-by Ken Plume
Derren Brown is a very dangerous man. In fact, any encounter with Derren - be it on a street or even your own home - is an affair fraught with peril. He is, in addition to being such hazard, one of the most fascinating entertainers currently plying his arcane trade on television today.
What exactly is that trade, you ask?
Derren Brown is - depending on how you look at it - a mentalist, a magician, an illusionist, a hypnotist, a paranormal skeptic… When, in reality, he’s all of these things and more. With an acerbic wit and presentational flair, he’s a riveting performer who’s finally making his way to the US.
A staple in the UK courtesy of multiple series, specials, and live shows, the Sci-Fi Channel has imported Derren via a rejiggered and expanded edition of his initial effort, Derren Brown - Mind Control. It’s a mixture of tricks and mental feats for a generation raised on Penn & Teller, and a must-see affair. As Derren himself describes it, his work is a combination of “magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship.” The US edition of Mind Control is currently berthed on Thursday nights at 10pm EST.
I’d also recommend you pick up the DVDs that are currently available in the UK (the original Mind Control, plus the first two series of Trick of the Mind), as well as his must-read book Derren Brown: Tricks of the Mind.
I got a chance to tempt fate by chatting with Derren, whilst constantly fearing that I would fall under his sway and become nothing more than a puppet in his diabolical schemes…
KEN PLUME: It’s a pleasure to be speaking with you.
DERREN BROWN: You too…
KP: It’s something we’ve been wanting to do for, I believe, two years now…
KP: Yes. I’m a huge fan of you and your work.
BROWN: Oh, thank you very much, that’s lovely. Thank you, Ken.
KP: And knowing some statements you’ve made in the past regarding enjoying your anonymity in the U.S. …
KP: What suddenly was the change that brought about the transport of the show and yourself into the arena of a U.S. network?
BROWN: Well, yeah. I think it just… it’s one of those things that’s always kind of been on the cards. You know we didn’t sell the show to the States, anticipating that one day we might want to have it commissioned out there. That was just something that was always gonna go in the background, and it’s been seven or eight years that I’ve been on TV, so it seemed like a good time to start asking. In terms of the anonymity, for me, I just don’t know… I mean, the difference is I don’t live in the States. If I do become well known out there for the show, it’s something I’ll have to deal with. I like my privacy, but I don’t know. I just don’t know. I was just talking to a previous interviewer about the slightly odd stalkers and strange reactions I’ve had, and God knows what it’s gonna open up starting up out there. So who knows.
KP: So does that mean at some point you’re going to start hosting America’s Gone Mental with Piers Morgan?
BROWN: (laughs) Yes, that’s the time. I’ll make a note!
KP: Do you still find that you have a shred of anonymity within the UK, or do you think that’s largely disappeared?
BROWN: Well, it’s kind of nice. Channel Four - it’s one of the big channels, but it’s less mainstream. It’s kind of the cooler, edgier kind of programs - which is fantastic for me, because they really support some of the stuff that I do, that I think I’d have trouble getting commissioned on some of the other channels. It’s a mixed sort of audience that watch the show and everything, but it gets - on average - I think about three million people that watch it, which is good figures for that channel. It’s not 20 million that watch the big soap operas. So it feels an okay sort of balance - but I wouldn’t want too much more. I don’t quite have the ambition or the ego of most big flashy magicians, so I’m not gonna be fishing and struggling to be number one magic type mind reading figure out there, so we’ll see. I’m fairly modest about all my expectations. I think it’s a good show and I hope people will want to watch it.
KP: And you also mentioned that you’re not exactly - by your preference - an outsized personality when it comes to the public eye…
BROWN: No. Yeah…. I think most of that comes from your own kind of drive and what you want. I mean, I was already doing what I do, quite happily, but just not on TV. And then I was offered the chance to do it on TV - which of course was great and exciting, but I think if you’re already doing something that you enjoy and it’s about just doing more of what you enjoy, that keeps it all sane. As opposed to just wanting to be on TV and famous for the sake and the appeal of that.
