There’s more to a great illusion than simply pulling off a trick, Derren Brown tells Laura Davis
ASK Derren Brown what first attracted him to hypnotism and he’s brutally honest. “It was a control thing,” he says. “I was a bit of an attention seeker and if you are at that age you tend to be a bit insecure and have terrible social skills. You’re unable to fit in normally.”
Brown saw his first hypnotism show during his freshers year at Bristol University and immediately started researching the subject.
Magic quickly became a substitute for awkward chit chat in his new friendships: “It becomes a really cheaty way of impressing people and you very often forget to learn real social skills so people will actually like you.
“I had, not a bad time at school, but sort of didn’t quite fit in so always had to find my own thing. I wasn’t very sporty and all that. You go to university and it’s suddenly a blank slate, nobody knows you.”
Brown eventually grew out of his need to impress once he started performing professionally, he says. His attention-seeking side was fully satisfied on stage so he could be more relaxed in everyday life.
Hypnotism led to magic and then mentalism. His first TV shows were the three 60-minute specials, Mind Control, broadcast on Channel 4 from 2000-2003.
In later television series, Brown performed a whole range of feats including successfully predicting the result of the National Lottery, playing a live game of Russian roulette and holding a seance.
“I didn’t want to be doing the sort of shows in pubs and clubs where people take their clothes off or have sex with a mop. It’s just horrible,” he says.
“So I started doing close-up magic and card tricks and that sort of stuff but the psychology stuff always interested me a bit more.”
There must still be a slight thrill in being able to make audiences gasp in surprise at his tricks though.
“It’s not so much the knowledge that you’ve baffled somebody,” he says.
“Maybe at the beginning that was pleasant, but you can tell a lie to somebody and fool them. There’s not really any interest in that itself, it’s what you do with it that becomes satisfying.”
There’s a fine line between knowing the secret behind an illusion and appearing smug, he adds.
“If you’re a comedian, your status is normally slightly under the audience, you’re misunderstanding things or playing the fool at some level,” he explains.
“Whereas with magic, traditionally you’re taking a slightly higher status. You’re almost saying ‘look at me I’m clever,’ which is slightly tricky, so having trust and rapport is really important.”
Brown is notoriously reticent about giving away the details of his shows, even asking audiences to keep what happens a secret.
He apologetically resists describing his new stage production, Infamous, which is touring to the Liverpool Empire next week, but will say it has a different format to his previous five shows, which followed a similar template despite having very different themes.
“It feels more personal, has slightly less of a showman feel to it maybe. It’s actually a little bit like an acoustic set would be to a musician, my equivalent of that,” says Brown, 42.
“It’s difficult because there’s nothing wrong with the previous way we were doing it, but I like people to be surprised so it felt important to do. It’s very important as you’re performing a show to be really present and in it and not feel like you’re saying the same stuff or you’d just go mad.”
Infamous was created with Andy Nyman, who Liverpool audiences will remember from Ghost Stories at the Liverpool Playhouse in 2010, which he co-wrote and starred in. Apart from his last show, Svengali, Nyman has worked on all of Brown’s stage productions.
“It’s not a good idea to come up with these things all on your own because it can get a bit indulgent,” says Brown.
The pair spend months discussing what experience they’d like to give the audience, throwing out anything that sounds too similar to previous shows.
Rehearsals are tricky as they cannot be carried out in front of audience, although Brown does occasionally rope in anybody who happens to be calling in for a meeting.
“The things I’m trying out are the actual performance of it and in terms of the magicky or mind-reading bits I just have to do the best I can,” he says.
“A lot of the things only work when you’re standing in front of a large number of people. The first night is a bit of a nerve wracking-slash-exciting experience.”
While one of his skills is identifying the sorts of people who will be drawn into his illusions, Brown is “hopelessly unsuggestible” himself. His only experience of being hypnotised was while attending a hypnotherapy conference when he was toying with the idea of following that profession.
“I completely got lost in it,” he says.
“In my mind I’d been on a beach and I’d been listening to birds and I’d had my hand in the sand. I was completely there.
“That’s the only time. I think I’m the type that’s not very responsive. I’m quite analytical. I’ve always got a bit of an interior dialogue going on. I find it difficult to switch that off and let go.
“I tend to really like people who are suggestible though. People who respond well to it tend to be very open, very sociable, responsive to ideas and are naturally enthusiastic – all those things that are really good social skills.”
He would never, he insists, use his abilities when not performing on stage or TV.
“I do have a good friend who told me the first couple of times he met me he was convinced I was trying to read his mind or manipulate him in some way,” he reveals.
“I just wouldn’t dream of doing that in real life. It’s a very weird, controlling way of being with people.”
Derren Brown: Infamous is at the Liverpool Empire from March 25-30
MY VIEW: Good Luck Derren, Andy, Coops, Jennie, Faye, Iain and all the rest of the team/crew. (Not that they will need any). Cannot wait to see it in 2014.