TV Magic Interview

Here are Derren’s responses to questions posed through the website.

From Lea: What do you think about women getting involved in magic? and in the mentalism side?

I think it’s a good idea – every magician should have an assistant. They’re pretty, and they’re useful if we drop props. Go get ’em, treacle.
OK, that was a joke

Great question. Magic is a strangely misogynistic business. Much of it is based around women fawning over God-like men who then put them in small boxes and mutilate them. I think a woman starting out in the profession comes across that relationship at every step. Viewed with a sense of condescension, suspicion and obscure erotic novelty by a fraternity which is made up of largely sexually maladjusted males, few genuinely feminine templates exist to try out as a performer. (And no feminine magic props to buy. A magicienne friend of mine was asking about the dirge of props for women and was recommended, without a hint of irony, to use a Himber wallet with a flower sticker on the cover. Nice.) Male magicians see various types of personas to try out and emulate, whereas women have little other than the insidiously offensive ‘assistant’ gender-role to inspire them. Hence the vast majority of new female magicians are led to create their performance personas through this twisted male expectation, and are forced to try and be either very ‘blokey’ as performers, or worse, twee, inoffensive caricatures of ‘the little woman’ figure, who should only perform ‘pretty’ magic (which them gets shown, largely, to men). In mentalism, the expected female role is that of the bejewelled fortune-teller, which is just horrific.

It’s awful. There’s more of an onus on a female magician to think originally, as those performance templates and learn-by-examples just aren’t there in enough numbers. It’s the same onus which ultimately falls on any magician of note: to discover who you are and what you’re going to be about when you’re performing. Hopefully in time there’ll be a diverse spread of female magicians and commercial tricks for women, and this will all even out. Until then, it’s up to any woman starting out, like any of us, to focus on knowing what she wants and what her (‘lay’) audience responds to, and to not accept the nonsense and the presumptions of the community regarding what she should or shouldn’t do.

From Mark: When you eventually introduce the television series to theUS , are there any plans or indeed would you consider releasing the broadcast material to the British public – either on TV, video or even DVD?

Not sure. That’s a way off yet. It might hinge on whether I choose to revisit old routines from the UK show and improve on them, or whether it’s all new.

From Diana from London : Apart from magic and entertaining, what do you find most fulfilling in life?

Painting, for the moment. I paint slightly twisted portraits. It’s the opposite of performing: private and honest. I have very little time for it at the moment, but it’s a huge treat whenever I have the opportunity.

From Dannyswain: Are your skills at their zenith or are you continuing to improve them, and develop new ones? If so, where do suppose they will take you?

Every new thing is the start of a learning curve. When I started with the TV show, there were a hundred things to learn and a hundred bad habits to shake off. I was rather full of myself after enjoying some success amongst magicians, and had no idea how little that meant and how much I would have to learn. Similarly, learning to perform a stage show was a massive new challenge, and then how to work larger audiences in big theatres. Then there’s the challenge of never being able to quite have the third-person perspective you need when performing live, and how your own evaluation of the show counts for nothing. It’s constantly about learning, at least for me. So the real skills – ie. the performance skills as well as mentalism methods €“ are still a delight to discover and learn. As for where they’ll take me; I suppose further towards something I can be happier with. And richer from.

From Louise Simpson: Are your skills at their zenith or are you continuing to improve them, and develop new ones? If so, where do suppose they will take you?

I’m sure I’ll be busting to write a big fat book at the end of it all. But not for a while yet.

From Krystal Evans: Do you have any preferences to Philosophers or Philosophy in general?

I’m a huge fan of Nietzsche, and an admirer of Wittgenstein. But my academic knowledge of the subject is limited.

From Ian C: Derren began the séance, and mentions in the stage show, that once the Fox Sisters admitted their fakery – nothing changed. People continued to believe the lie which is Spiritualism. This is indeed, a well-documented psychological phenomenon once people have made a belief commitment.

Isn’t it, therefore, a morally questionable activity to produce a highly credible séance, and then archly convey ‘it was all a con’ at the end? Because despite the ending, especially harnessed to the power of TV, this is practically guaranteed to have large numbers believing “there’s still something in it”, who otherwise wouldn’t have done.

Interesting point. You might be right, but I think that the route we took was far more worthwhile than merely de-bunking spiritualism, which is an approach I’ve never enjoyed. The show started off saying it was going to be fake, and finished merely reminding us of that fact. I said at the start that I was keen to see if fraudulent Victorian techniques (I said nothing of modern Spiritualists) would work on a modern-day audience. And of course I was including the viewing audience in that.

No matter how clearly you de-bunk something like this, there will still be people who will believe in it, of course. Working on the principle that people can only work away from the information you give them, I think more people would have rejected the de-bunking if I had been more direct about it. By being indirect, I do think more people would make the connections and decide for themselves that it’s all nonsense. One can only think in terms of a bell-curve, and how that majority in the main swell of the curve react or what they are being lead to believe. The extremes, by nature eccentric, will always be present, and will always remain unaffected.

From Laura Howes: Would you ever consider in the future performing the type of magic you were performing 10 years ago or do you believe you cannot mix the two as they are very different?

Would you ever give your career up as a successful performer to become an artist?

I think any types of magic can be mixed, if the character of the magician allows for it. I’m less interested in the conjuring magic now, but I like to include the odd bit into the TV show to remind people that what they see is rooted in a love of effect and illusion.

I would give up TV for painting in an instant if I could sustain my vomit-inducingly high standard of living from them alone. But then I really enjoy the live stage shows, so I’d want to still tour. Of course that would be hard to sustain without the TV exposure, so I guess for now I’ll carry on as I am.