KP: What is that you want?
BROWN: I’d like to have a place in Florence, and retire and paint at some point, to be honest. I love doing this and it’s great fun, and I’ve been able to kind of reinvent the show a few times and I get to tour every year. I love all of that. So I enjoy it enormously. I have no idea how it’ll go in the States, whether it’ll take off and be a big thing or whether it’s something that will kick over for a while. I think it’s a good show. I’m proud of the show, so I’m very happy with that. Depending on what happens in the States, I may have to drastically change my priorities. I try and be relaxed about it and I don’t have any particularly strong ambitions or strong expectations in any areas.
KP: Have you found it more difficult going with each new series, as far as developing material for it?
BROWN: Actually, it’s kind of got easy. I thought it would be more difficult. Very rarely have we felt - I say “we”… it’s me and one other guy, my friend Andy, and we write all this stuff together…
KP: That’s Mr. Nyman right?
BROWN: Andy Nyman that’s right, yeah. Who’s currently touring in Death at a Funeral, this new Frank Oz movie. He’s just gone over to LA for a month. It’s opening sometime this month. So for me, what happened is the show’s progressed and matured here. It’s become about - especially the one hour specials that I’ve done - has sort of become about what I feel I wanted to look at or what’s become an area of interest for me. They’ve grown with me - as opposed to just, “Here’s another series, we need to churn out another 50 routines.” It’s never really felt like that. It’s always quite fresh and different. So somehow I’ve had a clearer sense of the sort of thing that I want to do each time, and that’s actually kept it fairly easy to come up with material that still feels interesting and fresh. It hasn’t been as difficult as I might have anticipated.
KP: Do you feel that you’ve, in lockstep with that, progressed and matured as a performer as well?
BROWN: I think so, yeah. I mean, I’m doing big stage shows and things that I never thought I’d do, and I had to learn how to do that. I had to learn how to perform in front of two thousand people - which is fairly big for our standards.
KP: What are the disciplinary differences between TV and on stage for an audience?
BROWN: Oh, hugely. You can do stuff on TV but not be particularly much of a live performer. I think it’s just one thing to get something on TV - most of the kind of drama and pace of it will probably come from the editing of the show, and the style and the look of the show. On stage, it’s just me for three hours, and I’ve got to try and keep everybody constantly entertained. That really is just me. So it’s a different set of skills on top of actually making the stuff work. For me, it’s much more exciting, I much more prefer that, and I look forward to hopefully, in time, doing something on Broadway, because it’s a real buzz.
KP: It definitely is more energizing to see you in that longer sustained form, having seen the Something Wicked special you filmed during your last stage tour…
BROWN: That’s cool. Yeah, it is different, isn’t it? And it also means I have to be sort of lighter and funnier, and do things that for some reason never really worked too well in the series. The series is quite solemn in comparison. Not a lot of room for gags.
KP: Would you perceive the character of Derren Brown that you’re performing in those two venues to be different?
BROWN: Yes, I think it is. Still, I think the stage version is more me, because that’s the… if you’re gonna perform at all well - and I’m not saying that I perform that well - but it has to be you. It has to be a theatrically enhanced or tweaked version of yourself. You can’t just sort of fake your personality. That doesn’t really work. It does on TV, because it’s all sort of fairly quick segments, and I’ve just got to get through what I’ve got to do because it’s got to fit into a format on TV. You know, less room for that. Actually performing the piece, you want them to shine and you want them to interest the viewer at home. So yes, I think in terms of the character, there’s certainly two different sides. That’s kind of interesting. If it was me watching the show and I’d seen that guy on TV, I’d be quite interested if I went to see him on stage and he sort of fleshed him out a bit as a character. But I don’t think of it too much as a character… but I suppose, invariably, you have to, to keep on top of it.
