Derren Brown is a mind-reading, bullet-dodging, cabbie-confounding magician, but he’s not the devil – he’s just a very tired boy…
Derren Brown is about to astound me. Britain’s most famous mind reader, magician, master of misdirection and a man whose book, Tricks of the Mind, tells you how to memorise whole reams of unrelated information, is in the kitchen of his north London flat, making himself a fresh coffee and me more tea.
Suddenly, he frowns and contemplates the two mugs, one red and one yellow. ‘Do you know,’ he says, ‘I can’t remember if you were the red one or the yellow one. Can you?’ To be fair, Brown, 38, is exhausted. He toils, he tells me, 51 weeks a year, putting together the television shows that have made him famous and doing the flabbergasting stage shows audiences so enjoy.
Today, he’s in the last stages of rehearsal for his new tour, and he’s run down – when we meet, he’s clutching a bottle of linctus and coughing. Although a book of his sharply observed caricatures was recently published, he hasn’t painted since before Christmas, nor even had the time for music – ‘It’s one of the first things that goes, isn’t it?’ he says in his fast, light, classless voice. ‘Sitting and listening to music.’ (He loves Rufus Wainwright and has drawers, presumably full of CDs, neatly labelled ‘Bach’, ‘Opera’, and ‘Chamber’.) And that workload is also why, when we talk about confidence tricks and his love of them and I ask him how he thinks Bernie Madoff pulled off his $50 billion scam, he says, ‘Who’s Bernie Madoff?’ He hasn’t read a newspaper in months.
Which isn’t to say that in performance he’s anything other than right on the button. This is the man who so deluded a London cabbie that the driver couldn’t find the London Eye even when he was next to it; the man who routinely tells interviewers the outré name of an old school friend they’re thinking of; the man who, in his last stage show, An Evening of Wonders (now on DVD), amazed – even freaked out – one member of the audience after another as, blindfolded, he told them their star sign, the pet name their husband called them, their PIN number, and, on several occasions, their marital prospects.
‘It happened quite a lot,’ Brown says. ‘Because people were thinking, “Is he ever going to propose to me?” So I’d sensitively have to say what they were thinking without putting the other person on the spot. And a couple of times it led to a proposal. Which was lovely.’
He’s sitting in the tenebrous gloom of his dark-wood apartment, with thousands of very serious-looking books on the walls: two sets of Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, lots of Steven Pinker, and The Gift of Fear among them. There’s something pretty fearful in the corner, too, next to a huge mirror: an aquarium in which a ferocious Dragon Moray is frolicking, its needle-sharp teeth and horned brows an apparent threat to an exquisite yellow fish that’s cruising by. ‘No,’ says Brown, ‘they get on all right. But there are a few very creepy ones that live in the rocks. I wanted a tank of monsters, as opposed to pretty fish.’
Online discussions of Brown’s work will typically be headed ‘Is Derren Brown evil/the devil?’. Yet you could see Brown’s whole shtick as a desire to lighten up (and benefit from) the Victorian penumbra that attaches to his trade – the whole farrago of levitation, ectoplasm and seances he is at pains to deride. He does not, he trumpets, ‘for one minute’ believe he has psychic powers: no, his wizardry is informed by close observation of human behaviour – hence those books on psychology.
Nevertheless he admits that ‘What I do is rooted in magic – it’s got a big foot planted firmly in conjuring, even if the other foot’s planted in psychological techniques. And I’m trying to balance a sense of mystery with an honesty – and that’s immediately a contradiction. But even if people don’t know exactly where I’m coming from, they know it’s a game. Still, there’s definitely the route where you’re… cheating, and the route where you’re using perfectly genuine psychological tricks. And the fun is to mix them up.’
He leans back in his leather chair. He’s shrugged off the brown pointy-toed boots he was wearing and slipped on a pair of black velvet slippers. His hair is thinning, his hands very mobile. He chuckles often. Chuckles, indeed, when he recalls one of his favourite television shows, The Heist, in which, via covert suggestion, he persuaded three previously law-abiding citizens to rob a security van. ‘You just have to change, bit by bit, what they want rather than tell them something that’s going to really jar with their values. I enjoyed it.’ He smiles. ‘It was shocking, actually, how easy it was.’
