Derren Brown interview: Svengali, magic and beards

We met with illusionist and mind reader Derren Brown to talk about his remarkable stage and television shows, fan attention and meeting heroes…

It was back in November 2010 that I first met Derren Brown. He was a surprise billing on the red carpet for the London premiere of Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story, and considering how long I have been a fan of his, I jumped at the chance to ask him a couple of questions.

In the two minutes I had to speak to him, he appeared to be just as charming and open as I had been told he was, so imagine my delight when his latest live show, Svengali, was brought to the Shaftesbury Theatre in London’s West End this summer, providing an opportunity for a full-length interview with Mr Brown himself.

When I turned up for out chat, I was told that Derren hadn’t arrived yet, so would I like to wait out of the rain? Overjoyed at the thought of being somewhere warm, and having 30 seconds to de-fog my specs and run through my questions, I waited inside the stage door area and chatted to the frankly delightful and incredibly interesting, “My favourite day here was when I met Jack Lemmon” stage door keeper, Harry.

After a short while the phone rang, and Harry reported that it was Derren Brown, apologising that he had been delayed, but he was on his way and could Harry let me know. I was slightly stunned by this act of courtesy, but then, it was in keeping with the polite and charming man I had met for a whole 120 seconds back in November.

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Fortunately, it was the precursor to what turned out to be a friendly, interesting chat. And with that, it’s my honour to present to you the day I chatted to Derren Brown about Svengali, spiders, and why never to meet your heroes.

I saw Svengali a couple of weeks ago…

Did you? Where did you see it? Here?

Yes here, I thought it was fantastic, absolutely brilliant.

Thank you.

What I think is interesting is that I have seen people saying since that they think it is your darkest show to date. Which I am not sure I agree with…

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I wouldn’t have thought so. I read that too. I thought, maybe, “Has he been to the others?” I think it is probably more fun, in a way, than the others, and it also depends on how you react to the second half. Obviously, trying not to give too much away, some people find it creepy, and maybe it goes to a dark place. I think it is probably a little lighter than others.

Something that is unique about you is that you use humour, and humour sometimes propels an audience to a height, so when it does get darker, perhaps you fall that little bit deeper? Was a sense of humour something you always wanted to incorporate into your work, or was it something that came with time?

It is sort of part of it. Well, there are two things. The first one is that I am on stage for two and a half hours, and I have got to entertain. If you are just watching half an hour of TV, the stunts themselves can fuel that, because everything is quite pacy on TV, whereas when you are watching somebody on stage, it has to be funny and hit lots of different notes.

It is important from that point of view, and actually for the stuff to work, you know, you joke, and when you make a joke people laugh, and when they laugh they relax and their guard is down, or it might just shift people into a slightly different state that allows the next thing to work, so all of those things kind of tick two boxes. They make the show, hopefully, more entertaining, but they generally… not all the time, sometimes it is just a gag that makes me laugh, but a lot of the time they are there for a reason, to make something work, or to put people just off guard for a moment.

I saw your interview with Richard Dawkins for The Enemies Of Reason, where I remember you said that it’s tricky to tread that line between wanting to be honest and counteract the cold calling…

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Cold reading!

Cold reading, yes! Between being honest about that and then wanting to create an illusion. When did you become aware that this was the line you were going to take as opposed to ‘traditional’ illusionists, who keep up the illusion?

I don’t think there is an easy line. There is no kind of template, there are some ways that I have found. The stuff that I do and enjoy is normally quite similar to a lot of the stuff that psychics and spiritualists would enjoy themselves. I just have a different approach to wanting to find out how things really work, or a sense of, I guess, responsibility about honesty and so on.

The moment you are sceptical about those kinds of things, people think you are a joyless debunker, but the reality is, I love a lot of those things in the same way they do. I would love to get up on stage and do the same things, but there are other things that are important, like honesty, and not exploiting people, so there are just ways of doing that, so you frame it so it is clearly entertainment.

One thing I have found, that works really well, is to present it as a recreation of something that used to be done by charlatans, and I am not going to explain how it is done, but I just want to do it and entertain you with it, but you know in the back of your mind that you are not supposed to believe it is real. It is always more interesting if you are left questioning, “So hang on, if that is real, then that must be, but he says it’s not,” and that to me is more interesting than if you just say, “Oh well, that psychic works because she does x,y and z”. Then people are going to think, “Well, that isn’t what she did when I saw her!” And they will always try and work around it, because that is what they want to believe, so there is no clear line.