KP: Do you perceive him as any different from how you are off stage?
BROWN: I think I’m a lot less the kind of very confident, controlling… It’s a side of me, if I’m comfortably high status (laughs)… I can be like that, but I’m much quieter and more considered, I think. But then it’s really fun if you are like that - and I’m quite indecisive and I’m quiet and private… all those things in real life… so it’s actually quite nice to tap into that side, the more confident aspects of yourself. To do that on stage is a real treat.
KP: So you’re saying the closest thing people would see to the real you is if they’d seen that bonus feature on your second DVD set, with you eating breakfast rather anal retentively?
BROWN: Oh that! Yeah probably, probably. Yes, I thought that was quite fun when I watched that. Yeah, it’s all different parts of me. You have to draw from yourself, and then you kind of have to enhance that and make it interesting. With the TV show, it’s fast-paced - it’s difficult having too many layers to that. But sometimes, certainly the show here has gotten funnier and lighter. It never become a big laugh, but the TV show, as it’s grown up, it’s become a little bit softer around the edges, in a good way. And I think that was something that was important. Whereas, yeah, doing the first series for Sci-Fi, I think it has to be very clear to people exactly who I am and what I’m doing. And then hopefully give it room to grow if it gets recommissioned, and has a chance to do that.
KP: Do you call them tricks? Do you call them performance pieces?
BROWN: Routines? Segments? I don’t mind. Some people have called them tricks - that’s fine, too.
KP: Watching the last series, Trick or Treat, on Channel Four…
BROWN: I’m fascinated that you know the material, that you’ve watched these things. Thank you.
KP: Like I said, I’m one of the people in the US who’ve been trying to show people your work for the last couple years.
BROWN: Oh thank you, Ken…
KP: I’m just glad you’re coming to the US. When you look at those segments, there seems to be both a… you know, obviously because of the concept of the program (where volunteers get to choose what type of piece they’ll be involved in - a trick or a treat), it has a very soft, kind edge, as well as a very, very hard edge with the trick portion of it. Do you see a line that is uncrossable in what kind of segment you’ll do, in terms of what you’ll subject a participant to?
BROWN: I think, for me, the thing of primary importance is the experience of the person that takes part in it. That’s a huge, important part of it. Although some of the pieces, they may be finished in a way that makes them look quite bleak or traumatic or cruel, the reality is that people always are so well taken care of and always invigorated by it. To me, that’s very important. Especially how participants generally are treated in reality shows and things - it’s just criminal and quite upsetting sometimes. So it’s very important to me that it isn’t like that, and that their experiences are authentic and matches what they see on TV when it goes out, but also that it’s enjoyable for them. So with that in mind, it’s our sort of building drama. It’s a question of not just showcasing, “Look at me, look how clever I am, I can do this” - that was maybe more important at the very start when I had to make a name for myself, but now I’m in the shows less… and ideally, I wouldn’t be in them at all, but I still have to make a living. (laughs) Obviously I have to get my skills and what I do in there, but at the same time what I’m interested in is the drama of the situation - which, at home, you’re empathizing with the person that’s taking part. I think we just sort of sit around and talk about it, and that idea, and a couple of others, came like the zombie arcade game - which I guess you must have seen…
BROWN: They came out of normally sitting around, talking about smaller sort of tricks, if you like, and ideas, and I go, “Can we just think a bit bigger? What if we… I mean we’d never do this obviously, but what if somebody woke up and they were witnessing their own death in a car crash, and we had a double made of them, or something.” Something like that. And that idea kind of sticks, even though it’s normally said in a spirit of, “Well, obviously we couldn’t do that because that would be really cruel.” And then it sticks, and then…
KP: And then you did it.
BROWN: … and then we find a way to do it that isn’t cruel and irresponsible, and that’s sort of interesting and intriguing and fascinating to the person. If it is a bit cruel, at least by the end of it they’ll feel elated and exhilarated and forgive us. Plus they volunteered to take part in the show, and they know the sort of character that I am.
