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.