The Derren Brown Interview
a relaxed and consumeristically-fulfilled Mr B, who rises to greet me from the
leather couch in one of Bath's numerous fine beverage emporia. Derren has been
what he calls 'Celebrity Shopping': essentially shopping with an extra zero - or
two. He is, he informs me, unusually excited about his Stool: the one he just
purchased around the corner, to go with a similarly splendid armchair, now being
made to order (doubtless complete with topit, induction coil and animatronic
The one cloud, on an otherwise positively Caribbean interview horizon is that Derren is becoming increasingly agitated about this stool, as shop closing time approaches. He therefore excuses himself to pop round the corner and returns with this item, somewhat like a piano one, only for dwarfs, and draped in finest luxury cardboard.
Safely ensconced, and feeling brilliantly witty, I open with my carefully-planned Kolossal Killer Kenton.
Sorry, Killer Question:
My first question is - "What's my first question?"
This is met with a smirk, rather than the awe I had hoped for.
DB: Do you know, that is the second time today I've been asked that question. I'm always being asked it.
DB: …and I always say, - "What's my first question".
Are you still writing for 'WF' (The private journal mentioned in Pure Effect)?
DB: Occasionally, from time to time I submit an article, or a picture.
What have you acquired recently, that you like?
DB: (LAUGHS) A footstool - though I haven't got that home yet. A bottle of Bruichladdich 1970 - hundred and twenty five quid. And of course a moose head - which I was given.
Was that by somebody incredibly kind, that you'd like to mention by name?
DB: It was by possibly the kindest, most generous person I've ever met - can't remember his name though… I do like my luxury goods.
And you're able to acquire more of them now.
DB: I'm able to acquire more, and more, and more. Dan Kitson the comedian was asked what he spent his money on, and he answered without a hint of irony, "Playstation and sweets". I'm kind of going to be the equivalent of that.
But presumably a little more upmarket.
A little more upmarket.
More seriously, you're appearing on more and more TV shows as a guest, and you said to me a while back that although you have an excellent manager, the whole thing has its own momentum anyway. Is that ever scary, the thought of its just grinding out another celeb?
DB: I think there's grinding out another celeb when you are just a product of a production company, like a pop star package or whatever. I hope it's not like that. I hope I'm actually selling something that is a bit different. No, it's fun, you know, it… opens doors, and it's exciting and all those things are great. And because I don't live in London, I'm not on top of it all the time. On the other hand, it means that when I do go to London, it's quite extreme. It's a real contrast to my life in Bristol, but then I like that too because it's nice to have a contrast.
You're not planning to move there then?
DB: Well I'm going to have to have a place in London as well, because I have to spend so much time there. At first, I'll be renting. Don't tell them that, it's much cooler to say I've got a flat in Hampstead, and live in London and Bristol!
You said it opens doors, what did you mean by that?
DB: You suddenly find people that know who you are, are very happy to go out of their way to help you. I went into a local restaurant round the corner from me - the kitchens had just closed, and I didn't realise, the waitress apologised, I was just about to leave - and this chap at the bar said oh, do you want some food? No problem! He made me some great stuff, didn't charge me for it, we sat till three drinking single malts! And it was great, that stuff doesn't happen, you know, otherwise. But equally, to put this in context, I'm hardly a household name.
But you do have people coming up to you when you're out?
DB: If I go out shopping , I'll get three or four people stop me. They tend to be very nice. When I was a jobbing close-up magician in Bristol, people would stop me and kind of be a lot more jostling and friendly and ask me to do stuff and all that. Whereas now they're a bit more reserved, which is ideal. But it's odd answering the question because I just don't think about it, because if you do think about you go mad, because every time you walk into a restaurant, you start thinking how many people...? You'd become obsessed by it - because It is an odd thing to walk into a place where you've never been before and have people not only know who you are, but actually know you by name. So if you think about it too much you go mad, so I really try not to.
