Doing an interview with someone who can’t talk freely about their latest project can be problematic. Especially, if you’re interviewing them about, um, their latest project. But when the person being interviewed is Derren Brown, the extraordinary psychological illusionist, you have to accept that normal rules don’t apply. You can also be sure that, when the series does come along, you’ll spend much of it with your jaw on the floor. This is the man who has done much to make the world of magic and illusions cool again, following the hackneyed routines of a generation of TV magicians in ill-fitting brown velvet suits.
Here, Derren Brown reveals (a little) about his new series, and explains why it will have viewers stuck to their seats. Literally.
Your new series is called The Events. What’s the concept?
The last load of TV work has been almost mini-dramas based around participants – Trick or Treat was always someone else’s story. Or it was TV specials of the stage shows that I’ve done. I wanted to do something a bit different for this series, to come up with something fresh. I wanted to go back more to the performance-related stuff, back to the roots of what I do.
The series is based on the idea of performing for a audience, and doing quite high-concept stunts in each episode. So the series is four one-hour episodes, and each one of those hours is very multi-layered. There are some elements that are pre-recorded, some elements of the programme are live, some elements are with an audience in a theatre, and they all lead to a big single event in each episode. It’s quite ambitious and potentially a career breaker.
Much of the series is still clouded in secrecy. I’m told you’d have to brainwash me if you told me about the first programme.
I’d have to send you off to a deserted island till after they have gone out and your family too.
Right. Let’s try and avoid that eventuality. What can you reveal about the first programme?
Over the last year I’ve been writing a lot of erotic poetry, and I’ll be reciting that, live, into the camera, for between ten and twelve hours.
Nice. You’re not actually going to reveal anything, are you?
No. Unfortunately, if it got out beforehand, we’d probably be stopped from doing it.
Okay. Maybe you can tell us more about the second Event. I hear you’re going to have people stuck to their sofas.
Yes. The second show is a piece of media which will be played to the viewing nation, that will have the effect of rendering them immobile. Not all of them, but it will basically stick a lot of people to their seats. It’s safe, it won’t work on everybody, but it’s applying what I do one on one with people on stage and turning it into a piece of technology that can then be broadcast – and it has never been done before.
It’s just a cheap way of maintaining viewing figures, isn’t it?
Well…nobody will be able to move away from their telly, so they’ll have to watch!
Do you think people will be freaked out, if they’re suddenly unable to get off their sofas?
I think there’ll be quite a wide range of responses. I’m sort of experimenting with mass influence and suggestion in the current live show that I’m doing, and this idea came from that work. It’s perfectly safe, though. People will be able to call into the show – we’ll be telling people to keep their phones within reach – and I’ll be talking to some of those people during the show, so I’ll be able to find out how viewers have reacted.
Reassure me that you’re not then going to leave people stuck to their sofas forever.
No, they won’t be. If their TV happened to break, or I died suddenly, after a few minutes people would be able to stand up again.
The Events 3 is entitled How to Fool the CIA. What’s that about?
There was a sort of psychic arms race which ran alongside the Cold War, which we are all sort of dimly aware of from the CIA conspiracy theories, and work like Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats. It’s playing on that.
There’s one particular area, which is remote viewing, where things can be supposedly viewed and described even though they remain hidden. So a remote viewer, as some believe the CIA were using, would be able to view a document in Russia while sitting in Washington. It continues to this day. We have one of the world’s best remote viewers on the show, demonstrating it.
It’s an interesting area for me, because obviously I’m sceptical of anything psychic, and so what I’m then going to do isn’t psychic but it plays on a similar theme. There will be a large, nationwide interactive remote-viewing experiment, to see if the nation can see something that is hidden from view. So everyone will be at home drawing what they think the hidden object looks like. If it works, it won’t be proof of psychic ability, because the methods I’m using won’t be psychic. We’re just trying to do stuff that hasn’t been done before, and this is certainly the first of its kind.
There will be layers to it and there will be an online element to it, so people will be able to do this in the build-up to the show on the website. And all of the results will be collated. We’ll also have people there with us trying to do the same thing, it won’t just be viewers at home.
There’s a lot that could go wrong with these ideas. Mass participation, live transmission, it sounds like a recipe for disaster. Are you nervous about it?
Yeah, particularly the first Event that we’re doing. If that one goes wrong, that could be a career-breaker.
You’ve just finished a run of live shows. Is that what you enjoy the most, the buzz of performing live?
I do really enjoy the live stuff. But the forthcoming TV shows are, for me, the most exciting things yet, because they’re so layered and have so many different angles to them, including live.
Do you tailor your live/TV material very differently? Is the whole process different?
Yes, it certainly has a different feel to it. The live stuff is just two-and-a-half hours of me, so it has to be a bit different, a bit more humorous. It’s probably more fun than the TV stuff, which is more concentrated and darker.
