The magic of Derren Brown
He'll dazzle you with devious misdirection, puzzle you with prestidigitation and flummox you with flim-flam. He's our greatest entertainer, says AL Kennedy
I’ve always loved going to see magicians and hypnotists. As a child I went to see our local touring hypnotist every time he turned up to make people dance with brooms and imagine they were undressed, or Elvis, or asleep. I always hoped for genuine wonders and I never saw them. I always went back to try again. I always wanted the mystery underneath those hinted at by my card-sharping, poker-playing grandfather and the book he gave me on Houdini. (The only book he ever gave me.) I always wanted to see proper skills, not cheesy outfits, squashed doves and tedious ladies in tedious outfits who “got in the way”. One of my great-aunts was a real, proper spiritualist, in the sense of that being her church of choice. My grandmother had mystical experiences – it all seemed so profound and interesting at a distance of years and yet so rubbish when one thought about it sanely. And yet. While not believing in proper magic, while growing up in an educated and sceptical household, often filled with psychologists (imagine the fun… yeah), I still wanted real magic. I really did. I wanted a thaumaturge who really was a thaumaturge – a worker of wonders.
Which is why, ten, perhaps nine years ago, I went to see Derren Brown. Just in passing. On a whim.
I saw him in what we might call his natural home – working with a live audience on a stage. That evening I was in the furthest possible seat from the stage in the Palace Theatre for “Derren Brown Live” (an accurate if unimaginative title). The furthest possible seat from the stage in the Palace Theatre is basically in another postcode. Still, the set was impressive as I waited for things to begin – the floor had been covered with black and white checks all converging in what I think we might call a forced perspective at the perfect mid-point for a small ginger magician.
The dee-dee-dee-dee theme tune from the Derren Brown TV series played. (It really was embarrassingly like the theme from Knight Rider.) The audience shuddered with joy and panic and out stepped Mr Brown, the crown of his – I learned with surprise – balding head all I could see from my elevated angle. And when he stood at exactly the focal point of the stage with his evil whiskers and nattily threatening suit, the audience braced itself to be instantly turned into frogs, or snap-inducted and forced to perform dreadful acts. His power was inconveniently powerful.
I was only delighted when Mr Brown did what a sensible performer and magician and psychologist and person would do – he flimflammed us. He quietly and self-deprecatingly said how pleased he was to be in such a big theatre and how nice it was that it was sold out and how lovely it was that he was on television and he’d never have dreamed. And thank us all very much.
He was so sincere.
He was sincere in the way that a man can be when he understands that sincerity really works.
And his audience, including me, sighed a communal sigh of relief and thought, “What a nice man.” And we all relaxed. This enabling him to do whatever he wanted with us, including making grown women squeal with fright in the darker – you needn’t come back, but it is darker, but fun, but not if you don’t want – second half.
Don’t get me wrong – the show’s magic was fine. It was great. It was occasionally a bit “magicky” in the sense that it didn’t always belong to the real world of things that people do and know and care about, but it was always immaculate and sometimes, sometimes it did shake reality, did just tickle it a bit. And there, in the darker second half, was a proper attempt to address our human need for deep mystery and our perhaps even more human vulnerability to charlatans of all shapes and grades.
But I was sold with that opening speech, that lesson in complete audience manipulation. That’s manipulation in the sense of helping people be where they need to be in order for them to have fun. Mr Brown is a master showman. A number of other things, too: atheist, sceptic, rationalist, parrot-fancier, openly gay man in a very un-openly-gay profession, and gentleman. But he’s a showman right into the soles of his often exquisite shoes. Watching him is an education if you ever want to stand in front of an audience in any capacity yourself.
Last month I was back at the Palace Theatre – a bit nearer the stage this time – to see Mr. Brown’s latest offering, Infamous.
It’s a lovely show and continues his (and Andy Nyman’s) move far away from the bitty, variety type of magic you might find elsewhere and into the territory of drama and story telling. He operates firmly in the rare area within which the “actor who is playing the part of a magician” (Robert-Houdin’s wise and often quoted description of a magician) does really an awful lot of acting and does it really rather well.
