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DERREN BROWN INTERVIEWS: THE GUARDIAN AND THE TIMES

Posted in Derren Brown News

Posted by Derren Brown News October 18, 2010 at 11:13 am

The Guardian:

Derren Brown: ‘I’m being honest about my dishonesty’
image

I wasn’t sure what to expect from a book by Derren Brown, but it certainly wasn’t the great waves of self-loathing that roll out of its pages. Opening with the line, “I loathed myself again,” Confessions of a Conjuror expands into a merciless prosecution of the author’s shortcomings – “my own excruciating personality as a young magician,” the occasional “revolting burst of intellectual smugness”, and his “hateful” failure to sparkle socially in the presence of larger personalities. He recalls taking stock of himself at 30, and finding himself “full of nonsense, preposterous in many ways”. To this day, he admits that something as simple as mislaying a pen in his “monstrous London uber-pad” can trigger a whole new wave of furious self-hatred.

Brown is also, his book reveals, prone to a strange affliction of tics, rituals and other patterns of obsessive behaviour, which began in childhood with a compulsion to knock his knees together, and didn’t end there. He spent his teenage years sniffing loudly and violently, bound by a self-imposed injunction to avoid the top step of any flight of stairs, and recalls experiencing the irresistible urge, while learning to drive at 18, to “close my eyes for as long as I could get away with it”. At 39, the problem is now pretty much under control, confined to just the one tic – an occasional urge to nod his head repeatedly – although lately he has noticed that, when no one is looking, he likes to swipe a credit card down the crack in lift doors.

The author doesn’t sound at all like the coolly omnipotent, slightly cocky character we have grown used to. For a decade now, Brown has been entertaining audiences with a blend of hypnotism, magic, illusion, mind games and elaborately ambitious stunts. In 2003 he memorably appeared to play russian roulette on live TV, and last year caused even more consternation by appearing to guess the winning lottery numbers. Critics call him a fraud – an old-fashioned illusionist masquerading as a master of psychology, who passes off trickery as mind reading – but the televised stunts attract viewers in their millions, while his live stage shows sell out nationwide to fans thrilled by the audacity of his intrigue.

So I wonder which Brown I’m about to meet when I arrive at his central London apartment. The answer, it turns out, is neither of them.

The man who opens the door doesn’t even look like Derren Brown. He is much more casually scruffy and unremarkable than his stage persona – less ginger, less theatrical, less pointy-looking – with the innocuous sort of face that blends effortlessly into crowds. But there is no trace of the self-loathing oddball either; on the contrary, he seems like someone unusually at ease with himself, light-footed and comfortable, quick to laugh and instantly likable, to all appearances blithely untroubled by anything.

“I don’t play up to that guy off the TV,” he readily agrees, “because I wouldn’t particularly want to meet him in real life. That rather controlling sort of thing – I don’t think that’s a nice way of being with people, so I never for a second want to be that person. I think it’s important to be sort of nice.” He’s not very nice about himself, though, I say – not in his book, anyway. To my surprise, he looks taken aback.

“Really? Oh. That must just be my tone. In terms of self-esteem and confidence I think I’m generally quite healthy.” He pauses for a moment to consider. The book, he ponders – which is not so much an autobiography as a “semi autobiographical whimsy” – is loosely structured around a time in the 90s when he worked as a performing magician in a restaurant. “Which is an absolutely excruciating job. You’re going up to a group of people at the table who are happily eating, and going ‘I’m the magician!’. I mean, you couldn’t sound like more of a wanker. And you’ve got to do it 50 times a night. So maybe the book is rooted in that feeling.”

Even so, I say, the self-criticism seems more pervasive than that. “But it’s nicer to read that than read someone being flattering about themselves, isn’t it?” he smiles. “I always look back on myself and cringe. Maybe it comes down to that . . . I feel I’ve learned so much about how to behave in the last 10 years, and I view everything before that as . . .” He tails off into a wince.