You've written about the need for magicians to play the role of the 'hero', the facilitator of a spectator's entry into the world of mystery - rather than the usual 'Kneel Before Zod!' model. But isn't there a problem for you there now, since you are billed as the Mind Controller, which surely runs the risk of being stuck straight back into an omnipotent concept?
DB: Well I don't call myself a Mind Controller first of all, that's the name of the show, but the key to it is that it's not so much about playing God - and this idea goes back to discussions with Teller, it's his distinction, which I think is fantastic. What I mean by that is you don't just click your fingers and unilaterally create change in the primary world. In the same way in the show, you see that it takes effort, that there is a process, both for me, and that makes demands on the people I am doing it with. And then it may not work, and it's a shift in focus, and even in mentalism generally that isn't seen.
To concentrate on the mind effects, you've had to abandon your beloved Dove Magic…
DB: Yes, and the rope magic, that was a real pull.
So who has the doves now - they're not stuffed?
DB: No, they've all been humanely… drowned.
Obviously you put out the card tape, which was very splendid, and you don't basically do that any more; but you must have your moments, when you think if only I could, you know, 'be God' again?
DB: Well, yes, like the other day for example, when we were chatting, and I showed you that thing. It did stick with me for a few days and I've now got a better version of that which I'd love to show you. I've shifted it into my realm of things.
(He did, and needless to say, after a bit of a rubdown with 'Credibility' brand Emery Paper, a treatment with Mind Control Primer, and two or three coats of Gobbledegook Gloss, that ol' card trick came up shining like it was a geen-yew-wine mental miracle, fresh from our Collective Subconscious…)
DB: It's just really having a couple of things that if someone brought out a pack of cards I could do. I wouldn't really bring out a pack any more myself. The real thrill is using the psychology or the methods behind card effects, but using them in new ways, in subtler ways to achieve a very different sort of effect.
You hang out with…
DB …and play basketball with…
…I was going to mention the basketball, but I wasn't sure whether you wanted to talk about the basketball (LAUGHS) with… Blaine. You mentioned in the past the possibility that you might do something together. Do you think that's likely to happen in the foreseeable future?
DB: We've spoken about if the show hits off over there - there are talks underfoot, if that's a word, to get a US version of Mind Control underway. But you know, Blaine is at the top of his tree -
DB: Or pole, and for us to do anything together, and for that to feel right, we'd have to be at a sort of level pegging. But I'm in no rush to do that, I've gone for a much slower burn really: I haven't tried to be headline-grabbing, there have been no big stunts, no massive PR initiative, and it's nice to sort of work your way into people's consciousness. You don't get shot down as quickly, and you have more of a history to you, more substance.
You are going to do this Russian Roulette stunt, can you give some details about that? Kind of like a Bullet Catch, only with your head, yes?
DB: Yes, the idea would be to do it as authentically as possible, with the person in the country that I feel I can read the easiest, that I can predict the most.
How do you find such a person?
DB: Through a big touring… there will be a thing that will take place in several major cities that people will take part in and send things in and fill out stuff, and I'll just narrow people down to one.
People could be thinking it's a fix, he's paid them or whatever, how will you avoid that?
DB: Not if we know who the person is. I don't mean if they're famous, but if we know the person's story. I'll probably get people to send in footage of themselves, it'll all be shown as part of the stunt. Otherwise I could just ask my brother or something. Actually that might be a bad example (LAUGHS) Yes, bad example! It looks like it's going to have to be live from another country, looks like we can't do it, because you can't handle live firearms in this country.
Are there any people, actors, other magicians, comedians, that you really would like to work with?
DB: I don't know how what I do would really fit in with anybody else's act.
I see you and Zoe Ball…
DB: Sarah Cox. I've worked with Sarah Cox now, I've fulfilled that dream - I think that's it! Do put that. (LAUGHS)
You're on TV, and you said you've had a steep learning curve there, how everything has to come out much faster and punchier. How has that fed back into your performances elsewhere?
