London taxi drivers have a reputation for being the best in the world – until along came Derren Brown. In one of his Mind Control programmes, the illusionist hailed a cab and asked the driver to take him to the London Eye. An hour later, having passed the famous attraction several times, the taxi driver was still lost.
He’s made bookmakers pay out on lost bets, revealed information to people that only they could know about and caused others to fall asleep in phone boxes. But nothing compares to the controversy aroused by his Russian Roulette Live and Seance television specials, the latter attracting more than 700 complaints to Channel 4.
In the Seance programme, Brown gathered together 12 people to contact a deceased woman using a ouija board. The petrified group discovered the woman was an actress who was later revealed to be very much alive. The programme ranked at number three in Channel 4’s complaints league, yet the illusionist does not aim to be controversial.
“I’ve had some nasty mail from people who don’t approve of my shows, but I think that’s all part of knowing I’m doing the job right,” says 34-year-old Brown, who is synonymous with the goatee beard and sharp black suits.
“For me it’s not about breaking boundaries or being controversial for the sake of it. I like to make television that looks edgy and dark so I ensure that I’m careful and responsible. I know what I’m doing and the limitations. The showmanship element is actually making it look much more terrifying than it is.”
The obvious question is, how does he do it? Before you ponder that one, ask yourself how Brown predicted a word chosen by acclaimed author Iain Banks from the countless books he has written? Banks selected one book from 20, followed by a page, a sentence and finally a word. The illusionist had written the word “pop”, in advance of Banks choosing it.
The man who makes no claims to being a mind reader says mysteriously: “It’s a fusion of magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship. Learning how people’s triggers work, their emotions and responses.”
But still, he defies logic. Study Brown closely and notice the hand movements, facial gestures – and does he mention the numbers two and three more often than others? Added together, you’re no further forward in trying to fathom out the secret, if indeed there is a secret.
Since March, Brown has been working non-stop with his national Something Wicked This Way Comes Tour, culminating with three weeks in the capital. But he’s a bit of a dark horse when it comes to discussing precisely what audiences can expect on the London leg.
“I always keep it a surprise,” he says enigmatically. It will be dark and have plenty of audience participation – a rollercoaster ride. It’s different every night but I’ve got a rough idea of where I want to go and we’ll have fun.”
But don’t expect to see the Tommy Cooper show. So far, five people in the audience have fainted with shock – and those are just the ones Brown knows of. “There might be some things that are hard to take,” he says.
On his days off he’s been making another television special, and during the London dates filming a new television series. He says: “My satisfaction comes from television that I would like to watch. I just don’t watch television at all – I don’t get much out of it. I get satisfaction from seeing something that has worked and has delivered what you wanted.”
He’s moved to Marylebone where he lives alone except for two Conure parrots and a collection of stuffed animals. “I just love parrots,” enthuses Brown, patron of the National Parrot Sanctuary, which looks after sick and rescued parrots. “My interest in taxidermy stemmed from my landlord when I was at Bristol University studying law and German. I picked up a couple of pieces and now I collect odd, rare and slightly macabre pieces, including a pickled baby chimp in a jar.”
He tends to dine out alone, so given his lifestyle would he describe himself as a solitary person? He hesitates. “No. It’s difficult to say because I’m so busy these days and I work with other people a lot. I do like my own company including eating out by myself.”
Seemingly, in private, this psychological illusionist and magician who has become one of Channel 4’s top attractions is in sharp contrast to his professional persona. He maintains that his work is sociable and all he’s looking for is stability.
“I think it’s a bit revolting when people in the public eye – even me and I’m hardly a household name – say they’re very private and a loner. It’s nonsense. Everybody requires time to themselves and you do need to balance that out a bit. I do value my life away from work. When I read these things about myself I think, yes, I do live in flat with a load of dead things for company, but I don’t think I’m pathological.”
But there are areas he would like to improve arising from his work and interests. “Sometimes I’m not the most emotionally engaged person,” he admits. “I tend to detach easily and see the loopholes in things and that comes from my training as a lawyer. At times I feel I would prefer not to have that level of detachment there.”
Another solitary pastime is caricaturing, which he began at school after sketching the faces of his teachers and sticking them on noticeboards. Now he draws people whom he feels have “interesting faces”, ranging from Simon Callow and Sir John Gielgud to Jonathan Ross and Robbie Williams. He explains: “I might draw someone whom I’m a fan of or whose book I’ve read – or perhaps I’ve seen their film. I love caricaturing because again it’s a private thing I do at weekends and it’s the opposite of performing. They’re normally people I’m into at a particular time in my life.”
Brown was born in Croydon, where his father was a swimming teacher and his mother a model. Instead of becoming a lawyer, he began performing in cafés, restaurants and parties, quickly gaining a name for himself as a magician and illusionist.
“I started off learning sleight-of-hand card tricks,” Brown remembers. “As you go on, you realise why you do it. You stop doing it for your own satisfaction and enjoyment. When you’re a magician you realise it’s all for the person in front of you and that was happening years ago.”
The stand-up comedian and magician Jerry Sadowitz, who has been instrumental in helping Brown publish books for magicians, also recommended Brown to Channel 4 where he has a further two-year contract. He became a hit with viewers following his first series, Mind Control in 1999. With more stage shows and the American market ahead, the future for Brown looks bright.
In conversation, he comes across as someone who does not take himself seriously, yet gains enormous pleasure from his work. He says the joy is creating that special journey for somebody. “You take them as deftly as possible without them realising they are being manipulated to a place that has a child-like feeling of astonishment and surprise combined with a nice adult intellectual conundrum. There is something very satisfying about doing that because nothing else really does it. It’s not seeing the reaction so much, but knowing you’ve lifted somebody and given them that experience.”
With Brown back in London, taxi drivers should beware. However, he agrees black cabs are the best in the business. “They’re fantastic,” he says. “Because I don’t drive I take cabs a lot -and now of course every time I jump in one I get, ‘Oh. you’re not going to make me forget the way, are you?'”