Magic ticked all the boxes for me — I felt in control. The sort of people whom I had been intimated by, responded to it very strongly. That gave me a real impetus
His “gimmick”, he feels, is that he doesn’t really have a gimmick. Magicians who invest in their stage persona are doomed, Brown is inclined to think, to a short career. People may initially enjoy your shtick — the costumes and the melodrama. Eventually they see through it. And then what do you have?
“You can’t really talk about the stuff that makes it interesting — which is the method [i.e. the tricks]. Most of them try to play the part of being interesting,” he elaborates. “There’s a lot of posturing in magic — trying to be the serious figure. Which is silly as people know it’s posturing.
“The ones who have had real longevity have never suffered from that. Penn and Teller, the American magicians, have had an incredible career and it’s never been about themselves — they’ve never tried to look mysterious or interesting. Their agenda has always been about other things.”
Having achieved success in Ireland and Britain, Brown has recently looked to the United States. He’s working on a special for Netflix, due later this year. The streaming Goliath recently repackaged his 2016 Channel 4 one-off, Pushed to the Edge, which explored the phenomenon of “social compliance” by considering whether a member of the public could be talked into bundling a man off the roof of a building.
Pushed to the Edge — renamed Derren Brown’s The Push for Netflix — was controversial. The guinea pig, a sincere, anxious type named Chris Kingston, is shown under enormous strain as he is pressured into giving the stranger a lethal shove (when he ultimately refuses to, it is revealed that three previous participants went all the way). Watching it, you might be surprised he and Brown, who is ultimately responsible for his ordeal, have since become friends.
Along with everything else, The Push also feels creepily prescient. In 2016, social compliance was something we associated with the past.
However, Brown’s tacit warning against allowing others do your thinking for you has acquired an edge in the age of Donald Trump and Brexit, with its chilling mantra “the will of the people”.
“It was originally done a couple of years ago, before the world became a much stranger place,” he nods.
“Social compliance didn’t quite have the resonance it does now. The political resonances were at the time very faint and historical. But now it feels much more relevant.”
Brown is, for once, not the only magician in the headlines. David Copperfield was recently in court giving evidence in a case brought by a British man who claims he was hurt during one of Copperfield’s illusions. When it comes to volunteers, Brown says he feels a huge responsibility and maintains an ongoing relationship — first because he has become friends with these people but also because he believes he owes it to them. They’ve gone through a lot — it would be wrong to simply cut these individuals loose.
“There are journalists out there who are always convinced the whole thing is fake,” he says.
“They try to get hold of these people and ask what might seem like a perfectly innocent question and then turn the story around, which is frustrating.
“You want to protect them from all of that intrusion. Though the shows look quite dark, people always have such a great time. That’s why we keep in touch after I’ve put them through these extraordinary things.”
The Best of Derren Brown: Underground runs at Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre May 15 until May 19 and at Cork Opera House May28untilMay31