Easy? You wonder when you look at Brown about the toll the whole business takes. He has, for instance, a pronounced facial tic. It comes, he thinks, when he’s most self-conscious, which is not when he’s performing but in private. When talking to me, the tic first manifests itself when speaking about his family, and specifically about his brother, who’s nine years younger than him and works in food marketing: Brown’s mother modelled wedding dresses; his father coached swimming at Whitgift School, in London. Brown went there too and thence to Bristol University, to read German and law – the first in his family to go to university.
It was at Bristol that he had his first experience of showbiz glamour, as a deft exponent of the cha cha cha. (While on a gap year in Germany, he’d discovered that, among the young, ballroom dancing was hip – ‘in that funky Teutonic way’.) ‘Magnificent,’ he says, as he shows me the plastic statuette he won.
It was also at Bristol that he first attended a ‘hypnotic show’. It was enough to make him decide to be a hypnotist – something that greatly offended the evangelical Christian group he then hung out with. (He’s a non-believer and a sceptic, devoted to exposing soi-disant psychics as shams. Indeed, he made a memorable appearance on Richard Dawkins’s series Enemies of Reason, showing how ‘cold readers’ and other apparent clairvoyants do their scamming work. In his own book, Tricks of the Mind, he is reverential about Dawkins’s The God Delusion; in conversation, he seems a tad critical of the ‘vociferousness’ of the new atheists.)
Remarkably, his parents were unruffled by his decision to eschew a career in international law. ‘My mum said, “Oh, that sounds much more fun.” It was enough to make me think, “Maybe I should reconsider”.’ Instead, he stayed in Bristol, living ‘the lifestyle of a flâneur. Magic’s quite a solitary pursuit – a thing you can do for hours and hours, getting better and better. My twenties were spent doing that, sitting on my own, reading, having a couple of gigs a week, if that.’
Television came knocking in 2000. The timing was right: after aeons of the gentlemanly David Nixon and the cheeky chappie-ish Paul Daniels, magic had become darker, and hipper. ‘It’s [David] Blaine,’ says Brown, without hesitation. ‘Blaine changed it all. What he brought was that documentary feel, that raw edge. More importantly, he put the focus on the audience’s experiences. All the vox pops, the people freaking out and running away – that became what the show was about. And the nature of magic is all in the person’s experience. Whether the magician is using a highly complex sleight of hand or he’s just got two cards that are the same, it doesn’t matter: it’s how it’s sold and how magical it is for the person that matters.’
Brown has proved brilliant at that. It was his writing partner and fellow magician Andy Nyman, who was first approached by Channel 4, but he turned the gig down. ‘Derren was a far better choice than me,’ Nyman has said, ‘because he’s a genuinely odd bloke.’ What’s unsettling is his relative ordinariness. On stage, he’s commanding and super-speedy but he doesn’t have the zombified glitziness of a David Copperfield or the spookiness of a Doris Stokes – or the intensity of a David Blaine.
Indeed, friendly though he is with Blaine, he clearly finds him overwhelming. Consider this pensée, on a night out with Sacha Baron Cohen and Blaine: ‘If people have very big personalities, I find myself feeling I have nothing to offer. And David Blaine does inhabit a world which affects his performances – those big stunts aren’t my thing.’
Up to a point. What propelled Brown to the front pages was the notorious game of Russian roulette he staged, live, on television in 2003. There was, at the time, a lot of brouhaha about the danger of copycats (there were none) and the accusation that blank bullets were used. So: were they blanks, or were they live? ‘I don’t like giving final answers on these things. But no, it wasn’t blank bullets. But as to the exact ins and outs of what it was… I knew what I was doing. And it was, by its nature, a stunt designed to draw a lot of attention to myself. And it did.’
Which contradicts what he tells me several times: that he has no ambition, that he never yearned to be on television, that he’s a retiring fellow. He’s not the loner he was: his partner, a graphic designer, has lived with him for two and a bit years. (Brown is gay, and publicly ‘came out’ last year.) And he’s not, he says, ‘a miser’, but he’s not a spender. He isn’t a party animal, has only been properly drunk once (though there are 12 bottles of very good champagne in a fridge in the new flat) and he ‘doesn’t use expensive recreational drugs’.