I think I just have a sense of “I would really like to do this,” and I find a way of justifying it, or allowing it.

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The line lies differently on stage than it does on television, as on stage there is a whole theatrical licence to the whole thing. You are sat watching the show and being entertained, and there is a licence to weave stories that aren’t quite true, or to sort of just create a world that isn’t the same on TV when the theatrical framing isn’t quite there. People are just passively accepting what you tell them, so if you are on TV there is that greater responsibility to be true. I give myself more of a licence on stage I think.

It is a personal thing. Ultimately, I always have to find a line that I feel I can defend, and others may disagree, and there are people in the sceptical community who really get what I do and enjoy it, and others that think “But you’re still doing tricks – you are still pulling the wool over people’s eyes”.

I think you can be sceptical, and still do things that are in a joyful way, and ultimately you are on stage entertaining. If you let your philosophy get too much in the way of that, then you are failing as an entertainer. I try and have my cake and eat it, by saying, “Take everything with a pinch of salt, enjoy it, but rest assured I am not expecting you to believe I have genuine supernatural powers, or that every word I say up here is true.” 

I don’t know. Do you get that when you watch it?

I find, having watched your live shows and TV shows, I wonder about people you then meet outside of those situations. Because you are that honest about it, whether they are then almost trying to adjust themselves. “Don’t give anything away if you are talking to Derren Brown”. Whereas they may not do that with other illusionists, because there isn’t that same level of honesty? People are perhaps second-guessing…

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Do you mean people might be self conscious that I am ‘reading’ them?

Yeah absolutely, you reading them…

Yeah it does happen. I don’t think about it, I don’t play up to that in real life at all. I have got friends that I have got to know and found out that, the first few times I was with them, they were just thinking that everything I was doing was some kind of weird mind game, which is hysterical, really, because I couldn’t be any less like that.

Then I figure that they get over that eventually, and I really don’t think like that at all. I think what I do take seriously is… you know, I remember meeting Stephen Fry for the first time, and I was, and still am, a huge fan, but I was a student at the time, and he was a real hero, and he couldn’t, obviously because he’s a lovely man, he couldn’t have been any nicer.

I still had that weird sense of an anti-climax at meeting your hero, and I was just some guy in a queue, and sort of, since then – and it was a while before I got known – I have taken that very seriously, that thing of meeting people and their expectations, and I think I really try and be very open and very nice to people when I meet them.

That probably trumps any awareness of whether they think I am doing this or doing that, it doesn’t really enter into it at all. I just want to make sure that, when they meet me, or if it means something to meet me, then it is a nice experience. It isn’t always easy when you’re in a mad rush, like today; trying to get here to see you and this lad comes up and says, “Oh, can I have a picture?”, which is fine, because it takes five seconds, but as I am sort of saying “Well, if you don’t mind doing it quickly?”, and he is getting his phone out, I can see that there are six people behind him stopping and getting their cameras out, and then it’s awful, because how do you say to someone, “No, I am sorry, I haven’t got time to take a picture”, because it takes two seconds to have a picture!

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But of course, it doesn’t take two seconds, and while you are doing that, it’s the other people that are there and at some point you have to say, “I am really sorry, I’ve got to run!” and you know that they’re going to think you’re just a wanker who doesn’t want his picture taken, which is just horrible, but that’s fine.

But I suppose on the flip side of that, because you are that nice, when you do meet people and because you are very honest about what you do, people almost feel like, not that they know you, but there’s that sense of trust… like I heard the chap outside the stage door just then saying “Can you help me?” I suppose that’s a very nice thing, because there will be a lot of people who wouldn’t want to approach someone like that?

It is very nice. As I was first starting to get known, I knew that the TV show was going to come out, and people started saying, “You have to be careful, because when you are well known, people just want to get to know you because you are well known,” and I think the reality isn’t that at all.

The reality is that you sort of end up in this lovely situation where, some people obviously hate you, and just can’t stand your work, and that’s fine, but generally speaking people kind of… it’s like the work of making friends, the first bit has been done, where you have to make a nice impression of yourself, and give people a while to get to know you. All of that has been done, generally speaking.

