He’s predicted the winning lottery numbers, played Russian roulette on TV, and coerced a member of the public to think they’d pushed a man to his death.
Derren Brown is the ultimate showman, working his mind games and hypnotic magic on audiences in his sell-out shows every year, his name synonymous with the art of psychological manipulation.
Yet away from the stage and screen, the ‘entertainer’ persona is pared right back, and in its place a more reflective character, who admits, given half the chance, he could easily be a recluse.
Now living in Surrey with his partner – who he reveals is in show business but refuses to name – and a Basset Beagle cross puppy called Doodle, he has just launched Happy, a rather intellectual book about, naturally, happiness.
He quotes a variety of philosophers, from the Stoics, the Greek school of philosophy founded in the third century BC, to Nietzsche and Freud and, after reading extensively on the subject, has come to the conclusion that it’s pretty difficult to define happiness.
“We see happiness as this thing that we’re entitled to, but we don’t really know what it is. All the things we think will supply it – the goals we set, or the wanting to be a millionaire, or to retire – don’t. They rarely end up supplying the goods when we get there.
“Rather than seeing it as a thing, we should see it more as the absence of disturbances or anxieties.
“The pre-Christian ideal which pervaded philosophy is that people used to see happiness as tranquillity, as calmness that remains when disturbances are avoided.”
So could he be turning into the new Paul McKenna – showman, hypnotist and self-help guru who, coincidentally, brought a book out a few years ago called I Can Make You Happy?
Brown says not.
“I certainly wouldn’t want to be a self-help guru – and I’m not talking about Paul McKenna because I haven’t read his books – but much of my book says why the self-help culture is part of the problem and part of why we miss what can make us happy.
“The idea of positive thinking and goal-setting and all the things that we take for granted are actually very counter-productive. That self-help world is not helpful.”
How does he practice what he preaches away from the spotlight?
“I am quite Zen in real life, to the extent that I have difficulty feeling emotionally engaged with things when I should be.
“I fall into the category of ‘avoidant personality’. People tend to meet stress either by becoming anxious about it or simply removing themselves from it.
“I don’t go out a huge amount, I like being on my own, I love writing, painting and taking photographs, and these are quite private things that put you in a creative space.”
Brown admits he can seem quite emotionally detached, but points out: “I cry at sentimental movies and am probably a lot more childish than people imagine, but I’m not anxious.”
He’s been with his partner, an actor-performer, for a year, although they haven’t seen much of each other because Brown has been on tour a lot of the time.
“We haven’t quite settled into daily living yet but I know I calm him down and he helps me find more attachment. We complement each other.”
He believes there’s a value in how others can change you.
“Left to my own devices, I could imagine becoming quite reclusive. Having a partner who’s not like that is a useful, lovely thing because you become more rounded and more conscious of your own madnesses and massive gaps and experiences. That other person changes and complements you and softens you up.”
Brown grew up in Purley, Surrey, attending the school where his father was a swimming instructor. He was clever, unpopular and craved attention, he has admitted.
“A lot of performers are shy, which makes sense because if you don’t feel very impressive, magic is a great way of appearing impressive. You are literally hiding behind a prop which does all the work for you, and then people go, ‘Wow! You’re amazing!’
“Before I found magic, I had this need to impress and was fixated on being liked. I still like being liked but before, I had a mixed-up need for attention and validation, and one nice thing about performing properly is that it can take care of all of that. It clears that clutter out of the rest of your life and you don’t contaminate everything else by desperately needing attention.”
Yet he claims he never had any ambition.
“Goals can be quite useful in the short-term, but I’ve never had ambition as a life urge. I never wanted to be on TV or to be particularly successful beyond being happy and earning a living.”
Easy to say when you have a hugely lucrative career and massive fan base, which he’s likely to be enhancing even further next year when he embarks on a Broadway show in America, where he is relatively unknown.
“I had no desire to conquer America,” Brown adds. “I’m going to Broadway because it feels like it will be a fun thing to do and it’s an amazing opportunity to live in New York for a bit.”
He’s reluctant to say what he thinks of magic shows today or fellow illusionists. He’s met Dynamo, but doesn’t have a TV and says he doesn’t enjoy watching magic.
“If it’s something you have very high standards about, it’s difficult to watch with any kind of objective balance. You get annoyed by things that aren’t that annoying to anyone else.”
From playing Russian roulette on TV and his Channel 4 show Pushed To The Edge, where he coerced someone into pushing a man off a high-rise building – seemingly to his death (it was only revealed to be an ‘experiment’ afterwards, testing the powers of social compliance), Brown is no stranger to controversy.
“People who take part in the shows go through a huge amount of psychological evaluation beforehand,” he says. “We make sure those people are going to be robust enough to do it. There’s a duty of care which is taken seriously with all those things.
“I try to find a really important point I want to make and then find a dramatic hook for it.
“The Russian roulette was an early show to draw attention to myself. It was designed to put me on the map. The reality is, although I do these things, weirdly, I don’t always like the attention that much, so I don’t court it with everything I do.”
After seven new stage shows and 14 years of touring, it seems he wants to create material with a message.
“Experiments do show us what our potential for behaviour is. It’s not just about making someone do something horrible.”