DB: That's a good question. It's taught me a huge amount. It's amazing - I think the magic world is particularly prone to this, you know, that you have some measure of success amongst your peers, come up with a few ideas that feel a bit new and you think you're It. And then you have to do a proper stage show, work with a director, or you come to do a TV show and you realise that you know so little. I mean television is a strange beast, because everything has to be very efficiently scripted, so all the writing that I do for myself or that I work on with the people I work with, it was crippling at first to realise just how sharp everything has to be.
'Crippling'! That's a strong word: really?
DB: Well, yeah, because you are so used to taking your time as a close-up magician, and it's impossible to watch that on screen, you just want to kill yourself, it's so slow. But I was particularly slow, so I had to really learn that, and then of course on stage the same thing happened again, because after I'd really got the hang of writing and performing on TV, the next big challenge was the stage show. So I did this run-in in Bristol, and I had to learn so much again about performance energy, about driving the show rather than following it, about acting and performance. Things that we don't have to ever think about as magicians because we're all too arrogant to use directors for a start, we all think we know it. And of course as performers we are the last people to know how good we are, what effect we're having on the audience.
Andrew O'Connor, my exec producer, mentioned an anecdote about Judi Dench, she was asked in an interview what was her best performance, the best thing she'd done, and she said oh I don't know, you'd have to ask my director. It's a little different, in that you're not just an actor playing a part…
(I think I heard Robert Houdin turning in his grave at this point, but was too polite to mention it),
…but learning to work with directors, learning to script things ruthlessly, learning real performance energy, especially with someone like me that's generally fairly low energy, all that is amazing, an amazing challenge, it's great, and really exciting because it's such a real learning curve, you just feel yourself advancing massively as a performer, into areas that you were too arrogant to believe that you needed.
If we do all suffer from this tendency, how did you overcome it? Just out of necessity?
DB: Out of necessity, yes. I was put in a situation where I'm working with directors, with writers, with producers, and having people shouting me down every time I open my mouth. You know, you just learn a lot through doing that. And yes that has fed back into all the work I do whether it's close-up or cabaret now, it really has, things have tightened up a lot more.
You must still want to retain some of that spontaneity?
DB: Of course, absolutely - but the key to achieving good spontaneity in performance is very good scripting. The point of scripting is that you know you can go out on a day that you've got a terrible cold and you're feeling terrible, and do the best show. And on a good day you go out and you do that show, and a hundred adlibs occur to you, they're great and then they form part of the show the next time, they get added on to the script. That's what it's about, it's not about killing spontaneity, it's about setting the framework as best as it can be, to allow you to then have the confidence to move into other areas.
You constantly remind viewers what you do is not psychic. But presumably you have encountered the 'Rowland Syndrome', where no matter how much you tell people you are not psychic, they insist on believing that you are. How do you handle that?
DB: I had a nice incident with some psychics.
DB: Oh, absolutely stapled shut eyes. This was some filming we did for one of the specials that we never showed. They would do their bit, their readings, and I would offer mine, telling people about themselves and as it turned out - without sounding pompous, but this was the point of the stunt - I would do a far more accurate job than they were, tending to sound a bit woolly.
And one of things that I mentioned in the reading for this woman was the number of the house, not the one she lived in now, but the one she used to, and a description of her house, and what it looked like inside and out and also the number of it. One of the psychics said to me, "well, you're reading her Aura. You're doing an auric reading: why won't you admit it. And I said well you know, I'm not psychic, I don't believe in that, I'm doing this and this and this, and he said "no, why won't you admit it, you're doing an auric reading?" So I said why do you think that, and he said "well you named her house number, and the aura stores information like house numbers, addresses". Fantastic! You know, you'd never need an address book…
(Might have problems checking it though, since it would presumably be above your head).
DB: Then on the other side of it, there are the letters I get from people, that are just seriously ill, wanting to scrape money together so I can come and cure them.
DB: Oh, completely seriously. There's a lot of mad nutters, which is funny, and fine, Michael my manager has had two people turn up on his doorstep in tears, in a week, saying they'd had spells put on them, and they needed the spells lifting. There's plenty of that, which is manageable from my point of view. But when you get letters from people that are really really suffering, really horrible stories that I don't want to go into, and they are desperate for me to cure them, people in absolute pain.