I seem to come across people who have already decided they kind of like me, or find me interesting, and that is a really amazing kind of world to then walk around in. You then end up being able to almost choose your friends out of people who would genuinely be happy to be your friend, which is a very unexpected, really kind of nice, and by far the most touching and loveliest aspect of being known.

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Of course, the horrible stuff becomes worse; people end up as stalkers, people who are obsessed with you in a creepy way or a horrible way, which you wouldn’t have in real life. It balances out ultimately, I suppose. People do sort of react like they know you, and it is a nice feeling, and occasionally, there have been a couple of times on this tour, I have had letters from young magicians or kids that maybe are lacking in some kind of confidence, and for some reason me doing my stuff has meant something to them or changed the way they see the world, and the way they felt.

I don’t quite know how, maybe they started doing magic themselves, but it has just triggered something in them, and that’s amazing as well. It is very little to do with me, it is just what they are taking from it. It’s a very nice thing, I think, because with Twitter and blogging and all of that, you become much more aware of it. There is a downside – people don’t leave you alone, and they just want access all the time, and there is that kind of neediness which can be creepy, but yeah, it is a very lovely thing!

It’s nice to hear it in a positive way like that, because I think lots of times the media will say, “so and so told this guy they didn’t want a photo”, and then that’s it, they’re a terrible person then, according to us. You think, “Who knows what’s actually happened?”

Exactly, exactly yes.

I want to ask about the transition from working on the big live shows to working on the television series. In terms of the participants you are using, is there a bit more pressure in the live scenario, when there is no editing, no sense of ‘handpicking’ someone? You have 1500 people to choose from at random…

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I think it feels fairly natural. It is just a different thing. On TV it becomes about, “Well, let’s do this kind of thing”, and “Who would that work well with?” So in the early shows, I was doing sort of mind reading tricks, and it would be, “Okay, let’s do this with a cabbie, because that will tie in.”

So you sort of find different things and different flavours for each thing, and you pick people with particular jobs, which becomes the flavour of that piece. Whereas this is such a different starting point – it wouldn’t make any sense if I picked people. There are times with the audience where I do pick people out, and I have to pick people who will respond best to what I am going to do. The whole point of the show is a big audience participation thing.

I don’t feel that pressure, it just feels like that is what the best is from the beginning, and the joy of it, for me, is not quite knowing what people are going to be like, and finding ways out of having to use people if I don’t think it is going to work, and sometimes I just have to send them back, and other times I have sort of sneakier ways of getting round people that I think might be a problem. It keeps it very fresh every night as well. It keeps it alive, which is important.

It happened the night I came to see Svengali. There was a girl, and I think you said she was in the five per cent of people you just knew it wouldn’t work with. Without giving too much away, what is it you look for? Is there an instant something you spot? How do you make those quick judgements?

Yeah, it depends a bit on what I am doing, and what the particular thing is. Sometimes I will get more people up than I need, knowing that I am going to do this routine with three people, but it isn’t 100 per cent reliable, so I will get four or five up. So I will always know that I am going to send one or two back, because I just have to get up one or two more than I need.

So I can say that person and that person and that person are good, and the other people just have to go back, because the whole thing works better as a three-stage thing. Most of the stuff I do can be broken down into three phases; there is just something intrinsically more dramatic about a three-stage thing. Sometimes, it is just that, and other times there’s just something in the way that they’re behaving or responding to me, that you just sort of get a gut feeling.

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There is not time to really kind of process it or put your finger on it, but I just know that they are going to be difficult. Sometimes the reasons for dismissing someone are framed more as if it is something good or special about them, so they don’t go away feeling annoyed or disappointed. I would rather somebody goes back thinking they have outfoxed me rather than just thinking that they are superfluous, or that I think they are going to be a bit of a pain!

There are all sorts of reasons that may not necessarily be the reason I am saying at the time, if that makes sense? Also, if I talk to people in the audience, there are a few things in this show where people in the first routine might be used later on. So in the first routine, they are just a voice in the darkness, but I can quickly tell if they are going to be not quite where I need them to be for the other thing later on.

Sometimes I want people to be challenges, when people try and catch you out, they normally become much more predictable, and go down particular routes, more than someone who is playing the game fairly. It isn’t about particular traits that I can use and others that I can’t. It will be for the specific thing that I am doing at that time. There are certain patterns that I need to fall into, and if I don’t think it is going to happen then…. god what an awful, waffly answer!

