Derren Brown: 'There is a stunt that I’ve not been allowed to do – it might be that we shouldn’t do it'

Ralph Jones
·10-min read
 (Seamus Ryan)
(Seamus Ryan)

It behoves me to tell you there is a dead man in Derren Brown's house. He's on the living room sofa and, being dead, he's not moving much – his head has lolled back and his arms hang limp by his sides. I notice him when I pop upstairs to use the toilet in Brown's extraordinary four-storey house.

“Can I feel it?” I ask Brown, once I've established that the man is a highly convincing dummy, a breath-taking scoop having been cruelly snatched from me. I rub the creepy face. It's the model that the illusionist used in his 2016 Channel 4 experiment Pushed to the Edge, in which an unwitting protagonist almost succumbs to social compliance when pressured to push a man off the top of a building. Having to look and feel exactly like a real man, it looks and feels exactly like a real man. And, while I sip dark tea from a Desert Island Discs mug, with The Essential Jung sitting on the glass coffee table, the dead man eavesdrops. I am not sure until I leave that it isn't someone on Brown's payroll who is largely employed to impersonate a corpse.

Death and facsimile. It's in keeping with the rest of the house, which is in a part of London Brown has asked me not to disclose. (He has spoken before about the problem of stalkers who believe they are in relationships with him.) The vast 19th-century rooms are lovingly littered with stuffed animals, real and mythical – a unicorn, most of a giraffe, two peacocks flanking the fireplace – and portraits by Brown himself, which attempt to distil their subjects into one image. Brown is in thrall to the idea of “things appearing real when they're not”, he tells me. There are flecks of blue paint on his right hand: he is in the middle of a Freddie Mercury portrait. We wind our way up to his studio on the second floor, where Freddie's face – uncharacteristically realistic for one of Brown's caricatured paintings – sits on an easel. (Brown is now selling a range of prints on his website for £150 or £250 each, but the originals can go for up to £15,000. Matt Lucas has reserved Freddie.) Strewn around us are dozens of faces: Benedict Cumberbatch; Anthony Hopkins; Marilyn Monroe; a colossal Maggie Smith, whom Brown once met by chance in a crumbling 15th-century Venetian palace.

Brown painting a portrait of Marilyn Monroe in his studioChristopher Andreou
Brown painting a portrait of Marilyn Monroe in his studioChristopher Andreou

This, he says, is what he loves more than perhaps anything else – painting and writing. The “plague”, as he refers to Covid-19, has been good for him: a chance to hole himself up in his studio and spend days with his art. (He's two days into Freddie. Marilyn took a week.) If he's frustrated, normally it's because he'd like to be left alone. “The danger is it’s so solitary that if you’re in a relationship and trying to function as a good enough partner, and actually all you want to do is tuck yourself away and paint, it’s not ideal.” He lives with his boyfriend Justin, who moved in five years ago, and of whom there is a large portrait in the living room. They are selling the house; Brown has been here since 2012 and would like to live somewhere “quieter, leafier”. Picturing a removals van carting off the aquarium, ceiling-high bookshelves and hundreds of animals is quite an image.

When he was a child, Brown was obsessed with drawing witches in profile: big noses, big chins. He also drew his teachers at Whitgift School, an independent day school in Croydon. At A-level, he grew tired of painting peppers and didn't pursue the subject. But then, in the mid-Nineties, he took it seriously again, after graduating from the University of Bristol, where he studied Law and German. I wonder if his ability to capture someone's likeness has any parallels with his capacity to read people so well? He thinks it is more to do with having been a closeted gay man for so long. “If you’ve been coy or reticent or just felt shame about what’s going on underneath,” he says, “you do get very good at creating dazzling surfaces.” As he talks I pick up on a tiny tic I had never noticed before: his chin bobs up and down almost imperceptibly in the gaps between his sentences.

The illusionist’s portrait of Anthony HopkinsChristopher Andreou
The illusionist’s portrait of Anthony HopkinsChristopher Andreou

The first time Brown appeared on TV was in 2000 with his own show, Mind Control. Then, from 2003 onward, every year or so he has staged a TV special in which he pulls off an extraordinary feat: holding a loaded gun to his head and pulling the trigger several times without dying (Russian Roulette, 2003); convincing a man to land what he thinks is a real plane after the “captain” is taken ill (Hero at 30,000 Feet, 2010); and leading a man to believe he is one of the few survivors in a zombie wasteland after a meteorite strikes the Earth (Apocalypse, 2012). His last special on terrestrial TV was in 2016; his 2018 stunt, Sacrifice, went straight to Netflix. The programmes have run parallel with Brown's career as a stage performer, where he has racked up eight different UK shows. He made his Broadway debut last year.

