A Conversation In Two Parts With Derren Brown and Jamy Ian Swiss
This is a longer (but still edited down from the original transcripts) version of the interview which is featured on the cover of the February 2005 issue of Genii magazine.
Part I: June 29, 2003
JAMY IAN SWISS: So, to date you've done three specials and one six-part series plus an accompanying two specials in about a three-year period. Are you the most visible magician in the U.K. today?
DERREN BROWN: I guess so. In terms of British magic on television, then definitely. On the other hand, it's not classical magic either. Paul Daniels was obviously the big name here until--I can't think how long he's been off television, maybe 10 years? And then there was Stuff the White Rabbit . I loved that series, but that was a fairly late-night slot, it wasn't known about really. And then there was nothing for a while, and then obviously it was Blaine's special that was actually a bit of a watershed.
So yes, his show came out and it seemed to make a big difference in terms of--and I guess it's the same in the States--in terms of showing TV executives that magic can be cooler, more interesting, and appeal to a different market. It's always been very, very mainstream here, and we've only really ever had four channels to speak of. And a program like Daniels, which' for so long has been shot and lit in a way that's very mainstream light entertainment, and that's always been a very difficult thing to get out of. So Blaine's program did make a big difference.
JAMY: In terms of changing the perception of what magic could be and the style it's presented in.
DERREN: Exactly. And I imagine a similar thing happened in the States.
JAMY: No question. There's certainly this element in television now of "We don't have to show magic in a showroom, we can do it for real people in real conditions." And that element, no matter what one thinks of Blaine's work--good, bad, or indifferent--I think that's the thing we have to credit Blaine with. That, and turning the camera on the audience.
DERREN: Absolutely, and it's been exactly the same here. And there's been a lot of cheap copyists, but there's also been some quite substantial approaches. I think the Masked Magician specials made a huge difference as well, because they were just coming out at a time when actual magic was lagging and there was no recognizable real face in magic on television here, those Masked Magician specials were being aired, and people knew about them. They were quite interesting and quite different, much as we as magicians dislike them.
JAMY: If just in the sense that they brought some attention to the subject of magic.
DERREN: They did! Again, they showed the TV executives that magic was a market and there was still some life left in it. People did watch it, and Andrew O'Connor, who exec produces my show, is quite insistent that it was very good for magic. Which I think is an interesting point.
JAMY: And he's been with you since the very first special--how did that come about?
DERREN: Objective Productions were emerging at that time as the foremost producers of magic on British TV. Andrew O'Connor (who co-runs Objective) had a discussion with Kevin Lygo, then the head of entertainment at Channel 4. They had both expressed enthusiasm for some mind-reading show, though there was no sense of who the performer would be. And they'd sat about and said, "Well, we haven't had a mind-reader in this country for a very long time." At least since David Berglas was doing his thing on Channel 4 in the 80s.
JAMY: Al Koran before that.
DERREN: Yes, and Chan Canasta. But he felt it was time for that to come back again. So that was their preconceived notion. I got a telephone call from the guy who is now my manager saying, "There's a Channel 4 show that we're thinking of putting together, can you come to London and show us what you can do, and come and talk to us?" So I met up with them for dinner and showed them a couple of things. ( Laughs ) I think what nailed it actually was "Smoke" off the [MacMillan International Magic] lecture video [and described in Pure Effect ]. I spread the cards out and Andrew thought of the King of Diamonds, which is the first one that I name in the little fishing expedition, so it went well. And so they were impressed, and then they came to a lecture that I did at the Mind Magic convention, Duncan Trillo's event in London, and decided then to go with me. What I found out afterwards is that they'd spent two years looking for somebody, and just couldn't find anybody to do it.
None of us at that point had any idea of what the show was going to be, and we spent a year talking about it and forming it and coming up with what eventually was done with the first special. So when they signed me up that was November of '99, and we didn't start making the first special until September 2000.
JAMY: And were you doing a lot of mentalism at that time? I mean, "Smoke" is that interesting kind of amalgam.
DERREN: That's where I was. I was just trying to do magic that was to me more interesting than just the classic card effects and so on. So I was making the move across, but I didn't want to be a "mentalist" and I didn't want to just shut the door on magic, I just saw it as a more interesting form of magic. Once the show went was broadcast it just made sense for me to no longer ... because I was also performing stage hypnosis shows at that time ... so it made sense for me to stop performing those, stop being another hypnotist, and stop doing classical magic.
