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Derren Brown - TV Mentalist

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posted by Mark Berry alias Mark Berry - Photographer & Graphic Designer on Thursday 31st of May 2007 09:19:46 PM

Portrait of the TV mentalist Derren Brown - a set used as the main images on his website and also in various magazines. Here is the interview I did with him, way back in 2003 for Naked - Magazine of the Weird and Wonderful MIND BENDING: The art of Derren Brown’s brain-sucking! The melancholic whine of a violin solo punctuates the air. Leather-bound books adorn the antique shelves. Dark and brooding portraitures fill the walls and loom above staring down. A tiny parrot flies around the room as the dead eyes of stuffed animals watch ominously. You sip cautiously at your lapsing douching tea and await a flamboyant entrance from Sherlock Holmes. Instead enters a meticulously presented, goatee-bearded Lincolnshire-man, with frilly white shirt and crush-velvet jacket. This is in fact the esoteric flat of the enigmatic Mr. Derren Brown. He is the startling ‘psychological illusionist’ who has dazzled millions of television viewers with his Channel 4 specials and his own series Mind Control. He is also an accomplished painter, with dozens of large-canvas portraits of celebrities in his own inimitable style. Derren’s many skills have involved reproducing a successful séance, spoon-bending, passing the Zener card ESP test plus dozens of amazing feats of mind-reading. Yet Derren Brown claims to possess no psychic ability whatsoever, preferring to rely upon a variety of psychological techniques, magic tricks and showmanship. Determined to discover the truth behind this psychic veil, Naked interrogated the man just before he embarked upon a national tour of his live show and becomes an international superstar… NAKED: What is your background in magic? How did get interested in the mind control aspect? DERREN: I sort of had an interest in magic when I was young and I remember going out and buying a few little magic tricks and things. Then when I came to university I saw a hypnotist and just thought that this was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. It just seemed such an amazing thing. But I didn’t really want to be a stage hypnotist. I was just very aware that when people booked a hypnotist they wanted people to take their clothes off and that wasn’t really what I wanted to be doing with it. So I started doing the close-up magic instead, which was a lot more flexible. Hypnosis would always depend on all sorts of conditions and the audience being right and all that. It was always a bit of a hassle, but I always retained an interest in the hypnotic techniques even though I was performing the hypnosis less and less. And I just thought that magic could be a lot more than it is or has been. I wanted it to be a bit more meaningful than someone just doing card tricks or making people vanish. It should get under peoples skin more. So I had this idea of combining the psychological techniques with the magic aesthetic and wanted to take people to the edge of their understanding of things. Doing it to create an effect rather than making people take their clothes off on stage. NAKED: Weren’t you a hypnotherapist for some time too? DERREN: Sort of. Unofficially. I was really just experimenting with the hypnosis that I had become so interested in. But it was just so boring listening to peoples problems all day. And also there’s just so much nonsense associated with that whole field, so easy to convince yourself you’re having an affect on people when you’re not. I actually went on a course – and I was just so horrified by the whole scene. It was so sickening and evangelical, just that sort of completely self-contained internal logic. It put me off doing all that sort of thing. NAKED: So was there any kind of mentor for you, or is it more of your own take on a whole different set of practices? DERREN: I had loads of favourite magicians. Now the one person who I consider my hero is a guy called Chan Kumasta back in the fifties. He was just superb. Kumasta had a great psychological handling of people and just such a joy to watch, a real genlemenly charm. He was a great performer with an incredible performance. He was Polish as well, so he had this great, strange East European charisma about him. He had so much presence it was fantastic. I think that his example struck me as the way to do it. I thought that would be a great thing to achieve in some form. NAKED: How do you choose your victims? Are some people more or less compliant than others? DERREN: It depends on the nature of the stunt and on having a certain psychological environment or someone in a particular psychological state in order to get it to work. For example, we had a chess expert on the show and played this mastermind game with him. In order for it to work, I had to get him in a particular state. It was important that I made it a real challenge and was