Have you done stuff in your shows that manifestly hasn’t worked?
Yeah, of course. Whenever that happens on the TV show we tend to keep it in there. A lot of the stuff we do is never going to work 100 per cent on everybody. Some of the things, if they’re more like magic tricks, you know will work pretty much all the time, but if it’s got more of a psychological basis, it’ll depend more on the person you’re doing it with, and you can’t always rely on that. Part of the skill, particularly on stage, is handling people. On stage, I have no choice as to who comes up, it’s completely random, so then it’s about managing the situations. I might have to change the skills and methods I’m using depending on the person who I’m working with.
What defines that suggestibility in someone? How do you know who will make a good person to work with and who will be less receptive?
Well, it’s not always suggestibility that I want. Sometimes, having someone who’s very sceptical and a real challenge is easier for me to work with because they become a lot more predictable. If you want someone to think of a letter of the alphabet and they’re really playing along and want it to work, it could be any one of 26 letters, whereas if someone says “All right, I’m thinking of one, I bet you can’t get it” you know it’s going to be Q or Z because they’re trying to catch you out. But when it is suggestibility I’m looking for, which is maybe half the time, then it’s an emotional openness I’m after. People who are generally open and can’t really hide their feelings very well tend to be good subjects.
You’re always at pains to point out that you don’t have any mysterious magical abilities, and you’ve worked very hard to do what you do. Does that essentially mean that, with the right amount of dedication, anyone could do what you do?
Yes, absolutely. I think being musical is a good parallel. Anybody can be musical, but not everybody will put in the work. When they’ve looked at what makes people musical, it’s 10,000 hours of practice. What appears to be a talent comes down to those 10,000 hours, but in order to put in those 10,000 hours you’ve got to have a lot of environmental things in place like having parents that are supportive, you’ve got to start seeing a piano teacher at the right age, and you’ve got to have the sort of personality that makes you obsessive enough to want to put in that kind of work. What I do is much the same. It’s taken a lot of work, but it’s nothing that is out of anybody’s reach at all.
Is there an element of what you do, being able to read people’s emotions and have an insight into what they’re thinking, that’s a curse?
I think, to be honest, what I’ve always done when I’m not working is just switch that off. I couldn’t go through my life being that guy on the TV. It would be no basis on which to have a normal conversation. So I think I switch it off so much, that the only times I would switch into that mode would be if it was going to be helpful. Talking to a friend who’s upset about something and knowing an effective way to help them with that, or if somebody’s trying to sell me something, and it helps me deal with that more effectively. But no, it isn’t a curse. I’ve found my way of dealing with it and giving it a role in my life.
So you don’t automatically know if a friend is lying to you?
I’m probably going to be more perceptive than the next person with those sorts of things, but that’s not something I really think about. That’s very low level stuff. We’re all quite good at knowing when our friends are lying to us anyway. It’s not the same as, say, some of the memory stuff I do in the show. That is quite intense, if I was going through life working at that level, I wouldn’t be able to function.
A lot of what you do involves hypnosis. You have a very good understanding of it. Does hypnotherapy work? You know, the Paul McKenna books that are meant to help people lose weight or sleep better?
That was the route I was originally going to go, using hypnotherapy as a therapeutic tool, before I decided that I enjoyed performing more. Some people swear by it, others say it has no effect on them at all. My gut instinct on it is that there’s nothing magical about it, either on stage or in a therapeutic situation. There’s nothing that happens under hypnosis that can’t happen normally. Someone eats an onion on stage thinking it’s a juicy apple, and it looks amazing, but in fact you can pick up an onion and, if you don’t think about it, you can eat it just fine. It’s the same with pain, if you don’t think about it you don’t feel it as much as if you’re concentrating on it. In a therapeutic situation, yes, you might be able to give up smoking or get over phobias, but I think that’s because for some people those changes are quite easy. The people that it works well on would probably have similar results if they simply had the support of a good and intuitive friend.
Whenever you are reviewed, the word that comes up again and again is “scary”. Why do you think people find what you do scary?
One of the reasons I switched from doing card trick magic into mentalist/psychological magic is because it’s more interesting. It’s more interesting to have your thoughts read than your card found. Depending on your feelings of control, that can either be a fascinating thing or a threatening thing. When I started out, I went around lots of tables in restaurants, and I tended to find that women would find it really intriguing, whereas guys would really find it a little bit threatening. I think some people just don’t like the idea of having someone in their head. I think that’s the flip side of why other people find it interesting.
Of all the things you’ve done, what are you proudest of?
If this series goes well, I think it would be top of the list. As of now, because those things haven’t been done yet, I’d probably say The Heist. That’s probably my favourite. But as I say, if these stunts for the new series go well, they’ll be right up there. They’re certainly ambitious enough.
(This interview originally appeared in Unreality Primetime)