Published today in The Times:

Derren Brown: mind over magic

“I’m always slightly beset by embarrassment about being a magician,” whispers Derren Brown, the most successful magician we’ve had since Paul Daniels fever gripped the nation three decades ago. Right now, another kind of fever is gripping Brown: in a dim dressing-room in Oxford, where his latest stage show has stopped off en route to the West End, he is surrounded by vials of bubbling potions and healing magic powders. Well, OK, bottles of Benylin and sachets of Lemsip. He’s lost his voice. He’s looking pale. Can the show go on?

A couple of hours later, Brown sounds a tiny bit croaky but looks anything but embarrassed as he performs the hell out of his latest mix of “magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship”. As with his three previous live shows, he reads audience member’s minds and even attempts to put us all into a trance. He ends, as ever, with a feat that makes you realise that even the most casual look and comment has been there for a reason. It’s so satisfyingly mind-melting that you come out of the theatre longing to shout about it — and then remember that you’ve all been sworn to secrecy. Well, fair enough. Take the surprises out of magic and what is left of it?

Hence, perhaps, Brown’s moments of self-doubt. He is, at 38, a magician so ingenious that he’s even persuaded us that he’s not a magician. He performs “psychological illusions” that emphasise the strange machinations of the human mind, not the nimbleness of his sleight-of-hand. He shows us the ways in which we get befuddled and duped, even as he befuddles and dupes us. It’s quite a trick. But is that all it is?

“One of the problems with magic,” Brown says a few days later, his voice medicated back to its normal easy clarity, “is that it’s such a fascinating thing to do, but all the things that are genuinely interesting about it are things you can’t really talk about. You have to hold so much back. So because people know they’re being fooled and it’s just a game, after a while the act begins to grate. Which is why most magicians are loved for a while and then become figures of fun.”

In person, Brown is self-deprecating, straighforward and courteous, giving every impression of being a long way from buying into his own myth. Or any myths, come to that. He has devoted his television specials to highlighting the ways in which we are fooled, taking rationalist pot shots at psychics (The Seance), religion (Messiah) and, best of all, his own self-professed ability to devise an infallible gambling system (The System). If you’ve read his book, Tricks of the Mind, you’ll know that this former fundamentalist Christian no longer has time for mumbo-jumbo of any kind. For the overtly fake, however, such as the stuffed animals that fill his London flat, he has rather more time.

What’s their appeal? “It’s all about verisimilitude. I’m fascinated by things that look real and aren’t. You start out with a couple of things because you like the look of them, and then your standard for what’s normal slowly changes.” How does his boyfriend Mark, a designer, like sharing a home with these creatures? “Oh, he loves it,” Brown says. “He appreciates that side of me, the gothic sensibility. He’s even got a skunk in his studio.”

Brown has been fascinated by questions of what’s false and what’s real since he was a child in Croydon. The elder of two brothers — his sibling, nine years younger, works in marketing — he attended Whitgift, a private boys’ school in Croydon, where his father was the swimming coach. “A gorgeous school,” he says, “though I had a bit of a hard time.” He fell in with a nerdish set — “we were known as the music-school gang, or less charitably referred to as the poof pack” — but drew away from them in the sixth form, when he started drawing caricatures of the teachers. “I imagine I liked being the centre of attention,” he says. “I wasn’t musical, I was quite bright but not staggeringly so. I must have been grating enough because I was picked on a bit by the sportier, nastier kids. But I don’t know anyone from school any more so I don’t really know what they thought of me.”

After getting three As in his A levels — better than he expected — he went to Bristol to study law and German. “University is where I became unbearable,” he chuckles. “I was able to start again and show off.” He got interested in hypnotism, then magic. Soon he was putting on shows — and walking around in a cape. “I was quite self-consciously eccentric. I was desperate for attention. But performing validated that need. So gradually I got less determinedly strange.”

He began to see his religious belief as self-delusion. “I used to go out and proselytise for Christianity; I’d go out with my set of arguments and lay them down, bam bam bam. And then when I was a hypnotist I began to see circular belief at work and began to think: ‘Well, that’s what I must be doing with my faith.’ I’m now annoyingly rational, rather annoyingly pedantic sometimes.” Indeed, no claim is too small for him to question its veracity. Intrigued by the boasts of a (shall we say) leading battery-powered four-blade razor, he’s recently been shaving one half of his face with the powered version, the other half with the unpowered. He’s found no difference. But, he adds, “I didn’t keep it up for long enough to make it a proper test, just a week.”

After university, he stayed in Bristol, signing on for a couple of years while looking for work as a magician. He began working in a party show and a Lazerquest at weekends, demonstrating tricks, then eventually got a regular gig at a restaurant. “It was a tremendously useful time,” he says. “I found myself as a performer.”

In Portraits, his new book of celebrity caricatures — painted, from photographs, in the spare room of his flat — he suggests that he was as happy then, pottering around with little money, as he is now being rich and famous. “I went from having not very much to do to a point now where I’m so busy that I missed it. I’ve possibly romanticised that time a little.”

Did he have boyfriends during that time? “No, I was a lone wolf. If I was going to, say, a play, an opera, a film, something that I felt was going to affect me, I’d always want to go on my own. I’d think that going with another person would in some way dilute the experience. I’ve softened now. I’ve got more friends, a partner.”

