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'If there's a 30th anniversary, I'm going to be the new Mary Berry'

To mark two decades since his debut on TV, Channel 4 is looking back at Derren Brown's career. Georgia Humphreys meets the star

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Derren Brown returns to Channel 4 on Sunday

Derren Brown returns to Channel 4 on Sunday

Press Association Images

Derren Brown returns to Channel 4 on Sunday

Derren Brown is mulling over how, as he's changed and grown up, his TV shows have done the same. "They've become less about me," notes the 49-year-old mentalist, illusionist and author. "They've become about real people going through real dramas, which felt a more resonant approach than just me going, 'Hey, look. Look how clever I am', because that has a bit of a shelf-life as a sub-text."

But clever Brown most definitely is. The star, who started studying magic while a student at Bristol University, has made himself a household name through various hit shows which see him use covert psychological techniques, resulting in sometimes controversial, often darkly terrifying and always mind-blowing stunts.

Now, he's celebrating 20 years on TV with a new Channel 4 special called Derren Brown: Mind Control, which will feature interviews with him and clips of his previous TV projects.

"As part of it, there's going to be a live trick that I'm going to do with somebody, which I'm not talking much about," he says.

"Looking back, it barely feels like me to me," he says of filming the retrospective show. "I noticed my voice was different back then. I had a strangely sort of deep voice that I'm sure wasn't mine. I'm not sure why I was doing that."

Brown, who is witty, easy-going and not at all intimidating, like you might expect from watching his scary magic, quips that he generally finds anything he's "said or done more than 10 minutes ago excruciating".

"So, I was surprised to go back and watch stuff and actually quite enjoy it and think, 'Some of that was really good'," he adds.

He has kept in touch with "pretty much all" of the people who have gone through big stunts on his shows.

Take Steven Brosnan from Apocalypse. The show saw Brown convince him that Earth had been hit by a catastrophic meteorite strike and that he was on the few survivors, now living on a planet where zombies roamed.

"I see a lot of Steven. He's got married and he's just having a baby. He's started working at a special needs school and worked his way up. His life really changed. Part of that was the show, so that was lovely.

"When you put people through those kinds of things, it would be very difficult to say, 'Okay, thank you. Goodbye. This show's made now.'

"If you have spent six months secretly filming somebody and handing them this huge elaborate thing and watching them go through it and we're all in floods of tears while it's happening... I know it sounds soppy, and it probably doesn't sound very sincere, but it's a real privilege."

Discussing how he's now been in the public eye for two decades, Brown recalls something quite "weird" started happening a few years ago.

"People would go, 'I used to watch you as a kid. I grew up watching your shows', which is very odd when you first hear that, particularly if the person saying it is someone you fancy and you stand a chance until you realise, 'This is just embarrassing'," he says.

If he could go back in time, to the start of his career, what advice would he give himself? "I don't know if I would because I think it's important to find your way through stuff. I think being gay but closeted back then meant that it became important to me to present quite a controlling..." he trails off, looking for the right words.

"You know that horrible old 1970s cliche of gay men being hairdressers and actors and interior actors and so on? The reason why that resonates is because, if you're uncomfortable with something deep inside, you get very good at these sorts of deflecting measures - dazzling surfaces is the thing. It's just a good way of avoiding that ever being touched upon. Magic was definitely a way of doing that."

If it wasn't for his sexuality (he came out in a newspaper interview in 2007), he doesn't think he would have been doing magic or "wouldn't have needed it in the same way".

"So, although I've learnt a lot and changed a lot - let alone dealt with all that stuff - I don't know if I'd go back and change it necessarily because I think it was all important and led me to who I am," he tells me.

Asked if he's learnt any new skills during the Covid-19 lockdown, he says: "I'm one of those people who learnt to bake. I'm quite introverted anyway, so lockdown has actually been quite nice. I've also been writing. A couple of years ago I wrote a book called Happy and then a shorter version of the same book called A Little Happier. It is coming out in October. So, the last month or so, I was writing that."

Could we be seeing him on Celebrity Great British Bake Off in the future? "I don't think so. I'm not saying I'm baking well. I am technically baking - things are getting hot in an oven and coming out. I do a very good lemon drizzle, as it turns out," he replies

"Maybe if there's a 30-year anniversary, it's basically going to be me as the new Mary Berry. It may be all that's left if I've run out of other ideas."

Perhaps fans shouldn't get their hopes up too much that Brown will still be making TV in 2030, though."

"Writing and painting and all those things I really enjoy, I feel that's more where my life is going," admits the star, who shares his artwork on his Instagram.

"I quite like doing stage work, but it's hard to do stage work if you're not also doing television because one feeds into the other, so I don't know.

"I suspect there will be a gradual softening, or a gradual disappearance. I've always liked those people who disappear off to Florence, or make shoes or do something else. That might be quite nice.

"I like the idea that, in 10 years' time, I'm being looked for."

Derren Brown: 20 Years of Mind Control Live, Channel 4, Sunday, 9pm

Belfast Telegraph