KP: They know what they’re getting into.
BROWN: Yeah, they know what they’re getting into.
KP: Has there ever been a participant that reacted in a completely surprising manner?
BROWN: It’s never happened. There was one stunt, the staring competition…
KP: Was that the gentleman that was about to hit you?
BROWN: Yeah, that’s right. Exactly. That’s as far as it’s gone, but that was specifically to make somebody angry and troubled. That was full of that, so it was hardly a surprise.
KP: Did you feel, in that situation, that there was the potential for it to get out of control?
BROWN: I think for me… I get asked this a lot, and I understand that. Maybe it’s just that I’m so on top of what’s happening, and that experience - hopefully knowing how they’re kind of framing it in their minds. It’s difficult to explain, but it kind of… in the same way that hypnotized people look like they’re under the control of somebody else, there’s in fact a much more subtle game of behavioral manipulation, and what looks like one person, the hypnotist, controlling - it isn’t about that at all. It’s about a kind of…
KP: A dance, would you say?
BROWN: It is, yes, exactly, it’s more of a dance, so there is… often what it looks like, in terms of that level of cruelty or control, it isn’t really quite like that. And being aware of the subtler aspects of it, I’m utterly comfortable with what I’m doing and how far I’m taking it. Then, in terms of how it’s presented on screen, once the music’s added and whether it’s left on a very bleak note, I like people to feel a bit guilty for having watched it. I think it’s kind of interesting. It’s not the sort of stuff that you necessarily associate with watching, like, a magic show, or something like that, which obviously it’s related to that whole tradition. So I like playing around with all of that - but that’s separate from the person’s experience, which hopefully always comes out very positive. We did this thing called The Heist, which…
KP: Which, honestly - of all your outcomes - was probably the most disturbing to watch…
BROWN: Yeah, it was pretty disturbing. Now there, I had the guys come over and watch the show in its rough edit form to make sure… the guy, Danny, who was the one that kind of seemed most disturbed when he was stopped… the one that’s doubled over…
KP: Who seemed to have a bit of a breakdown…
BROWN: Yeah. We became good friends. I went out to dinner with them all afterwards, and explained to him the whole of the show, and then Danny came over, and he loved it. He was so exhilarated by it, and he came over and watched the rough edit of the show. Because it was two weeks that had to be pulled down into an hour, and I didn’t want them thinking that I’ve reflected them badly or even it doesn’t reflect what really happened, so he came over as the kind of - as the guy who’d been through the worst - just to make sure that he was happy with it. Which he was. He came and saw a screening of it, and they were all happy with it. It was great. They’re always very well taken care of, and I generally tend to keep in touch with them as well, and some of them become friends. That side of it is hugely important. And yeah, that line you talked about is just one of responsibility. Ultimately, the show is put together intelligently and seriously, and not just sensationally. I know people that have been involved in reality shows and the like, and it’s sort of heartbreaking how ruthless that world is. Maybe it’s partly through seeing that, that makes me realize how important that kind of welfare side of it is…
KP: That sense of compassion does come through in the programs. I think it’s a fascinating companion to also read your book…
BROWN: You have done your homework!
KP: I keep hoping that the book will come over to the U.S., because I’m tired of importing copies for people.
BROWN: (laughs) Hopefully it will at some point.
KP: If Louis Theroux can get his book through…
BROWN: Has his show been in the States?
KP: No, in fact his show hasn’t aired in the States at all, but they released his book here in the U.S.. His companion book to Weird Weekends.
BROWN: That’s nice…
KP: But reading your book, I can definitely see where you’re coming from when you do these sort of things. I think anyone who watches the show probably should read the book just to get a better sense of what your head space is and what your foundation is, as a performer…
BROWN: I hope that’s something that will - if further series are commissioned, and so on - I hope that’s something that will be allowed to grow. Understandably with the first series, Sci-Fi is very keen that it just nails it straight down the middle, in terms of what I do and how I do it.