No not at all! From an audience point of view, I am always interested when you see someone go up and then come back to their seat and you think “why?”, so the process is interesting!

There is no one answer, I suppose is what I am saying. It depends so much on the specific thing I want to do and the traits I am looking for, and whether I have room to lose a person or two without it upsetting the routine.

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Your one-off television specials have always fascinated me. Especially when you focus on one person or a small group of people. I wondered, considering how fickle television can be, how, when you are speaking to producers or the channel, whoever it may be, how you justify that sense of “This might not work”. Something like The Heist; there was that real sense of, on the day, it might not work. Have you ever had any difficulty making those initial justifications?

I think generally there is a sense of… what the channel are interested in is a hook that to them is ‘noisy’ and ‘sexy’ and ‘grabby’ and all those words that people in that world use. So that is the bit they care about, where the show is going to go. In terms of how it is going to work, they kind of leave that to me and my production team to make sure that side of it happens. So what we will do, sometimes, is just have a sort of plan B, and sometimes it’s going to be interesting enough, even if it doesn’t work, with the journey getting there.

You sort of feel that, “If we get to this point and it doesn’t happen, does that make the whole programme a waste of time, or is it fine and interesting?” Sometimes it is fine. Sometimes you have a plan B so you think, “Alright, if that doesn’t work, then maybe the show just becomes about something a little bit different”, and it isn’t “We are trying to do this one thing”. We more say “We are exploring this sort of area,” and you soften it. Equally, I know I have a lot of different skills and ways I can…. sorry, that sounded really conceited, didn’t it?

What I am saying is, “Okay, that is the point I want to get to, and there are various ways I can try and make that happen with that one person”. If, for example, the person doing it has no idea they are being filmed, you think, “There are ways that I could do this, if it got to it, where I could break that rule, and could intervene at some level, and the show would be a bit different”.

The show would not be about the fact that they have no idea they are being filmed, it would be more about they know they are being filmed, but they don’t know what for, or something like that. There are always options.

I know these are my skills I can use, and these are editorial changes that could happen in the show, that could still make it an exciting show. You just have a list of possibilities that you can back up into. The last thing was a bit like that, with the faith healing special, that was setting out very much to end with this massive show he is going to do out in the States, and we realised that, for moral reasons, we couldn’t put the machinery in place that we would need with the PR company to make that happen, and it ended up becoming something else.

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We very nearly didn’t go out to the States at all, because we thought, “We are not going to be able to do this, we are not going to be able to make this show”, and in the end it was a decision to say, “Well, let’s make the show as much about us trying to make the show as anything else. There is a real heart behind this, and we can’t quite tick the exciting TV box at the end, with the big flashy thing, but there is enough heart and reason for making the show that it can still stand on its own without that.”

That’s an example of that thing not working, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the whole show doesn’t work…

Because the process is as interesting as anything else…

Yeah exactly, it just became a different sort of show. That was ultimately my decision. I felt, let’s just film everything, because it was we either don’t go, which is very tricky, because we had been a long time trying to get visas for the show, and we would have let the channel down at the last moment. None of us wanted that. Or we go, and it has to be a different programme, which in the end I think was a good move.

In a lot of your stage shows, and in the television series, you play with the idea of people’s fears, essentially what scares you. Do these ideas come because you think something would scare you, so you can see how this would work, or do you detach yourself from that?

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Maybe a little bit. I tend to emotionally detach. I don’t like spiders very much, and I couldn’t go to sleep if there was one on the wall. I would have to kill it or get rid of it or do something! A lot of it comes out of an awareness of… most people would probably say they don’t believe in ghosts or demons, but if you suggest doing a Ouija board at midnight in a supposedly haunted place, something in you would think “Oooh, really? Should we? Don’t weird things happen?”

I don’t really have that so much myself now, because I know how those things work, but I like those kinds of areas, where there is something a bit primal in us that we connect with. That whole Victorian spiritualist era is a rich one for me, because it is just far back enough in our weird collective consciousness that we have images and pictures and old photographs and things in our head, but no personal experience of it.