Why do they believe you can?
DB: They just really feel with my skills and insight, as they perceive it, that I can relieve them from their torture - and it's a horrible thing. It goes through my manager and he has a response from me which explains I am a performer, all that you see is not necessarily all that it claims to be all of the time, and it wouldn't be appropriate for me to get involved. I think it's best to just draw a very clear line.
Why do you like watching Big Brother?
DB: I just got hooked on it because I watched it from the beginning and I'd never seen the series before. I wasn't 'Jade-ded'. I was very much jaded by the end of the last series, I have to say! (LAUGHS) I hardly ever watch TV, and there are a few things that I love: good comedy, I think we produce that better than any comic film. The Office, Partridge, all that kind of stuff. So I don't know why I got into Big Brother - I used to watch Sunset Beach every morning, and weep salty, girl tears, I used to love it, so no shame there at all.
Now, I have to ask you this, because it's Valentine's Day tomorrow: not all women are physically repulsed by you…
So is that something that forms part of your Master Plan?
DB: Oh, master plan for life, sure - but at the moment I'm not looking, not particularly interested in having a relationship. Be interesting to see if I get any cards - traditionally I don't get any at all.
[In the event, he did get one this year - from a bloke…]
Do you send any?
DB: No, I never send any. If it happens, it happens, you know. The more you go out and look for it the worse you make it for yourself. One day someone will turn up - or they wont. But I'm sure one day they will.
Is that a Prediction?
DB: Yes. It's in an envelope.
Why do you think there are no women mentalists?
DB: Oh, I think there are. I mean these are people I have encountered in discussion fora and Web groups - I did say, 'fora'.
You don't see them at Mind Magic days or conventions.
DB: I don't know how established they are, but they're out there. May even take credit for a couple myself. Some say they got into it after seeing the shows. It always makes me uneasy when I see the way that… female magicians, the roles that they're forced to choose for themselves. There's something bizarrely misogynistic about magic anyway: the social side, but also the fact that you're mutilating women in boxes on stage. It's an odd profession for a woman. I remember, was it Mandy Farrell asked somebody about whether he knew any props that she could use as a female magician, if he was aware of anything in the dealers. He suggested to her without a trace of irony, maybe a Himber wallet with a cutout flower stuck on it.
On both sides, presumably?
DB: (LAUGHS) Presumably on both sides. People like Fay Presto who are creative and single-minded enough will do a good job. With mentalism I think - there's a lot of Tarot readers and fortune-tellers out there. Someone I work with is a sort of corporate fortune teller, and all the guys, the delegates, were getting their palms read, and we got a train home. I was very cynical, oh, you know 'fortune teller': then she took her wig off, and it was just an act, she was an actress. It was a performance as far as she was concerned, she had all the gipsy stuff on, all the bangles, the whole thing, and I thought well, fair enough. I still don't like it very much, not my thing, but the tendency I imagine, the cliché would be for a female mentalist to fall into that category, rather New Agey.
During the latter part of this exchange, it became increasingly hard to ignore the nice man lugging in an Indoor Surfing Machine (oh yes, I kid you not). Especially when his electric pump began loudly inflating the bouncy castle beach that went with it (see previous brackets). Oozing wisdom as ever, our loquacious sage proposed that we adjourn to an adjacent drinketeria. Stool in tow, we did just that.
- Let's talk about the forthcoming tour of your show: it's essentially what you did when you were working it in, in Bristol, yes?
DB: Yes, the whole Bristol run was to get it up to speed and the tour starts March 21st. I think the first date is in Stevenage.
You've removed Lift and Reminiscence?
DB: No, I've changed Reminiscence, I do it very differently now, and probably dropped Lift. I had a stage version of it but it never really worked so it'll have to go. Which is a shame, because I'm very fond of it.
And have it been replaced by something else?