I was still performing in a restaurant in Bristol at that time, and it was quite funny because although the first show didn't make a huge impact on the viewing population, I would see people that would come in sometimes and they'd say, "Oh, did you see that guy on television last night?" And they'd be talking about me, and I'd say, "Well, that was me!" and they just couldn't quite ...they just didn't expect to see me in a restaurant working the tables. I think from the moment the show went out I just concentrated pretty much on the mind-reading, though. Even in the restaurant I was ... it was basically strange, the mixture of mind-reading and then finish with the "Bottle Through the Table," you know? It was an odd blend, but it kind of seemed to work.
So it's not a story of me having an idea for a TV show and wandering into an executive's office.
JAMY: And they had the idea of mentalism but they weren't sure yet that it was going to be a mentalism-meets-Blaine, on-the-street kind of thing.
DERREN: They weren't sure what it was going to be. I think probably that it was going to be a post-Blaine show, and that's all that they knew.
So the first show went out, and then they repeated it, and the repeat did really, really well for some reason. I guess a bit of word of mouth had gotten around after the first airing. And then it went from there, really.
JAMY: So you were kind of evolving in this direction, but you really didn't know where, and then the show helps crystallize it because shows have deadlines, and then that kind of almost leads you along, or pulls you along in that direction.
DERREN: Exactly. And I've never looked back. That's why I put that Devil's Picture Videobook out around that time. I suddenly realized I'm not gonna do this stuff anymore, and I think somebody asked me to do a card trick, and it had been such a long time since I did it, and I started doing the first long routine that's on that tape and I just couldn't remember a lot of it. And I thought, this is terrible, because I'm going to forget it, and this stuff is just going to disappear. So that's how that video came about, it was just a way of comfortably saying goodbye to all of that material.
JAMY: So you never use any of that anymore, even casually, spontaneously, that style of material?
DERREN: No, never. I have a couple of card routines that I still do, because occasionally I'll be at a party, and someone ... but not from the tape.
JAMY: But you will still occasionally do something from out of that context?
DERREN: Yes, but it wouldn't be the things that were on that tape, apart from maybe some of the stuff towards the end. I suppose there is some more of mind-reading stuff on those, but very, very rarely. And I've come up with another couple of little routines that I do, which I will still use.
JAMY: So you'll do them socially but not in a professional setting.
DERREN: Exactly, I wouldn't dream of doing them professionally. Which is odd, because I always felt that cards absolutely had their place. But I think, as I've said elsewhere, the only answer to that is the vision and the personality of the performer. That changed for me, and it ceased to be appropriate.
JAMY: Why isn't it appropriate for you?
DERREN: I think because the persona I was creating was so far from being a magician, that avoiding those trappings, such as playing cards, became very important. All the perfect reasons, I think. And yet now of course we are bringing cards and things back into it, and there's even a pick-pocketing routine in one of the shows. Which I like because it rounds out the character, and especially with a series it just lightens things a little bit, and shows different sides of what I can do, that's important. Developing character is extremely important with TV stuff so people don't just get bored. I think that's the biggest issue that you have to face, and it's learning that from Blaine and Daniels and all the others, that you have to keep moving. Especially if you're doing something a bit different and people start to imitate. Which is flattering on the one hand but an encouragement to keep ahead.
Brown On Blaine
JAMY: You acknowledge that Blaine has influenced you. What's the influence, and then what's the difference?
DERREN: I think the influence is from the TV point of view. The show that I do probably could not have existed if Blaine hadn't done his show. And that's not so much about creative decisions, it's more about what TV channels would be prepared to show and be interested in, and be excited by, and believe in as an idea. And I think that's undeniably his legacy, both for me and any other number of magicians in the near future that are getting TV shows, I think, in terms of the importance of reactions, the "vox pop" segments of the show.
JAMY: Pointing the camera at the audience.
DERREN: It's all about reactions. Very interesting, isn't it? Because people who would not be that interested in watching a magician on television--in a more mainstream light entertainment kind of show, where you might have a fixed camera watching a guy at a table where you see everything so fairly--people will say they don't believe it because it's on TV. And yet you watch Blaine's show, and sometimes you're seeing the same trick that you've seen Copperfield or Paul Daniels or whoever, there are parallels there--and yet you believe in it so much when Blaine does it. And yet the rules are far less stringent. The camera is all over the place sometimes, and yet you believe it more.
