Monday 23 September 2019

It's a kinda magic

He's one of magic's most controversial figures but Derren Brown isn't the confident enchanter of his stage persona. Instead, as Ed Power discovers, the man dubbed a menace to society by the UK tabloids talks about how he tries to wield the power of hypnosis with gentle hands

Magician Derren Brown. Photo by Fabio De Paola/REX/Shutterstock
Magician Derren Brown. Photo by Fabio De Paola/REX/Shutterstock

He's played Russian roulette on live television and caused parliamentary uproar in the UK when appearing to predict the British national lottery numbers.

But perhaps the greatest trick magician, hypnotist and "mind hacker" Derren Brown ever pulled was making us think the debonair, slightly sinister figure he cuts on stage and on TV is what he's like in real life.

"As with a lot of people who get into performing, I was a bit insecure when I was younger," says Brown, who returns to Ireland with his new show, Underground, next week. "In real life I'm probably shyer than people imagine."

There was a time when a famous magician could expect to become a national treasure. Look at Paul Daniels in the UK or David Copperfield in America (more on him in a bit).

But those days are over - in this part of the world, especially, the number of magicians with genuine celebrity status can be counted on one hand.

Top of the list, arguably, is 47-year-old Brown who first created headlines with a 2003 TV special on Channel 4 in which, at an undisclosed location in Jersey, he played Russian roulette on live TV -  apparently putting a revolver to his head, spinning the barrel and pulling the trigger.

There was consternation, with the tabloid media in the UK upbraiding him as a danger to society. The police weighed in - technically Brown was breaking the law by possessing a firearm without license.

Backlashes similarly followed his national lottery stunt and a 2004 television "séance" in which volunteers contacted a "dead" girl, only for it to be revealed she was in a trailer at the back of the studio.

Brown doesn't believe in the paranormal - so it was ironic that the latter broadcast should receive hundreds of complaints to the effect that he was promoting the supernatural.

"I don't have very thick skin - when it comes to massive public attention it can be quite difficult to avoid, due to the nature of social media," he says in a low voice that contains traces of poshness yet is nowhere near as plummy as the one he deploys on stage.

"You often feel you've done something wrong. It is odd, sometimes, having something picked over and questioned. But maybe that's how it should be - perhaps it shouldn't ever feel completely normal."

Brown was an only child until age nine and, as he says, never fitted in with the cool crowd. In his youth, he was cripplingly insecure and overcompensated by becoming an attention-seeker.

His salvation, he feels, was attending a hypnotist's show when he was studying at the University of Bristol. Magic became a positive outlet for his need for approval.

"I was never sporty at school and was was intimidated by that set. I became a terrible attention-seeker," he recalls. "I look back at myself at that age, I think I must have been pretty repulsive."

After the show in Bristol, magic took over his life. He'd had a magic set as a child and had watched Paul Daniels. But now he became obsessed. Brown practised compulsively and, to his mild surprise, discovered he had a flair for turning people's minds inside out.

"It's like playing the piano," he explains. "Anyone can do it - but not everyone can do it. Not everyone will have the knack. It doesn't mean it's anything special.

"I've just done it for a long time. It ticked all the boxes for me - I felt in control. The sort of people whom I had been intimated by, responded to it very strongly. That gave me a real impetus."

Brown has always been clear that what he does isn't "magic" in the commonly understood, warping-the-fabric of reality sense.  

"Hypnosis is just suggestibility; you see it in certain people," he once told the Guardian. Indeed, it's for that reason he is reluctant to try out tricks on journalists, whom he has described as a "classical bad subject" for his material.

His "gimmick", he feels, is that he doesn't really have a gimmick. Magicians who invest in their stage persona are doomed, Brown is inclined to think, to a short career. People may initially enjoy your shtick - the costumes and the melodrama. Eventually they see through it. And then what do you have?

"You can't really talk about the stuff that makes it interesting - which is the method [i.e. the tricks]. Most of them try to play the part of being interesting," he elaborates. "There's a lot of posturing in magic - trying to be the serious figure. Which is silly as people know it's posturing.

"The ones who have had real longevity have never suffered from that. Penn and Teller, the American magicians, have had an incredible career and it's never been about themselves - they've never tried to look mysterious or interesting. Their agenda has always been about other things."

Having achieved success in Ireland and Britain, Brown has recently looked to the United States. He's working on a special for Netflix, due later this year. The streaming Goliath recently repackaged his 2016 Channel 4 one-off, Pushed to the Edge, which explored the phenomenon of "social compliance" by considering whether a member of the public could be talked into bundling a man off the roof of a building.

Pushed to the Edge - renamed Derren Brown's The Push for Netflix - was controversial. The guinea pig, a sincere, anxious type named Chris Kingston, is shown under enormous strain as he is pressured into giving the stranger a lethal shove (when he ultimately refuses to, it is revealed that three previous participants went all the way). Watching it, you might be surprised he and Brown, who is ultimately responsible for his ordeal, have since become friends.

Along with everything else, The Push also feels creepily prescient. In 2016, social compliance was something we associated with the past.

However, Brown's tacit warning against allowing others do your thinking for you has acquired an edge in the age of Donald Trump and Brexit, with its chilling mantra "the will of the people".

"It was originally done a couple of years ago, before the world became a much stranger place," he nods.

"Social compliance didn't quite have the resonance it does now. The political resonances were at the time very faint and historical. But now it feels much more relevant."

Brown is, for once, not the only magician in the headlines. David Copperfield was recently in court giving evidence in a case brought by a British man who claims he was hurt during one of Copperfield's illusions. When it comes to volunteers, Brown says he feels a huge responsibility and maintains an ongoing relationship - first because he has become friends with these people but also because he believes he owes it to them. They've gone through a lot - it would be wrong to simply cut these individuals loose.

"There are journalists out there who are always convinced the whole thing is fake," he says.

"They try to get hold of these people and ask what might seem like a perfectly innocent question and then turn the story around, which is frustrating.

"You want to protect them from all of that intrusion. Though the shows look quite dark, people always have such a great time. That's why we keep in touch after I've put them through these extraordinary things."

The Best of Derren Brown: Underground runs at Dublin's Gaiety Theatre May 15 until May 19 and at Cork Opera House May 28 until May 31

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