He invokes his friend Stephen Fry on the effects of fans and fame – ‘wasps at a picnic’ – but thinks it ‘churlish to moan’. The fame does have its sinister aspects – there’s a woman who leaves fliers on car windscreens claiming that Brown hypnotised, then raped her; as well as its entertaining side – one man wanted to sue him ‘because I psychically assaulted him during the stage show and was invading his dreams every night’. It all clashes, though, with his idea of fun: ‘Though it sounds rather flaccid, I just enjoy sitting in a coffee shop and reading.’
Can ordinary people feel normal around Derren Brown? Do they think he’s reading their minds? ‘I don’t do it; I’m not controlling or menacing. But I’ve got a good friend, and I found out the first two times he met me, he was convinced I was playing funny little mind games. I thought, I wonder if that happens often.’ It does: a friend told me that, after having Brown work his magic on her at a party thrown by Ben Goldsmith, she and some chums took Brown for a drink. All went swimmingly until one tipsy girl kept asking him, ‘Well, can you? Can you tell what people are thinking when you have sex with them?’ Brown shimmied off, pronto.
To me he says that, ‘When I want to be persuasive or help someone who’s down, I know how to use those techniques. But I groan a little inside if I have to move into that way of thinking. Because it is a shift.’
A shift to what? To hypnosis? To seeing into the broiling innards of men’s minds? It’s important to remember that Brown is first and foremost a showman, as adept at using his ‘sceptical’ persona to deceive audiences as any great magician is at peddling illusion. Robert-Houdin, the 19th-century Frenchman known as ‘the father of modern magic’, once said that, ‘A magician is an actor playing a magician.’ What’s Brown’s view? ‘There is a bit of that, isn’t there? Because the belief you engender is a big part of it. You have to retain the mystery.’
He’s right; I watched An Evening of Wonders and was enthralled – and then I found, on the net, a mechanistic deconstruction of the sleight of hand and subterfuge that had gone into the show. It kinda spoils things. Still, as Brown says: ‘If you have the thinking of a magician, you have a love not just for the effect you create but also for the methods – and, you know, the simpler and bolder, the better.’
Sometimes, he’ll ‘anchor’ an idea or emotion he’s put in someone’s head by squeezing their arm as he does so; later, ‘when you want them to have the same idea, you’ll squeeze again.’ And the mere fact of coming up on stage in front of 2,000 people is, for most, disorienting; this makes people ripe for accepting his ‘guidance’ and susceptible to ‘confusion techniques’.
Here’s a Brownian example of ‘confusion techniques’. Once, late at night, he was confronted by a very aggressive drunk. His response to the drunk’s ‘What’re you f—ing looking at?’ was the magnificently tangential, ‘The wall outside my house isn’t four feet high.’ Brown takes the story on: ‘And he was, “What?’’ And I repeated, “The wall outside my house isn’t four feet high”.’ The man was utterly confounded, and wound up weeping and pouring out his tale of woe.
It is, says Brown, ‘a similar thing when they come up on stage.’ The trick, he says, is that ‘You’re saying something that totally makes sense but it’s out of context, so they feel bewildered. And you want to keep them in that bewildered state as long as you can, the idea being that you can give them a direct command and they’ll follow it because it’s a relief from the confusion. It’s like someone coming up to you in the street and saying, “It’s not 20 to four.” For a minute your brain’s going, “What? What?” and desperately trying to grab onto something that makes sense.’
It’s not 20 to four! Now everything does make sense! I’ve been waiting for Brown to work some mentalist magic on me: today, after all, is my birthday, and I must be giving off vibes any mind reader would tap into. And now I get it: when at 6.30pm I came into the lobby of Brown’s building, the doorman had said to me, for no apparent reason, ‘It’s not midday, you know,’ and as I looked at him, baffled, a hand had tapped me on the shoulder and there – there was Brown! Something, it’s clear, must be coming. So I say to Brown, ‘All right then, astonish me! Tell me what you can read about me.’
Brown looks at me. I steel myself. And he says: ‘Oh. We should have done this at the weekend when I haven’t been working all day. Umm. Umm. I… I… I should have come home earlier. I have to be in that zone, and I’m not.’ Then he smiles: ‘I should have forethought that, shouldn’t I?’
(This interview originally appeared in the Telegraph)