How Derren Brown went from law to hypnotism
Ahead of his week-long run at Belfast's Grand Opera House, Derren Brown tells Claire Savage how he became entranced by the world of illusion and losing his religion, but keeps schtum about his Newry-born partner
For a man who has made his name by delving deeply into the human psyche, it is quite a surprise to learn that when it comes to his personal life, Derren Brown is somewhat secretive – on certain things at least.
While the engaging television star will happily chat about his love of parrots, painting and taxidermy, as well as his past as an evangelical Christian, asking about his Ulster-born partner elicits a polite but firm rebuttal.
"I've learned you have to draw the line somewhere," he says, "so I like to keep that personal, but he's from Newry, actually..."
Then again, perhaps it helps too for the high-profile hypnotist – who brings his latest stage show Infamous to Belfast's Grand Opera House next week – to maintain some air of mystery about himself.
It was while studying law at university in Bristol that he first became smitten with the idea of hypnotism, after attending a show by renowned stage hypnotist Martin S Taylor.
"I came home from that show with my friend and I said to him, 'I'm going to learn how to do that'," says Brown. "He said, 'I am as well', but I said, 'No, I really am.'
"I did hypnotism shows at student venues – I just became the guy at university who hypnotised people, but I realised I couldn't make a living out of it.
"For a long time, I was doing close-up magic around the tables – but I always had an interest in the psychology stuff."
Upon completing his degree, the by-now avid adherent of the craft told his parents that a career in the law was just not for him.
"There was no pressure from family to be a lawyer," he explains. "My parents have only ever said 'Just do what you enjoy'.
"I came home one day and said to my mum 'I'm going to be a magician' – and she said 'That sounds fine!'
"I think it just appealed to a lot of insecurities at the time," he adds. "There's something about control and I think at the time, that spoke to me. It just ticked a lot of boxes for me."
Finding that hypnotism drew "pressure to do tacky shows", Brown developed an interest as a conjuring magician.
"I ended up writing a couple of books as a magician and eventually I got approached by a TV company because of that," he says.
Hypnotism, however, was also to have a profound effect on the young Brown's faith. Although he didn't come from a particularly religious family, he himself was an evangelical Christian, although his beliefs were to be called into question by his new-found passion.
"There were two things," he said. "One – I was going to quite happy-clappy evangelical churches at the time, and, with the hypnotism, it seemed to me that it was all about crowd suggestion and manipulation more than anything else. It put up a sceptical field.
"Secondly, at the time, there was a lot of demonising of tarot readings and New Age beliefs. Because I was doing magic, I knew how these things worked, so I knew it was nothing to do with Satan.
"Both of these things just started me thinking, 'I don't think I have a belief there that's justified.'
"I thought, 'I need to rediscover this. So, I started reading books about how the Bible was put together.
"I thought I would have a more solid starting point for belief, but then it started to feel silly.
"It just fell apart. It was a while before I was brave enough that if I was asked if I believed in God I'd say 'No'. But it was liberating."
Another key event in the illusionist's life was when he came out to the public as gay, although he is disparaging of adding 'openly' to that: "It always strikes me as a slightly odd word ..."
He wrote a brief column in a national newspaper about his sexuality, as he "didn't want to be in this slightly weird situation where I was turning up at a party with a partner and it wasn't out there".
Brown and his partner Mark recently celebrated their seventh anniversary together, although all he will say of the relationship is that "we met through a mutual friend".
On the stage or screen, however, Brown is much more upfront and has, from day one, made it clear that what he does is a mixture of psychological manipulation, hypnosis and good old-fashioned magic.
Indeed, after a string of his shows aired, he felt he had "this sort of responsibility" to ensure people understood he had no psychic ability.
"It became important to be clear about this," he says.
"To let people distinguish what can be done by a magician and what can be peddled in an exploitative way."
Among his television shows which have made a splash over the past ten years or so are The Heist, in which he manipulated a number of selected participants into robbing a security van in broad daylight, while in last year's Great Art Robbery, he showed a group of old age pensioners how to steal an expensive painting from an art collector (who was aware of the stunt as well).
He maintains that it's "never about trying to think bigger or to top the last idea", as otherwise "it wouldn't have any depth or resonance".
Illusions aside, Brown also has a strong interest in portraiture painting – his art is displayed in London and New York galleries – and then, of course, there's that taxidermy hobby ...
"My landlord, when I was a student, collected taxidermy," he chuckles. "I kind of just thought, 'What a great thing to do!' I've now got a whole house full of it."
And for his 43rd birthday last month, Brown's touring team gifted him with ... "a huge dead horseshoe crab".
As patron of The Parrot Zoo near Skegness, Brown also has a live parrot as a pet – and a few stuffed versions.
"Occasionally it startles guests, who think it's one of the stuffed ones," he laughs.
Meanwhile, he is working on a book about happiness and philosophy, and is slap-bang in the middle of a very busy UK-wide tour.
Reflecting on this, he says: "All I can hope is that people get the fact that it's a game and it's theatre and that's the fun of it. There's always going to be people who go, 'It's fake' – but I wouldn't go to all that effort."
Look into my eyes ... his most memorable stunts
Derren has made a name for himself with some ground-breaking televisual moments:
Casino – he attempted to predict the outcome of a roulette wheel, staking £5,000 of a viewer's money on the outcome. The ball landed in the pocket numbered 30, adjacent to Brown's choice of 8.
Lottery – by carefully analysing members of his audience, Brown appeared to correctly predict the National Lottery results
Apocalypse – in one of his most elaborate – and at times genuinely terrifying – projects, Brown convinced an unmotivated young man that the world had undergone a zombie apocalypse, in the process helping him to realise that he had been missing out on enjoying a productive and meaningful life
Hero at 30,000 Feet – Brown took one fearful flyer and managed to convince him that he was capable of landing a commercial jet, loaded with passengers, after the captain had apparently taken ill, although the actual process was done in a simulator
Derren Brown - Infamous, runs at the Grand Opera House, Belfast, from Monday to Saturday, March 17-22. For details visit www.goh.co.uk.