground plastic box underneath a three-ton water-filled tank for seven days, being encased in a block of ice in Times Square, New York City, and being shackled to a rotating gyroscope for 16 hours. As can be deduced from his acts, the 38-year-old is all about going big or going home.

GILAN GORK

This SA talent has been practising his magic tricks since he was five years old. Over the years, his study of people’s behaviour saw him cement his success as an influential mentalist.

Aside from being able to bend metal with his mind, he can read minds and even make predictions. While on SABC3’s 3 Talk, viewers called in to say their old broken clocks and watches were working again.

Who needs Simon Baker (The Mentalist) when we have our own real-life version? And he oozes charm while astonishing all with his abilities.