DB: Yes: I'm going to try, and - I hate to say this unless for some reason I decide not to do this at the last minute - but the plan is to memorise the phone book of each city I visit. Have people in the audience at random in the audience call out names and addresses of people they know, and I'll tell them all the phone numbers. I can get up to about N at the moment.
Your new series features some material that's previously been shown, yes?
Yes, it's a 50/50 mixture of highlights from the specials and brand new material. The original specials were really only watched by a fairly small dedicated group of fans, so the idea is to try and reach a broader audience.
And after that?
DB: The two new TV specials in October, the Russian Roulette special and another special which will be mainly live as well. It's a change of pace, and bit more of - stunts. And then I'm signing a two year deal now with Four, which would be another series and another two specials after that. And hopefully in there somewhere maybe the American one will come off too. Oh - DVD coming out, for the autumn, I've just heard about that. [This will be material from the current series, plus several extra segments that did not make it to broadcast]. Book in the pipeline, I do get asked about it a lot. I haven's started it yet, I'm still thinking about exactly what I want to put into that book. It's not Pure Effect, or Absolute Magic: for magicians; it's a very different sort of project, it will be a book for the general public.
You've been painting since childhood, and you do these huge caricatures - though that term almost devalues what they are…
DB: I like the word 'masterpieces'; still devalues them a little, but…
You've actually now got some proper exhibitions happening?
DB: Yes. Well nothing's been confirmed yet, but the plan is an exhibition in London in November - presuming I survive the Russian Roulette - which will be like a celeb -y VIP event, and then one for the public as well. Possibly a thing in Germany, and then one in Miami for people like Madonna… It's great because it's the 'quiet thing' that I do.
Can I come?
You were born in the wrong era for the one TV show that would have really suited you, Miami Vice. They had all sorts of people who were famous in other fields.
DB: I've still got a lot of clothes I could wear if they asked me.
If somebody said to you that you can either have a career as a mindreader, or as a successful artist, which would you choose?
DB: Artist, without a moment's hesitation. Sorry! I absolutely love performing. When you go out and perform an act that's really slick, especially now that I'm doing more cabaret stuff, which I never did, and the theatre shows - it's such an amazing feeling, especially when those people have come across the country to see you. There is no reason why I would have to stop the performing, and I would hate to. But if you pose that question, then yes, absolutely.
You're a paradox: I don't know anyone who is more concerned about having high standards, but at the same time…
(This is interrupted by Derren's tea arriving, and his making 'tea sound-effects' into the tape, ie disgusting slurping noises).
For example, your card repertoire, which you no longer perform: there are many people who would be delighted to have that as their repertoire for life. That's what you've STOPPED doing.
DB: Yes. And God knows, that video is available for sale from www.derrenbrown.co.uk. The high standards thing - I really wanted to try and do things properly. I've always been like it, wanting to do something seriously, really challenge it and do it full-on. It doesn't mean that I necessarily achieve those aims or that I do it better than anyone else at all, it just means that I've always had a very single-minded approach to things: really wanting to commit to stuff, really take on board everything. That's why I don't accept that if you're a mindreader you just write something on a pad, and turn it round and say Haha! You've really got to commit to it in all sorts of ways, as a performer and everything.
But the whole performing thing still seems to come relatively low down the scale of Ultimate Importance for you.
DB: In the end it's a really enjoyable, fun way of earning a living. I love performing and there's nothing trivial about that - it's a great thing to be able to do. But at the end of the day it's entertainment. That's very valuable: I love artifice, I love illusions and I love emulation and impersonation. I think those all remind us of the essence of things. Caricature is another one, or Portrait. It reminds you of the essence of a person. Magic emulates reality in a way: you're making something as real as possible, whereas in fact there's a trick involved and it's actually impossible, but to make it convincing you're apparently following all these logical laws until the very end, and simulating reality. Great magic does that very convincingly and all that I find fascinating and worthwhile for those reasons.
