Derren Brown from Bullied Queer Boy to Mind Reader Extraordinaire

By Danny Tye

Derren Brown entered the world of magic and illusion by sheer coincidence. Growing up in Purley in the 1970s – in his own words, ‘the epitome of middle-class suburbia’ – he attended the private Whitgift School, which boasts eminent scientists, CEOs, bishops, and military chiefs of staff amongst its alumni’s ranks. At Whitgift, he described himself as having been a ‘magnet’ for bullying, with one notable incident occurring at an awards trip where he was beaten up by a fellow pupil. 

It was while embarking on a straight-laced academic career, studying Law and German at the University of Bristol, that he had his first chance encounter with the realm of hypnosis. As Brown describes it, it was a performance by hypnotist Martin S. Taylor that ‘tickled a part of me that I hadn’t realised needed tickling’, and his experience of adolescent antagonism was part of what thrust him to pursue hypnosis as a career. The ‘untouchable persona’ that magic provided him with, allowing him complete control over people that he previously would have found intimidating, was enough emotional catharsis for him to start working as a conjuror alongside his studies. He took the stage name Derren V. Brown, with the V standing for ‘Victor’. 

After graduation, Brown spent ten years developing his skills while living in Bristol. According to the ‘About’ section of his website, during this time ‘he liked to wear a cloak and, with the luxury of hindsight, suspects he was a bit of a dick’. Regardless, this decade of self-refinement paid off, and in 1999 he was commissioned by Channel 4 for a series of three TV specials. This formed the basis for the six-part series Mind Control, which ran between 2001 and 2002 and involved Brown showcasing his skills of psychological manipulation and showmanship. The series, which included such feats as persuading a dog-track teller to accept a losing ticket and pay out false winnings, served as the springboard for Brown into an illustrious, though controversial career.

© derrenbrown.co.uk

Soon after Mind Control came Russian Roulette, a 2003 special where Brown played the renowned game of chance with a volunteer, who was selected from 12,000 applicants. Senior police figures fumed at the risk Brown was creating of copycat events amongst the public, leading the police force in Jersey (where the special was filmed) to clarify that no live ammunition had been used. Brown himself seemed to appreciate the controversy, saying that, from the performer’s perspective, the public anxiety over how ‘real’ the danger was ‘lifts it to a level that I’m very comfortable with’. 

A series of highly-publicised stage shows and TV specials followed, including Séance, where Brown convinced a group of university students that they were being contacted by the spirits of a dead woman to shine a light on how susceptible people can be to mental manipulation. After the response to Séance from church groups and religious viewers turned it into the third most complained about show in British television history, Brown turned his attention to exposing the tactics of faith healers and new-age cult leaders. In his special Messiah, he used his expertise to convert (then de-convert) atheists to religion, utilising many of the same methods of psychological control common amongst America’s evangelical pastors.

Brown himself has experience with evangelical Christianity, stating that he followed the religion in his childhood and was involved with evangelical groups in university. While still in the closet as an undergraduate, he was invited to a conference led by conversion therapy practitioners which was ambushed by queer rights organisation Outrage! This, along with the ostracism he faced in response to his hypnotism work, led to him becoming disillusioned with evangelicalism.

His past-life as an evangelical has informed his work and motivated his desire to explore the psychology of belief. Brown now self-describes as an atheist, but is conscious that disbelief can ‘disregard our vital search for meaning, which repeatedly trumps our need for truth’. As his career has progressed, his work has become increasingly philosophical both on- and off-stage. While he may have entered into the field in search of emotional catharsis, his approach has since become much more transcendental. He speaks in interviews with a deep awareness of the desires that motivate his actions, and he seeks to unravel philosophical quandaries dealing with human behaviour through his work.

While a stereotypical magician crafts his appeal around his supposed supernatural powers, Brown strongly rejects any suggestion that what he does is connected to a higher power. His work in all of its iterations is based within the material and the human. While his performances are, first and foremost, entertainment – and are hugely popular and critically-acclaimed for that quality – what makes them uniquely engaging is their ability to illuminate a fundamental human vulnerability. This is magic for a world-wise, adult audience. The impact comes not from any sleight-of-hand trickery but from his ability to deeply understand and control others within the context of a performance. Brown’s power to turn the intelligent into a fool, the law-abider into a master criminal, and the atheist into a believer exposes the fragility of the social and psychological constructs which we build our lives upon.

A still from Brown’s controversial special Derren Brown Plays Russian Roulette Live.

His anthropological bent links his performance work with his more recent forays into philosophical writing. In 2017, he published the book Happy: Why More or Less Everything Is Absolutely Fine, which explored social constructions of happiness across human history. Using this history and psychological insights, he criticised the pervasive beliefs of the ‘self-help’ movement, explaining how notions of self-betterness can produce the same anxiety they claim to combat. His 2021 publication, A Book of Secrets, explored his philosophy through a series of personal anecdotes, taking the reader through key events that shaped his life to conclude that adversity and struggle can provide a basis for compassion and the search for meaning.

Brown’s immense understanding of the human condition is perhaps a result of features inherent to the queer experience. The isolation and bullying which Brown faced in childhood, something which is still common amongst queer youth, indirectly led him to pursue magic as a career. Yet this ability to understand human pathology from the outside of normal society has enabled his work to flourish. His other artistic endeavours include portrait painting and photography, suggesting a deep desire to capture the essence of fellow human beings and render them in his own image. In his performances and his books, this has allowed him to get inside people’s heads and both explain and deconstruct accepted norms of human behaviour. In a world where we both consciously and unknowingly craft different kinds of illusions dealing with ourselves and others, it is remarkable that a professional illusionist has been the one to assist so much in breaking them down.

Danny Tye (@dannytye) is a staff writer at GAY45. After graduating from the University of Manchester with a BA in Politics and Spanish, he co-founded the radical history magazine Red Riding, where he currently works as contributing co-editor and graphic designer. His main areas of interest are the politics of queerness and (sub)cultural history, as well as film and music analysis. Besides his work for Red Riding, he has also been published in The Lemming and the Manchester Historian.

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