“As I started to become known, well you learn a way of behaving. I think people either go one route of becoming real wankers [when they become famous], or they go another route that Stephen Fry and David Tennant embody, just being incredibly lovely. I think it comes down to whether you like to be liked or not. Because you suddenly become aware that what everybody asks when someone meets someone famous is, ‘What were they like?'”

“So for me, if I meet someone in the back of a cab, or chat to someone in a shop for a minute, and I’m in a bad mood – well that’s it for the rest of their life, they’ll say ‘Oh I’ve met him and he’s horrible.’ And that’s horrible!” Any sort of criticism upsets him terribly; it only takes a negative tweet or blog to ruin his whole weekend. “And it’s easy for other people to go, ‘Oh fuck ’em, what do they know, they’re probably just morbidly obese 15-year-olds with nothing better to do.’ But it feels like becoming well-known has been like a little self-improvement course for me.”

By Brown’s own account, before he became famous he used to be an awful show-off. “In my 20s, I just had to be the centre of attention all the time. I was quite eccentric.” The son of a swimming coach and a model, and an only child until the age of nine, he describes his childhood self as rather precocious, but not very good at fitting into the sporty private school he attended in Croydon. Largely ostracised by his peers, he became, of all things, a teenage evangelical Christian, and it wasn’t until university in Bristol that he discovered a personality of sorts, through learning hypnotism.

“I thought it was fascinating, and I enjoyed the attention I was getting – and yes, the power. And the posturing of it, I quite enjoyed being that guy. Then after that my drive and focus and love shifted to magic; the love was in coming up with new tricks and perfecting them. But I had no ambition, really; my life was doing nothing, maybe a couple of magic gigs a week at most, and then just pottering around in Bristol. I had no sense of ‘Gotta work hard to be famous.’ Never have done, and still don’t.”

Left to his own devices, he thinks he could quite easily still be doing card tricks in Bristol. But out of the blue in 1999 he got a call from a television producer interested in making a new kind of show. His early programmes on Channel 4 – Mind Control – were well received, but it was the televised russian roulette in 2003 that turned him into a national phenomenon. Since then he has worked non-stop, become a household name, and although he won’t discuss money, he must by now be a very rich man.

Yet everything about his manner is so soothingly sweet and self-effacingly normal that if we hadn’t met at his home I’d scarcely have believed he was really Brown. His flat, however, is sensationally weird – part Mayfair gentleman’s club, part Victorian freak show, with every room a freaky spectacle crammed with taxidermy and esoterica, lined with portraits and heavily bound books. There’s no sign of his boyfriend, a graphic designer with whom he lives, but in the loo I come across a life-size model of Matt Lucas’s severed head in a glass case.

Surrounded by all his stuffed giraffes and snakes’ skeletons, Brown looks hilariously incongruous. He talks easily and unselfconsciously, is never defensive but always relaxed and engaged, and seems as unlike the spooky manipulator we see on TV as the ruthless self-critic in his book. Yet no matter how hard I try, I can’t get him to say why he does what he does, or what he loves about it. “It’s just sort of what I’m doing, I suppose,” he offers vaguely. “I have no ambition. And I’m not a workaholic. The job is now just sort of what I do.”

Before meeting Brown, I’d had an idea about where all the cringing in Confessions of a Conjuror might come from. In it he writes, “The potential for self-loathing comes from the unavoidable problem that one is engaging in a childish, fraudulent activity.” He goes on, “Magic has both feet planted in cheap vaudeville and childish posturing; in dishonesty and therefore not in art. The magician cheats and this truth runs cold through the craft’s bloodless veins.” The job of a performing magician is, “after all, just tricks”.

