Interview: Derren Brown talks Bristol University, hypnotism and life during lockdown

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By Georgiana Scott, Deputy Editor

World-renowned psychological illusionist Derren Brown gives an exclusive insight into his surreal time at Bristol University and how it set him up for a 20-year career of manipulating minds and performing the outrageous and unexplainable.

Sitting in his London home, Derren Brown could not seem further from his on-stage self. He’s unreserved, wears a humble cable knit sweater and self-effacingly jokes about his ‘eggy-head’ sandwiched between his headphones. The only trace of his spine-chilling alter-ego is the room filled with macabre curiosities.

Every piece of Edwardian furniture has an item of animal taxidermy on it. An odd-looking puppet is pinned to the wall, white stone busts of Greek philosophers litter the ceiling-high bookshelves, two stuffed peacocks stand proudly behind him and a large portrait of David Bowie, which Brown painted himself, observes the weird and wonderful chaos.

Derren's acrylic painting of Marliyn Monroe | Christopher Andreou

After his tour ‘Showman’ was postponed in May, painting celebrity caricatures has been one of Brown’s many lockdown pastimes. ‘I think I am just constitutionally suited to it [lockdown]. I’m fortunate that most of my interests are quite solitary. I think that was something born out of my time at Bristol because I was very much doing my own weird thing for a long time.’

Brown attended Bristol University from 1991-94 as a Law and German undergraduate and it was from his Wills Hall bedroom that he first delved into the world of hypnosis. Intrigued by its allure of power and control, he stole books from local Bristol shops that contained hypnosis scripts and used them to make recordings of his voice. ‘I would just sit and listen to see what felt effective, but as it turns out, I am not a very good subject.’

Derren will start touring again in August 2021 | Georgiana Scott / Epigram

To practice his newfound powers, Brown used his classmates as guinea pigs. He recruited a group of suggestible student volunteers that would visit his room to be lulled into trance-like states. ‘All I was doing was this relaxation therapy and then I’d tentatively suggest their hand was getting heavy and they couldn’t lift it – just subtle things like that. And then, it just started to work – it was a really great, gradual process.’

By the end of his first year, he was quite literally turning water into wine. To the bemusement of university bar staff, he could impress his friends by getting them drunk on water .One friend enjoyed Bailey’s showers for days he said.

‘Magic became my whole identity – I was an excruciating attention seeker! For one stunt, I got the head of the Badock JCR to hallucinate a rhinoceros. I was just mucking around for my own amusement, but it was really wild because he could feel and touch this rhino. He also felt it was his job to hide it somewhere safe, so his friends would try to talk to him and all he was thinking was “fuck, I’ve got to hide this rhino” and of course, they had no idea what he was on about.’

Derren once hypnotised a Bristol student to hallucinate a rhino | Alice Proctor / Epigram

Not only did Brown act like a circus ringmaster, but he dressed like one too. Averse to Bristol’s clubbing scene, he would frequent Boston Tea Party on Park Street and eat alone at fancy restaurants wearing a large, black cape. Brown, however, revealed the fun and games were just a symptom of his chronic insecurity. At the time, he was challenging his Christianity, questioning his sexuality and started attending gay conversion therapy.

‘I wasn’t dealing with it well and I didn’t know where it was all going. It fed into quite an insecure, weird bubble that was around me of needing to, I guess, control situations. And if you’re insecure about what’s going on, on the inside, you get very good at dazzling people with what’s on the outside, because it deflects people’s attention.’

After graduating, he stayed in Bristol for another ten years living in a small apartment (with a parrot) and continued to mask his vulnerabilities with close-up magic, hypnotism and an eccentric, over-the-top personality. At some point it seems the mask became the man, as Brown has been on our stages and screens for 20 years, dazzling audiences with the most mind-blowing, inconceivable stunts. He’s convinced people to commit murder, persuaded them to admit to murders they didn’t commit, predicted lottery numbers and – inperhaps his most student-relevant achievement – developed the ghost train at Thorpe Park.

"If you’re insecure about what’s going on, on the inside, you get very good at dazzling people with what’s on the outside"

More recently he’s turned his attention towards writing and earlier last year published ‘A Little Happier’ – a condensed version of his international bestseller ‘Happy.’ It draws on Stoic philosophy, offering advice for overcoming anxiety and finding happiness without aiming for it. At its core is the belief that ‘you should only attempt to control the things you can actually control,’ something he believes students could benefit from in the current crisis. ‘When something is really getting to me, I try to think: “Is it something in my mind I can change, or is it something out there?” And the moment you realise it’s stuff out there, you go “it’s fine.”’

But his main piece of advice for university students it to be less goal-oriented. ‘You can spend your life climbing a ladder and only to realise you had it up against the wrong wall. Instead, you should be like a frog on a lily pad. You soak up the sun, then when you get bored, you hop to another lily pad. It doesn't have to be this thing where you are deferring everything into the future. I never thought beyond whether what I was doing in the moment was engaging and interesting and fun. And that's never changed.’

Now in his 50s, what does the future hold for Brown? Well, he’s paying more attention than ever to the things he genuinely enjoys and he’s escaping the things he doesn’t. ‘I found TV quite tiresome, so I imagine I will do less of that. I’m passionate about painting, writing, photography and reading and enjoy touring but I’ve got this thing now where I get injured during live shows!  I’ll do some weird movement like throw my shoulder back without thinking about it and after doing that a hundred times you’re suddenly cancelling shows – so that’s happening, which is really weird.’

In the meantime, he’s moving house… but where to? Well,  Hhe’s considering making a profound return to the city of his alma mater – so perhaps we’ll be seeing him back on Park Street, wearing a cape no less. But he’s hesitant, ‘Once you return to a place after a long period of time it feels like the in-between hasn’t happened.’

Featured Image: Clout Communications


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