He got the television show when he was in his late twenties, after the magician and comedian Jerry Sadowitz recommended him to his manager Michael Vine (now Brown’s manager). But before he made it to the screen, he was asked to dye his brown locks black to make him look more imposing. “I had what I called my purple rinse, a frock suit, it was all more stylised. The Russian Roulette show was the first time I wore just an ordinary suit.”

And it was after the death-defying live Russian Roulette stunt in 2003 — devised deliberately to get him noticed — that Brown became seriously successful. Tours. West End shows. More ambitious specials that extended his scope even farther away from capes and cards into perception, psychology, debunking. But, he insists, it’s a mistake to try to make each trick more outrageous than the last. “From day one,” he says, “I was being called scary. It’s just unavoidable. But what I do, rather than trying always to go one bigger, is to do what interests me. If you just go bigger and bigger, like David Blaine — he started with card tricks in the street then moved on to those endurance tests — well, that’s one choice. But my approach seems a better exercise in longevity. And I wouldn’t be comfortable being more famous than I am.”

It was at about the time of The Seance, in 2006, that he stopped taking the Tube. Then again, if people recognise him, they’re not always sure if he’s Blaine, or Uri Geller, or Paul McKenna. And, even though he’s got celebrity fans-cum-friends such as Stephen Fry and Ian McKellen, he admits being as interested as anyone else in what some celebrity is really like. So he knows people will wonder the same of him. “When I’m in a shop, not making a big effort to be nice, I always have a gut-wrenching feeling if the person behind the counter says something that suggests that they know who I am. Then I find myself making an extra big attempt to be nice.” He smiles, shrugs. “It’s difficult.”

He is amazed, he says, when his friends accuse him of being a workaholic — in his mind he’s still the slacker he was in his twenties. (Mind you, when Brown was “slacking” he still managed to get two books on magic published.) Is he making hay while the sun shines? Yes, he says. He knows what he’s doing up to Christmas 2010. But he also says that he does only work that he likes. The live shows are fun, and lucrative. He’s writing another book — about what, he won’t say. He’s doing four television specials in September, which, he admits guiltily, are a temporary return to what he calls “the look-at-me-aren’t-I-clever? approach”. And he has just filmed his first documentary, in which he appears as a kind of quack-buster of the paranormal. “It was amazing. My own shows take eight months of every year and this took a week. A week! Maybe I could do a bit more of that in the future.”

First, though, his book of portraits is published this week. More appearance and reality. His earlier works are effective, but crude compared with more recent paintings of the likes of David Tennant (long neck, eyebrows) and a bulbous John Malkovich. They’re a striking mix of the grotesque and the almost photorealistic. “That’s what I’m aiming for,” he says. “It’s a bit like with the magic. You grow out of the desire to impress, but as you reach your mid-thirties, you wonder if it’s any good. Pictures of celebrities seem a bit childish, but out of that has come a more painterly approach, something a bit more grown-up.”

Brown talks quite a lot about being grown-up. He’s done as much as anyone to redefine what magic can do, to extend its reach beyond “abracadabra!” into the real world. Yet still there’s a tiny doubt: is what I’m doing still, maybe, just a bit naff? Am I, finally, more fake than real?

“There’s a definite shift that men go through in their thirties: is what I’m doing worthwhile? Am I destined for bigger things? I don’t mean that in an aggrandising way. But the things I do are all based on interests I developed when I was an attention-seeking student. Well, what I’ve realised is that, actually, if you’re good at something, that’s fine. It’s fine just to do something that you do well — it doesn’t have to be hard. But if the people you admire are people who’ve worked incredibly hard to be different, there is a pressure to follow their example.

“I don’t think magic is an art. It’s a craft, although it can be taken to the level of art. Magic of any sort, there is a dishonesty to it. But if you feel that what you do has to be personal and fresh, that is a constant challenge. And that’s a good thing, to feel like that. It makes sure it’s not just tricks. If all you do is magic, and you take it very, very seriously — as magicians do — you can’t help but lose sight of the bigger picture. But if you can have one foot in magic and one foot outside, if you are interested in other things and bring those things in, that’s good. But you still wonder if it’s good enough.”

Maybe magic isn’t an art. But doesn’t something like The System — which managed to be royally entertaining and genuinely enlightening — offer just the kind of reminder of our own blinkered thinking that art aims to provide?

“I was talking to a guy yesterday,” Brown says, “who told me that his mother, on the basis of the TV shows, had stopped going to psychics. And she was questioning her Pentecostal religious beliefs as well. Which was lovely to hear — I don’t mean that in a destructive way, I hope. But it does balance that worry that it’s all a bit silly and childish. If people are taking something away from it that applies to their lives then it makes it all worthwhile.”

There’s a pause, then Brown erupts into a cheerful, self-mocking laugh. “That sounds like the last line of the interview, doesn’t it? ‘Derren Brown is appearing at the Adelphi Theatre, London . . .’ ” Damn it. Outwitted again.

Derren Brown: Enigma is at the Adelphi, London WC2 (0844 5790090), from June 15 to July 18.