It has this imaginative appeal, that I think really kind of works, and feels very rich to play with. In Enigma, there was this spirit cabinet thing, which is done quite a lot. Magicians do it quite a lot in various forms, but I have always thought, for a modern audience in this day and age, all sat there with our texting and all the stuff that goes on in theatres, there is something really… not to big up the trick, and make out it is more than it is… but there is something really weird about, “Here’s something, and I am going to not let you see for a few seconds, and when I open the curtain there will be something different.”

There is something about when someone says, “Close your eyes for a bit”. There is something so simple in that. If you saw that same trick without the curtain closing, and you saw a piece of chalk floating through the air, writing something on a slate, it wouldn’t be anywhere near as interesting, because you think “Oh, it’s on a wire, or he’s just doing this or that.”

There is something lovely about that, and there are some things, in the magic world that I find myself in, that seem to stir something quite old within us, and that’s an exciting area. It is not so much that it scares me personally, it just feels like it’s an uncanny thing. That feeling of things being uncanny is appealing, and it’s appealing in this age when we all feel like we all understand everything.

The beauty of the spirit cabinet trick is that it escalates, so probably just at the point where people think they have a handle on it, suddenly something makes you think, “Actually, I have no idea now how this could possibly work”. People don’t really feel that about many things any more, we don’t really think things can be magical any more.

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It is quite a childlike thing. There is a school of thought in magic that, when we are born into the world, everything is wondrous, everything is filled with wonder, and every new thing that we pick up for the first time is just a source of wonder. Bit by bit, we lose it because we just come to understand what things are. And magic is unique, in that it can take us back to a very primal, childlike state of astonishment.

I don’t think that is quite true, really. I think the other thing with magic is that it is based on fraud and dishonesty. Magicians tend to try and justify it sometimes, to turn it into something more important, in some way that I don’t think it is. I just think that feeling is a nice one of feeling astonished, but I think there is also an intellectual and adult conundrum element to it, which is important, too.

Yes, there is something certainly childlike about it, that feeling of wonder at something. You know, I love being taken in by tricks that I don’t understand, that are beautifully performed, and leave you with a gasp. It doesn’t happen very often, and it’s a lovely feeling.

One final question. My bearded fiancé has always wanted to host a British Beards dinner party, and you were on his list of guests along with Brian Blessed, Simon Pegg and David Arnold. I loved your anecdote in Confessions Of A Conjuror about meeting Hugh Grant. Who would you invite, perhaps, bearded or otherwise?

It’s tricky, because one thing I have learnt to do is not to meet your heroes… Hopkins, Anthony Hopkins is someone I haven’t met, but would love to meet, and I don’t think he would be disappointing! If I find myself in the company of big characters, I always feel I haven’t got much to offer and shut down a bit, so when I play the mental game of ideal dinner party, I can’t really imagine myself enjoying it on any level.

One on one would be a little different. The two nicest people I have met in ‘showbiz’ are Stephen Fry and David Tennant, and yeah, it’s funny, there’s a real thing in life about being lovely and being kind, and that’s all that matters, and that you often try to… if someone is very witty and clever, sarcastic or funny, you try and copy those things, and you forget that they aren’t particularly appealing qualities, unless the person is also very lovely to be around.

All the people who inspire me, the people I want to spend time with, are people who have done that, and people I have met who are just really lovely people. Sometimes there is a crossover with people who are famous. I just had lunch with the McFly boys, and they are so… I mean I had nothing in common with them until Enigma, which is when I got to know them, but they are just utterly delightful, so gracious, and the fact they have known each other since they were 15, and they all get on really well, is just a testament to how lovely they are, and they haven’t got sick of each other.

There is no sort of ego involved, which is what you want, isn’t it? Although it would be kind of exciting to meet giants, I think it is just nice to know them through their work. It happens with writers – you have a little bit of something from a book that you read that really inspires you, so you connect with them, or with singers as well, and you think, “If I ever meet them, we would get on really well, and they would be like me because of that one thing that resonates for me”.

And of course, when you meet them, they are not like that at all. They are fairly disappointing sort of versions of that, versions of their work. There’s a singer I love who’s a bit whiny and self indulgent in his songs, but I kind of like that sort of privately felt music, and when I met him, he was just a whiny and self-indulgent person! It made it difficult to go back and enjoy the music as much again.

So yeah, I generally think, avoid meeting your heroes, and focus on the people who are lovely to be around.

That’s good advice! Derren Brown, thank you very much.