In the intervening period between Palace gigs, I have followed Mr Brown’s other stage shows and his TV work and have become what we might call a slight, passing, possibly irritating acquaintance of his as the result of research for a novel involving magic and fake psychics. (I know, but some people need me to say “fake”.) And what have I learned in those ten – perhaps nine – years?
To be brief about it – I have learned that Derren Brown is a good thing in the world. At a time when both the atheist and sceptic camps can descend into petty bitching, threats and insults in no time at all, his atheism is presented with dignity and common sense. His knowledge of how and why people believe things and his experience of a Christian community give him a kind of gentleness and a detailed insight into how and why we believe things other people may find bizarre. (For some reason this layer of insight is often absent from the scientific community, who you’d think might know that human beings believe weird shit with infinite ease and that it’s not necessarily because we’re stupid or evil. Then again… Psychologists…) That experience of belief and Brown’s knowledge of magical techniques mean that he can gently, mercilessly and truly convincingly take apart psychic phenomena, religious and ecstatic states and various bewilderments we’re generally all prone to in a way that’s truly altruistic as well as entertaining and, I’m sure, lucrative. At a time when science can be demonised, poorly presented and just plain misrepresented, Derren Brown sneaks in sideways along the outside edge of popular culture and produces work that would have made front pages in the 1970s. I know The Experiments won a BAFTA, but it didn’t – for example – cause a sea change in the presentation of predatory TV formats, or a wider re-examination of group behaviour, as I might have wished. Still, now lonely young men who live with their mums and can do a killer French drop (and others among his following) can thank Derren Brown for a practical knowledge of Stanley Milgram’s work and Philip Zimbardo’s findings, and of forces that might otherwise let politicians, advertisers and tricksters scam them, or allow their own thinking to sabotage their lives.
In Absolute Magic, a book for magicians both young and lauded, Derren Brown set out what amounted to a manifesto for magic. The aspirations he laid down there are being worked out now in fact. The aim is to create real wonder. It may even be to replace that huge sense of joy and awe and community that was first offered to him by Christian belief. (Psychologists… They rub off on you.)
Particularly in a theatre, Brown can create a community, a shared experience of happy similarity amongst a species. He also engineers bursts of wonder. His magic doesn’t aim simply to belittle, or befuddle, or manufacture fake miracles and manifest a controlling personality. (I’ve met a lot of magicians, too...) His work produces a type of humility in the face of reality, a reality wonderful enough for anyone. Perhaps because he came to magic late, his work shows the intelligence and concerns of an adult, rather than the hours of practice and petty pleasures of a child or adolescent. Perhaps because he genuinely is a kind person and wants to help – is almost disturbingly driven to help – his work continually tries to add value, to improve experiences, to tweak existing performances and scripts. This seems to go beyond professionalism and a decided restlessnes; there is also a drive to develop new ways of showing people as better than they are imagined to be, by both themselves and others. This is not a bad thing. This stands in direct opposition to most of our current TV, film and stage entertainments. And Mr Brown knows why it stands in opposition to those things, but doesn’t get all preachy about it.
All this and he also doesn’t insist on the stage distraction of the feathered and tinselled ladies in which neither of us would be interested. Instead, audiences get to catch glimpses of Coops, the best PA, video operator and all round wonder-worker that I could imagine anyone having or needing in one’s professional life. And if you want to know whether a guy really is a good guy – check on his staff, are they happy, does he treat them well, do they like him, do they stay with him? As far as I have ever been able to tell, yes, yes, yes and yes.
But none of which is any of my business.
I can say that Mr Brown was enormously helpful in my research – clearly immensely bright in some very odd areas, slightly shy, gentle with undercurrents of gleeful badness. And in occasional subsequent chats he has been very fine company, even for someone as awkward as me. In fact, I would imagine, precisely because of that. He always fills me with an enormous desire to ask his advice on… everything. And I always make sure not to.
If I judge him on his works, I see an intelligence combining the strengths of an unheard-of skill set and producing something that makes people happy. From the glorious finale of “Enigma” to the revelation of a zombie-conquering hero, from the strange passion glimmering within “Russian Roulette” to the new-found luck bestowed upon a gloomy butcher, this stuff allows people to feel happy in clever, aware, humane and mystifying ways. There is nothing wrong with that and I thank Mr Brown for it very much. I also thank for him taking me as near as anyone can get to that real experience of the magical that I always wanted.