Brown is talking here about traditional magic – the smoke and mirrors and sleight of hand of a performer whose audience are willingly complicit in their own deception. It’s what he used to do for a living, and is why, he tells me, he tends to wince whenever he looks back on his earlier career. His genius has been to reinvent stage magic as a form of advanced psychology, in which he can just about plausibly claim to be drawing on genuine psychological techniques – the study of body language, the power of suggestion – rather than relying entirely on tricks, leaving the audience to try to work out which is which. As he says, “I like to engage people’s belief as well as ask them to suspend their disbelief.”

But I would guess that, in fact, most of what he does depends more on trickery than clever psychology. Only three people know how he does his stunts; Channel 4, he grins, “have no idea”. The controversy around his russian roulette stunt focused on whether or not he was using live bullets – but I suspect this was neither here nor there, as he knew perfectly well which chamber was loaded. “Well, at the end of the day it was a piece of live entertainment and I knew what I was doing,” is all he will say. “But you know, the reality is that I don’t like saying how it was done, any more than saying how anything else is done. If I was utterly honest about everything then it wouldn’t be very entertaining. Part of what keeps it fresh and interesting to me is finding new ways to have your cake and eat it at times.”

He’s right, of course; it wouldn’t be very entertaining. But it’s not clear to me that what he does is really so different from the old conjuring tricks that now make him cringe, and I wonder if that’s why, when he writes about himself, he still sounds so prone to self-disgust – even if he doesn’t intend to, or even perhaps realise. In the end, I ask, what is really the difference between old-fashioned magic and what he does now?

“That is a really valid and good question. With all the stuff I do it’s always about getting the balance right. The big difference is, I’m being honest about my dishonesty and saying don’t take what I do as gospel, I am dishonest.” Science writer Simon Singh accused him of dishonesty by overselling his psychological powers when he first started out, and Brown concedes that Singh might have had a point.

“I did find it a little bit of a joyless response at the time. He focused on the stuff that was tricks, but there was plenty of other stuff in the area of suggestion and hypnosis, and it would be wrong to say that was just a conjuring trick. To me, it’s not about, ‘Yes I have this skill or that skill’, it’s just about a form of entertainment that’s hopefully engaging and gets people asking questions. Some of it’s real, and some of it’s not, some of it looks like a magic trick and it’s using genuine psychological techniques, and vice versa.

“But I think, though, that when I started off my TV career I was overstating the case, overstating my skills. I thought there’ll only be one show, there’ll never be a repeat, so I might as well go for it. But as I became better-known, I felt there were two things really. One is a moral responsibility to the public to be honest, and to find out what level of honesty is right for me as an entertainer, when I’m kind of a magician, so there’s a licence to deceive but at the same time – well, it’s complicated. And the other thing was I didn’t want to give myself an ulcer. Psychics who spend their careers being ‘psychic’, well they’re living a lie, and I didn’t want to be that guy doing that. I didn’t want to be constantly being a fraud. I just didn’t want to be that guy, it’s not me.”

It’s only afterwards that I realise how often he chooses to draw the distinction between himself and bogus psychics – when that’s not really the point at issue. The better comparison would be with old-fashioned magicians, who make no more claim to bogus supernatural powers than Brown does, but never seriously suggest that they aren’t using tricks. Could he, I ask, have created a successful TV career deploying no trickery at all, relying on psychological skills alone? He pauses for a moment, then smiles. “Er, I think it would be just less entertaining.”

The really odd thing is that in all the time I was with him, not one of his answers seemed less than satisfactory. Something about his voice is extra- ordinarily persuasive, and in his presence his whole manner is so beguilingly lovely that it’s not until I listen to the tape afterwards that I realise, to my surprise, how often he sidesteps a question, while never giving the impression of being evasive. I still have no idea if he’s really riddled with self-contempt, or secretly rather pleased with himself, and have even less of a clue as to what drives him. And yet, in his company he had seemed like the most forthcoming of interviewees.

I’m still not quite sure why that happened. But when Brown claims, as he does, to draw more on his power to inspire suggestibility in others than on old-fashioned trickery, I’m now rather more inclined to believe him.

