‘True self-improvement relies on being kinder’: Derren Brown on why he no longer wants to control your mind – but improve it
The magician who calls himself a ‘Spandau Ballet gay leisure pirate’ talks candidly about his troubled youth, his sexuality, but is cagey about his forthcoming stage show…
Brutally honest: ‘I was generally uncool at school,’ says Derren Brown. ‘Part of a classical music-oriented set sometimes called “the poof gang” ‘
We have a problem. Derren Brown’s new stage show Infamous is starting in two days and I’m here to interview him about it.
But he won’t leak so much as one little detail beyond the fact that it’s a more stripped-down production than his recent Svengali and Enigma stage shows: ‘Like a musician doing an acoustic set,’ he says.
‘Sorry, but no one but me and Andy can know what’s in the show,’ he says. All six of his shows have been co-written by fellow magician Andy Nyman and everything has stayed remarkably secret.
‘I find there’s very little appetite for spoiling them,’ he says, which is all very well, but what are we going to talk about for the next hour?
Well, there’s always rumour. With Brown, there always is. Two rival newspapers have been going around claiming his next stunt will be to make a straight man gay.
‘Total rubbish,’ says Brown. He knows you can’t change someone’s sexuality by mind-power. How? Because he tried it 20 years ago. On himself.
Born in 1971 and an only child until the age of nine, Brown grew up in south London and attended the fee-paying Whitgift School in Croydon, where his father was a swimming instructor. Brown was not sporty and didn’t have an easy time.
‘I was just generally uncool, part of a classical music-oriented set sometimes called “the poof gang”,’ he says.
He’d inherited his artistic side from his mother, who was a model. His relationship with his father was ‘tough and unhealthy, the classic thing. Not getting on with my father, not fitting in with the boys at school: at that age you don’t know whether that happens because you’re gay, or if you’re gay because of them,’ he says.
‘For years I was rather embarrassed about it, hoping it would pass, and was basically celibate.’
By the time he went to read law at Bristol University (where he won an award for ballroom dancing), he felt his sexuality had become a ‘dark cloud’ and tried to do something about it.
‘I would have given anything to change it,’ he says. ‘I came across a Christian movement that tries to “heal” homosexuality. The message was “if you don’t want to be gay, there’s a way out”, which is not inherently homophobic. I read the books and attended the meetings.’
This happened at a crucial time in Brown’s development. Although a self-confessed exam cheat and prolific shoplifter (until caught with an unpaid-for Luther Vandross cassette in Harrods), for most of his life he’d considered himself a Christian.
But he was about to come to one of life’s crossroads.
‘I was a proper believer,’ he says. ‘I’d been to a Sunday-school class when I was five and maintained my beliefs into uni. With the self-assurance of the truly naive, I would sit down and tell my friends why they should be Christians. But it was early on at university that I got into hypnosis.’
Brown was initially drawn to it and card tricks as a fraudulent route to impressing people. ‘Magicians tend to be kids with no social confidence,’ he says. ‘You rely on the tricks, hide behind the cards as a way to social acceptance. That was me for many years.’
But if Brown thought the Christian Union would be charmed by his tricks, he was in for a shock. ‘I immediately got this backlash of anger from them,’ he says. ‘I had people exorcising me during my shows. They really attacked me.
‘I started to see there was a capacity for fear and misunderstanding in the church. Learning hypnosis taught me how suggestion works and studying magic gave me an understanding of how charlatans work.
‘So suddenly, when I’d hear my minister saying tarot cards were the work of the devil, I said to myself: “Well, they’re not. There’s no magic happening. I know it isn’t”. So, bit by bit, I began disassembling my religious beliefs.’
What about ‘healing’ his homosexuality? ‘The problem was that it wasn’t working for anybody!’ he says. ‘The people who said, “Yes, I’m cured” would then say, “Of course, I still have homosexual yearnings but the Lord helps me keep them pressed down.” I thought, “Well, that’s not going to do me any good.”’
From this point, Brown – who now has a long-term boyfriend – seems to have blossomed. He threw himself into magic, staying up all night to learn tricks, reading book after book on psychology, stagecraft and showmanship and marching around dressed, in his words, as a ‘bad Spandau Ballet gay leisure pirate’.
‘I had a long cloak, big blousy shirt, boots, harem pants, a drop earring and long hair tied back in a big velvet bow,’ he says.
‘It was ridiculously self-aggrandising. I’ve still got the cape, because I always thought I’d one day get a jewel-topped cane to go with it but as I started performing my need for attention was channelled into something more appropriate.’
Brown decided magic, not law was his calling – to no objection from his parents. He was quite happy doing card tricks in Bristol restaurants when a TV producer called, hoping to launch him as Britain’s answer to the then little-known street magician David Blaine.
Brown has been famous since his 2000 series Mind Control for Channel 4. But it was a controversial on-air game of Russian roulette in 2003 that made him a household name. Over the past decade he has hypnotised people to rob a security van and to ‘assassinate’ Stephen Fry and made front page news for predicting the National Lottery results in 2009.
