Derren Brown: The Events, C4

Derren Brown talks to Benjie Goodhart

Doing an interview with someone who canít talk freely about their latest project can be problematic. Especially if youíre interviewing them about, um, their latest project. But when the person being interviewed is Derren Brown, the extraordinary psychological illusionist, you have to accept that normal rules donít apply. You can also be sure that, when the series does come along, youíll spend much of it with your jaw on the floor. This is the man who has done much to make the world of magic and illusions cool again, following the hackneyed routines of a generation of TV magicians in ill-fitting brown velvet suits.

Here, Derren Brown reveals (a little) about his new series, and explains why it will have viewers stuck to their seats. Literally.

Your new series is called The Events. Whatís the concept?
The last load of TV work has been almost mini-dramas based around participants: Trick or Treat was always someone elseís story. Or it was TV specials of the stage shows that Iíve done. I wanted to do something a bit different for this series, to come up with something fresh. I wanted to go back more to the performance-related stuff, back to the roots of what I do.

The series is based on the idea of performing for an audience, and doing quite high-concept stunts in each episode. So the series is four one-hour episodes, and each one of those hours is very multi-layered. There are some elements that are pre-recorded, some elements of the programme are live, some elements are with an audience in a theatre, and they all lead to a big single event in each episode. Itís quite ambitious and potentially a career breaker.

Much of the series is still clouded in secrecy. Iím told youíd have to brainwash me if you told me about the first programme.
Iíd have to send you off to a deserted island till after they have gone out and your family too.

Right. Letís try and avoid that eventuality. What can you reveal about the first programme?
Over the last year Iíve been writing a lot of erotic poetry, and Iíll be reciting that, live, into the camera, for between ten and 12 hours.

Nice. Youíre not actually going to reveal anything, are you?
No. Unfortunately, if it got out beforehand, weíd probably be stopped from doing it.

Okay. Maybe you can tell us more about the second Event. I hear youíre going to have people stuck to their sofas.
Yes. The second show is a piece of media which will be played to the viewing nation, that will have the effect of rendering them immobile. Not all of them, but it will basically stick a lot of people to their seats. Itís safe, it wonít work on everybody, but itís applying what I do one on one with people on stage and turning it into a piece of technology that can then be broadcast Ė and it has never been done before.

Itís just a cheap way of maintaining viewing figures, isnít it?
WellÖ nobody will be able to move away from their telly, so theyíll have to watch!

Do you think people will be freaked out, if theyíre suddenly unable to get off their sofas?
I think thereíll be quite a wide range of responses. Iím sort of experimenting with mass influence and suggestion in the current live show that Iím doing, and this idea came from that work. Itís perfectly safe, though. People will be able to call into the show Ė weíll be telling people to keep their phones within reach Ė and Iíll be talking to some of those people during the show, so Iíll be able to find out how viewers have reacted.

Reassure me that youíre not then going to leave people stuck to their sofas for ever.
No, they wonít be. If their TV happened to break, or I died suddenly, after a few minutes people would be able to stand up again.

The Events 3 is entitled How to Be A Psychic Spy. Whatís that about?
There was a sort of psychic arms race which ran alongside the Cold War, which we are all sort of dimly aware of from the CIA conspiracy theories, and work like Jon Ronsonís The Men Who Stare at Goats. Itís playing on that.

Thereís one particular area, which is remote viewing, where things can be supposedly viewed and described even though they remain hidden. So a remote viewer, as some believe the CIA were using, would be able to view a document in Russia while sitting in Washington. It continues to this day. We have one of the worldís best remote viewers on the show, demonstrating it.

Itís an interesting area for me, because obviously Iím sceptical of anything psychic, and so what Iím then going to do isnít psychic but it plays on a similar theme. There will be a large, nationwide interactive remote-viewing experiment, to see if the nation can see something that is hidden from view. So everyone will be at home drawing what they think the hidden object looks like. If it works, it wonít be proof of psychic ability, because the methods Iím using wonít be psychic. Weíre just trying to do stuff that hasnít been done before, and this is certainly the first of its kind.

There will be layers to it and there will be an online element to it, so people will be able to do this in the build-up to the show on the website And all of the results will be collated. Weíll also have people there with us trying to do the same thing; it wonít just be viewers at home.

Thereís a lot that could go wrong with these ideas. Mass participation, live transmission, it sounds like a recipe for disaster. Are you nervous about it?
Yeah, particularly the first Event that weíre doing. If that one goes wrong, that could be a career-breaker.

Youíve just finished a run of live shows. Is that what you enjoy the most, the buzz of performing live?
I do really enjoy the live stuff. But the forthcoming TV shows are, for me, the most exciting things yet, because theyíre so layered and have so many different angles to them, including live.

Do you tailor your live/TV material very differently? Is the whole process different?
Yes, it certainly has a different feel to it. The live stuff is just two-and-a-half hours of me, so it has to be a bit different, a bit more humorous. Itís probably more fun than the TV stuff, which is more concentrated and darker.

