Born in Croydon, UK, in 1971, Derren Brown traces his interest in magic and psychological techniques to childhood, but it was only later, at Bristol University, where he reluctantly studied Law and German, that he started to delve more seriously into the stranger edges of human experience and what they might mean to us.
His big break came in 1999 when he was asked by the UK’s Channel 4 to put a TV show together. The result, DERREN BROWN: MIND CONTROL, was shown in 2000, proving an immediate success and winning a coveted Rose d’Or. Since then, re-defining magic through must-see TV and stage events, Derren has exhilarated audiences world-wide with a never-equalled brand of mind-control, suggestion, showmanship, and illusion.
His latest theatre tour, Derren Brown – Showman comes to Cardiff’s New Theatre this week, here he discusses the show as well as his successful and occasionally controversial career.
What would you say was the inspiration behind Derren Brown- Showman?
Funnily enough, the show was written pre-lockdown, about how the things in life that feel most isolating tend to be the very things that we share. And then this literal play-out of that idea happens, globally. So that has remained at its heart – it has a gentle thread about how we share our human difficulties, and the value of remembering what’s important.
The 2022 SHOWMAN tour is the largest you’ve ever undertaken. What do you see as your main personal challenges?
Yes, I’ll be touring March to November, which is very long for me, but I’m hugely looking forward to it. It’s such an enjoyable process, and I’m with the best bunch of people, and I get to have my days free, which is quite a luxury. My main personal challenge is to have things to occupy me during the day. It’s a great time to be writing, so I tend to concentrate on that.
The 2021 tour of SHOWMAN garnered rave reviews. Does this put extra pressure on you or does it act as a confidence booster?
Yes, I think it’s had the best response of any show I’ve done. It’s lovely to know, and a happy thing to read people’s responses right after a show on Twitter, but ultimately, to do it night after night, I can only really be concerned about the relationship between me and the audience in front of me. I think about that; I think about whether I’m enjoying it and bringing to it what I must; I think about how I will spend my days; I think about how my little team are and whether they’re happy and doing a good job. And it’s always hard for any performer in a relationship, leaving your partner at home to deal with all day-to-day stuff while you’re off ‘having fun with your friends’. Navigating that takes up mental space too. Those are really all my concerns. As far as reviews go, if they all had the same grumble, I’m sure we’d look at changing what was obviously a problem. But as long as they’re all very happy, they don’t really take up any space in my head. Which is the best way.
Would you say SHOWMAN is your most personal theatrical show to date?
Definitely. And it’s a real treat to do for exactly that reason. And to have people respond to it so well night after night make it even more so.
Which is your favourite of the TV shows / documentaries you’ve done?
Maybe Apocalypse. It was such a mammoth, mad, ambitious thing, and such an emotional journey for all of us. Steve and I are still good friends and he’s doing very well. But the shows that have meant something important to the person going through it: those will always be the ones that I’ll remember most fondly.
Looking back, what did you want to be when you were a kid?
A vet! Because I loved animals. And I think I wanted to be a poet at some point. I studied later to be a lawyer, but that was no fun. I soon preferred the idea becoming a magician. I thought it was important to know the way I wanted my life to feel, and I knew I wanted to be in charge of how I spent my time, when I worked, when I woke up in the morning and so on. So, as I was good at magic, it made sense to try to do it as a job. If the magic hadn’t worked out, I’d have found something else that still gave me those things I thought were important. I’ve always thought like that: I’ve never had any ambition or thought much about where I wanted to be in the future. Just tried to make things feel right in the present and do things that seemed interesting or fun.
Looking forward, what ambitions do you hope to achieve?
For all the above reasons, I have none. I’m more interested in seeing what life brings as I get older and how I can try and remain in an easy accordance with it.
Your latest book, A BOOK OF SECRETS, advises us to embrace uncertainty and consider the value of difficulty in our lives – which appears particularly relevant in these Covid times. Did the pandemic influence the book?
Yes, I started it in New York pre-pandemic and finished it during the second lockdown. The previous book, Happy (and its baby brother, A Little Happier) are about Stoicism which I think is very useful. But there is much more to be said about the human experience, and this book is about ways of navigating difficulty that are more about connection, rather than drawing your centre of gravity within.
Finally, what new projects are you working on?
I’m co-creating a production of the Invisible Man; I’m helping form an interesting magic-related event which is in its early days; and I am co-creating a big show which I think will be rather special for 2023. These all have me firmly behind the scenes, which I’m rather enjoying. When I have my art studio sorted out at the new house, I’ll be painting again. I’m also writing a book for magicians, and I have a juicy idea for a new book for the public. And this eight-month stint of Showman… plenty to be getting on with.
- Derren Brown – Showman runs at Cardiff’s New Theatre from Tuesday 29 March – Saturday 2 April. Visit the New Theatre website for booking details.