In last year’s perhaps overly ambitious Apocalypse on Channel 4 he convinced a 20-year-old man that the world had been taken over by zombies. Brown says he’s taken that big-production stuff as far as it will go. A new TV series follows in the autumn.
Brown’s on-air persona exudes the impression that he is supremely confident, a master manipulator who knows what you’re going to say before you say it. I’d been expecting him to dominate the interview with a devilish half-smile. But nothing could be further from the truth.
He takes up very little space, appearing not to touch the sides of his slim-fit three-piece suit, and is as nervous as any of us would be under the pressure of an interview: there’s a lot of bumping into chairs, ‘no, after you’ confusion in doorways and the other polite handicaps of being English.
To be honest, the Derren Brown sitting in front of me is a stranger. For example, have you ever noticed the brisk nod he gives at odd times within sentences?
Like everyone else, I’ve been trying to work out his mind control tricks over the years and thought this was one of them: some sort of ‘do as I say’ cue.
But I see him give the nod when simply reading a sandwich menu. It turns out it’s a nervous tic he’s had since he was a child: Brown also used to sniff, twitch and knock his knees together, and would never tread on the top step of any stairs.
While learning to drive, he felt compelled to close his eyes for as long as he could.
Brown’s writing partner Nyman has called him a ‘genuinely odd bloke’ and I’m starting to see what he means.
Brown is most animated when talking about his dead pets. He stuffed his moray eel when it died and he keeps it in his house full of other stuffed animals, books, paintings, secret chambers and a ‘death mask’ of Matt Lucas – but no television.
He lights up when talking about capes and canes and even the agonising development of his sexual identity but not about magic.
I knew he doesn’t like talking to the press and hates it when journalists ask him to perform in front of them, but he’s coming across as if he’s embarrassed to be a magician.
‘There’s a real problem with magicians, in that we’re interesting for a couple of years and then it starts to seem like posturing,’ he explains.
‘Look at David Blaine: he literally put himself on a pedestal and we threw things at him. The tide turns quickly. I’m sure plenty of people can’t stand me, find me smug, and of course you take that to heart. When you’ve done a trick and somebody calls you on it, it’s really humiliating to go, “Yeah, OK, that’s how I did it”.’
He gives a bashful, caught-out look. I can see he’s talking from experience. I can also see what an effort it must have taken for a shy, socially inept boy to build a reputation as an all-knowing Mephistopheles. He agrees and warms to the theme.
‘I remember doing a corporate gig once and one guy said, “I’m so sorry, I just don’t understand what I’m supposed to be reacting to”,’ he says.
‘His colleagues were saying, “It’s magic! He made the card disappear!” And the guy went, “Well no, he didn’t, did he? It’s just misdirection, so why are you impressed?” I came out in a cold sweat. Ultimately it’s why I stopped doing tricks.’
Anyone who has followed Brown’s career will know he gave up on sleight of hand almost immediately and is far better known for his mind control techniques, based on the dark, supposedly CIA-developed art of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP).
At least, that’s the rumour. It turns out he doesn’t think much of NLP.
‘I was at an NLP conference once and there was a seat free in the front,’ he says. ‘I went for it at the same time another guy did. We had a moment of competition and he said, “You will lose, you know”.
As I walked off I heard him saying to someone, “Did you see what I did there?” As if he’d just done a Jedi mind trick! He was just being a ****. So much of NLP relies on that.
‘All of the seduction stuff, the pick-up artists movement, fits that strange model where you say certain key words and touch your tie to give subconscious cues, rather than actually being nice. I meet a lot of these people and feel, “You sad little man.” You can’t put your finger on it but you know there’s something wrong.’
But isn’t that exactly what he used to do?
‘Yes, completely,’ he says. ‘It’s a technique to hide behind, in the same way a magician hides behind a deck of cards. But now I think true self-improvement relies on being kinder, and maybe learning not to worry.’
Brown says that every ten years or so he revises his opinion of himself. Reaching 30 and finding himself ‘full of nonsense and preposterous in many ways’ he switched from magic to mind control. Now 42, he thinks it’s time to change yet again.
His last show, Fear & Faith, probably points the way forward. In it, he gave people a placebo drug called ‘Rumyodin’ [an anagram of Your Mind] and told them it would remove their fears and phobias.
‘That was a big eye-opener for me,’ he says. ‘I thought the confidence stuff would work but there was a guy who had chronic dermatitis. It completely cleared up.
‘People’s allergies disappeared. People gave up smoking after trying for years. We’re all capable of these things. That’s what interests me most now, finding these ways to help people. I’ve grown out of the desire to say, “Hey, look at me being clever.”’
Doesn’t it say something good about Britain that Derren Brown is a celebrity here?
France would have turned him into a TV philosopher; America would have him dressed in sequins making tigers disappear.
But cynical old Britain watches this curious, complex, guarded individual play tricks with our minds, then goes down the pub and picks it all apart. Brown won’t talk about his new show but one thing’s for sure: we will.