Sign up for our weekly newsletter
NTU Sustainability in Enterprise

Interview: Derren Brown

21 May 12 interview: Jared Wilson
photos: Gary Moyes

Master of magic, mind control and manipulation; Derren Brown has made an international career of persuading people to think and do things they otherwise would not. So when we asked him if he fancied an interview with LeftLion, before the Notts leg of his Svengali tour, we were elated and yet filled with trepidation when he said “yes”…


It’s 3pm. What have you been up to so far today? What’s a day in the life of Derren Brown like?
At the moment I’m running really late because I only woke up at midday. I’m just having lunch; well, it’s more of a late breakfast that swayed into lunch. This is the time of day I get my pastry fix.

You first got into ‘magic’ after watching a hypnotism show at Bristol University...
Yeah, I saw the show in my first year and made a decision that it was what I wanted to do, so I just got every book I could on it. I became known on campus as the guy that did hypnosis and started to make a bit of a name for myself. I was enjoying the attention it brought, and the control I had was also appealing. After that I started doing close-up magic and learning other disciplines and gradually it all merged into what I’m doing now.

At one point you were quite religious, has that inspired your shows – particularly Messiah?
Yes, very much so. To make it clear, I didn’t have a religious family or anything, but I had a Christian friend at school and we were very close. I’d gone to Sunday school and grew up thinking it must be real as everybody else believed in it too. Religion and the supernatural will always have a huge appeal to me; just because I don’t believe in God or psychic mediums, it doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the appeal. A lot of the things that the religious world has produced, like amazing cathedrals and enchanting choral music, are profoundly human things. They are even more interesting and beautiful when you realise it’s actually just created by us as human beings and not by a supernatural force.


We heard that when you were younger you burned down a boat in your next door neighbour’s garden? Is there a secret pyromaniac in you?
(Laughs) Yes, I did that... I was playing with matches. But it wasn’t on purpose! I was with my friend Ross and we were running around striking matches and chucking them over our shoulders in a very camp way. The neighbour was building a boat and had tarpaulin in the bottom. At one point I turned around and it was blazing at the bottom of the garden, it was just terrifying. So I ran home and pretended it didn’t happen, but eventually there was a knock on the door. I don’t even remember the rest, I think I’ve blanked it out of my memory because it was so awful.

Can you explain how you ended up being a patron of a parrot sanctuary in Skegness?
I’m a big fan of parrots – I think they’re fascinating creatures. Many of them live for longer than us humans and it’s interesting to me the way they learn to mimic human voices even though they don’t really comprehend what they’re saying. I found out about The Parrot Zoo when I met this guy called Steve who started it up. He’d been caring for various birds for years - and the place got bigger and bigger. Now it’s the largest place of its kind in Europe. They really look after the birds and are also doing all kinds of cutting edge research. It’s an amazing place. They have quite a lot of other animals now, but the major focus is definitely on the parrots.

And you’re a big fan of taxidermy…
I’ve got over a hundred stuffed items at home, including a couple of giraffes, which is probably too many for any house. I started collecting them at university and once you start it becomes difficult to stop. The only room where I don’t have any is in my bedroom. Although there’s a stuffed cat curled up on the bed of the guest bedroom; he looks all peaceful just lying there. 

You’ve released several books, including one of celebrity portraits. What is it you like about painting other people’s faces?
I’ve always drawn and painted and the book that came out featured the faces of characters that interested me in some way or another. It’s a private thing, I suppose; when I’m performing it’s all very public, but with this just you get on with it on your own. I took them to a gallery in London, and they look after them and every year or so have an exhibition. There’s something very therapeutic about doing it and I really enjoy the experience. That book’s a few years old now though, I’ve moved on a lot since then.

So what other magicians and entertainers do you admire?
Penn and Teller are great! I think the interesting thing with them is that they are very aware that it’s a show and that’s what makes it interesting. The problem with a lot of magic is that magicians are considered ‘cool’ for a couple of years and then people move on. People know that you’re doing a trick and you can play the part of this mysterious person, but it’s ridiculous. My early shows were a response to the very serious stuff that was coming out of the US from people like David Blaine and it wasn’t a particularly new way of looking at magic.

You’ve also bigged up Paul Daniels as a career inspiration, haven’t you?
People make fun of Paul Daniels for being old fashioned, but he revolutionised the whole industry in this country. When he started out it was a very different kind of circuit and he was one of the first to bring it into peoples homes as prime time viewing. 

Can you tell us a simple trick LeftLion readers can practice at home?
Write down the word ‘lion’ on a piece of paper, hold it near to someone and let them glimpse it out of the corner of their eye. Then ask them all sorts of questions to keep their mind occupied. Eventually ask them to name an animal from the jungle and, if population stereotypes are true, then most people will generally say “lion”. It’s a bit ironic really as lions don’t usually live in the jungle, they’re more used to prairie habitats.

Derren Brown will be performing his show Svengali at the Theatre Royal from Monday 21 to Saturday 26 May.

Derren Brown website

We have a favour to ask…

LeftLion is Nottingham’s meeting point for information about what’s going on in our city, from the established organisations to the grassroots. We want to keep what we do free to all to access, but increasingly we are relying on revenue from our readers to continue. Can you spare a few quid each month to support us?

Support LeftLion now

You might like this too...

You might like this too...