KP: Just out of curiosity, have you seen the “Seven Safety Tips For Dealing With Derren Brown” that’s been circulating the internet?
BROWN: No, I haven’t!
KP: Well, here’s the bullet points of it: First one is “Don’t deal with Derren Brown.” Second one is “Don’t go to the United Kingdom”… Which is now moot, of course.
BROWN: This is something from the States?
KP: Yeah, there’s a site called needcoffee.com…
KP: Number three, “If you suddenly find yourself in the UK and Derren approaches, don’t look at him.” Number four, “If you cannot escape him, do not let him touch you.”
KP: Number five, “If he manages to touch you, at least keep him from taking hold of your wrist.” Number six, “If he manages to take hold of your wrist, for the love of baby Jesus don’t let him put his hand over your face.”
KP: Number seven, “Even if he doesn’t touch you, don’t let him not touch you either.”
KP: And it’s fully illustrated with various clips to back up the assertions.
BROWN: That’s fantastic!
KP: That’s from May of this year.
BROWN: That’s great! I hope you’re going to put those in the article. That’s fantastic.
KP: Oh, definitely. From a performance point of view, I’m wondering which aspect you find most challenging - is it the memory skills, the dexterity, or the interpersonal communication?
BROWN: (laughs) The honest answer to that is remembering people’s names when they come up on stage. I did this thing in my first stage tour - I thought, for each city I go to, I will memorize the phone book for that city, then have people call out names and addresses of themselves or their friends or whatever, and I’ll tell them the phone numbers, or around the other way. And I managed to do it - I didn’t always get them right, but managed to do that. But despite that, I never learned the name of the person that would come up that was going through the same book to double check it… the names of people in the audience when they stood up… I’m terrible with that, because I’m so focused on one thing. So it’s always the little things… And utterly ridiculous, because I do this stunt and then thank the person and then have to say, “What was your name again?” You’re like a gag. It got a laugh every night, and I just found it embarrassing. It’s the little things. All the other stuff kind of… (sigh) I don’t know. I’m making it look more difficult than it is. That’s part of the performance. I don’t find it too difficult to monitor something new… I mean, when I’m doing the stage shows, that’s always kind of hard on the first night, and it gradually gets rolled in. It’s a difficult one to answer, but probably the truthful answer is the more entertaining one, I guess, which is people’s names when they come up. I’m very good - like with journalists, I find that if I sit there and do a bank of 10, 20 journalists and I say I will remember all their names, and I always tell them their names back again, and they always write in the articles how impressed they are. But yeah, if I don’t make a point of doing it, I’m just like everybody else - just terrible, terrible at doing that kind of thing. On stage, when it matters most, is when I’m worst.
KP: It’s fascinating, in watching the first series of Mind Control in the UK, having seen the Devil’s Picture Book tape…
BROWN: Oh yes… gosh. Wow.
KP: … to see some of the things reappearing in different guises within the series…
KP: I thought that was fascinating. That and the reaction you got out of Stephen Fry.
BROWN: Yes, that’s right. Oh, he’s lovely. He’s such a nice guy. He’s not that well known in the States, is he?
KP: He is and he isn’t. He’s known to a certain segment, but he’s not everywhere like he is in the UK.
BROWN: Yeah, yeah.
KP: One of the things I did want to touch upon briefly was also your painting.
BROWN: Oh yeah…
KP: I quite enjoy what I’ve seen…
BROWN: Well, thank you.
KP: Your portraits are heavily caricatured, and in capturing the essence of a person, has there been anyone that’s proved particularly difficult for you?
