Derren Brown: Not trying to control things is how I live my real life
Self-described 'psychologist illusionist' Derren Brown brings his new show to Belfast later this month. The Londoner, whose breakthrough TV show was called Mind Control, shares his perhaps surprising insight to happiness with Joanne Sweeney
FOR those who love the self-styled 'psychologist illusionist' Derren Brown, keep an eye out for him soon in the best coffee shops in Belfast. Instead of heading to historic hostelries like the Crown Bar in Great Victoria Street, the TV trickster enjoys spending quality time at coffee shops in the city.
Brown is heading to Belfast later this month to do a five-night run of his new live show Derren Brown: Underground at the Grand Opera House, having been a regular visitor over the years. He describes it as a "fantastic city".
"Belfast is always a highlight of the tour," Brown tells me. "There’s something about coming across to Northern Ireland or even to Dublin. Maybe it's because we have made an effort to come over and not just stayed in London. There’s just general warmth that you get there that you don’t get in other places.
"The theatre itself is lovely in that you actually get to hear the people in the audience. There's something extra about the energy of the audience when there’s a strong sense of community and history about a place. It makes a huge difference to the reaction.”
If you watch television, it's hard not to be aware of Brown, the mentalist who, as well as entertaining viewers, has stunned and shocked with some of his tricks since he emerged with his first TV show, Mind Control, on Channel 4 in 2000.
Although similar in some ways to our own mentalist and illusionist David Meade, Brown goes much further with some of his stunts, using his acquired skills of hypnosis, suggestion, misdirection and magic.
His 2006 television special show The Heist involved persuading four members of the public to commit what they believed was the real-life armed robbery of a security van; The Great Art Robbery, aired in 2013, involved Brown schooling a group of senior citizens to steal a £100k painting from a gallery.
Two years ago, in Pushed to the Edge, a man hypnotised by Brown came to within inches of shoving someone over the top of a building. Apparently four others actually did push the person – though not, thankfully, to their death, as it was during rehearsals.
And last November, Brown managed to get a man to ‘shoot’ the thespian Stephen Fry in a show called The Assassin, whose premise was that he was testing claims that Sirhan Sirhan, convicted of the murder of Bobby Kennedy in 1968, had been 'psychologically programmed' to carry out the killing.
Defending his stunts, Brown argues: "If my stunts were just designed to shock, then I wouldn’t have any longevity, but they are not. There’s always a good reason for doing them."
His new show Underground has received rave reviews from audiences and critics alike and it seems that doing a live show really is where the 49-year-old Londoner feels most at home in his performance skin.
Initially aimed at an international audience unaware of his other shows, Brown says Underground is very much a show with its own integrity.
"This is not just patching together a series of tricks, some of my best bits, which we have reworked and improved upon. It's got its own heart and its own narrative," Brown says.
"I'm always thankful that my audiences tend not to let anyone know what's in the live shows. I've been amazed by that, as ever since the first show 15 years ago, I’ve always asked people to keep the secrets of the show and by and large they have done."
For a performer who has sometimes had an edge talking with the media – remember that strained interview with presenter Fiona Phillips on GMTV after his Russian Roulette stunt in 2011? – when we chat over the phone he comes across as extremely cordial and very self-aware.
With such powers and skill, is he ever tempted or asked to do something for real, I ask?
"You can write, but that doesn’t mean you want to write nasty things about everyone, does it? If my technique is anything, it’s just about being able to see the world from another’s point of view, which is essentially what you do as a magician. As a hypnotist, you have a knack of seeing an aspect of someone’s ongoing situation."
Does he ever try and manipulate situations and people in his own life?
"Control for its own sake just doesn’t appeal to me," he replies. "I believe that the one route to happiness is not trying to control things that you can't. You only become anxious and stressed when you try to control all those things that are not under your remit to control. Strangely, not trying to control things is how I live my real life."
Referring to some of his controversial stunts, he adds: "There are just the headline parts of the show. They are a dramatic hook that I try to create so the audience can’t miss it and that makes them want to watch it. But there’s always an intelligent reason for doing it. So when you are watching the show, it's not just for the sensational, controversial aspect; there's quite a good reason for doing it."
A former evangelical Christian – he has now been atheist for years – Brown has debunked through his shows the practices of mediums, psychics and faith healers, who he describes as "tawdry charlatans”.
"Our need for meaning is more important that our need for truth, particularly where death is concerned," adds Brown. "It's not like I’m a dried-up cynic on these things. I just think that the reasons behind the stunts often point to things that are more interesting and more important than the things themselves which are often easy to debunk."
He's aware that some people find him and what he does – well, freaky, frankly. His tendency to provoke mixed reactions dates from his student days, when he was studying Law with German at the University of Bristol where, instead of going on to pursue an international legal career, he became bewitched by magic and hypnosis.
One fellow student from that time, now a Belfast journalist, recalls the young Brown wearing a cape around campus, and rumours of him trying to hypnotise his lecturers.
"Yes, I did used to walk around with a cape and boots and had long hair. I think I thought I looked like a kind of philosopher pirate – that was the look I had in mind anyway. But I probably looked more like a gay leisure pirate," he laughs.
:: Derren Brown: Underground will be on at the Grand Opera House, Belfast for five nights from May 22-26. Booking at www.goh.co.uk