Bookshelves have become the unofficial sponsor for Zoom backdrops over the past two years and during that time, I've seen all sorts whilst sat in virtual meetings, online catch-ups and celebrity junkets. However, I've never seen a bookshelf like Derren Brown's, stretching the length of his ornate study, absolutely stuffed with books while two impressive-looking busts perch on top of it.


Sat in front of this Sherlockian scene is the award-winning illusionist himself, having spent the first few minutes of our chat trying to shut his study window. "Such a weird old house," he says of his countryside home. "To close the window, I have to go out the house and walk around the outside to get to it."

Opting for a comfy jumper over the classic dark suits we're used to seeing him in, Brown looks completely different to his on-stage, on-screen persona – which is probably why he doesn't get recognised a huge amount in public.

"I think people recognise my voice much more than they seem to recognise me. I also, you know, I had the goatee and almost purple hair back then, so if I kind of wear a suit and dress up, it's a bit different. Normally, if i'm just kicking around in a cardigan with no hair, I don't normally get recognised.

"It doesn't happen that much and if it does, I find normally people, they'll say hello but they probably also then want to get away because there might be a slight note of apprehension, which is quite nice to see," he smiles. "They want to say hello and then they want to not have me do anything weird on them."

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It comes as no surprise that members of the public might not want to stick around for a chat with Brown, who has spent over two decades blowing our minds with his captivating specials and live shows. From guessing people's professions by just looking at them in 2000's Mind Control, to convincing a man he's woken up to a zombie invasion in 2012's Apocalypse, Brown is the face of mentalism in the UK – but now he's dipping back into the world of philosophy for his latest podcast: Derren Brown's Bootcamp For Life.

Derren Brown's Boot Camp for Life

The eight-part Audible series follows Brown as he examines human emotion and with the help of experts, looks at how to take control of our thoughts. "I read a book called Happy a few years ago about stoicism, which struck me as a very helpful, sensible way of avoiding unnecessary anxiety and disturbance in life and it really chimed with how I am in my sort of personality," he says.

After writing on the topic for over three years, Brown decided to carry on looking into "the theme of how we make our peace with the world that's difficult and stubborn," and debunking the idea that the universe will give us what we want if we put our wishes and goals out into it.

"The trouble with all of that is that when things do go badly, it's your own fault – you didn't believe in yourself enough or you didn't set your goals properly or you didn't commit to your dream board or whatever and it's crippling," he adds. "I'm really interested in how we actually live and navigate a world that is so often difficult and doesn't go according to our plans and there's no easy answer to it."

A follow-up to Brown's previous podcast Bootcamp for the Brain, this series was a project that kept the illusionist busy over lockdown, although he admits that he didn't really miss performing for a while. "I was lucky that there were other projects and things that I could do from home," he says. "So as a natural introvert, I kind of quite enjoyed that."

"But we all have very different relationships to lockdown – if you're struggling to pay your rent and it's just a nightmare, or you're trapped in a small flat with people you hate, it's clearly a very different thing," he adds. "But the idea of how the things in life that are difficult and make us feel isolated are normally by their nature, the very things that we actually share with other people. When life takes us inevitable to difficult places and difficult times, it's like all the distractions have fallen away and we're just experiencing the actual weight of lift, which can feel very lonely but is precisely the thing that we share with everybody else."

Derren Brown in his Netflix special Miracle
Derren Brown in his Netflix special Miracle Netflix

Brown speaks about the topics explored in his podcast like an academic delivering a lecture, particularly when I ask about a segment in the first episode that examines the reaction to his 2016 Netflix special Miracle. Performed in front of a live audience, Brown set out for the show to be an exposé of evangelical faith healing with the star demonstrating techniques used with an audience wrongly placed for them.

"I was going to do it with an audience that, like me, would be probably a bit sceptical, surprised that I'm doing it, certainly not believers in that kind of thing," he explains. "I was also going to have to be debunking it while at the same time by doing it and making it work."

What Brown didn't expect was for the 'healing' techniques to actually work. "A woman who had been paralysed since she was a kid comes up, she's in her 40's now and she's in tears because she can move her arm for the first time. So that was baffling."

A year on, he learns from a make-up artist that her husband had watched the Miracle special on Netflix a year prior and found that his golfing injury of three years had cleared up. "You can see how people can go mad and then start to believe that they do have some kind of special power – but what was really interesting to me, it took me a while to see what was happening, was the psychological component of suffering.

