Derren Brown

Published April 17, 2008

Begoateed, whimsical, and able to read you as easily as the top row of letters on an optician's test board, Derren Brown is one of the cult faces of 21st century Britain. In the wake of successful television series, the mental illusionist (if you see what I mean) is performing at the Cambridge Theatre with his latest show Something Wicked This Way Comes. Tom Bowtell caught up with Derren and accidentally asked if he thought he was Jesus…

When one interviews somebody as intriguing as Derren Brown, it is very tempting to spend the whole time asking him to guess your Mother’s favourite variety of fruit bat or the size of your uncle’s auntie’s left foot. However, being the consummate professional that I am, I resisted this temptation and took the bold step of structuring my questions around Derren himself and his new show, Something Wicked This Way Comes. Having said this, it took particularly Herculean willpower on my part to resist starting the interview by asking Derren to guess my first question. (To trick him, the question was going to be be “Why was Geoffrey Boycott controversially dropped from the England Test team after scoring 246 not out against India in 1967?”)

In reality, my first question was the slightly more prosaic, but equally worthy “so, could you tell me a little more about the new show?” The unfortunate thing about this new first question was that, by and large, Derren couldn’t (or wouldn’t) tell me a great deal more: “I try not to give too much away about the details of the show; but it’s a brand new piece, although it has some similarities with my previous one in so far as it’s a two hour, one-man show with a break in the middle.”

The show’s title Something Wicked This Way Comes would suggest that it contains something, well, wicked – is this the case? “Yes, in a way, the second half of last year’s show was a séance, which had its own type of darkness, while the second half of this show has a different type of darkness.” Derren pauses, before adding, insouciantly, “it’s funny, we’ve had a lot of people fainting this year, which was a bit of a surprise…”

"We've had a lot of people fainting this year, which was a bit of a surprise."

The darker elements which Derren has always enjoyed toying with in his work have become more apparent over the last couple of years, with shows such as his controversial Séance and Live Russian Roulette game earning him more notoriety. Is there a sense that, as he becomes more well known, Derren is consciously becoming more provocative in his work? “Mmm. That’s an interesting question. I don’t really watch much television, so it’s important to me to make the sort of shows that I would like to watch myself. I want what I do to have some sort of edge to it, some drama. I certainly don’t cause controversy for its own sake, but I’m also aware when I’m doing certain things, that I might upset some people. I think it’s fine that that happens, it’s a sign that I’m doing something right. Having said that, I hope that all the controversial things I’ve done also have an intelligence behind them, that’s important.”

Derren’s now-legendary Séance, the show which earned more complaints than any other programme ever (a title since snatched by BBC2 and Jerry Springer The Opera), featured Derren apparently communicating with the spirit of a dead girl, before ultimately revealing that the entire evening was a fiction. Despite the fact that the show appeared to reveal that all of the mysteries traditionally associated with a séance can be faked, Derren points out that he doesn’t set out to explicitly debunk anyone’s beliefs: “there has always been a tradition of psychics and spiritualists arguing one thing and then magicians setting out to debunk them. I think that there’s probably a healthy kind of balance – although ultimately the psychics tend to win out, as they have something more interesting to say. Also, the magicians are fighting a losing battle as they are trying to prove a negative. I didn’t really want to get too involved with that particular area of argument as ultimately I’m not that interested in it.”

Having said this, the fact that Derren’s show ended with the ‘dead’ girl, who had apparently been addressing the séance in spirit form, being introduced to the audience, strongly suggests which side of the fence Derren sits on: “I was certainly debunking my own show, and if people wished to carry that across to other areas, then that’s fine, and I guess I’m inviting them to, but I certainly didn’t want to shove my beliefs down any one’s throat.”

For the first (but by no means last) time in our conversation, I decide to play devil's advocate and ask about twins, who are commonly thought of as being telepathic, even in some quite mainstream circles. What is Derren’s response to these persistent claims? “Mmmm [Derren mmms quite a bit] I’ve read a lot of this research into twins and spoken to some of the people who carried out the research, and there’s no reason at all to think it’s telepathic. The problem is, as soon as you start saying words like telepathic it immediately closes the argument and puts a lid on it. If you take two people who are genetically identical and who’ve been brought up in identical circumstances, put them in separate rooms and ask them to make choices, it’s likely that they’ll make very similar choices. But that doesn’t mean it’s telepathic: there are lots of genetic and environmental issues here, all of that nature and nurture stuff, so to call it telepathic is silly and a bit over dramatic.”

