Derren Brown on 20 years of blowing our minds and why he’s planning to do less TV in future

The mentalist, illusionist and author speaks to Simon Hattenstone about his career over the last two decades.

Derren Brown - Big RT Interview

Derren Brown is sitting at a whisky bar, reminiscing. It’s 20 years since the magician/mentalist established himself on TV with his Mind Control series; he’s now approaching 50 and it’s time to look back. Channel 4 is dedicating a night to doing just that with a new stunt from Brown (“It’s live – that’s all I can say,” he teases) and a documentary in which he reveals his favourite moments from his career.

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In the past, Brown has said he loathed his earlier self – or selves. “I find anything I did more than ten minutes ago acutely embarrassing,” he says today. Looking back was the last thing he fancied doing (“I thought I’d hate all of it”), but he has been pleasantly surprised by his encounter with his younger self. “I’m kind of fond of him in the way you’re fond of a child that is slightly lost. I didn’t know how to hold a conversation normally without trying to impress, but I get where it was all coming from.” And where he comes from, as Brown admits, is a little bit complicated.

The whisky snug is upstairs in his London house. In the documentary we get a brief insight into the eccentricity of Brown’s home. Today, via Zoom, I get a bit more. A stuffed toucan hovers above his head. “I’ve got a lot of taxidermy, but I don’t tend to talk about it because it upsets some people.” He smiles. “It’s all ethically sourced! I’m looking at a couple of pickled brains at the moment.” We’ve barely started – there’s the eight-legged lamb, the two lambs that share one head and the two-headed cow. “Actually, I’ve got two-headed cows!” He gets the giggles. And when he giggles it reminds me of the cutaway shot you often see of Brown in his shows when the unwitting protagonists are about to make life-altering decisions.

Derren Brown is just so… weird. And yet to talk to him, he is charming, kind, slightly introverted and boringly normal. He seems so different from the Brown of 20 years ago – the shock of hair, goatee and actorly voice have all gone. I ask him why he’s slimmed down in recent years. “That’s hilarious!” he says. “I haven’t, as far as I know.” Perhaps it’s yet another brilliant Brown optical illusion. He is, however, more at ease with himself than he was with his showy but angst-ridden younger self.

Brown has made a living from understanding – and exploiting – character. Knowing what we’re all capable of in certain situations, it’s no surprise that he understands his own character perfectly. He talks about the young boy who was picked on at a private school in Croydon (where his father taught swimming); the student who read law and German at Bristol University and became an exhibitionist conjurer to hide his shyness; the closeted gay man who became a proselytising Christian and tried to train himself out of his homosexuality. He finally came out in 2007 and is now an atheist.

Perhaps his struggle was a blessing. Without the identity crisis, we might not have had the performer. “If you’re uncomfortable with what comes from within you, you create these dazzling surfaces to deflect people’s interest and conversation from the stuff that feels uncomfortable inside. And magic is a very good way of doing that. It’s a very controlling and deflecting exercise. Once I’d come out, a lot of that self-consciousness went with it.”

In his early days on TV, Brown was always the focal point – whether it be playing Russian roulette, guessing the winning Lottery numbers, painting a brilliant upside-down Elvis Presley while correctly guessing who an audience member is thinking of, or simply hypnotising audiences to stick to their seat.

Derren Brown holding a letter

At times, he played God on stage, though he has always told us it’s just an illusion, a confidence trick. He mentions a faith-healing tour when audience members really did claim he had performed miracles. “A woman who had been paralysed since the age of four and was now 40 was in floods of tears because she had never been able to move her arm down one side of her body. I expected people with bad backs to say it feels a bit better, but this sort of thing was happening.” People got in touch to tell him they had been permanently healed. Do his powers disturb him? “No, they don’t. But that was the closest to anything like that and it made me aware of how extraordinary the psychological component of suffering is.” 

For a moment, he even considered becoming a faith healer. “I did think, ‘Well, I could offer this as a thing. I could take a stadium and say this isn’t like real evangelical healing, but it does have an effect on a certain percentage of people.’ Then I thought, ‘You can see how it could make you go mad because it isn’t acceptable’.” 

I ask him if he has a least favourite show. “How to Win the Lottery [2009],” he answers immediately. After having successfully predicted the winning Lottery numbers, there was supposed to be a twist in a second show that would have made sense of the stunt. But the first show had proved so controversial – there were questions asked in Parliament – that the “twist” was pulled, leaving only a fishy explanation of how he had done it – or the alternative, “that I’d fixed the whole thing”.

Did he realise he would end up undermining the integrity of the Lottery when he did it? “Noooo! I just thought it would be a fun trick for fans of the show and no one would pay any more attention to that than anything else.” And was the whole thing just a con? “Well, it was a trick. A clever trick,” he says gnomically. It’s clear I’m getting no more out of him than this.

