Magic: With a new series and national live tour, the mysterious mind-bender who brought Russian Roulette to prime time is more popular than ever. But can we really trust Derren Brown? Vicky Allan looked deep into his eyes to try and find out Derren Brown has had few relationships. “I do like my own company. I’ve lived on my own forever. I’m very kind of territorial, very independent and very intolerant.” He lives in London with a parrot called Figaro – who “shits on my shoulder, shits, in fact, everywhere” – and a taxidermy collection. Just recently, he tells me, he has bought a “beautiful, amazing big peacock”.
“But it doesn’t attract, having a flat full of stuffed animals.” I tell him I don’t think it would make much difference – maybe, in fact, on the dating market, it could be a distinctive selling point: single, white mind-reader with dead feathered friends. I have, I confess, a stuffed chicken myself.
“With Paxo?” he asks.
“No. Proper taxidermy.”
It is, of course, possible to make it seem like Derren Brown – here, nominally, to talk about his new Channel 4 series Trick Of The Mind – is really quite strange. It’s the image he likes to promote; it’s expected . Our photographer, twitchy and nervy before we meet Brown, tells me that when he last worked with him “ [Brown] started doing some very odd things … he freaks me out.” So I’m waiting for the trick when I meet the the magician, mentalist and psychological illusionist, as he is variously called. I’m on alert. But it doesn’t come. Even when I play the tape back.
Brown doesn’t hypnotise me, nor does he do the coin trick where he guesses repeatedly which hand you have it in, nor does he fool the waitress into thinking he’s already paid the bill . In fact, the only disconcerting moment is on the way to the Oxford café where we’re doing the interview, when a bunch of kids start pointing. “It’s Derren Brown,” one of them shouts loudly. “Just keep walking, ” Brown says, head down.
“Generally, in real life,” he tells me, “it’s very difficult to connect with anyone at all if I’m doing magic and psychological tricks. So I don’t play up to it. I just switch off. I never talk about it with people, because it does make people feel self-conscious.”
Actually, given his reputation he seems relatively rather normal: more giggling school kid than unblinking darkly Gothic figure of mystery. In the past, I suspect, he’s exaggerated the oddity, but now, perhaps with last October’s Russian Roulette stunt behind him and fame more secured, he’s happy to sit back and be a little bit more bloke-next-door. It’s as if everything he played up in the past, he’s playing down now: like his claim that as a child he was an accomplished liar. “It wasn’t so much lies,” he says. “It was more tall stories.”
He’s referring to the tales he would tell to his parents about how, for example, a schoolfriend brought his pet pig into school and it did tricks. “I just thought that would be really cool if that did happen. So if I tell the story to my parents, it kind of did happen. Suddenly the experience of that story is suddenly real even if the story isn’t. I’ve never really thought about it before but there is a parallel with magic. Because what magicians do breaks down to all sorts of techniques that aren’t magical at all. But it’s not about that, it’s about the experience that the person has of it. Magic is real if you take it as the experience the spectator or the participant has. So yeah maybe it was rooted in this telling tall stories.”
Brown does portraits in his spare time, strange, distorting caricatures of celebrities and magicians that look like photos gone through a stretch and morph, or a gathering in a hall of crazy mirrors. His self-portrait says a lot. In semi-profile, eyes turned to the viewer, he appears a Tou louse-Lautrec-ian fellow with a devilish glint. In person or on TV he may seem serious, but in the end, he’s really just a bit wicked in a fairly harmless way. There’s just a hint of the night about him.
“It’s a very childish thing, magic. But it’s also a nicely-directed mischief because what it’s about is taking people to a place where they are caught up in a very satisfying conflict. An intellectual conundrum where they’re trying to make sense of something they can’t quite understand.”
