Derren Brown: ‘I’ve got license to do things that I wouldn’t be able to get away with doing if it was for a proper experiment’

Mentalist and Marylebone mind bender Derren talks psychological trickery and touring

Since he introduced the mainstream British public to their subconscious in 2000, Derren Brown has been everyone’s favourite enigma. He looks like the friendly odd-bod that you might find around a university campus but has super-human control over his own brain – to the point where he can achieve freakish feats like playing nine people at chess simultaneously and winning all of the games.

So it’s a bit of a surprise to read on Twitter that he can still become a victim of a common cold. “Yes, I’ve not been so well doing all my interviews and the show,” he says. “Thank you for asking about it though, no-one else who has spoken to me has really bothered.”

The 41-year-old, who lives in Marylebone with his partner, is currently performing his Svengali stage show, the contents of which have to be top secret to the point where, even when I accidentally hit on a part of it in my questioning, Brown asks me nicely not to publish it “so it doesn’t spoil it for everyone”.

When I tell him the show has been described as dark, he remembers immediately which newspaper the comment appeared in. “I think that was a remark made in the Daily Mail. It was a weird remark to make because if anything I think it is lighter. I think they just hadn’t seen the show.”

“I think the darker side of human nature is something that I have put my toe into many times and that’s where the interesting stuff lies. You see that in some of my shows. For me it is interesting because it shows how easily people can be led into criminal behaviour.”

Brown has used his extensive knowledge of psychological trickery to do many things. He has successfully convinced usually law-abiding citizens to attempt to rob a bank, assassinate Stephen Fry and admit to a crime they didn’t commit.

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He’s just starting to film this year’s Channel 4 TV series. “The more I’ve got into it the more I’ve got into the psychology of magic. Those things are the things I read about and talk about.”

How does he come up with the ideas? “It normally begins with me just thinking what to me at the moment is of interest, what is relevant and what is important.”

It is pretty spooky just how relevant Brown can be. Around the time that The Gameshow was screened – about the power of crowd mentality (or de-individualisation) – the London riots started, where mob mentality seemed to prevail.

“I think it comes back to stuff like Twitter. People hide behind a mask of anonymity. That was something that always resonated with me and something I felt was important to look at.

“It’s great because I’ve got license to do things that I wouldn’t be able to get away with doing if it was for a proper psychological experiment, just because the ethics committees would be all over me. We take the ethical side of it seriously, but the rules are different than if we were doing a proper experiment.”

So what does he think is relevant and important at the moment? Well, he can’t say because it is set to become yet another top secret mission that will be added to his portfolio of mystery. He can tell me what he’s reading though.

“A lot about the Stoics and what constitutes a happy life. I tend to read deeply into things rather than widely. I don’t really read fiction, I’m hopeless in that area. At the moment I’m reading Greek and Roman virtue philosophy and it will probably end up informing future projects.”

While it’s tempting to think of Brown as having abnormal mind-altering hobbies, it turns out he’s just a nice guy who likes reading - something he gets time to do a lot of on tour, he says, which is why he likes touring so much.

He admits that earlier in his career he sometimes used his mind tricks for personal gain, for example to appease a man trying to beat him up in Llandudno after a magic convention.

“If someone comes and intimidates you, just say something random to throw them off course. Whether it is a song lyric or something else that you have in your head, you are just not playing the game with them, you are not entering into the mind game with them.”

Now he’s happy to leave his mind control in the world of theatre and TV.

“In real life I don’t even think in that way. Unless it is something that is really useful. But I kind of switch all of that off when I’m not at work. I probably do do things without noticing it, but so much stuff on TV is a control game, that’s no way to live in real life. I think it would get annoying for people.”

S Svengali is at the Novello Theatre, Aldwych, until August 11.