Brown divides his TV career in two. The first half, he says, was all about the big-me showing off. “I think I would have been really insufferable if I’d just continued as a jobbing magician/mentalist,” he says. In the second half, he took a less prominent role and the stars became members of the public who were put through elaborate, gruelling scenarios that they thought were real (all had asked to be on his show, they just didn’t realise this was the show). His favourite is 2012’s Apocalypse (imagine The Walking Dead meets The Wizard of Oz) in which he convinced a complacent man the world has ended so he learns to value the life that he already has.

Derren Brown: Apocalypse

Some of the shows are incredibly uplifting – as well as Apocalypse, there is 2010’s Hero at 30,000 Feet, when Brown convinced a man with a fear of flying to land a plane after the captain took ill. Some are hilarious, such as when he trained a bunch of pensioners to steal a valuable painting in 2013’s The Great Art Robbery. And occasionally they are horrifying. 2016’s Pushed to the Edge (currently airing on Netflix as The Push) showed how ordinary people can be engineered to commit murder. I tell him that if I had been on that show and done the dastardly deed, I don’t think I’d ever be able to live with myself. “From day one the people that have been in those things have just loved it and they all say it’s the best thing they’ve ever done,” he says. He insists that everybody has emerged from the shows enriched. 

In Pushed to the Edge, the show’s star, Chris, walked away from the crime. But three other members of the public pushed a man, Bernie, to his death, only to be told afterwards that it was an invented scenario. Does he worry about leaving people mentally scarred? “If I didn’t worry about that I’d be irresponsible. If you’re going to put somebody through a dark journey, you have an enormous duty of care to make sure they’re OK. Five seconds later they find out it was all safe. Then an independent psychologist spends time with them, as do I, and we make sure they know what the point of it was.” 

And what is the point of a show like Pushed to the Edge? Brown says he wants to expose how dangerously compliant people can be – rather than humiliate them for lacking courage or principle, the idea is that they learn a salutary lesson. “It’s not ‘look at you, you’ve done a bad thing’. You’ve done what people will do. What you now have is the advantage that you’ve been through this; you’ve been rehearsed in a situation that is safe, so if you ever find yourself in a situation where any sort of insidious compliance is going on, you’ll be ready for it,” he says. “These are important questions to ask, but no one in 20 years has been unhappy with it, which must mean something.”

Not only are the participants helped in the immediate aftermath of the recording, Brown says, they are then prepared for fame when the show actually goes out. Because he only makes one a year at most, there is the time and resources to provide sufficient aftercare, he says. “It’s the makeover-type conveyor-belt shows that are more of a worry when there isn’t quite the same potential for aftercare.” He talks about the support group for people who have been on his shows and says many of them have ended up as personal friends.

Pushed to the Edge is terrific entertainment, but I’m not convinced that it is as altruistic as Brown believes. His rationale even brings out the conspiracy theorist in me. Yes, the participants certainly do seem happy with their experience, but perhaps this is simply another exercise in compliance. They have been told that it’s good for them, so they believe it is good for them.

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But the idea that these shows are character-building – taking people who have low self-esteem, are too pliable or take things for granted, and showing them they can be heroic, resilient and appreciative – is all of a piece with his 2016 self-help book Happy. And it’s the writing that makes him happiest these days, he says. Whereas he likes to paint, writing has become a necessity. Brown has loved lockdown – which he spent with his partner, about whom he keeps schtum – partly because he is antisocial, and partly because he’s used the time to write. His new book, out in October, is a condensed and rewritten version of Happy called A Little Happier.

You seem so content with life, I say. He nods and says it’s true. But there is a caveat. When I ask if he could imagine doing the same kind of TV shows in 20 years’ time, he looks horrified and tells me it’s already time for another reinvention. “The way you notice it is you feel a rumbling dissatisfaction with what you’re doing.” How long has he felt this dissatisfaction? “Years, I would think. But in this industry, you’re surrounded by people who are very eager for you to keep churning out what you’re churning out.” He’s wary of becoming lazy and complacent.

So will he move away from TV? “Yes, it means less TV and more writing. That format has worked very well for me. It is fun, but I can feel myself at the edges of growing up a bit more.” When I ask what he thinks he will grow up into, he says he hasn’t a clue, but he’s looking forward to finding out. Surely, he must have a clue where he’s headed next – after all, Derren Brown knows everything. Ah, that’s the trick, he says. “My job is about seeming to control things that you can’t. It’s one bit of me that gets polished and rehearsed and is really fun to do. But I don’t think of the version of me that does those shows as me at all. It would be a terrible way of living, and it would make me unbearable to be around.”

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This interview originally appeared in Radio Times magazine. For the biggest interviews and the best TV listings subscribe to Radio Times now and never miss a copy. If you’re looking for more to watch, check out our TV guide.