In the first episode of his latest series, as he plays a neatly satisfying card-trick on Stephen Fry, he mentions that magic appeals to “creative, isolated teenagers”. “Revenge of the nerd,” replies Fry. Even at 32, Brown still has a little of the teenage nerd in him. He likes to theorise. He’s an obsessive debunker: gobbling up and spitting out the objects of our credibility from New Age psychics to Christianity. “All the psychological stuff is much more interesting than the new age guff about psychic ability.” In his teens he was a fundamentalist Christian, but gave that up while at university, when he started getting into hynotism and discovered that all his fellow Christians were “up in arms”.
“I just thought if God created us, then the pinnacle of his creation is our minds, so why is talking about the unconscious such a problem?” Soon he was a confirmed atheist. He trained in hypnotherapy and went on a cultish Neuro Linguistic Programming course. “It’s very evangelical. It’s sort of like a religion, so it doesn’t stand up to any sort of challenging really. And the moment you start talking about testing, they’ll all laugh and say something like, ‘Well, there’s no such thing as NLP.’ Which is all right, but it’s a multimillion dollar industry.
“I think,” he says, “there’s a very sceptical agenda behind what I do, but I didn’t want to set out and do a debunking show, because I don’t think anybody wants to hear that story. But I think there’s an implication in what I do that all these things are rubbish.”
The first show he ever did was a hypnosis act, performed at his student hall, while he was studying law. It “was dreadful”, went on too long, and his mum, a former model, ended up joining in just because she felt sorry for him. But still, he made up his mind this was what he wanted to do. “Hypnosis is like magic. It boils down to a lot of things but the result is sort of an unconscious playing along. It’s also about the way we become massively suggestible. Hypnosis is about getting people on a conveyor-belt of belief, believing that this process is working, without question. And you lose people along the way but the most suggestible stay with you. Any form of hypnosis or brainwashing is a kind of seduction. You’re not making somebody do something they don’t want to do. You’re just helping them want to do the thing that you want them to do.”
It was, however his Russian Roulette show last year – in which he guessed which barrel a bullet was in by “reading” the member of public who put the bullet in – that really made his name. Before that, Brown wasn’t so much small-time, as just regular-time, a quirky performer combining David Blaine-type street magic, with psychology.
“It’s interesting,” he says, “the shift from getting established, when there’s only ever nice things said about you, to being established and, of course, everyone can take a pop at you . Obviously Russian Roulette was a publicity stunt. It was always going to be controversial. It was the reason for doing it. If it didn’t have that edge to it, it wouldn’t have been so interesting.”
The response was fierce: a flurry of letters and articles condemning his irresponsibility . “The reaction beforehand was absolutely part of it. I imagined that would come out. Three days before, I was on the phone to my publicist saying, ‘ there’s nothing in the paper. We should stoke up some controversy.’ We never did. It came out at the last minute.”
I mention the fact that the Jersey police issued a statement saying he’d applied to bring blanks into the country. “That’s technically true. We had to apply to bring blanks into the country because with any sort of camera work if there’s a live bullet everyone has to leave the room. But the frustrating and kind of ironic part of it was that even if it had been a blank that wouldn’t have made it any less dangerous. You shoot a blank next to your head and it will still kill you.”
Brown performed his trick around the same time as Blaine came out of his box. They are, it turns out, friends. They “hook up” . He observes the code between fellow practitioners when I ask him about Blaine’s starvation stunt. “As far as I know he did it for real. He rang me up a few days before he went in. We spoke about it on the phone. We’ve got mutual friends as well, and as far as we all knew, he was doing it for real. So he either wasn’t and did a very good job of convincing us or he did do it for real.”
Both stunts appear to fall in with a long tradition of magic. It’s not so far, perhaps, from French magician Robert-Houdin’s trick in which, when challenged to a real-life duel, he switched bullets and appeared to catch a bullet in his mouth. Yet, both suggest that they belong to another realm: in Blaine’s case that of physical endurance, in Brown’s simple powers of psychological observance. Brown is not letting on how he did it. Though he does put just another twist in his tall tale. “And also,” he says, “at another level, it’s like, well, I’m a magician, what’s the big deal?”