Have you done stuff in your shows that manifestly hasnít worked?
Yeah, of course. Whenever that happens on the TV show we tend to keep it in there. A lot of the stuff we do is never going to work 100 per cent on everybody. Some of the things, if theyíre more like magic tricks, you know will work pretty much all the time, but if itís got more of a psychological basis, itíll depend more on the person youíre doing it with, and you canít always rely on that. Part of the skill, particularly on stage, is handling people. On stage, I have no choice as to who comes up, itís completely random, so then itís about managing the situations. I might have to change the skills and methods Iím using depending on the person who Iím working with.

What defines that suggestibility in someone? How do you know who will make a good person to work with and who will be less receptive?
Well, itís not always suggestibility that I want. Sometimes, having someone whoís very sceptical and a real challenge is easier for me to work with because they become a lot more predictable. If you want someone to think of a letter of the alphabet and theyíre really playing along and want it to work, it could be any one of 26 letters, whereas if someone says ďAll right, Iím thinking of one, I bet you canít get it,Ē you know itís going to be Q or Z because theyíre trying to catch you out. But when it is suggestibility Iím looking for, which is maybe half the time, then itís an emotional openness Iím after. People who are generally open and canít really hide their feelings very well tend to be good subjects.

Youíre always at pains to point out that you donít have any mysterious magical abilities, and youíve worked very hard to do what you do. Does that essentially mean that, with the right amount of dedication, anyone could do what you do?
Yes, absolutely. I think being musical is a good parallel. Anybody can be musical, but not everybody will put in the work. When theyíve looked at what makes people musical, itís 10,000 hours of practice. What appears to be a talent comes down to those 10,000 hours, but in order to put in those 10,000 hours youíve got to have a lot of environmental things in place like having parents that are supportive, youíve got to start seeing a piano teacher at the right age, and youíve got to have the sort of personality that makes you obsessive enough to want to put in that kind of work. What I do is much the same. Itís taken a lot of work, but itís nothing that is out of anybodyís reach at all.

Is there an element of what you do, being able to read peopleís emotions and have an insight into what theyíre thinking, thatís a curse?
I think, to be honest, what Iíve always done when Iím not working is just switch that off. I couldnít go through my life being that guy on the TV. It would be no basis on which to have a normal conversation. So I think I switch it off so much, that the only times I would switch into that mode would be if it was going to be helpful. Talking to a friend whoís upset about something and knowing an effective way to help them with that, or if somebodyís trying to sell me something, and it helps me deal with that more effectively. But no, it isnít a curse. Iíve found my way of dealing with it and giving it a role in my life.

So you donít automatically know if a friend is lying to you?
Iím probably going to be more perceptive than the next person with those sorts of things, but thatís not something I really think about. Thatís very low level stuff. Weíre all quite good at knowing when our friends are lying to us anyway. Itís not the same as, say, some of the memory stuff I do in the show. That is quite intense, if I was going through life working at that level, I wouldnít be able to function.

A lot of what you do involves hypnosis. You have a very good understanding of it. Does hypnotherapy work? You know, the Paul McKenna books that are meant to help people lose weight or sleep better?
That was the route I was originally going to go, using hypnotherapy as a therapeutic tool, before I decided that I enjoyed performing more. Some people swear by it, others say it has no effect on them at all. My gut instinct on it is that thereís nothing magical about it, either on stage or in a therapeutic situation. Thereís nothing that happens under hypnosis that canít happen normally. Someone eats an onion on stage thinking itís a juicy apple, and it looks amazing, but in fact you can pick up an onion and, if you donít think about it, you can eat it just fine. Itís the same with pain, if you donít think about it you donít feel it as much as if youíre concentrating on it. In a therapeutic situation, yes, you might be able to give up smoking or get over phobias, but I think thatís because for some people those changes are quite easy. The people that it works well on would probably have similar results if they simply had the support of a good and intuitive friend.

Whenever you are reviewed, the word that comes up again and again is Ďscaryí. Why do you think people find what you do scary?
One of the reasons I switched from doing card trick magic into mentalist/psychological magic is because itís more interesting. Itís more interesting to have your thoughts read than your card found. Depending on your feelings of control, that can either be a fascinating thing or a threatening thing. When I started out, I went around lots of tables in restaurants, and I tended to find that women would find it really intriguing, whereas guys would really find it a little bit threatening. I think some people just donít like the idea of having someone in their head. I think thatís the flip side of why other people find it interesting.

Of all the things youíve done, what are you proudest of?
If this series goes well, I think it would be top of the list. As of now, because those things havenít been done yet, Iíd probably say The Heist. Thatís probably my favourite. But as I say, if these stunts for the new series go well, theyíll be right up there. Theyíre certainly ambitious enough.

© Benjie Goodhart, 2009