quite arrogant with him really and put him in a quite quietly aggressive state. So sometimes it’s that. It’s all about patterns of predictability. In other situations, I’ve got a group of people then I will look for – if I want a challenger I will be looking for someone who is clearly trying to catch me out. Or generally it’s a question of responsiveness. You look for people who are responsive in everyday life, that don’t hide back, that don’t exist behind a barrier, that you can generally read what their thinking. Its people like that that tend to be easiest to work with in most situations, unless I specifically need someone who is the opposite of that or is going to challenge me or whatever. NAKED: Is Conan’s Doyles Watson, the unobservant ‘everyman’ a good analogy to you as Holmes? DERREN: That’s certainly part of it yeah. Aesthetically I think definitely. What’s great about Holmes is it’s the equivalent of throwing a dart at a wall and drawing the bullseye and the target around wherever the dart hits. Plus all those long extended deductions of telling what this person does for a living and where they’ve just come from by the bits of mud and ink on their fingertips. Conan Doyle knows what he wants to end up with, what the answer is and then puts the clues on the guy. NAKED: Which is kind of what you do. DERREN: Exactly, It’s not really feasible but it’s plausible. I think that with a lot of what I’ve done is aim for – what Holmes can’t do - to try and take it the one stage further and go for the impossible. To see how far I can take what you can do if people are in the right state or if you can dress something up with showmanship. A lot of my interest is about achieving that impossible effect and using whatever means I have to get that. NAKED: Tell me about your paintings. You’ve large canvases of celebrities painted in a quite unusual style. DERREN: I’ve just always had a real thing about faces. And the reason why these paintings look like this is that I guess I just see people in an exaggerated way. I can’t paint a straight portrait because, well I paint what I see. This is how they come out. It’s a really nice way of spending a couple of days if I don’t have to be writing the performance side of things. Though as much as I do enjoy doing them, I do feel I could be doing something a bit more serious. To me ultimately, I’d just like to get beyond just having pictures of celebrities. Just something that actually felt like I was producing art rather than illustrations. These feel to me more like images rather than objects. NAKED: I guess how for critics, conceptional art has taken over and anything without a clear political or sociological statement, now seems to be considered just illustration or not worthy somehow. DERREN: To me, art is a narrative, it’s a story. It’s anything you produce. If it’s a nice watercolour of a bridge, a hundred years ago that would have actually been adding to the story of art. But now it maybe a great picture, but it doesn’t add to the story now. So I like (my paintings) and I think they do something other than being entirely worthless, but they’re not doing whatever the current chapter (of art) is. Maybe it should be challenging in some way, or make people see some aspect of the world a little differently when they walk away from it. Doing all those things that good art does. NAKED: Do ever get tempted to use your mind control talents in everyday life? DERREN: (Puts on creepy voice) My powers of evil! Not so much now. Not at all. There’s two sides to it. On the one hand, I switch it on when I perform and switch it off when I’m going out socially. I mean its not like you can just go up to people and read their minds. It does actually involve getting people into a kind of game. It means that I have to be in a certain state to do it and you can’t have a normal social evening if you are going to do that. Unlike being a magician where you quietly show a magic trick, its all a bit too much. On the other hand you do kind of absorb a lot of it, become more aware of communication and persuasion. NAKED: People trying to pursuade you. DERREN: Yeah and how to be more persuasive. It’s just kind of you find yourself being able to do a much better job at helping a person or persuading the person on the phone to do whatever you want them to do then probably the next guy. That’s sort of the general absorbing of the techniques. NAKED: Do you believe in any paranormal activity? DERREN: Um, no not really. I think you have to define the limits of what is normal and what is sensory before you decide what is paranormal or extra-sensory. But I also think that I’ve worked so closely with the whole psychic scene that all of the things that normally pass for paranormal, I’ve seen those just constantly fall apart. NAKED: For example? DERREN: Well, psychics, psychic readings, holistic therapies, aromatherapy and crystal therapy and all that. And it just falls apart when you look at it. It’s just nothing. You can never say there’s a definite “no.” You can’t prove a negative, you can’t say there is nothing. There is obviously something beyond what we can personally experience and touch and see and have experience of. NAKED: Another level of consciousness. DERREN: Yeah. Unless the whole thing is a hallucination, there’s something beyond that. And if there is, then that’s great, but the people that claim to get a reliably psychic phenomena, just seems to be untrue, fraudulent or self-obsession. I have come across over and over again people who claim to be psychic. We did do some filming at a place where psychics come together. The idea was to go in there non-judgmentally and see what they did and evaluate it. We had a control group of students come and the psychics would take it in turn - there might be ten of them sat round in a circle - to read whatever they picked up. And it was just absolutely dire. It was just the most general nothing stuff being said. "I see you on a bus. Does that mean anything to you?" So the student's like, "well I don’t know, you'll have to be a bit more specific." "Oh well it might not be a bus, it may be a person." It was that level of shattering inquiry (laughs). It was kind of obvious that if you put these ten people with each other every week, they'd all love it, and read into each other's words what they wanted to get out of it. But the moment you actually hold it up to the light, it’s just excruciatingly bad! Absolutely no substance whatsoever. And of course they complained that the very nature of the energy in the room was wrong and so that was why it didn’t work. NAKED: What happened when you did the reading? DERREN: Well of course when I did it according to plan it was superb! (laughs) The difference I think was that they were deluding themselves into thinking that what they were doing meant something. I knew that it would work because I was purposely using techniques that I know are very effective. Though if you are a fraudulent psychic you are much more likely to be convincing than the nice but self-deluded middle-aged lady with too much time on her hands. NAKED: Were they pissed off with you at the end? DERREN: Oh there were convinced I was psychic. It was great. I was able to describe this woman's house and was even able to tell her the number that was on the front door. And one of them came up to me afterwards and said, "look you're aura reading, why won’t you admit it? You're reading her aura, because the aura stores information like home addresses." (All laugh). And what can you say to that? It's amazing, you'd never need an address book! So they were convinced that I was just deluding myself and refused to admit that I actually had the gift. Which was kind of what we wanted, so it was fine. NAKED: So do think that all forms of psychic phenomena can be recreated using your techniques? DERREN: Yes I think so. Most psychic phenomena seem to come out of anecdotes. It's somebody saying, "oh well this happened. This psychic told me this, how do you explain that?" Most of the time you are dealing with somebody telling you of something. Therefore it's an incomplete description of a faulty memory of a conversation which is very far removed from somebody actually walking up to you in the street and saying, "your mother worked in a shoe shop and had long black hair." What actually happens is a conversation in which those elements may be drawn out, but without the inconsistencies, vagueness and leading questioning being really recalled. You work as a magician and you know that most of the stuff in the trick happens after the trick has finished, when the person remembers what has happened, and then describes it to somebody else. And if you are a good magician, you create a false memory of what has happened first of all. So its like you say to somebody half way through the trick, "ok, shuffle the deck again, but this time do it under the table so I can't see." But in fact they haven’t shuffled the deck before, because the deck had to be in a special order in the beginning. By asking to them to shuffle the deck "again," afterwards they'll remember that they shuffled the deck at the beginning. And when they start to describe it to somebody else, and because they don’t want to appear stupid that they were fooled by something simple, they exaggerate the impact of the trick and its impossibility. So suddenly, "it's impossible. He never touched the deck." You create a fantastically false memory of what happened in order to create a sense of magic. And it’s certainly very easy to do, and is a classic psychic technique, whether they do it fraudulently or otherwise. It also relies just as much on the person sat there receiving the reading as the person doing it. But you have to strip all that away before you can really look at these things and then decide if there's anything really happening. NAKED: Do you feel that some form of telepathy is at least theoretically possible? DERREN: I don’t know. You sort of here stories of it happening amongst Aborigines and so