He does illusions, he hypnotises people, he recreated a zombie apocalypse, he played Russian Roulette live on TV and he’s designed a soon-to-open theme park ghost ride. Exactly who – or more to the point, what, is Derren Brown?
“I’m just a naughty boy,” he says.
Having met with and spoken to Brown on several occasions previously, I can confirm that his sense of mischief is not hidden far below the surface.
But really, what is it he does?
“I honestly don’t know. I said psychological illusionist years ago when I needed some name for what I do and it has sort of stuck,” says Brown.
“But then I got into close-up magic, so there’s that too. I think over the years as I’ve grown up, what I do has sort of grown up with me.
“It’s actually quite a nice position to be in, not being too clear about what I do, because it means I can do a stage show, or I can do something that looks like a magic show or a TV hidden camera thing where we end the world, or indeed a ghost train.”
Yes, we’ll come to the ghost train.
“It’s all quite nicely vague,” he says.
What isn’t vague, fortunately, are the details of Brown’s journey to whatever it is he is today. It’s a fascinating story in itself. Studying law at Bristol university, the then deeply religious Brown visited a hypnotist. It was a eureka moment and he began to study the art of hypnosis, finding himself out of favour with his fervently Christian friends. After graduating he spent most of his 20s in Bristol, working one day a week as a magician, earning enough to keep a roof over his head and a book in his hand and he essentially spent a decade perfecting his craft.
The now 41-year-old began his TV career in December 2000 with a series of specials called Mind Control. His TV shows for Channel 4 quickly became event-television. As well as the controversial Russian Roulette incident, he convinced a bunch of middle-managers to rob a bank, predicted the National Lottery numbers, stuck viewers to their sofas in a show of mass hypnotism and motivated a shy man, Bradford’s Matt Galley, to land a packed passenger plane from 30,000 feet. Vague when it comes to defining it, but also a very odd CV. “I’m sure I’ll look back on it all one day and realise just how weird it was,” says Brown.
Brown is in Leeds, appearing at the Grand Theatre from Monday next week through until Saturday with his show Miracle. The show came to Bradford’s Alhambra last year and has a depth behind it that fans of his television work might be surprised to see. It is also an unusually long run at a single theatre, with good reason it transpires.
“I’ve been touring a new show every year for the past 14 years so I think I’m going to take a break for a year or two. I’m trying to get to a lot of places and spend a decent amount of time there with this tour, to give people a chance to see the show before I take a break,” he says.
Brown, who appears to be something of a workaholic, will not be sitting around. He has a theme park ride to keep him busy.
“It’s the biggest, most expensive thing they’ve ever done,” says Brown, getting ahead of himself.
‘It’ is Derren Brown’s Ghost Train and it’s opening at Thorpe Park, near Surrey, soon. It’s a Ghost Train. But it’s something that will hopefully give people a really great and perhaps very disturbing experience. It’s incredibly exciting.”
Theme park rides aside, when he takes his couple-of-years hiatus, it will give Brown a chance to look back and reflect on the work he’s done since his first appearance on TV. “I’ve done a few shows in recent years where it really changed the people involved and took them somewhere incredible. I think that’s always more rewarding than showing people whatever my biggest trick is.”
See Brown for his final – for now – trick next week. He won’t disappoint.
Leeds Grand Theatre, May 30-June 4. Tickets 0844 848 2700.