He’s one of magic’s most controversial figures but Derren Brown isn’t the confident enchanter of his stage persona. Instead, as ED POWER discovers, the man dubbed a menace to society by the UK tabloids talks about how he tries to wield the power of hypnos
He’s played Russian roulette on live television and caused parliamentary uproar in the UK when appearing to predict the British national lottery numbers.
But perhaps the greatest trick magician, hypnotist and “mind hacker” Derren Brown ever pulled was making us think the debonair, slightly sinister figure he cuts on stage and on TV is what he’s like in real life.
“As with a lot of people who get into performing, I was a bit insecure when I was younger,” says Brown, who returns to Ireland with his new show, Underground, next week. “In real life I’m probably shyer than people imagine.”
There was a time when a famous magician could expect to become a national treasure. Look at Paul Daniels in the UK or David Copperfield in America (more on him in a bit).
But those days are over — in this part of the world, especially, the number of magicians with genuine celebrity status can be counted on one hand.
Top of the list, arguably, is 47-year-old Brown who first created headlines with a 2003 TV special on Channel 4 in which, at an undisclosed location in Jersey, he played Russian roulette on live TV — apparently putting a revolver to his head, spinning the barrel and pulling the trigger.
There was consternation, with the tabloid media in the UK upbraiding him as a danger to society. The police weighed in — technically Brown was breaking the law by possessing a firearm without license.
Backlashes similarly followed his national lottery stunt and a 2004 television “séance” in which volunteers contacted a “dead” girl, only for it to be revealed she was in a trailer at the back of the studio.
Brown doesn’t believe in the paranormal — so it was ironic that the latter broadcast should receive hundreds of complaints to the effect that he was promoting the supernatural.
“I don’t have very thick skin — when it comes to massive public attention it can be quite difficult to avoid, due to the nature of social media,” he says in a low voice that contains traces of poshness yet is nowhere near as plummy as the one he deploys on stage.
“You often feel you’ve done something wrong. It is odd, sometimes, having something picked over and questioned. But maybe that’s how it should be — perhaps it shouldn’t ever feel completely normal.”
Brown was an only child until age nine and, as he says, never fitted in with the cool crowd. In his youth, he was cripplingly insecure and overcompensated by becoming an attention-seeker.
His salvation, he feels, was attending a hypnotist’s show when he was studying at the University of Bristol. Magic became a positive outlet for his need for approval.
“I was never sporty at school and was was intimidated by that set. I became a terrible attention-seeker,” he recalls. “I look back at myself at that age, I think I must have been pretty repulsive.”
After the show in Bristol, magic took over his life. He’d had a magic set as a child and had watched Paul Daniels. But now he became obsessed. Brown practised compulsively and, to his mild