(And I thought it was just the velvet jackets…)
DB: Despite all that, I've got no ambitions to be the World's Greatest Mindreader. I hope I've got a good enough business sense to always make sure I'm heading in the right direction, and getting better and more well-known. It's a very enjoyable game, it's a wonderful way of earning a living, but my life hopefully is about things that feel more substantial than that. Ultimately there's something a little dishonest at some level in performing magic.
DB: It's not the same as doing something else, where you can throw your arms open and say this is what I do, judge me on this. Canasta retired and ended up painting, I imagine somewhere I might do a similar thing at some point. It's very difficult to talk about it, especially for something that's going to be read by a lot of magicians, that it's not the be-all and end-all of my life. But equally I think that to put the most into something, and to really be good at something and make a difference at it, you have to have one foot out of it. Maybe because you don't need it, you bring to it knowledge and understanding of all sorts of other areas.
You don't go to conventions, you don't seem really interested.
I never really was, that's no disrespect to anybody or anything. When I was young I didn't know other magicians, I came into it later, and I guess you have a slightly different relationship with it.
Are you a member of anything - IBM, Hypnotists Anonymous..?
DB: I don't think I'm a member of anything at all, actually. Apart from out local sports club, which I don't even go to.
You may not want to answer this, but having seen you work as a hypnotist, and the fascinating things that are possible, it's obvious that to a degree that element is present in your TV stuff, but you never use that word or talk about it explicitly. Why is that?
There's three sides to that. One, I'm not using formal hypnosis anyway. Two I don't want to be seen as a Hypnotist because there are hypnotists and we know what they are. I think it's important to be seen as yourself for what you do and not be too easily labelled. And three there are all sorts of problems if you're known as a hypnotist in terms of getting gigs and all sorts of legal issues. I use it covertly, but at that point it ceases to be hypnosis, it becomes… suggestion, or waking hypnosis, or something that isn't strictly speaking hypnosis per se.
What are you proudest of having achieved so far in your career?
DB: It's in the nature of making a show like that, you don't come up with all the ideas yourself. I have a small team, three or four of us that talk things through. So it's very difficult pointing at the show and going oh, I'm very proud of that. Having said that, there are methods that I've come up with, things that I know are new, it's satisfying coming up with that. There are a lot of magicians that do speculate on methods that I use, but there are one or two things that I've come up with. You want to run and tell all your magic buddies but you can't.
I don't know if pride is really the word: a quiet satisfaction perhaps, without wanting to sound smug. It's not doing any larger good. The blind athlete, that piece felt really good, not because it was someone who was blind, but because it was somebody that hadn't had first hand experience of magic and therefore didn't have all the jaded assumptions that people have about magic who've seen too much of it. His reaction to it was so genuine and heartfelt, that stuck with me, that was a nice thing to give someone who hadn't had it before. Proud, I don't know - it feels good.
Finally, what about your imitators, what would you say to them?
DB: I can't pretend anything other as a performer than it is always a bit galling when you see stuff that you put a lot of love and effort into over months or years and having it bandied about. On the other hand as magicians we've all been there, we've all had to copy someone at some point in order to find out where we want to go, I think it's part of the learning process. As long as if you are doing that, you in the back of your mind remember that's not what it's about. If you use it to discover your own voice and your own thing, then you know - great. If something of mine was part of that then fair enough.
But as soon as possible, you should be doing your own material, and certainly don't do stuff by other magicians that isn't published, or without their permission. I've had copies of the book illegally reproduced, chapters sold off it and all that. I've got a solicitor now that takes care of that when it happens, so that side of it is a shame. How much it bothers me, depends how often I read the Internet! (LAUGHS).
And with that, tea drunk, we repair to the aptly-named Jolly's for some further late-night Celebrity Shopping. Any fleeting doubts as to whether Derren's powers would remain intact, when encumbered by his four-legged friend, quickly vanished as he effortlessly got the Clinique girl to guard the stool during the visit. She even seemed to enjoy his nearly demolishing the display stand with it, as we left.
© Ian Carpenter, 2003