Derren Brown divides opinion. To some, he is the ultimate modern showman, adapting old fashioned music hall tricks for the digital age. He is one of the few personalities in contemporary broadcasting who creates water-cooler TV – remember the lottery numbers trick? And the Russian roulette? Had us going, didn’t it? To others, though, he is the devil incarnate.
On my way to meet him at Milton Keynes Theatre one early spring afternoon, nagging thoughts gnaw. Will I be strong enough to resist his mental powers? Will a touch of the elbow and a whispered word lead me to empty my bank account into his? Will I conduct the interview with my trousers on my head?
Upon meeting him, there is no protracted handshake, no disarming touch, no snap hypnosis and certainly no warm regards from Beelzebub.
Just a kind introduction, friendly conversation and a relaxed demeanour from a casually dressed, gently balding man as he gets ready to start his evening’s work. A disappointment? Not exactly. A relief? Most certainly. Although, a part of me thinks this could all be part of the act, that he’s sizing me up, ready to spring his trap with a click of the fingers.
Brown has been doing this for roughly 20 years. Still, it appears, he may be as nervous of his quarry as we are of him.“I’m acutely aware that the reasons you choose things like magic or hypnosis are often very ego-driven,” he states flatly and honestly.
“Magic is the shortest route to impressing somebody, that is all it’s really there for, and if you are someone who doesn’t feel very impressive then it is a great way of getting over that.” When Brown discovered hypnosis it opened a doorway to control and let the more outspoken and opinionated aspects of his character into the room.
He has gone from being a velvet suit-wearing Bristolian magician making £300 a gig to an award-winning entertainer – producer of fascinating, alarming and enthralling television – and successful touring phenomenon who earns, well, considerably more than he used to.
He has been able to loosen the chains of terms such as magician, illusionist, hypnotist or mentalist while shedding the baggage of his needy personality, carving out a unique space for himself . Launched into the public eye by the Mind Control series in 2000, he has spent the intervening years playing with perception and courting controversy with grand, ambitious and downright curious spectacles.
He played a game of Russian roulette, re-enacted a séance, predicted the National Lottery and
convinced members of the public to perform a bank heist. How did he do it all? He’s not telling.
“The stuff that makes the job really interesting, the ideas and the methods, have to remain secret,” he admits. “The temptation is then to make up for that with something else, but you soon become a bit ludicrous and hated if you try that.” Now aged 39, Brown openly concedes he often thinks of magic as something childish or “just a bit silly really” but, as much as he would occasionally like to walk away from it all, the opportunity to inspire disbelief in new ways always piques his interest and calls him back from the brink.
“The joys of what I do are sometimes found in the ways we provide one person with an experience that nothing else can replicate,” he says.
Brown is finding that fulfilment ever harder to come by these days. “It’s been an effort to keep the television work feeling enjoyable,” he says, with no hint of deception in his voice. “Everything takes forever to do and you are always up against frustrations, you have a great idea and bit-by-bit it gets eaten away at until you are left with something that is a shadow of the original thought. “It makes sense that things are shrunk down, but it’s not satisfying.”
That, plus the downward trajectory of budgets and a 75 per cent decrease in pay for the filmed series and stunts that brought him to a national audience, have led Brown to shift priorities in 2010.
His attention has flipped from television work to five months touring his latest live show, Enigma. The show has already been nominated for an Olivier award, seen a West End run and three months of performance in 2009, and it is still drawing strong audience numbers across the UK.
The format, the script, the sheer volumes in attendance and the awe-inspiring ending all play to Brown’s strengths as he willingly shines the spotlight on the audience and participants.
“Doing this show is both physically tiring and mentally liberating but I love it. I can change this show to suit, it can evolve and adapt as I perform. There is no one telling me there is no money or that I have to rethink any aspects of it,” he continues.
“This show allows people in without patronising them, while keeping them far enough away so that I don’t cease to be interesting.”
Being playfully mendacious is something Brown has done well over the years. He once joked with a journalist that he learned his card tricks in prison. He did not, but he never corrected the mistake when it was later reported as truth. His Wikipedia page states he is banned from every casino in Britain. He is not. On the last few occasions he has tried to enter one he has been warmly welcomed by owners giddy at the publicity prospects.
In letting the rumours percolate into truth he has let others create the mystery on his behalf, with surprisingly successful outcomes.
When performing at a private party for JK Rowling with the then soon-to-be Prime Minister Gordon Brown in the audience, he was warned by six different groups not to interact, engage with or even hold eye contact with his namesake. “I think the fear was I would get him onstage, which I would never have dreamed of,” he pauses and then grins. Widely.
At a time when politicians are keen to espouse their everyman credentials, they steer clear of Derren Brown as the ambiguous controversy that follows him is off-putting. It suits him well. “Politics is so unpleasant at the moment,” he says. “There is no charisma of any sort and it’s joyless. I have never been interested and could not be any less so at the moment.”
The professional misleader has often kept the curtain drawn on much of his personal life. He has turned down offers to appear on every reality TV series, chatshow and talking head programme. Why? “I think the boring answer to that is management,” muses Brown. “My manager felt very strongly that the best way to launch was slowly, so you focus on the work, not the personality.”
At other times he has chosen to reposition the mirror so his reflection can be seen, something he did most deliberately when he came out as gay.
“Making public a private thing is instinctively something you feel you shouldn’t have to do but I was, and I still am, with someone I love,” he states.
“I felt it was better to be open about my sexuality rather than letting it become a thing that could be made into a story or scandalous bit of gossip.”
As Brown sits in his dressing room preparing for another performance of Enigma, stage clothes hang on a bare rail and unpacked bags sit in a row on the table. The only thing on display is the make-up he will apply before the performance tonight and the steam inhaler he needs to loosen his voice.
In bland dressing rooms such as these, he puts the finishing touches to an autobiography, writes the television specials he will film in the summer and prepares for the airing of three documentaries that investigate paranormal claims. “Although I am sceptical of those things, I went in with an open and enthusiastic mind as I would love the things that are claimed to be true,” he admits, surprisingly.
Added to this are talks to reboot his profile in America with a Broadway show in 2011 as he aims to restart his US career as a live performer, perhaps hoping that TV work will follow. When he escapes all the gruelling commitments, he paints, reads about acting, and attempts to map the art history of London onto a memorised plan of the city. His exhausting schedule gives him little time to enjoy the things or the people he loves but, despite doubts, anxieties and grumbles, one thing is clear. He still loves the moments his magic creates.
“The frustrations and embarrassment I feel when I think I’m just involved in childish, fraudulent nonsense are important,” he states, as the clock ticks towards the start of his stage show
“It feeds creatively into what I do. If you can get some distance from the world you are in then you can push it or maybe even do something amazing and take it someplace new.”
(Interview by Andrew Kelham for Big Issue Scotland)