From Heather Powell, Oxford : Are you planning to do an Art Exhibition of your work? I heard one was planned in the future.

Yes, we keep planning an exhibition, but then I keep having no time to commit to it. It’ll be on the site when it’s sorted. Thanks.

From Houdinia, Milton Keynes : Have you ever considered confronting, exposing or competing with a medium? I’d love to see you do this on stage or TV. I think it would be educational and entertaining.

I’d be too woolly. I might think it’s all nonsense, but I don’t think that my own scepticism is any less limiting and circular. All belief systems are quite misguided; the only difference is that some (like scientific rationalism) are more useful a model to use in discussion for some things (but not all). I think my only conclusion with all of this is that if your belief system looks very silly to the rest of the world, then it’s best to shut up about it.

I like to suggest that it’s good to ask questions and think more richly, but I think the de-bunking agenda is negative and ultimately impotent. Having said that, I do feel that a fraudulent psychic or spiritualist, who is knowingly encouraging people to make important life-decisions based on false information should be dealt with as we would deal with a fraudulent doctor. It’s shameful and foul. But claiming that my belief-system has more validity than anyone else’s would be ridiculous.

From James Williams: Have you named your second parrot yet? To go nicely with Figaro I’d suggest Le or maybe de Beaumarchais. P.S. Does Figaro swear like a drunken sailor, as I’ve always imagined him to?

No name yet. But I shall consider your suggestions. He was called €œTourette’s€ for a week or so.
Figaro says very little, but he screams and shits like a trooper. Profanity would be preferable.

From spooky chelsey: Do you have any plans for your next holiday from filming and touring?

Can you play any musical instruments? If not, which would you like to learn?

Who is your favourite composer?

I am frustratingly unable to play anything, and it really annoys me. I just don’t have the desire to put the work in and be poor/mediocre for years on end. But I’m a huge Bach enthusiast.
Very little in the way of holidays. But I hope it will be Florence or New York .

From Stephanie Wallbank: How long does it take to invent and prepare for illusions such as the one where you made yourself invisible?

These are the result of discussions over several days interspersed over several weeks. I had made myself invisible before when I worked as a hypnotist: I had to work a little on achieving it without a formal induction. I was very happy with it €“ and with the chap we used – as clearly it depends on his own suggestibility.

From Smileyfaceuk: Unfortunately I missed this year’s tour, but I heard it was brilliant. In your opinion what were the highlights/best bits of the tour this year?

I prefer performing the stage show, by a long shot. The TV is great for working in locations and creating situations which would otherwise be impossible, and it’s nice to still be able to perform intimate pieces which wouldn’t work so well on stage. But there’s none of the adrenalin or delight of working with a large, live audience of sympathetic and enthusiastic people who have paid to see me and are even excited to do so (I hope). There’s also the unparalleled joy of being able to tweak a performance night after night, to find the ‘moments’ which can be shaped and generally improve the whole thing in new and tiny ways each night. That’s why the first nights of a run are never as good as the last ones. Those are always the highlights for me €“ finding new moments or seeing a new effect grow out of repeated performances.

From Claire Walker: In Trick of the Mind the trick/illusion you do with the children painting and the teddy bear story was one of my favourite parts of the series, well done! You were brilliant in working with those children, but were you at all nervous about working with them, and that the trick wouldn’t go as planned?

When you let people ‘mind read’ on the streets how much of an influence do you have on those involved?

How long did it take you to perfect the trick where you hammer that nail up your nose? Is it painful because it looks it?!

I was looking forward immensely to the filming with the kids. I was a bit concerned it might not work, and to be honest I couldn’t see the teddy bear shape for quite a while. It turned out I was looking at it from the wrong angle.

On the streets, my influence on the people is enormous although I appear to have nothing to do with it €“ but I hope they wouldn’t realise it.

Yes, the nail trick (which is an old sideshow stunt) is painful at first, but with practice becomes less revolting. It took me a few months of gentle teasing. Like when you start to lose your hair.

From Mark: How do you rehearse such as ‘Needle’ which can clearly cause pain? Is there someone gullible enough to subject themselves to your experimentation?

Didn’t rehearse that one, actually. Just kind of did it. I had every confidence it would work. Perhaps if I had rehearsed it, I’d have been less revolted by it when it happened.

From Mark: At the start of ‘Pure Effect’ there is a passage describing how someone’s thinking may be changed for life during a performance. Can you remember any such performance for yourself? (Please describe it.)

The performances which have had the biggest effect on me are, I suppose, the hypnotic act given by a guy called Martin Taylor when I was at university (and which made me decide to pursue this route), and watching old tapes of Chan Canasta many years later. Canasta, for me, embodies everything a magician should be: charming, erudite and authoritative. On top of that, his methods were delicious and disarmingly bold.

From Ellen: There are about 21 billion questions I want to ask you (some are too personal, and unlike the wild fans you meet, I will give you your space). I have thought very carefully, and wandered about in my head and realised you would only want one question! I have prioritised all my questions into a couple which – you, I’d like – to hear most:

1) How is Figero?
and 2) Has anyone ever tried to play mind tricks on you?

Figaro’s fine and dandy, although I haven’t seen him for a while. And no, aside from the barely embedded message of affection in your oddly-typed question, people don’t normally try.

From Eleanor: I would like to know if Derren has any plans to visit theEdinburgh Festival this year. I love watching the street performers; its great fun and a great atmosphere. You are always welcome in Scotland. PS Please include Glasgow on your next tour. 

No, sorry, never been to the festival: far too may people. I did come to Glasgow with the tour this last year, and imagine I will next year.

Thanks for the questions, and I hope my answers are of some interest.