Above interview from The Guardian

The Times:

The Times interview can be found by clicking here.

COMMENTS
October 18, 2010 at 11:36 am
Pete says:

I think the Times woman’s comment about you making tea for the photographer as well as her says much more about her then you.


October 18, 2010 at 11:36 am
Andrew says:

very interesting indeed!
and how did I miss the release of a new book?! Ah well, order placed on Amazon!


October 18, 2010 at 11:40 am
MC says:

Loved the bit about sidestepping! haha!


October 18, 2010 at 11:42 am
Cathy says:

Thank you for posting the Times article – I refuse to buy newpapers but really wanted to read it! Cx


October 18, 2010 at 11:44 am
Ken says:

Great interview well written


October 18, 2010 at 11:50 am
Timi says:

Derren,

This article made me laugh harder than I had laughed in a long time. It is good to hear that your book is being met with some good reviews and that you are still the cheeky bastard that you were when I last saw your live performances on the inter-webs.

If you ever EVER do anything in the States, please for the love of all things sacred, tell me. I’ll probably buy out the place myself I’ll be so happy.


October 18, 2010 at 12:39 pm
Jenni says:

Derren, I think you’re utterly charming. Simple as that.


October 18, 2010 at 1:25 pm
Rose says:

Is it wrong to say I enjoyed reading thAt interview more than I do the book (so far). Perhaps reading the inner thoughts of a self loathing and self depricating man is difficult and I much prefer the relaxed and at ease version of derren that met the interviewer. But indeed a very well written and insightful interview – all the questions I would love to solve, albeit unsatisfactory answers in the end… But perhaps, as the writer suggests, the lack of answers is itself telling.


October 18, 2010 at 1:30 pm
Dan hicks says:

Very interesting article. Really enjoyed the read. And good for you Derren, I imagine you still have your feet firmly on the ground.


October 18, 2010 at 1:33 pm

I always enjoy reading new interviews with Derren cos it’s always lovely to learn a little bit more about Derren Brown the man instead of Derren Brown the performer. I think some people do mix the two up at times, so it’s nice to read about the real DB. 🙂

Both are really nice, insightful interviews and as always, Derren comes across as kind & affable to the interviewer & the reader alike. A sentiment I echo having met Derren a few times myself. A lovely man and a perfect gentleman.

LC x


October 18, 2010 at 2:04 pm
Daniel says:

You only dodge the top step? Pah! I’ve got this thing where I have to take steps 3 at a time, regardless of stair size-buggers up the stitching in my trousers and people look at me like I’m a weirdo-you get up stairs fast though, and it keeps you limber, so I think I’m going to keep it.


October 18, 2010 at 2:19 pm

Interesting that the Guardian writer really wants to put you in the “just a magician” camp. Have they not seen the “tricks” where you clearly ARE using things like subliminal messages to get people to do or say something interesting? From the shows I’ve seen, it seems that psychology is far more important to your act than sleight of hand; brain power is more important than manual dexterity. I think that is what sets you apart from old fashioned “magicians”, and it probably frightens the average broadsheet writer/reader.


October 18, 2010 at 3:18 pm
Mark Vent says:

I just finished reading the book yesterday night – It is certainly not your ordinary autobiography – however I very much recognise myself in a lot of what Derren writes.

Except to say I was the picked on kid – but I still ended up “in IT” 😛

A very lovely, and well written, insight into a very lovely man.

M. x


October 18, 2010 at 4:11 pm

Nice piece, but something’s missing. It’s that his writing is hilarious. I love magic and mental muddling and the coffee freshness DB brings to it all, but I also love reading stuff that makes me laugh and few writers make me laugh so much.

Tricks of the Mind was a real treat because I’d no idea it would be funny. I defy anyone to read the stuff about a speed reading class and not laugh. Or about the time he defeated a Welsh thug with a lecture on Spanish walls. And the readers letters at the end had me eating my hand.