Nature and nurture are concepts which clearly interest Derren, and he warms to his theme with panache: “it’s like musicians. Is someone born musical? Or do people become musical? They did research into this and found out that while you might have some genetic predisposition to being musical, you have to put in 10,000 hours of practice to realise that potential. So it may also be a case that if you are the sort of person who will put in 10,000 hours of practice, then you’ll become musical. But what makes you put in those hours? Again, some of it may be genetic predisposition, but there’ll also be environmental factors such as access to a piano and good teaching. What’s interesting about all these sorts of things is how complex and intricate they all are. When you start labelling something by saying ‘it’s telepathic, it’s innate’ or ‘we’re speaking to your dead mother’ then you slam the lid on it, and stop investigating and exploring what might really be going on.”

"I call them powers. Magical powers. Magical super powers. No, I'm joking."

Does this sort of argument apply to Derren’s 'abilities' – (“I call them powers. Magical powers. Magical super powers. No, I’m joking.”) – does he believe that he had any innate talent or can anybody learn to do the extraordinary things that he does? “I think the musical analogy is a good one, and that anybody, but probably not everybody, could do this. It’s something that anyone could do if they put in the time, but they’ve got to put in the time and be interested enough in it. Loads of people after shows ask me ‘is there a book? Can I learn it?’ and obviously if there was a book, it would be easier to learn, but the fact is that there isn’t. So it takes years of doing it, and of being interested enough to pursue the different areas.”

Derren’s work is clearly fuelled by his own fascination with the mind and what we can learn to do with it, but increasingly, his work also seems to have a commitment to opening other people’s minds and jolting them out of blind adherence to rigidly-held beliefs. Would he say that he has an agenda to broadening and opening the minds of his viewers, or does he merely aim to entertain? “Ultimately, I’m interested in making entertaining, interesting and strong shows. Within that I’m obviously going to do a certain type of show – it’s pretty unlikely that I’m going to do a musical or a show that claims to be psychic – and I guess that the more shows I do, the easier it becomes for me to have a bit of an agenda. The problem with all sorts of magic shows, and this is something ithat I’m aware of, is that the agenda tends to be to build up the magician’s own ego, and eventually, we get slightly sick of them and want to take them down a notch or two. The exception to this rule are Penn And Teller [the maverick American magicians] who’ve always had an agenda outside of their own egos, which has either been all about pulling down new-age nonsense or elevating what they do to an artistic level. I think that in order to be interesting rather than just being irritating and saying ‘wow! look at me, aren’t I clever?’ it’s important that there’s something else going on as well.”

While it is impossible to watch one of Derren’s shows and not think ‘wow! Look at him, isn’t he clever?’, it is to his credit that his programmes regularly feature those occasional occasions when he gets things wrong. “That’s a rule we’ve got. I mean there’s always a suspicion which people voice, which is ‘well, you film that 500 times until it works’. That’s a perfectly sensible and logical thing to think, when you’re involved in TV you know that it’s not feasible, as it’s so expensive to go out and film stuff. But we do have this rule that if something doesn’t work, if I mess up or something, we do keep it in so that the person at home isn’t insulted.”

Derren Brown’s determination to be challenging with his work has inadvertently embroiled him in the debate about freedom of speech in the Arts which has been raging publicly in recent months due to the screening of Jerry Springer – The Opera and the staging of the play Behzti at the Birmingham Rep. How does Derren feel about this? “I don’t know about my role in this debate. I think Jerry Springer is obviously very controversial and is still causing controversy and there’s nothing wrong with that, but I really don’t cause controversy – although I’m sure that the play didn’t set out to start a riot either.” Derren then embarks on a fascinating, although slightly circumlocutionary exploration of the idea, acknowledging the argument from both sides before coming to the decisive point that: “all I know is that the more firmly I believe something, the more I know that it’s wrong. And if I believe something is true, then I’m bound to be missing something. It’s the same with science: all we can say about any scientific theory is that at some point it’s going to be developed or evolved or disproved. So I have so little faith in my opinions that I find it difficult to imagine how you get to a point where you’ll fight for things at that level. This is why I’m useless in any type of argument and why I can’t get started with politics.”

"All I know is that the more firmly I believe something, the more I know that it's wrong."

While Derren may now have reached a position where he finds it difficult to assume any concrete beliefs or certainties, this wasn’t always the case: “when I was younger I was a Christian and I can remember the sense of pride that comes when, as an outsider or a member of a minority group, you voice your opinion and stand up for your belief. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, it’s the way these voices get heard, but on a personal note for me, it always felt slightly satisfying to say ‘could you not make that joke, sorry, I’m offended by that’. And I’m not sure now how right that is: is it like asking someone not to smoke in a restaurant? I’m not sure if that’s incredibly arrogant or if it’s fine. I guess it’s up to the individual. It’s certainly a really interesting issue, even if I don’t know what the answer is. But please don’t make this sound like I’m having a go at Christians – because I’m not, that’s just how it felt for me.”