JAMY: Because the real question with magic on TV is always credibility, and yet there's not an absolute black-and-white way to achieve that.
DERREN: No. Apart from stumbling across this idea that it is all about reactions, and that what makes it real is this thing that we all know only exists in the head of the spectator. And suddenly a show comes along that is all about those reactions. It's a show of people freaking out. And when you watch that, you just buy it, and you believe it, and you're there, and you're forced into sharing that reaction, and questioning what you've seen, and it's a really simple and really great idea.
JAMY: And not to minimize it at all, but really isn't it an old idea in the sense that Leipzig brought a committee on stage in vaudeville and did small close tricks for them, and the committee legitimized it for the audience. And then later we saw Slydini and Al Goshman seat two people up close with the performer, and now they're a proxy and a bridge for the rest of the audience. It's really just another step along that line, but a way to bring it to television instead of the vaudeville stage or other live performance.
DERREN: Yes, that's an interesting point.
JAMY: And so where have you diverged from that?
DERREN: Well, what we have not done is sat down and consciously decided how to diverge from it. It's just about who you are as a performer, and you do your thing. But there have been points along the road where we've avoided doing stuff out in the streets, apart from one item, and that would certainly be a conscious moment that if we do that it would start to just feel like Blaine.
The format we have for the show, or the idea, is not so much turning up anywhere doing anything, but a little bit more of "what people would fit"? Who would be the ideal sorts of spectators for this, and really tie in with the nature of the effect, then doing it with those people in that situation.
JAMY: I think that's one of your great strengths. One of the most interesting things about your work is finding these ingenious settings, and sometimes ingeniously chosen people. Like the piece done with the fashion models, and it's all about "pick-up" lines. It's a perfect setting--the audience wants to see if what you do will work on these models, and they wish they could do it too. What was that setting?
DERREN: That was a trendy London club and bar. There was a model event going on ... a competition.
We sit down and think about these ideas, and say, "Who can we do that with, who would be most appropriate?" That's the fun part of television, because you say, "Wouldn't it be great to do this with twins?" And the next week you've got a whole list of twins, and suddenly these people exist and you're doing it with them.
So it's the locations--it's a little bit more formalized, I think. It does have a London kind of feel to it, I think, in the way that Blaine's probably has a New York feel. But we definitely chose to avoid the wandering around, street-based, do it with anyone, anywhere. But beyond that, I think the material is different, our personalities are different. It was never about consciously avoiding, it was just doing my own thing. And just occasionally we'd think, well, you don't want to do that, it's just a little bit close to Blaine.
Magic As A Team Sport
JAMY: And you used the word "we" obviously, and having done a fair amount of work in television on both sides of the camera, I know that ultimately there's always a team.
DERREN: Absolutely. Andrew O'Connor, who was Young Magician of the Year years ago, had the original idea for the show, and we both now exec produce the show, which means that we are both in charge of where it heads and what we do with it. But Andrew is a genius in matters of TV, so I'd generally be happy to bow to his greater experience. Anthony Owen produces many of the Objective shows, and has been involved from the start; he's a very talented magic producer. Andy Nyman works closely with me in terms of creating and polishing the material. Although it's ultimately up to me to come up with the goods and bring the bulk of material to the discussion, Andy's role is priceless. We've worked together since the start, and think in similar ways. But the real joy is having a writing partner and someone to thrash ideas around with. It keeps me challenged and stops the show from becoming indulgent, which can easily happen when just one person is writing it. That's the core group. And Richard MacDougall and David Britland have also played pivotal roles.
It's such a luxury to be able to have these creative discussions, and be pushed in directions from other people. Andy Nyman is a very dynamic, quite forceful thinker, so we have these great discussions where we're both pushing and nudging each other with these ideas, and eventually we come up with something that we both like and are both really excited by.
JAMY: And he's a performing mentalist as well?
