The big interview: Derren Brown

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DERREN Brown, magician and illusionist, is bringing his extraordinary talents to Sheffield and to television next week. Nick Ahad meets him.

“Hang on, oh, this going to be a really forced analogy. Never mind, I’ve started now,” says Brown as we get into the explanation of a true mirror.

“Rather than flipping your image, it flips it twice. We are all slightly asymmetrical, your nose might bend one degree to the left which, in a mirror, looks like a bend to the right. So when you see yourself in the true mirror you see not a difference of a single degree in the way your nose bends to the left, but two degrees to the right. Because the image you have of yourself in your head is a mirror image, when you look at the true mirror you think you look deformed.

“In a very crowbarred way, I suppose if you’re used to seeing me on stage or TV, doing seemingly supernatural or strange things, then if I appear normal in real life it’s more of a a surprise because you sort of expect to see the person you’re used to. I’m different by several degrees. Does that work? That doesn’t mean anything does it!”

It does. It demonstrates why the man sitting opposite is such a strange prospect. Derren Brown appears to read minds and have powers beyond imagination. He has made people stage armed robberies, has played Russian roulette with a loaded gun and his own head – the night before we met I was in the audience of his latest show, Svengali, at Bradford’s Alhambra Theatre and through simply speaking to the audience he made the fingers of my right hand stick together. Yet here he sits, in a coffee shop in Bradford and he is strikingly... normal.

Intelligent, clearly, engaging, definitely, and he is very fun company, but above all he is very ordinary.

Brown lets out a delighted giggle when I explain this, something that he does several times through the interview. Brown is spending a few days in Bradford, performing Svengali over three nights at the city’s Alhambra Theatre.

We were due to meet at his hotel, but Brown remembered that the city is home to his “favourite Waterstone’s in the country”, the one housed in the Old Wool Exchange which has a coffee shop on a balcony and called to see if we could meet there instead.

When I arrive, Brown has an enormous mug of peppermint tea and is happily reading a couple of books – The Art of Memory and The Story of Art, two doorstop-sized tomes. A bit of light reading?

“It’s a hobby I get back to when I’m on tour,” says Brown, returning with a refill.

“Do you know what a memory palace is?,” Brown asks before going into an explanation, something he does several times over the course of a couple of hours and clearly enjoys. He would make a spectacularly good teacher.

“How can I explain it in a relatively short way? It goes back to the ancient Greeks and it’s a way of storing huge amounts of information,” he says.

Again, I’ll try to explain: if you want to retain lots of information you envisage a room, or if you’re feeling ambitious, a whole building, with which you’re familiar and you put the things you want to remember in that room.

You or I might attempt to remember, say, the books that make up the complete works of Shakespeare. To do so, we would imagine our room, mentally put a bookshelf in that room and then on the bookshelf envisage putting each of The Bard’s plays. If you grasp the technique, with practice you could end up with a whole palace full of things to remember.

Derren Brown’s memory palace, he explains as my jaw falls further towards the floor, is London. The whole of London. And his memory palace contains the history of art. I’m baffled.

Brown produces his iPad and becomes the enthusiast that makes him so engaging.

“I know London quite well, so I have a street map like this,” he says, showing me the map of London.

“And I put paintings I want to remember in different locations like this. So, if I want to remember the history of paintings, I just mentally put them in locations around London that I’m familiar with.”

A disagreement follows. Brown argues that it is perfectly possible for anyone to do. “It’s actually really easy because you’re not doing the thing we became obsessed with in the Victorian age of learning by rote. The point is you put things in the memory palace and you don’t have to remember them. You mentally go into the room and there they are.”

“It really is very simple. Honestly, anyone can do it. I explain it in my book and to this day people come up to me to shout ‘sausages, monkey, telephone’ . It’s a trick I explain in the book where people remember 20 totally unrelated words and they don’t even realise they’re doing it.”

We’re interrupted by a fan who approaches with an equal mix of trepidation and excitement. It’s the sort of approach you expect most people make towards Brown, whose career has been built on spectacular feats that make it seem he can read minds.

“Here in Bradford it’s lovely, people are really friendly. I think I’ve got the level of recognition where people come up and say hello, but I’m not properly famous. I was out with Jonathan Ross and we went into a club and he was shaking hands with everyone, saying hello. I’d look a complete idiot if I did anything like that.”

It turns out that, had he wanted to, Brown might have made that shift into the Jonathan Ross realm of celebrity. He was offered a move to the BBC, which he politely declined.

“Channel Four seems like a good home for me because of the kind of edgy programmes they make. I also like the fact that I don’t feel like a household name. I can sit here in a coffee shop and not get bothered too much. The BBC explained I’d get however many more millions of viewers, but it’s not really about that for me.”

So what is it about?

When he was at Bristol University, studying law, a deeply religious Brown, a member of the university’s Christian Society, went to see a hypnotherapist. It was a eureka moment. He started to practise on friends, learning the art of hypnosis and quickly found himself out of favour with his Christian friends. It led to an epiphany which set him on the path to becoming the country’s favourite mind illusionist and also away from his religion.

After graduating he stayed in Bristol and becomes almost misty-eyed about those halcyon days. “All my 20s were spent in Bristol, doing nothing, drinking tea, playing with my parrot and going to bookshops. I was working once a week as a magician, earning just enough to pay for a cheap flat and keep me in books. These days I’m lucky if I get a week off, and I do miss that flaneur lifestyle.”

Brown is delighted to hear that I was one of the hundreds in the audience at the Alhambra the previous night whose fingers stuck together when he attempted a mass hypnosis. “Really? Let’s do it again.”

Erm, thanks, but no thanks. It’s one thing to surrender to Brown in the stage show, but we’re in a coffee shop in Bradford.

“Go on, close your eyes.”

I relent. And end up with the fingers of my right hand entirely stuck together, and Brown also sticks my left hand to the table in front of me. Whatever else he insists about not having any “supernatural powers”, he has the ability to do quite strange and disturbing things.

His latest use of these powers will be revealed to audiences on Monday, when his latest show, Derren Brown: Miracles For Sale, airs on Channel Four.

For the show Brown takes an ordinary member of the public to America where he attempts to convince people that he is a faith healer.

“The world of Texan faith healers is a place full of savvy individuals and it was really hard for us to crack. It ended up becoming something of a road movie about us trying to make the show,” says Brown. The TV special continues a new direction for the illusionist, debunking those who claim similar skills are for real.

“It’s a huge business based around the prosperity gospel which says that if you give money to your pastor or church, then you will be rewarded financially. The pastors are billionaires and it is absolutely foul. It’s quite important to me that if I have a knowledge of these areas – and really all these ‘healers’ are doing is a nasty scam – then I want to communicate that.”

Hold up a mirror to Brown, it seems, and you find a genuine individual, friendly, entertaining and on a mission – with powers that are just a little bit spooky.

Derren Brown: Miracles For Sale, Channel 4 on Monday, April 25, at 9pm.

Svengali: Derren Brown. Sheffield City Hall & Memorial Hall, Tues, May 3 - Wed, May 4