on. But again, is that just another anecdote? If it does happen, I think it doesn’t happen in a controlled, repeatable and therefore scientifically valid arena. People have been trying to demonstrate that forever and they’ve never been able to do it. Whether people get flash premonitions when people they’re close to die in accidents and whether that’s more than just things that go through your mind anyway and more than just an after-the-event creation of a coincidence, I don’t know. I’ve never had that sort of experience. What we also do as people is find patterns which are of interest. You put two unrelated incidents together and form a line where there isn’t one. Again, its how magic works and how everything like this works. You manipulate someone, making an appealing chain of events, that actually had nothing to do with each other, that makes people find impossible coincidences where there aren’t any. NAKED: One idea that has been put forward is that you are in fact psychic to some extent. DERREN: All I can say to that is I find the psychological techniques – the things which make us such interesting creatures, so varied yet so predictable – I find those things a lot more beautiful and interesting and worthy of attention than empty vacuous guff of psychic claims. You could argue – as some people would – that the nature of all those psychological techniques, once they have become unconscious, that you’re not psychically and consciously working them through, the level of intuition is therefore psychic. So if all that I do adds up to being called psychic, then we need to redefine what being psychic means because then it’s been pulled back behind the line towards something that isn’t esoteric. NAKED: Perhaps close to a possible paradigm shift from what is defined as normal and paranormal. I mean, if you gave a radio set to a caveman, the voices coming from inside would be a paranormal experience to that caveman. DERREN: But equally that comes out of that same argument about understanding the limits of sensory perception before you designate something as extra-sensory. So if the radio thing had happened and created a massive stir in its day, we’d look it now and understand it as what it was. And equally I’m sure we’ll understand more about non-verbal communication than we do now. Its such a wooly area, so difficult to pin it down and maybe we never will. If it’s the nature of the thing, we won’t. Equally nowadays we understand the power of placebo and auto-suggestion and the power of anecdotes and false memory etc. We understand all those things. To pretend they don’t exist, and say, ”oh no you just have to keep an open mind. Don’t be so analytical,” that’s just bollocks! That’s just being purposefully ignorant because it’s ultimately about what feels nice. It’s actually quite insulting and leads to arguments that go along the lines of “Western science is just so over-analytical and just wrong and misses the point and Science is bad. And all of these wonderful new age things have actually been actually been scientifically proved. Yes, they’ve done scientific tests on them..” It’s that sort of utterly bizarre statement. What are you saying? Are you saying it is valid or it isn’t? So saying its psychic is maybe having your cake and eating it. Either it is or it isn’t and it makes more sense if we understand how these psychological techniques work and the power of those. NAKED: I guess that what you touch on is how psychic phenomena, ufology etc has become the new religion, talking over Christianity in Western society. DERREN: Absolutely. NAKED: Finally, how far do you think the human mind can be pushed? What can the human mind be made to believe? DERREN: I don’t know. I’m just an entertainer. I couldn’t tell you. I play games and have fun with it. I have no interest in really pushing the frontiers. Having worked as a hypnotist, I have made myself invisible to a room of people and none of them can see me. If I move something around, they just see it float through the air. It doesn’t actually mean I am invisible, but in a subjective sense I am. And when I make themselves invisible, that’s fucking weird for them. A friend of mine said, “its just like I’m watching through a video camera. I just can’t see anything.” (all laugh). And that seems that it must be pretty far ‘out there’ but actually its kind of a bizarrely easy thing to push – it doesn’t work on everybody. If you’re a good responsive subject, it’ll work quite well. So I know what’s possible right now, but it doesn’t work on some people. You get a wide range of experience. So the whole nature of the thing is that people’s minds are different, and we all experience things in different ways. It’s very difficult pinning anything down and making any definite statements about how the mind does affect people. But it’s fun to muck about (laughs). Which is what I do. NAKED: Derren Brown, thank you very much. (Photos and words copyright - Mark Berry)

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