DERREN: He recently put out a set of DVDs for the magic community, and has some lecture notes too, and still does bits and pieces, but he'd be the first to say that acting is more his passion now rather than performing mentalism. He was one of the working mentalists that were approached by Objective and I think he probably would have ended up doing the show himself if he wasn't committed to an acting career. And he's extremely good. He is one of very, very few, I think, working professionals in England that are really worth seeing. His mentalism act is great ... it was everything that I wasn't. It's fast and punch and in your face. He's like a little bullet on stage. That kind of difference between his style and my style, which was a lot more relaxed, just quiet and conversational ... you know, I hadn't done a lot of stage work, apart from the stage hypnosis show I did, which doesn't take a lot of performing because you pass the gauntlet over to the volunteers. So I was coming from a much more relaxed way of performing, and I had to learn a lot in terms of pacing for television. It's so unforgiving. It's a fairly fast-paced show that we do, but making a mentalism show visually interesting is quite a challenge.
JAMY: Always true, but even more so on TV.
DERREN: Absolutely. And that was more of a creative challenge for the whole team, and the director and so on. But for me, certainly learning to work with much tighter scripts and much tighter pacing and all of that, it really changed me enormously as a performer. It really made a huge difference.
JAMY: Anthony is also a magician?
DERREN: Anthony Owen doesn't perform a lot. He's interested more in behind the scenes TV stuff. But he co-runs "Monday Night Magic" here with John Lenahan.
JAMY: Good guy, good magician. [Note to readers: Jamy co-produces Monday Night Magic in New York City, now in its eighth year, but which was first begun in London by Lenahan and Owen.]
DERREN: I'm very lucky. Objective is a very magic-based company, they really know about magic. I think if I'd been picked up by a different company that just basically offered me the show and I had to come up with it myself, I think the results would have been quite poor, because you need that creative team, and you need an executive producer that understands magic.
JAMY: And what about the director? Have you been with the same director?
DERREN: We changed the director It's been a long time since we made the series, and that was with a director we don't have anymore. And that was kind of interesting, because you've got a director that in his mind is making a movie. And from Andrew O'Connor's point of view, he's making more of a magic show. So there are really fascinating issues that come out of that. So, for example, when the director and the editor are working on the final cut of the show it's not important, as far as the director is concerned, in terms of how the trick is set up, or how clearly we see the cards at the end, all those things that are so important to the grammar of magic on television weren't important to him at all. But of course were vital for the program in terms of creating powerful effects, while he was more interested in the narrative. So there are some moments where maybe we didn't have a shot of something that we felt was really important to have, but somehow these things seemed to work really well because we weren't trying to set out ... you know, the climaxes were softened, or moments were passed by with a bit more subtlety than they would be on a classic magic show.
JAMY: But there is a big difference between shooting magic and, well, probably shooting anything else, and either you're working at odds with your director, or else your director gets a clue as to how to keep his artistic taste in place while at the same time serve the specialized needs of the magic.
DERREN: Exactly. That would always be an ongoing issue and challenge for the show, but in its favor it wasn't like a frustration point, beyond the general creative thing. Again, in the same way that working with Andy and the others I work with creatively makes a huge, positive difference.
JAMY: And are all these guys watching the monitors collectively when you're shooting?
DERREN: Sometimes. Nowadays our director has a good grasp of how to shoot it, but if Andy's around he'll normally keep an eye on it too. But in the same way that makes a difference equally, having a director and a producer that have different visions also makes a huge difference. And I think the look and feel of the show that ended up was because of that.
JAMY: And how many cameras was most of the stuff shot with?
DERREN: Oh, I would say probably four. I mean, it does depend. Some of them are a lot more mobile, some of them are single-shot pictures, which is always very difficult, getting that one camera shot for the director, there are a couple of things there I really push for with that. But some of them are four or five, but a couple of those might be little digital video, tiny things. We had a high budget for the show. I think the entire series of Stuff the White Rabbit cost about half of one of our specials. It had the budget that a drama show would normally have.
JAMY: So what was the budget for the third special?
DERREN: It was 150,000 pounds [just under $300,000], which in TV terms is quite a lot. There was a lot of expense involved, and that was with me getting a very small fee. Nowadays the budget is very high, and I get a much better fee! We like to make the show look stylish and get some great shots, so it ends up being quite expensive to make.
Making TV, Making Magic
JAMY: You mentioned the difficulty of getting a single take. That's a good question, that's a question we all wonder when we watch Blaine. So how many times are you doing most of this stuff?
DERREN: Well, we have a rule. Some of the things are repeated, like the guy on the tube train.
