Derren Brown interview: ‘Maybe I was an eccentric. Part of it was me not dealing with my sexuality’
The Chris Blackhurst Interview: His tricks have wowed audiences for years, but in his latest show, Derren Brown reveals a little more about the man behind the magic
At the beginning of Derren Brown’s latest stage show, Infamous, the illusionist declares he’s gay, or as he puts it, “I’m a puff”.
There he is, in front of 2,000 people, the lights dimmed, having come on to rapturous applause, and, instead of launching straight into a magic trick, he opens up with a personal note.
When I saw him in Bristol last week, he quickly moved on to what the audience had come to see. But there were other slightly jarring moments – like when he made a stinging attack on homeopathy, saying baldly that it did not work, and when he alluded to being taunted at school because he was nerdy and not interested in girls.
I’d like to describe his performance, trick by trick, but he’s pleaded with me, as he does with his audience, not to do so for fear of spoiling the surprise for others. Suffice to say, the climax is spectacular.
Before then, we’ve been treated to genius memorising, unbelievable hypnotism, and plenty of manipulation, body-language reading, misdirection, and other subliminal crafts. This time, one gimmick to try and convince any sceptics he’s not using actors planted in the crowd, sees him throw a Frisbee from the stage. The person catching it is invited to participate in the next trick. To persuade them even more, sometimes the catcher is asked to chuck the Frisbee on again – and the person finally catching it is the selected one.
No good. I was in the gents during the interval and the bloke standing next to me said, apropos of nothing: “I reckon he’s a brilliant Frisbee chucker. He knows exactly where it’s going to land.”
The following day, I’m meeting Brown upstairs in a café. When I arrive, most of the tables are taken. There’s no sign of Brown but on one, there’s a pile of psychology textbooks (among them A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance and The Therapy of Desire), a grey, woollen flat cap, and a camera. Has he made himself invisible so that all remains are these few, scene-setting items? It must be him, but of Brown there is no sign.
Eventually, he does arrive. He was downstairs in the drinks queue and can’t understand why I did not spot him. But that’s one of the aspects of Brown, 43. His TV specials attract massive audiences; and every one of the 270 dates on his nationwide tour (it ends at the Hammersmith Apollo in London at the end of July) will sell out, as they did on his five previous tours.
Yet Brown remains a blurry, anonymous figure. He’s not a celebrity who, when he is not performing, still craves the spotlight.
In fact, for all his extrovert stage act, in person he is charmingly polite, personable and humble. Then I wonder, is this all fake – is he making me think like that, bending my mind, here, across this pine table?
“It was a funny show last night. Monday was terrific, but last night there were some projector issues. It was all part of the fun.”
He fixes me with a stare.
“So far, journalists reviewing it have been keeping quiet about what happens.”
He apologises for the books.
“I’m writing a book about happiness,” Brown explains.
Has he found it?
“I think so, yes, whatever it is.”
“It’s a word that is used a lot in relation to me. You have to come up with a title. ”
This tour is different.
“The first five all had a cinema template. But I think I’ve earned the licence to pull back. There’s a definite tonal shift – we decided to make it more about me, which is not what the audience is expecting.”
He started out in Bristol (the café we’re in was a regular haunt) when, as a law student at the university he went to see a hypnotism show and was himself transfixed.
Brown threw himself into hypnotism, and by the end of the first year was able to put on a three-hour show.
“It was rambling and unstructured, but I could do it. I also found it fulfilled a desire in me to perform.”
He grew up in Purley, south London, to a swimming teacher father and a mother who was a model. School was the independent Whitgift in nearby Croydon.
For nine years he was an only child; then his brother Dominic, now a food marketing manager, was born.
Brown was a loner at school. Gifted and nerdy, he was an outsider.
His loneliness was not helped by his sexuality.
“I was a puff at school. I wasn’t out [he did not come out until he was 31] but I realised I was gay. I was intimidated by the other kids.”
That changed when he saw the hypnotism show.
“There’s something in the idea of wanting control. The people who responded well to hypnotism were real and I had control over them.
“They could even be one of the guys who intimidated me at school.”
He began as a magician, doing tricks at tables in restaurants in Bristol. That led to TV, when he was touted as Britain’s answer to the US street-magician, David Blaine. Then came the theatre shows, and a successful partnership with his co-writer and director, Andy Nyman.
How did his parents take the switch from potential solicitor?
“Neither of them went to university. I wasn’t put under any familial pressure. I wrote them a letter thanking them for not being like that.”
He pauses. “Maybe I was what’s commonly called eccentric. Part of it was me not dealing with my sexuality. I blocked it off entirely. People thought I was odd.”
He was an evangelical Christian and this led to him continuing to suppress his homosexuality (he once went to a religious camp to be “cured”). Gradually, his faith faded and it’s no coincidence that when he finally came out he also declared himself an atheist.
Brown has been with his partner, Marc, a designer, for eight years. Home is in London, in a house full of his collection of stuffed animals. Some are dead pets, including a moray eel.
He doesn’t spend his money on the usual accoutrements of the wealthy. He’s only recently bought his first car, for example. A BMW. What does he do with his loot?
“I’ve got a happy accountant,” he replies, laughing.
His loathing of homeopathy and psychics stems, he says, from the fact they’re bogus.
“Homeopathy does not stand up to any tests. There’s this massive popularity of the alternative world, which is not balanced by the evidence. Perhaps it’s because scientists are not as good as homeopaths in getting their message across.”
Likewise, psychics. He says that they claim they’re talking to the dead when they’re doing no such thing.
“The moment a medium explains how it works you’d realise how very easy it is.”
He admires other magicians. Teller, the silent half of Penn & Teller is a favourite. Why?
“Because he doesn’t talk and that makes it much more difficult. And because they’re both very keen on not lying to the audience.”
Mostly, though, he admires comedians.
“It’s always been the case that comedians had a lesser status than the audience, while magicians had a higher status. But the best comedians were able to get a serious message across.”
They tended to do it by being self-deprecating, something he’s used in his show.
“Hence, me coming out at the beginning of the night and talking about being gay.”
But doesn’t he lie to his audience? He shakes his head.
“No. I let you know when I’m going to be lying to you, which is not the same. The audience want to be entertained, and that’s my first duty, to entertain them.”
He looks up and greets the man on his own at the next table. He’s part of the Infamous crew; as, it turns out, is another chap also sitting alone nearby. The café is full of his mates; they’re plants I exclaim, there to watch over him. Not true, he says, grinning. He did not know they were there.
Derren Brown: The CV
Grew up: Purley, South London
Other stage name: Darren V Brown
Occupation: Illusionist, magician, mentalist, hypnotist
Parrots: he’s patron of the Parrot Zoo Trust in Lincolnshire; his first parrot, Siegfried, died because he fed it Twix bars mistakenly thinking they were good for him. He now has a parrot called Rasputin. He loves them for their intelligence and because they can mimic human voices without knowing what they’re saying
Claims: to be barred from every casino in Britain but turned down a request from the police to help them analyse human behaviour
The legendary human rights activist, OBE, started her 70 year career working with Holocaust survivors. Colin Firth & Emma Thompson pay tribute
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