BROWN: Al Pacino. It’s probably the least successful that I’ve done. I think it’s on the website, if it’s been updated. But yeah, I always found him very difficult. Really wanted to paint him and have that in the collection, but it’s never been in my… you know why it was? You know, he’s got a very kind of expressive face. It’s not for lack of features to exaggerate, but I could never get it right. It’s sort of all right, the one that I’ve done, but I don’t know if it’s…
KP: Do you think it’s a difficulty to exaggerate exaggeration?
BROWN: Yeah. I don’t know what it is, because it’s not a very conscious process. It’s not like you… they are caricatures, even though they’re subtle, but I don’t kind of… you don’t consciously think, “Right, that’s quite a big nose, so I’ll draw a big nose.” You just draw what you see, and then if you naturally see things in an exaggerated way with faces - which I guess I do, which I’ve always had a very good memory for faces because I’ve always seen them and remembered them in this kind of exaggerated way - so you just draw what you have in your head and it just comes out in an exaggerated way. If I try and draw a straight portrait that isn’t exaggerated, I can’t. It just comes out like that. So it’s very difficult, to do it when it isn’t working, it’s kind of hard to make it work. And for some reason I was hung up on that…
KP: Has your self-portraiture changed much over the years?
BROWN: Yes. It’s only the most recent one that I think works for me. There were quite a few previous ones that were not very good. How you see yourself isn’t how other people see you, so if you’re painting somebody else, and you know when it’s right, because it kind of clicks into place, and I can hear their voice talking when it works. You just look at it and it’s like looking at a photograph, and the picture triggers all the associations that looking at the real person would. Whereas yourself, that click doesn’t happen, because you don’t think of yourself in the same was you think of other people. You don’t hear the person’s voice and you think of them, and all those sorts of things. It’s just guess work, in the end. It’s just, “Yeah, that looks like what’s in the mirror, so I’ll stick with that.” It’s only this last one that…
KP: That’s finally clicked?
BROWN: Yeah. Probably because I see myself on TV now. I’ve actually got an image of that.
KP: Do you think you have a perception of yourself outside of yourself? If that made any sense…
BROWN: Well, I guess more so than before.
KP: Is that perception of you as “you”, or do you perceive that as the “performer” version of you?
BROWN: I think it depends on how messy my hair is, how confidently I’m staring at the camera… all that kind of thing. I think there’s a certain look and dress I associate with the performing me more than… or even having said that, I am wearing a suit at the moment, even though I don’t need to - though I do tend to wear suits in real life, as well. I don’t know…
KP: Well, obviously you’re dressing up for the interviews.
BROWN: (laughs) A perfectionist. In case you have some video thing that I don’t know about…
KP: I saw you rearranging silverware at breakfast on the DVD features, so I know all about your perfectionism…
KP: Any plans to take your live tour to the US at any point?
BROWN: Well, I would love to. I mean, that’s certainly something to aim for. I think it’s just a question of if the series builds up a fan base and it feels right, then I would love to do a tour, do a Broadway run if possible. That would be great. They’ll love the way I sing. You’re a very diverse country. You know? I mean, in some ways you’re very homogenous, and in other ways… you’re hardly heterogeneous, if that’s the word. And it’s psychologically interesting as well, so it’s nice, with the show, to go to different areas. I’m sure how New Yorkers react to a camera - let alone what I’m doing - will be very different to going somewhere in kind of the Midwest or deep south. It’s a rich area, I think, and I think useful and good fun for the show, as well.
KP: Hopefully we’ll come across better than we did in Messiah…
BROWN: (laughs) Yeah, I think… I don’t know if we’re using bits from that. No, we might just hold that back and have that as a special. Yeah, might need to soften it up a little bit.
KP: Here’s hoping that you do make the transition. I think it’s been a long time coming.
BROWN: Well, thank you, Ken. I really appreciate your support, and thank you for making people read the book. That’s lovely.
KP: I do appreciate your time, and here’s hoping in the future we can finally do that in-depth interview that we’ve been trying to do for years.
BROWN: That would be fantastic. I can’t wait to meet you one day…
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