JAMY: Right, well, that's repeating the same effect with different spectators.
DERREN: Yes, with different spectators, when that's clearly the case. But if ever we repeat something and it doesn't work, we always incorporate that into the show. That's the rule if something didn't work. So you get these moments when something doesn't quite work properly, and that's why. Otherwise financially you couldn't film things a thousand times and show the three times that they work, but you can always have that accusation leveled at you.
JAMY: So give me an example of one of these things that didn't work that you used on the show.
DERREN: Well, we filmed a piece on a London tube train, where I made a few people forget the stop where they were supposed to get off. We repeated that with a number of people, and showed all of them, bar one or two. But the guy it didn't work on was kept in. The only time things get dropped is when the actual shots don't work, or if the reactions are odd or flaccid. But generally the routines are set pieces so we only get one chance at it.
JAMY: And so then how do you develop and refine the stuff? The first special you probably had more experience--this is typically the case--you probably had more experience doing the material, right? It's the same thing as "second album syndrome" in rock music.
DERREN: That's absolutely true. It's partly the rehearsal process. There comes a point when we've got the material sorted out and we try to get students in from a local college and try things out on them, and shape it a little bit more.
JAMY: So how much rehearsing do you do, for example?
DERREN: There's not so much now. The third special I think all happened within really about--if I remember correctly, it would be about five or six weeks up until the end of filming, that's without the post-production. And that was maybe two weeks of rehearsing, and then continuing to rehearse over the next three weeks, whatever it was. But the first one took September and October, I think it was eight weeks, because there was a lot more.
JAMY: Just so I understand, so you say two weeks of rehearsing, so the writing is prior to that period.
JAMY: And how long a pre-production period of creating the material?
DERREN: The writing continues throughout. We have ideas, and we'll e-mail each other, certainly now .. while it was a little more formalized with the specials, because once it would be commissioned, we'd meet up in London and live in a hotel and spend a couple of days talking through ideas, and try and nail 20 pieces that we were going to need for the show. But now it's slightly changed the way we've done it.
I used to sit and chat with a good friend, Peter Clifford, in Bristol, to come up with the routines I would bring to the show. Now that I live in London things have changed. I'll normally enlist the help of a few creative buddies to brainstorm ideas, as the sheer number of routines I need for a series is a massive amount to find in the short time I normally have. Andy and I then go through those ideas and polish them up as best we can in the time constraints we have, and come up with a lot of new ideas too. Andrew O'Connor often drops by and adds his own sense of no-nonsense clarity to the ideas we might be having trouble with. Sometimes I wish I could have worked though something better; sometimes I'm very happy. Unlike a theatrical show, you only get one chance at doing it.
JAMY: So it's weeks of creative, and then weeks with more of the team refining, and then a couple of weeks of actual rehearsal.
JAMY: But in terms of rehearsal, everything you do, it's rehearsal with actual spectators, not just in a vacuum. Not the ones you're using for the specials obviously, but ...
DERREN: Yes. I think that's fair to say, that most of it is rehearsed. There are some things that aren't, there are some things we do that just happen on the day, but for most of it, for most of the set pieces, yes, we get people in. That thing with the ad agency, and the thing with the girl at the greyhound track paying off on the losing ticket, there's no way. There is no way of rehearsing it beyond--well, there isn't really. It's just about having the script and working out the structure of the piece, and that's it. So not everything can be rehearsed. Like for example, the routine about money in one envelope and not in the other, or which hand is the coin in, stuff like that I would absolutely rehearse with the students, get them in. So that by the time it comes to get it on the screen it's not the first time I've done it.
All That And A Live Show Too
JAMY: So when you're developing this stuff for television, you're kind of in an in-between place as far as live performance. Are you doing any during that period? Once you stopped working at a restaurant doing close-up magic, and now you're a national TV star, are you working live anywhere during that period?
DERREN: At the moment, yes, non-stop. The first year was very interesting and I'm sure this would face any performer. It isn't quite the glamorous route people imagine. The first special went out, as I said, December 2000. And because of that I ended up having a manager, and my fee went up about 10 times from what it was before. Which was great. And the first gig that I had after that show, I got tipped more then my fee had ever been.
JAMY: And what kind of show was it?
DERREN: It was close-up. I wasn't doing cabaret at that point. It was a millionaire's home--palace!--it was his wife's birthday party.
