Mind how you go

Magician Derren Brown tells nearly all to Sophie Haydock

He is a man who doesn’t always get what he wants. Which is pretty spectacular given that Derren Brown has powers of manipulation that every other person on the planet can only dream of. He is not only a magician but a master of mind-reading, seemingly able to peer into people’s heads as if their skulls were made of glass. He is the king of control – a hypnotist and illusionist with an uncanny knack for making his victims do the most absurd things against their better judgement: divulge secrets, hand over wallets, fire a gun with cold-hearted precision at high-profile figures like Stephen Fry, with the intent to kill.

“No, no, no!” says Brown with charming conviction. “I’m a long, long way from always getting what I want. People have this idea of me… but I’m not really the person you see on TV or stage. With friends and family, I’m nothing like the manipulative magician who persuades people to do things they don’t want to do. I certainly don’t sit at the dinner table reading my partner’s mind, tricking him into passing me the salt. It would be a horrendous way of living.”

He says getting everything you want doesn’t necessarily make you happy

Brown is not only unwilling to conjure up all his heart’s desires through sorcery and subterfuge, he also thinks that getting everything you want doesn’t necessarily make you happy. “Maybe you buy a house or a new toy and it makes you feel lovely for a while, but you very quickly acclimatise,” he says. “So regardless of what you’re doing in life or if you suddenly have lots of money, it doesn’t ultimately make much difference about how good you feel.”

It may surprise those who have branded him the “devil in disguise” but Brown continues to explain how the extent to which you feel that life delivers what you want comes down to one simple thing: kindness. In fact, his conviction runs so deep that when asked what he would change about society if he could successfully influence us all en masse, it comes straight back to that.

“If I could change one thing – and I can’t, by the way – it would be to make people kinder,” he says simply. “We’re all very fixated with the idea of self-help and self-improvement. It’s a big industry. The mantra of that is all about selfishness and persuading others to give you what you want. It is quite unpleasantly insidious and filters through to a lot of levels of society.”

Derren Brown
Brown: kindness is the key

But surely there are bigger issues at stake? “Doing the kind thing has been shown time and time again to make you happier than having kindness bestowed on you,” he insists. “The pleasure you get from knowing you’ve done something kind, even if it’s a smug pleasure, to know that you’re living a kind life… It’s massively important. It’s always been the case and will always be the case.”

So what’s the last kind thing that Brown did? “Ah!” he exclaims with a flourish. “You could never admit to your kind acts or they would cease to be kind. And you’d just sound awful. It’s certainly not that I’m a living example of that philosophy.”

“There are plenty of people who can’t stand me, I’m sure .”

If he’s so concerned with being part of a kinder world, why not try to manipulate his audience, with all the tricks at his disposal, to adopt that way of thinking in a show or TV series? “It’s not the sort of thing you can easily tell people to do. It is actually something I’ve tried a few times. But it’s very difficult to find a way of making it dramatic enough for TV or the stage.”

Despite his protests, it seems that at the age of 41 Brown does have everything he wants: money, fame, a happy relationship with a long-term partner and a fan base that idolises him. There he interrupts me. “There are plenty of people who can’t stand me, I’m sure – people out there who find me smug and unbearable.”

“Every night I ask that people don’t reveal a thing.”

Brown is currently performing his latest stage show, Svengali, which began touring last year and continues until June. It promises to be quite a spectacle – bringing the “wonders of the occult” to an eager audience. One reviewer described it as “the eeriest, most captivating, brain-baffling show I’ve ever seen”.

What actually happens on stage is a closely guarded secret. “Every night I ask that people don’t reveal a thing,” says Brown. “They are so good about it.” Such are the levels of secrecy, he won’t even explain the relevance of the name. “Ah! That’s something you find out on the night. I can’t even tell you that.”

“In some ways,” he continues, “I think Svengali is lighter than previous shows. But some people say it’s really creepy and does get under their skin.”

The stage stuff, as a rule for Brown, is fun. “There are people right there in front of you, responding, laughing, clapping, enjoying you. There’s a real adrenaline to it. Being on stage is my favourite thing of all. Actually, I think it’s where I’m best.”

Magic over the years has certainly given him a passport to a varied and interesting life, and has brought his audience some memorable performances. In 2003, he controversially performed Russian roulette live on air and, in 2004, a séance. Just a couple of years ago, he appeared to successfully predict the winning National Lottery numbers – much to the nation’s disbelief.

It was a strange experience to present himself as a beggar

He went on to disguise himself as a homeless man in 2009, to see if he could influence the public to donate more money than they would do normally. “It was interesting to see if I could persuade people to give more. And they did. The whole street was set up with subliminal messages and things hidden in shop display windows, so not the sort of things that others in that situation are going to have at their fingertips.”

It was a strange experience to present himself as a beggar because, as a celebrity, he’s become used to people being “very nice” to him. “To be in a situation like that where I’m still me, but I look and appear very different to people – it was fascinating. I was surprised that on the whole people were genuinely quite nice.”

With his recent projects, Brown says he has taken a “new approach”: one, to stop him getting “bored” with his own material, and two, because “there’s only so much of me saying ‘hey, look at me, aren’t I clever?’ that people can bear without vomiting”.

When it comes to writing his new stuff, he doesn’t have to look far for inspiration. He just sits down with his co-writer and thinks: “What would I like? If I were stuck in a room with me for a few hours, what would I want to see? What would get me on the edge of my seat?

“Sometimes with magic it can feel a bit like someone’s posturing, so we’ve tried to avoid that. I’d like to think I’ve found a way of doing it that on the one hand preserves the fact it’s magic, and on the other is very open.” With honesty he admits that it’s “nice when people like it and horrible when they don’t”.

“Magic is the most fraudulent route to impressing people.”

Growing up in the 1970s, Brown was a quiet boy, riddled with nervousness and confidence-sapping tics. He gravitated towards magic to bolster his self-esteem. He learnt cards tricks and perfected sleights of hand as a way to capture the attention of family and friends.

“Magic is the quickest and most fraudulent route to impressing people. That’s why it exists. Most kids get into magic if they don’t feel confident socially, because they’re doing something where people go, oh my God, you’re amazing! Others look at what you’ve learnt to do with a deck of cards and they mistake it for you yourself being amazing, which is very addictive.”

My final question to Britain’s best-known mind reader is unavoidable, really. He must get this a lot. “So…” I ask. “Can you guess what animal I am thinking of?”

He laughs sharply. “No! I can’t do that. I’m afraid it just won’t work.” And then, unable to restrain himself, he says: “Giraffe?”

Derren Brown’s Svengali is at the Lowry, Salford, 5-10, 14, 15 March, Opera House, Blackpool, 2-4 April

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