Last time we saw DERREN BROWN, he was firing a gun at his head. Brian Donaldson meets the mild-mannered magician who reads minds at 50 paces and wonders whether it was a stunt too far.
ll dressed in brown. Derren Brown is rushing down
Baker Street towards me. As I stand at the door of the
venue for our interview (appropriately, for such a national man of mystery. the Sherlock Holmes Hotel) Brown has presumably just glanced into the crystal ball he keeps deep down in the pocket of his long brown overcoat and. through the mists. spotted that l have arrived first. But wait. he's just walked past me and straight into the busy foyer. That’s hardly the act of a superhuman with an almighty power to read the minds of complete strangers from distances both near and far. Maybe he‘s plain rude. Or perhaps he‘s just psyching me out for a titanic battle of wits v witless.
The truth is that during the course of our hour—long chat. Derren Brown does several things to decry any notion that he somehow possesses otherworldly abilities way beyond the reach and understanding of his fellow creatures. For one thing. on several occasions he makes a point of telling me that he's nonnal: ‘You have to take what I do with a truckload of salt.’ he‘ll say. Or: ‘lt’s not science. it’s not documentary.‘ Or even: ‘I try to keep what I do well within the bounds of entertainment: I’m certainly not in touch with the spirits.‘
So. primed to be the object of a small scale psychological illusion. I become mildly deflated that instead of mentally stripping me bare. revealing tiny childhood details or guessing the contents of my wallet. he spends much of the interview with his head placed tiredly on the palm of one hand. the other cranking a glass of martini to his mouth. A day of filming psychological illusions can take it out of even the most potent of magic men. Tonight. ladies and gentlemen. Derren Brown is not ‘on‘. Indeed. he‘s very rarely ‘on’.
‘lt sounds pompous. but if you’re in the business of
impressing people for a living then when you‘re not doing it. you just want to have normal conversations. rather than have people going. “Ooh. wow. that‘s amazing."' says Brown. perfectly normally. ‘Of course. I‘ve absorbed various techniques so 1 can be more persuasive than the next person. but it’s something I switch off from. Like every performer. in everyday situations you want people to get past all that.‘
And yet, how do you get past the things you may have seen Brown do on TV‘.’ This is the man who walked blindfolded over an obstacle course avoiding booby traps while ex-SAS figurehead Chris Ryan gave him false instructions: the man who beat manipulating ad execs at their own game with the power of suggestion: the man who cheated Walthamstow dog track out of a pretty sum. And most notoriously. he's the man who fired a gun to his head and survived.
Sunday 5 October 2003: Brown‘s Russian roulette event was his David Blaine moment: when he put that firearm three times to his skull and pulled the trigger. he became a name for the tabloids to conjure with. It was the UK version of being inside a Perspex box or a block of ice. To many. the almost-live
Channel 4 broadcast was the most thrillingly tense piece of
non-sporting television for years. To others. it was an example that freak shows are alive. well and thriving on a terrestrial
network which has repeatedly stretched the definitions of
All three events are linked by our fear of. and fascination with. being confronted with the raw reality of death. And all three are prone to accusations that what is on screen isn‘t quite what it seems. With Russian roulette. the doubters were out in
12 TI'IE LIST 15—29 Apr 2004
some force: so. there were micro-cameras under the table; the bullets and/or gun were rubberised: the man who loaded the gun was a stooge: there were mirrors around the room; there were mirrors simultaneously under the table. on the gun and attached to his stooge. ‘There’s nothing you can do to disprove those accusations.‘ he notes with a certain weariness that could be down to a hard day‘s filming or another reminder of the justifications he constantly has to make for himself. ‘You know they‘re not stooges. it‘s not a rubber gun and there are no hidden cameras because any of that would sooner or later get out and that would be the end of my career: it's ridiculous. Equally. if you want to think of all those things then fine. people can come up with their own solutions. My job is to undercut those solutions. But there are far more important things in the world than “magician does trick!m
For a while. the headlines of Brown’s life could have read: ‘lawyer takes case!’ or ‘linglishman translates sentence into German!‘ During his first year at Bristol University. Brown went along to see an ‘unusually intelligent' magician called Martin Taylor and his life was spun around. Not only did he start to question and eventually disown his religious beliefs. but he also realised that his Law/German studies were leading him down a pointless path. It was time to return to the magic set he had neglected as a child and soon he was doing sleight of hand tricks here. a bit of hypnosis there. But he wanted to achieve something bigger. better and far. far cooler.
Help eventually arrived through an unlikely source. ‘lf it wasn’t for Jerry Sadowitz. I wouldn‘t be doing any of this.’ Having bumped into each other in a London magic shop. the pair got on and mutual admiration set in. Sadowitz introduced Brown to production companies and book publishers. His new contacts helped get Brown his first Channel 4 show. Mind Control. in late 2000. and by March 2003 he was a regular on TV and launching himself onto his first national tour. And now, having survived his closest shave. he‘s back with a sell-out UK tour and a new series. Trick oft/1e Mind. the opening episode of which shows him outfoxing Stephen Fry. bamboozling a bunch of chess grandmasters and inflicting temporary amnesia on a London cabbie. Some might argue they all had it coming.
And yet. despite his obvious skill and showmanship. there are some who just won‘t give Derren Brown the time of day. ‘There‘s something inherent with magicians that at the basest level you're standing there saying. “I’m so clever. I can do something you can‘t." which is why magicians are hated. Penn and Teller are the only ones who have been around for a long time and have stayed really cool and. weirdly. they’re both pushing (30. But if you do magic. it‘s because you love the experience of being fooled by something: and having your belief system shaken up a bit is a really good experience.‘
And with a metaphorical swish of his long brown overcoat and a humble apology for having to take a call from the Cmydun Advertiser. Derren Brown leaves me standing psychologically fully-clothed. And the reason behind the interview happening at the vastly symbolic Sherlock Holmes Hotel? 'l just live round the corner‘. Magic.
Trick of the Mind starts on Channel 4, Fri 23 Apr, 10pm; Derren Brown plays at Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, Mon 3 May and Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Tue 4 May. Thanks to GNER for travel, www.9ner.co.uk.