Magazine article The Spectator

For His Next Trick

Magazine article The Spectator

For His Next Trick

Article excerpt

Derren Brown wants to avoid the posturing of most illusionists. But he can give a remarkable impression of transparency while keeping his cards very close

'I think he is probably the devil, ' said the work experience boy when I was going to meet Derren Brown, the magician, mindreader, 'psychological illusionist', what have-you. 'Because he does exactly what I'd do if I was the devil, which is pretend he can't really do magic and that it's all just a trick.'

Brown turns out to be an extremely nice man, so his evil telly presence must at times be a bit of an albatross for him. The thing is that, meeting him, you can't help being aware that he is a genius puppet-master with strange powers of perception and the ability to manipulate people into doing the most extraordinary things. His most recent show, Hero at 30,000 Feet , had him hypnotising a man into seizing the controls of what he thought was a plummeting plane. In 2005 he placed another man in a real life recreation of a computer game and made him believe he had to shoot zombies. Using the power of suggestion, he had a bunch of middle managers decide to rob a security van. His next stage show, due to open in the spring, is called Svengali, suggesting more of this sort of thing to come.

In the mahogany-panelled, book-lined sitting room of his beautiful London pad - two apartments recently knocked through to form one - I'm watching a scaly sea monster in a tank choke down a small blue fish that happened to swim past, and feeling a bit like that fish. What if I suddenly wake up in a warehouse wrestling the walking dead? This flat is quite something. Freakish taxidermy - a mother and infant monkey ensemble, a two-headed goat creature on the wall. There's a baby chimp pickled in a jar. An enormous giraffe skull and vertebrae in the corner. Every time I lean forward on the sofa, a small stuffed Yorkshire terrier is asking to be petted.

Brown is huddled in a leather armchair wearing a checked shirt and jeans. The sandy goatee is present, although he shaves it off from time to time when he's not working and wants to go unnoticed in public. I wonder if it gets tiring, his line of work. Does he find meaning in people's every glance or gesture? 'It's more about switching it on, and it almost comes with putting on a suit and having a bit of make-up. . . In the rest of life it would be too exhausting. On stage it's also a game you get the other person to play with you and that's not always appropriate for normal life. And I find it kind of antisocial. I make friends and find out it took them quite a few weeks of knowing me before they realised I wasn't constantly sizing them up. I might be more persuasive or whatever than the next person if I need to be but. . .'

His light tenor voice trails off.

Brown specialises in debunking his own trickery (and that of psychics and quacks) by showing its workings, the psychological calculations underpinning it. He exposes the pitiful malleability of the human mind.

In a way the best stunts are the simplest, like when he buys stuff in New York with blank strips of paper, makes tube commuters forget the name of their stop, or gets bookies to pay out on losing tickets ('Let's go and collect our losings'). It's bliss watching his victims mouth blankly like goldfish.

But we are here to talk about his autobiography, Confessions of a Conjuror, in which he sets about demystifying himself. It's a mental perambulation taking in a history of magic, childhood memoir and a forensic look at his own foibles. The book makes a mortal of him - and admittedly there is an aspect of this that is disappointing for those of us who find him the most intriguing of celebrities. There is an openness that may stem from his private life now being happy and settled (he lives with his boyfriend of the past few years). …

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