I’m reading Conjuror and one of the main reasons for buying it was I knew it’d be an acutely-observed hoot. And yes, with a nod to Hugh Grant and Amazon and much more, it is.

So just for the record, he is, among many other things, a fricking hilarious writer. Fact


October 18, 2010 at 6:33 pm
Sardi says:

As always it is great to gain a little more insight into Derren’s personality and good to see how consistent with his own statements much of it is.
On a side note (and this may well have been commented on before), I checked on the meaning of the name Abeo. In Latin it means : “to go away, retire, depart from life, die”, “to digress, change, vanish, disappear”, “to pass, to have been”.
However, there’s also the African Girl’s name Abeo which means : “come to bring happiness”.

Interesting 🙂

Msg from Abeo: Horah, someone found both meanings! 🙂


October 18, 2010 at 7:08 pm
Raymond says:

Great article of the man who’s one of my biggest inspirations.

It’s weird that people see you as you are on stage! For some reason it never sinks in that when you are performing you are NEVER yourself. Not even a professor in a lecture is.

Derren’s TV persona is so different than his stage persona (I like his cheeky stage persona more than the omniscience “psychology guru” on TV frankly). In Hero I would’ve loved to smack Derren for being so smuck and cruel (well that’s what the TV shows us); yet it entertained my shoes off. That;s what it’s about.

And I think self-loathing is a trademark of an excellent performer so loath away Derren!
I wonder whether Andy Nyman loathes himself too?! Can we have a follow up article on The Nyman please!


October 18, 2010 at 7:53 pm
Lee says:

Interesting interview, sort of not really answering any questions but appearing to be very informative – something i suspect you get used to doing very early on im sure – with lots of “how did you do that” type questions to dodge or deflect.

Going to buy the book anyway – loved the Tricks of the Mind book and an autobiographical styled wedge in my bookcase might be a novelty addition to the mountain of unusuals i already own 🙂


October 18, 2010 at 9:42 pm
ReliegiousMarie says:

Agrees with artysmokes: with all respect for old fashioned magicians… but a little less for the writer of this article fcourse.

Btw: Lshovely-looking-piccie!

x


October 18, 2010 at 10:58 pm
jibjib says:

Great interview/ article. Tried to perform a trick myself in front of people. Was SO nervous. I looked like an IDIOT when their faces were stone cold “so what?” Anybody who performs magic, or performs anything to people are admirable in my books


October 19, 2010 at 1:13 am
Nikola says:

Really interesting part in the Times interview regarding Derren’s disappointment with “The Events”.

I was genuinely pleased to hear it, as it’s been the only time I thought he’d lost it and really taken advantage of the audiences by treating them as idiots.

“Hero” was a huge improvement and suggested “Events” was a glitch in what has been an otherwise fantastic series of shows and performances.

Massively looking forward to Svengali next year…


October 19, 2010 at 5:07 am
Pusher says:

“a life-size model of Matt Lucas’s severed head in a glass case”

Um…pardon? HAHAHA! And I thought the stuff laying around in my house was odd…


October 19, 2010 at 8:53 am
Berber Anna says:

Raymond: Interesting way to look at it. I’d never really seen much of a difference between the tv and stage persona. I kind of saw them as two sides of the same character, with the tv version a bit more ‘trickster-ish’ (was going to say develish, but that sort of implies evil intent when even the tv version only pokes at people to see what they’ll do, not to hurt them). The stage version is a bit more cheeky language-wise, and a bit more vaudevillian and self-deprecating, but they never struck me as distinctly different characters.

Of course they ARE characters, it’s an act ffs. That’s why I find it so strange when people say they’re scared to ask Derren for an autograph for fear he’ll read their minds. Do they also expect traditional magicians to pull rabbits out of their baseball caps?