"There's your organic reason for having something like paralysis, then there's also all of this other stuff – how you identify with it, how you live it out, how it becomes your story of how you exist from day to day," he says. "It was the most interesting deep dive into the power of stories that we tell because although I was seeing it in lots of silly relatively trivial ways with the sort of tricks and stuff that I do, seeing it in such a way that was so meaningful to people [was interesting]."

Brown first got into magic and hypnotism whilst studying law at Bristol University, performing for students, restaurant tables and private parties. By the time he finished university, he was making a modest living with it and became fully immersed in the magic community over 10 years before a production company approached him, looking for somebody to front a mind-reading show.

"It just sort of built from there and now it's 20 years later," he says. "I've never had a proper job – I never really did anything else. Maybe Saturday jobs at university."

Derren Brown in Channel 4's Russian Roulette
Derren Brown in Channel 4's Russian Roulette Channel 4

Throughout his career, Brown hasn't shied away from performing controversial stunts and tricks – in fact there's a whole subheading on his Wikipedia page dedicated to public complaints. On there, you'll find details about his first big special Russian Roulette – which saw the illusionist play the potentially deadly game live on Channel 4 with willing participants (however, Ofcom rejected complaints given there was a 15-minute time delay on the broadcast, while police later stated that no live ammunition was involved). Do his shows require an element of shock for them to hit home with viewers?

"I wouldn't say shock. There's two things that me and the couple of guys that write the show aim for," he says. "One is a strong idea like a one line summary of what it is that would make you want to watch it and then with that, a good reason for doing it – particularly if it's something that is going to be quite dark.

"You want to have a good reason for it. If you try to be shocking or try to be controversial, you're never going to get it right. It's always going to be weighted the wrong way."

Pausing, he adds: "I suppose plenty have been – there's been a lot of guns and a lot of shooting and a lot of life or death stuff. There's an old story-writing adage that you reveal character through crisis and you reveal deep character through deep crisis.

"Over the years people have been through some dark journeys but there's always been a good reason for it and it's always been ultimately a very positive experience for them and genuinely life-changing thing," he continues. "I wouldn't dream of taking credit for anything happens to their lives after that, but they're all people I've kept in touch with and stayed friends with. And it's, you know, shows always seem to have done, it's done its job, which I'm proud of."

As for whether he would put on a show like Russian Roulette in this day and age, Brown says that it would no longer be relevant. "One of the reasons for doing Russian Roulette was it was around the time that Big Brother and the whole madness of reality shows was taking off.

"There was this thing about what will people watch, like what is suddenly OK to make entertainment. So that was behind Russian Roulette – aside from again, it was going to attract attention," he adds. "It was the firs thing I've done where I put my head a bit above the parapet, the previous specials had been quite quiet.

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"But the reason for it was that it was playing into this thing of, 'What the hell are people watching now?' and I think that's just less of an interesting question now, isn't it? It's one of the reasons why I've avoided ever having ideas up my sleeve to do later. I always try and come to it fresh in the moment."

Do the accusations that he uses stooges in his stunts sting less over the years? "There's like a bell curve because people at one end of the curve say, 'Well, it's all fake and they're all stooges,' and there's people on the other end saying that I'm definitely psychic or I have special powers and I just won't admit to it.

"That's fine because you're always going to get that. You can only take proper responsibility for the central swell of that bell curve. If I felt most people really weren't getting it then obviously, that would be me doing something wrong, but I think generally people do."

While the moments are few and far between, Brown admits that tweets from sceptical fans do catch him off-guard sometimes. "People have a great capacity for wording stuff that still gets you because they don't go, 'Oh I think they're all stooges.' They say things like, 'Oh, it's so disappointing that Derren's eventually sold out and now he uses stooges. I used to be such a fan,' and they write it in a way that you're like, 'Ah no!'

"Then you really want to engage but you can't because it's just madness. But generally speaking, I don't think too much about it."

After a fascinating 35-minute chat, during which I did cheekily inquire as to whether Brown could hypnotise someone over Zoom (with him politely replying: "No sorry, before you ask – it's always really underwhelming and hopeless trying to do it"), we began to say our goodbyes. With Brown setting off on his tour the next day whilst jugging a slew of upcoming projects, he had a lot to take care of – including the smell of a decaying mouse in his study.

"I'm sitting here and it absolutely stinks. Since I closed the window, I remembered why I had it open for a few days. So I should also get rid of the dead mouse, it's probably behind the panelling somewhere. It's really foul."

Derren Brown’s Boot Camp for Life, an original podcast is available to download now (free for Audible members, free with Audible’s 30-day trial) exclusively at


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