Here’s a recent Interview with Derren that appeared in The Times a couple of weeks ago which some of you may have missed.
Note from Derren: I do NOT iron my jeans. No idea where that came from.
The Illusionist Derren Brown tells Stefanie March how he has always felt a bit different.
Is Derren Brown a normal bloke who surrounds himself with eccentric things, or is he a weirdo as well? His former writing partner once described him as “genuinely odd” and, certainly, there are a lot of dead animals in his apartment. The few live ones are a blue parakeet and a handful of multicoloured fish. The dead ones include a pickled baby chimp and a spaniel that lies placidly at the foot of a living room armchair next to an equally dead Yorkshire terrier.
The whole set-up sounds weird. But does it feel it? The answer, I’m sorry to say is no. It’s the kind of pad that The World of Interiors would smile approvingly on for its “modern twist on Victoriana. “Are you weird?” I ask Brown. “Maybe I am,” Brown says. “I think we all think we are a bit odd. I think it’s a very difficult thing to gauge. I know I kind of like a lot of odd things, but it’s not like when you’re out the door there are five weird things I have to do.”
He does, though, wear clothes that are weirdly conventional when compared to his home deco. His jeans, for example, have been ironed. The “low-level stalkery types” he tends to attract are presumably drawn by his authoritative manner on TV. I fear that they wouldn’t find him domineering enough in real life. His voice, though exceptionally pleasant, is different too: it tends to crack unexpectedly mid-word, the way it probably used to as a teenager but which he would never allow on TV.
According to his fans, Brown’s two best shows to date are The Heist (Brown secretly primes a group of executives to carry out an armed robbery) and Hero at 30,000 Feet, in which a young underconfident man named Matt is plucked from his obscure unfulfilled life by Brown, who then sets about turning Matt’s life around through covert suggestion, bullshit artistry, scare tactics and neurolinguistic programming.
No matter which of his shows you are watching, the question “What would I have done?” remains the same. Would you steal from a newsagent if an authority figure told you to? Would you trample all over your own morals in the name of self improvement? The answer is usually yes. In the end the general public are revealed to be self-serving, backbone-less sheep. So it’s odd that he describes himself as a “joyful sceptic”. If I were him I would be a depressive cynic. “Cynical feels like a negative thing. I just end up feeling how extra-ordinary we are as creatures that these things are so reliable. It’s always astonishing how easily things fall into place. Sometimes it’s almost too convenient.”
Whatever your level of Derren Brown fascination, you now have a chance to hone it. When I met him he had just finished his latest series, a set of empirical sociological experiments in which he finds out how easily his never-ending supply of willing volunteers can be manipulated. The series, called The Experiments, started last night with The Assassin, in which Brown used hypnosis to try to programme an unwitting participant to kill a major UK celebrity. The second episode, The Gameshow, is partly inspired by his distaste for mob culture. he feels it has particular relevance after the riots. The idea for this episode came to him after a friend of his attended an X Factor audition. “…and a girl with Down’s syndrome came out and the audience were just booing and taking the piss – stuff you would never do. And yet, suddenly, when there’s a big crowd of people, that behaviour comes out.” Pivotal in the programme is “a guy who is being secretly filmed; he is a genuine unwitting participant. And the audience are making decisions about what happens to this guy. He is going about his normal life and the audience have a choice; either they can make a nice decision or a nasty decision, and we’d create these stunts.” Brown’s psychological expertise told him that the mob would be included to take the nastier route: “Which is exactly what happened.”
Whatever happened to Matt, by the way? We left him at the end of Hero planning to chuck in his boring clerical job to be a policeman. Matt, Brown tells me, is retraining as a teach. And “he’s moved in with his girlfriend… sorted himself out – I helped him out with that.”
Helped him how? “The financial side of that,” comes the unexpected answer.
Is it usual for television presenters to lend or give money to former volunteers on their shows? “I’ve always had a huge duty of care,” is his explanation. It is also obvious that he relates to Matt’s insularity. We will understand why when we look at his own past.