October 19, 2010 at 11:12 am
Jules says:

I’d hardly consider myself obsessive, but if I’m a passenger in a car I quite often try to coincide twitching my toes with each lamp post as it goes by (preferably as it becomes parallel with my toes).

Good article, although she seems quite sceptical of how much someone could be able to manipulate a person’s (or even entire crowd’s) thoughts in a psychological manner, I mean it’s only been done for thousands of years, I’m sure there are a few good techniques out by now. Anyway, people are sceptical these days and tend to look for the trickery a lot more, very little is ‘new’, Derren is definitely NOT just the same old magician. Would be very interesting to read the book, is probably about time I drop the Sharp books anyway.


October 19, 2010 at 8:47 pm
Raymond says:

@Berber, I remember chatting to you briefly in the interval of An Evening of Wonders where you were the spectator as mindreader (you too a nose dive to the floor, remember?).

Your distinctions sum the two characters up very well. The TV Derren would not do well on stage, I think, nobody would dare to come on stage.
I like Derren’s stage persona so much more.

The Events were indeed a smutch on Derren’s reputation (though there were some very clever effects in there).

I am amazed though that Derren, Andy and Anthony Owen can still come up with great new effects which are entertaining after a whole decade! So they created a lasting persona.


October 20, 2010 at 9:01 am
Berber Anna says:

Raymond, were you the Dutch guy I talked to on my way to the foyer? I remember that 🙂 (and the ‘nose dive’ was lots of fun — as my friend noticed, I managed to gracefully slump to the floor without letting my skirt do a Marilyn Monroe — that’s hypnosis for you! 😛 )

I like both sides of the character, but then I am a bit partial to trickstery evilness… The stage persona is a bit more ‘real’, I suppose you need that if you want your audience to cooperate.

The Events were all right — especially the sofa one — but it would’ve been nice if the actual proper ending to the 1st one had been shown (you can find lots of blogs of people who saw it at the taping if you google it, it was much better).


October 20, 2010 at 7:28 pm
Maisie says:

…..wheres the *PROPERTY OF DERREN* Goatee beard that my best freind urges to tuch every day….. I’ve said too much…..


October 21, 2010 at 4:26 am
tMaSa says:

tl;dr


October 21, 2010 at 6:11 am
Gabriel says:

will eventually read it. Derren’s personality is a valuable and clearly a pioneer in his field. If somehow in a weird way people prove him as a fake, it would be a loss of inspiration for me.

Keep it up Derren, and keep us guessing.


October 21, 2010 at 8:34 pm
Raymond says:

I got the book in today and started reading it, even though I am already reading 3 books in a cooperative multitasking fashion.

It’s in some areas almost pathetic in self hatred but also very educational (at least for performers when you read between the lines) and at times you laugh so hard that I actually sprayed the tea (I had carefully sipped between my perched lips into my mouth to enjoy the aroma over my table).

It was about his absent minded game if-you-had-to-shag-one-person-on-the-street-who-would-it-be. I always thought it was just me having those neurotic-erotic thoughts.

I am glad tells us that Derren he hates blue ink, that was always a question what I wanted to ask him…

But seriously the book is entertaining! Go and read it!


October 23, 2010 at 10:42 am
Lucy says:

I’ve always picked up that self-loathing off Derren on TV. I get the same feeling with Stephen Fry and that orange bloke who sells antiques.

People like that who are almost too clever to even have a normal conversation with an interviewer without going into the future and not being able to answer questions about themselves, I’d probably do the same thing.

I remember him talking about someone hitting him in the back of the head and being able to count really quickly as a result, things like that I think, you get these strange intuitions that relate to stress or emotional pain.

x


October 23, 2010 at 11:36 pm
ReliegiousMary says:

While there might be some truth in what you say @lucy, …lol, really – thát´s nothing – But If you would manage to poke your index finger shortly into Derrens nose, he´ll start answering all questions in Japanese

🙂
x