Rambling. It’s an unavoidable word when describing Derren Brown’s genius stage bravado, the mentalist and illusionist weaving a ceaseless web of words to entangle his subjects into a state of compliance. But this showmanship isn’t wholly an act.
Although Brown may let loose a river of dialogue on stage as a distraction or linguistic sleight of hand, it’s a habit he continues when not performing. At least, that’s the impression I get when speaking to him about his new Netflix original special, Sacrifice.
In fact, when I first ask him how he conjured the idea for the show – which sees if Brown can take a right-leaning American and convince him to take a bullet for an illegal immigrant – he launches into a monologue verging on the profound.
“I think [Sacrifice] is essentially about how we tend to live in a very tribalised way where we form these strong right versus left opinions and we have our own opinions reinforced by social media and so on and it’s got to the point where we can convince ourselves the other side is really bad to the point that it gets nasty,” he starts.
“We’re told from a young age the story of who we are in relation to the world: the world’s big and powerful and you’re not and this is what people want. Growing up we see these messages that we adapt to and see them go out in adulthood – you don’t always realise that we’re living through these historically charged narratives.
“We’re reacting to things in the present, not necessarily because of the context of that situation, but because of analogous historical experiences that have come to define overarching narratives.”
As long-winded and slightly pretentious as they might be, it later becomes clear his answers aren’t smoke and mirrors to embellish the basic point behind the show (racism is bad). Brown is quick to point out the show’s limitations and his lack of solutions – he says Sacrifice is far from a self-help guide to dealing with extremists.
“I don’t think the message of it is ‘other people have prejudices that need changing’. If there was a message to it it’s that we’re all limited within limited narratives,” he says. “The ultimate thing is not about ‘here’s how you change people’, but a moment of kindness and humanity in these politically-charged stories.”
As Brown fans will know, searching for a “moment of kindness” is a huge change in direction from his early TV work. It’s a long way from playing Russian roulette on live TV in 2003, a stunt that viewers protested was “distasteful, trivialised suicide, promoted guns and would encourage copycat incidents”.
True, some of his most memorable past shows have centered on injecting a newfound appreciation of life into unknowing members of the public, but Brown leads them through some ethically-thorny paths on the way.
For example, in one of his Trick or Treat episodes he convinced a woman that she was dead and was witnessing the fallout from her own fatal car crash. And in 2011’s The Experiments, he hypnotised a member of the public into – what they believed to be – assassinating Stephen Fry.
Now, rather than demonstrating how an average Joe can be manipulated into killing, Brown is intent on showing how people are capable of saving somebody from a bullet.
Why the change? One explanation: Brown has been forced to adapt to audiences’ heightened sensitivities. After all, would stunts like the fantastic Waking Dead – which dropped an unsuspecting member of the public into a real-life zombie game recreation – be at the eye of a Twitter storm if broadcast today?
Perhaps, but this isn’t what changed his act. Brown’s fascination with kindness and happiness is more organic, his 2016 self-help book (the aptly-named Happy) inspired more by the likes of Greek philosophy than audience attitudes.
“If the climate has changed then I’ve changed along with it,” he confirms. “I suppose as I grow up different things become interesting to me.
“I wouldn’t do the Russian Roulette show now, but not because it would feel ethically wrong. I don’t find it as interesting, that ‘look at me, aren’t I clever?’ kind of message. I don’t find that as interesting as following the drama of somebody else going through something where I take more of a back seat. I like it to have some further resonance other than ‘how did he do that?’”
Brown’s new restrained approach has undeniably led to a warmer show in Sacrifice, a one-off peppered with genuinely moving moments as its subject, Florida-born father of two Phil, a man with a self-declared “bias towards white people” at the show’s start, gradually becomes more loving as he leaves behind his deep-set prejudices against foreigners.
Easily, this is Brown’s most optimistic project so far. And it stands a long way apart from its predecessors – particularly in terms of the methods used to transform Phil’s life-long beliefs in mere weeks.
While viewers witness moments of Brown’s signature sub-conscious persuasions – such as when he primes Phil to feel a rush of conviction after hearing a special three-note melody – Sacrifice is strangely light on his usual enchanting hypnosis.
It’s a show where Brown drops his trademark psychological precision instruments, employing the likes of the placebo effect through a bogus electronic microchip he injects into Phil’s neck. Although having no effect whatsoever, Phil is told the device will influence the pituitary gland to make him more decisive and effect positive change in his life.
Furthermore, in another segment Phil is confronted with results from a genealogy test, his DNA revealing an ancestry that can be traced back to Mexico – a scene that more like Who Do You Think You Are? than Trick of the Mind.
Is the show a worthy stablemate to the magnificent Pushed to the Edge (titled The Push on Netflix)? With a premise almost the opposite to Sacrifice – Pushed asked if someone could be manipulated into murdering another person, rather than saving them – its thrilling twists leading to a killer surprise we won’t spoil here.
The more streamlined Sacrifice, on the other hand, is light on surprises. Its set-up doesn’t naturally prompt the viewer to ask “what would I do in that situation?”, but instead presents a transformation story with a (hopefully) unrelatable character, Phil, at its core.
Fans worried that Sacrifice’s American subject and setting are a sign Brown is set to leave our shores need not worry; although he is soon to return to the States with a Broadway show, he has no plans to make the US his permanent home.
“I can’t imagine I’d move there,” he says. “I’ve got a real base here. This is where I’ve toured for years and I enjoy living in England. Although it’s lovely to visit [the US] and feel a bit special for a few months if you’re doing a show.”
Other than (probably) being based in the UK, his next TV special is currently a mystery, even to Brown himself – “I’ve never had any ambitions or plans. I’ve always tried doing what’s fun and what’s worth doing and a job that’s very much in the moment,” he explains.
Could Brown continue his explorations of life’s more pleasant emotions – or will he be lured back into more sinister set-ups? We’ll have to wait and see…
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