His younger self cuts a slightly heartbreaking figure; a solitary boy beset by all sorts of nervous ticks. He still can’t get rid of what he calls his “noddy thing” (he nods in a ticky way fairly frequently), but as a child he sniffed, twitched, strained compulsively. “My parents were just despairing; ‘Why do you have to do it?’ “Were they worried? “Well, it can be quite antisocial” The sniffing could be quite loud.” He remembers as a teenager being taken to see Alfred Brendel perform. “And – o God! I remember just piercing the atmosphere with proper kind of schrnggghhh!” He impersonates a noisy sniff” …these proper kind of big sniffs I had to do. Imagine having to sit next to someone who does that! Having to sit next to someone who breathes heavily is annoying enough. It’s awful.”
“I was very precocious and very charming. I wasn’t a weird kid, but my brother’s nine years younger than me and I had a long period on my own. I was quite sort of bright at school and sort of precocious. I think that’s a common thread with other kids that are a bit ticky, it just passes.”
The need to impress other people, however, did not pass for ages. Nor did the weakness for dodgy clothing: “I was wearing cloaks and that sort of things.” A part of him still hankers after the old Brown, who used to channel “a bad Spandau Ballet sort of gay leisure pirates aesthetic”. And, to his surprise, the new Brown has recently found himself wearing cravats in homage to the old, insecure, exhibitionistic Brown, who read law and German at Bristol but was diverted by magic. He was doing a gig a week; that was his life. “I was living the lifestyle of a …I dunno …a flaneur and I miss that a bit.” A longstanding urge for a bejewelled cane has also resurfaced of late.
A commissioning editor spotted him doing his magic in Bristol and asked him to do something for TV. From then on he worked very hard for about a decade. For most of that time he was also single, of non-specific sexuality. “I was Christian for many years and it did touch on that ‘healing homosexuals within’ thing. I think you can easily look for things, anything to encourage the idea that it’s going to pass. So that was most of my twenties. And I think part of the elaborately maintained solitary poetic existence was a bit of a way of just avoiding the whole question.”
Why avoid it? “The religious thing and that slight potential that it could be cured as well. I read a couple of the books – it all kind of made sense. There are undoubtedly some psychological patterns involved and I was like: ‘Yeah, oh yeah! That story of not getting on well with my father and then sort of feeling a bit alienated from other boys at school and not quite fitting in.’ There are these sort of patterns but whether they exist because you are gay or whether they make you gay, this is the big point.”
Even his close friends didn’t know whether he was gay or straight and they didn’t ask him. “If you present an austere or eccentric personality, it’s easy for people to think: ‘You just don’t have that sort of conversation with him: he’s too richly fascinatingly different from the rest of us.'”
Didn’t he want a relationship? “I was pretty much celibate and hoping it would pass. It was really like a dark cloud …something I was a bit embarrassed about, or not sure about, so always hoping it isn’t going to be the case …and then by the time you realise it is, then it’s sort of like: ‘Uuuurgh.’ You get into a routine of not talking about it, and that can become part of your life.”
Magic, he says, “is the quickest, most fraudulent route to impressing people and normally born out of a lack of social skills. You’re hiding behind it. I don’t like showing people tricks in real life now, whereas I used to have to do it all the time. I grew out of it. I think that’s it. I think part of it is becoming a bit famous and well known and that takes care of it. You don’t have to try to be impressive any more.”
Eventually, at a strategically organised dinner party, he met the man he is with now (he is only Brown’s third boyfriend). They have been together for five years. For his 30th birthday Brown is taking him to South America. “I think our relationship seems to be about making each other piss ourselves with laughter. I never thought that’s what a relationship would be.”
The future? The other day Trevor Nunn vaguely punted a Prospero role and he can imagine himself doing some acting. But “without sounding sort of horrendous, I’ve always felt that ultimately my motives are actually quite selfish. I’ve never had any ambition with work. When I think about what I want to be doing, I always have this slightly camp holiday experience in my head: Hannibal Lecter say in some piazza somewhere drinking wine and relaxing somewhere.”
“Hannibal Lecter. That’s a weird role model,” I say.
He laughs. “I think it’s that kind of aesthete. I think that’s the bubbling drive underneath.”
I don’t think Derren Brown is weird, although I’d like to talk to him some more about morality of what he does. He started out a magician, now he’s turning into a sociologist – only his volunteers are not anonymous. They are almost always revealed to be very human, in ways that most of us wish we were not.