I ask if there are any ideas he has only been prevented from doing for legal reasons. Yes, he says. What? “The moment I say it, we could never do it.” He doesn't tell me what it is but from his description – “It might actually be that in this day and age we shouldn't do it anyway” – it sounds like it might be morally as well as legally dubious.

I'm not sure Brown would gleefully court that controversy today. There is a shift happening in him. You can hear it in his voice. Back in 2000, with goatee and spiky hair, he was a more ostentatious figure. With an intense stare, dressed in black, and with sideburns like shards of glass, the 29-year-old looked as though he was being deliberately modelled on the Devil. (He has said that his hair was dyed black for TV.) But in the intervening years his persona has mellowed along with his sideburns. His more recent shows have been about not what he can do but what he can make his participants do.

Brown performs a Russian Roulette stunt on live television in 2003Rex
Brown performs a Russian Roulette stunt on live television in 2003Rex

He doesn't seem to have missed the limelight. In fact, he says, it looks as though the TV work could soon be behind him. “I’d love to just be painting and writing – that feels like the dream,” he says. He doesn't think he'd miss TV. He might miss the stage shows, “ego-fluffing” as they are. But his priorities are shifting as he ages. “In that second half of life, and I guess at 50 [he's 49] I'm kind of feeling that now, it's important to find those things that are bigger than you.”

Brown is a magician at heart, but you can't help feel he thinks the art form is a little hard to stick up for. (When he talks about not particularly enjoying a Uri Geller show he says that the part that stayed with him was when Geller had to don glasses to read the time on people's watches. “Amongst all the sort of self-aggrandisement there was this beautiful human moment in it.”) In interviews, Brown has always seemed a little apologetic about magic, and I suspect that he may be beginning to consider his own TV work a tiny bit gimmicky. As each show comes with a message of sorts, there is a delicate line to tread, he says, to avoid them coming across as “preachy and unpleasant”.

One of the accusations with which Brown has had to reckon is that his TV stunts subject people to traumatising experiences with no guarantee that they will be grateful for having gone through them. (In Pushed to the Edge, the participant we saw on TV didn't push the man to his “death”, but all the others did.) How does he know the stunt will be worth the potential damage? Here he gets a tiny bit more defensive and points out all of the psychological safeguards in place. It has never gone wrong, he says. But he concedes that with Pushed the life lesson was less obvious. He says that viewers do wonder, “Why aren't they just angry, why don't they just punch you?” What's his answer? Partly it's the sheer relief on the participant's part, he says, but it's also that the whole experiment was being done just for them, which is a “strangely positive” thing.

For the majority in Pushed who did push a man to his apparent death, Brown says, the experience is positive because they are now equipped to deal with a similar real-life situation. “We make sure what they take away from it is what they're supposed to take away from it,” he says. “And also, they've done the thing that everybody does, so they're not the bad, psychotic person that's done a bad thing.” On the whole, however, he is now wondering if the messages in the TV experiments might be better suited to book writing.

Brown's most recent stunt was 'Sacrifice' for NetflixNetflix
Brown's most recent stunt was 'Sacrifice' for NetflixNetflix

Brown has the serene exterior of someone untroubled by what people make of him. I wonder whether this exterior is ever dented by being submitted to public judgment so regularly. Plenty of people find him inauthentic. Plenty of people don't like him, or think that he fakes his tricks. Has this given him sleepless nights? “A little,” he says. He’s tempted to check Twitter when a show goes out. “It's amazing, Twitter's capacity to... even though you think you're armed for it, to still...” There's anguish there. He remembers one specific comment from a fan who claimed he was selling out and using stooges. Brown desperately wanted to pick up the phone and call him. Now, when his shows are on air, he goes away if he can, to forget.

Seemingly because he is painting more, Brown thinks he's happier than ever. Coming from the author of Happy: Why More or Less Everything Is Absolutely Fine (a short version of which – A Little Happier – is out on 15 October), this is worth noting. A few years ago, after he had written Happy and was doing press about it, the irony was that he was oddly unhappy. He felt “restless”, “muggy”, “useless”, and couldn't quite identify why. In the end he realised it was because he had just come to the end of a huge writing project. Having experienced that abrupt emptiness, he clearly wants to avoid it at all costs now.

And so it is almost though he is trying to reach a state of constant creativity, like a bicycle whose wheels never stop turning: if a project never truly ends because it simply overlaps with another, what space is there for unhappiness? For Brown's sake, hopefully as little as there is between all of the bizarre artefacts crammed into his house. In other words, not much at all.