That last sentence is revealing. It is clear throughout our interview that Derren is finding himself in the slightly paradoxical position of trying to espouse his strong belief that the very act of having a strong belief makes that belief wrong. He has no wish to attack the genuinely-held beliefs of others, yet he is uncomfortable with any hint of certainty, especially if it has a militant tinge. This is a paradox which has foxed philosophers throughout history so it is a bit much to expect somebody to solve it while sitting in the back of a car on its way to Skegness on a Friday afternoon. That isn’t going to stop me trying, however…

Bearing in mind all that he has just said, and the fact that he used to be a fairly devout Christian, it is logical to expect Derren to now be broadly agnostic about spiritual matters; but this isn’t actually the case: “well I sort of am an Atheist, I have to say.” Assuming my most Paxmanesque tone, I then suggest that this could be seen as a rigid belief system of the sort he has just rejected: “of course, of course that’s an argument. I guess what I say to that is that because I’ve come from one area of strong, committed belief, a part of the reason for coming out of it was the realisation that the defences of Christianity I was coming up with were ultimately kind of circular and rested on presumptions of fact that weren’t fact. But now that I have come out of it, I need to have the level of factual enquiry as a non-believer that I demanded, but wasn’t able to find, as a believer. I feel that I owe it to my decision to come out of religion, to have solid reasons for doing so. Because of that, it does end up with something I feel I can argue about, but it’s difficult to come out of it and be Agnostic about it. But I admit that by assuming what I consider to be a true belief in Atheism, I am limiting my experience: I’m no longer going to experience the joy of a spiritual communion with God, which I experienced when I was younger. So I guess I’ve probably sacrificed one limiting belief for another one, but I’m happier with the second as I feel it allows me to engage more fully with this life.”

Showing an impressive refusal to ask any non-controversial questions, (and in light of Derren’s recent programme Messiah), I now take the rather unconventional step of asking Derren if he thinks he is at all like Jesus. (Or, more specifically, if he thinks that Jesus may have shared some of his abilities for manipulating the minds and perceptions of others.) “No. It’s very easy to say that Jesus was a great hypnotist or magician or whatever. But I think it’s nonsense, as the stories that we have of him are just that. Stories. Of course they’re fantastical and miraculous, but I don’t think that it would bear any relation to what would have happened historically, we have an epic story, and it’s a wonderful work of literature, but you can’t make any concrete judgements on it. I’d better stop there, as this is one of my favourite topics and I could go on…”

Leaving Jesus, religion and all things philosophical behind, the conversation now returns to Derren and what we have dubbed his ‘magical super powers’. Does he live in a constant, exhausting maelstrom of information spewing out from the mind of everyone he meets? Or are his abilities, to coin a phrase, turnoffandonable? “Oh it’s a curse!” he laments jokingly, before adding: “it’s just something I switch on when performing. I mean, there are certain skills which are there – I’m probably more persuasive than the next person, and I’m more aware if someone’s lying to me or conning me – but it doesn’t enter into my life too obtrusively. It’s a bit like a comedian, you wouldn’t expect them to be cracking hysterically funny jokes all of the time.”

"in ten year's time, if things are tough, you should look out for Improve Your Golf With Derren Brown!"

One of the most striking Derren Brown scenes I have seen came in an early show, when he told a volunteer that he was about to feel an incredibly painful toothache. Right on cue, the volunteer / victim was convulsed with pain. Moments later, Derren reversed the trick and stuck a needle through the back of the man’s hand, without him feeling a thing. The medical potential for this ability to remove pain from an individual is considerable: has he ever considered applying his skills in this way? “I don’t know at the moment. Right now I’ve chosen the route of performing and I think there are ethical issues involved with switching… I get a lot of emails from some people begging me to help them, some of them are desperate and heartbreaking, but I can’t start taking this on unless I can go into it properly. I’m not sure that it’s quite right. For the moment, I’ll keep clear of that… having said that, in ten year’s time, if things are tough, you should look out for Improve You Golf with Derren Brown!” [It should be pointed out that Derren is probably joking here.]

This is one of the nice things about Derren Brown, he has no qualms about sending himself up or admitting his fallibility. Equally appealing is Derren's unconditional love parrots who, intriguingly, are also susceptible to some of his mind games: “I’m very good at sending them to sleep, it’s just a matter of copying their body language and blinking when they do, and then blinking just before them, and then pretending to nod off. Eventually they will too.” If applied to babies (who share many of the key features of parrots) this trick surely makes Derren the best babysitter ever: “that’s a good point, I’ve never thought of that!”

Well, Derren, ten year’s time, if things are tough…