Derren Brown’s brand of psychological illusion uses elements of magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship.
Whether he appears to be reading people’s minds, contacting the dead, guessing people’s dreams, or telling them their detailed medical history just by looking at them, the results seem to defy logic.
Yet what’s refreshing about Brown, born in Purley in 1970, is his open and honest approach to what he does. He cheerfully reveals that he can’t read people’s minds or commune with the afterlife. His skill is to make it look like he can, which he does in his new show, Derren Brown: Messiah.
His two television specials, in autumn 2004 and at the start of this year, set about exposing the more fraudulent aspects of mysticism and spirituality. The first, Sance, was an adrenaline-fuelled hour of excitement and terror that ultimately showed how age-old techniques used by 19th century mediums could still work on a sophisticated 21st century audience.
The second, Messiah, was an investigation into how Brown could receive endorsements from influential mystics, spiritualists and religious leaders in America, despite having no genuine abilities in those areas at all. The result was a thought-provoking and disturbing indication of how we can be hoodwinked into accepting impostors as genuine leaders.
What has driven him in this direction? Why the conscientious crusade?
“It’s important to me to look at these areas,” he explains. “Encouraging people to question things is valuable. I work in areas that are allied to paranormal areas, and I know a lot about how they work, and the techniques people use. And when you know that, it blows the lid off a lot of the mystery and apparent phenomena around them. It feels wrong not to use my position to at least raise some of those issues.
“People are encouraged to make life decisions by psychics and similar people. There are the most despicable things that go on.
“I remember reading a story about a guy, and this is in England, and no more than a couple of years ago. He’d gone to see a psychic, and was told that there was a curse on his family, and in order to release the curse, he had to bring with him the following week £5,000 and burn it. If he didn’t do that, either he or his son would die. The scam is quite a common one the money is put in an envelope, and apparently burnt, but of course the psychic’ secretly switches the envelope and burns an envelope full of newspaper.
“What happened was the guy went away, and knew he couldn’t raise £5,000, but didn’t want his son to die; so he killed himself.”
Brown’s well-developed conscience and friendly nature can cause him problems.
So has anyone ever reacted badly to your act?
“There is a guy in the new series we’ve just finished filming who nearly hit me. I was in Portmerion, where they filmed The Prisoner. We were having a staring competition, and as I’m staring at the participants, I’m doing things to make them feel sick or troubled. This guy nearly went for me. I just watched it today in the edit, it’s very funny. I calmed him down really quickly. That’s the closest I’ve ever got to being hit. Normally people arevery happy with the whole experience.”
Derren’s new series Trick of the Mind is due out on Channel 4 in the spring. Among the celebrity guests appearing are Simon Pegg, husband and wife Jonathan Ross and Jane Goldman, Mo Mowlan and author Iain Banks.
And the forthcoming tour? Any risky business with his audiences planned?
“I can’t reveal any specific details but yes, there’ll be plenty of thought provoking moments I hope. It’s all new material, with plenty of audience participation. The interaction with a live audience is why I love touring so much.”