JAMY: And was that moving casually through it, or was that more formalized performance?
DERREN: No, for a while before that I had stopped going to people, I made sure they came to me, I had decided that was the way I was going to do it. So it was me in a room, and I sat in one of their drawing rooms, and people coming and sitting down, and me just making sure that people were generally moved on.
JAMY: And you were doing the style of material you were doing on TV at the time?
DERREN: Yes. Again, there wouldn't have been any magic there. I may have been using cards a little bit, but pretty much all mind-reading effects. So I got paid a huge sum for that, and I thought, well, this is great. And then I think in the year following that I had five gigs. And I just didn't have any money. And I didn't get paid very much for the first special, and we couldn't charge less for the gigs ( laughs ), because those people who did want me, wanted me because they had seen me on television, and were prepared to pay that amount. And I had to borrow money off my manager for that year to keep me going.
And then it just picked up. The second special went out, and they came in more, and eventually what made the difference was getting the cabaret act together. I was doing a show in Bristol to warm up for the tour that I did last year and, as part of that, the first half of the show was going to be a cabaret act. But I was developing--I think I did the first cabaret in July, that's right. And the theater show we started rehearsing in August, and September it went out. So it was all fairly close. I was coming up with this cabaret act, trying to run it in cabaret, and then doing it for the first time.
JAMY: Are there many outlets for this kind of work in England?
DERREN: It's corporate events.
JAMY: Oh, I see. So you're talking about what we call platform work over here, platform performance in corporate settings.
DERREN: Yes, that's it.
JAMY: And how long a set was that?
DERREN: A 45-minute set.
JAMY: And that's in the flavor of the Mind Control shows.
DERREN: Absolutely. Which is now what I do pretty much every night, although that's now going to stop. Even during the tour I was doing those corporate gigs. And now the tour is finished, but I haven't had the chance to stop. The tour finished at the beginning of July.
JAMY: And what was the tour? You were doing the same act in theaters, or a longer show?
DERREN: The tour was a two-hour one-man show. And it was the show that I did in Bristol. So the first half of the show is a theatrically tweaked version of my 45-minute platform commercial act that I do. And the second half was--at the end of the show I would get the whole audience to swear secrecy that they won't talk about what the second half is. And everyone was very good about that. Basically, the second half is a lot darker, and is a lot more theatrical. It's much more theater than the first half. So two very different halves. And the theaters were booked before my series went out, but by the time I came to do the tour the series had gone out, so everything sold out. So I'm walking out every night and people are just going mad before I've even begun.
JAMY: In 2000 seats.
DERREN: Up to 2000. It varied. Because the problem was, when we booked the theaters they didn't know who I was because the series hadn't gone out. There'd been those three specials but not necessarily everyone had seen those, so some of the theaters were quite small. It varied from about--I think the smallest was probably four or five hundred.
JAMY: Is your plan going forward to keep doing a mix of the both, of touring in theaters and also doing this corporate platform work?
DERREN: For the moment. I enjoyed the tours so much, I had no idea how much I'd enjoy it. And I absolutely loved it, infinitely more than doing the corporate work. So I'd certainly want to continue touring. But of course the money's better for doing the cabaret work, so it's a mixture of the two. But having said that, if I could just do bigger and bigger theaters, I'm sure that would eventually balance out.
JAMY: So now with the TV specials you can really help turn a profit, because they sell tickets to the live shows.
DERREN: Hugely. And there was a DVD released in October of 2003 as well.
JAMY: What's on that?
DERREN: Highlights from the shows.
JAMY: From the specials and the series?
DERREN: Yeah, it's highlights, bits from the specials and the series put together.
JAMY: It may have given a few Americans a chance to see you. What about your coming to America?
DERREN: As far as an American show, what happened was I came over September 11 th of 2001 to do pitch the show--which was obviously a bizarre and amazing time to be there. Obviously a very bad time to be there if you're pitching yourself as a man who can predict the future. So the meetings all got cancelled, we were making inroads with the larger cable outlets and with the networks as well. But all of that obviously just had to stop and we came back. And we got an offer from one of the big cables which we then thought about. And there's an interesting issue, which is if you go with a big network and it doesn't get great ratings the first time, then they just drop you. Whereas a cable company is going to nurture you a little bit more. So it's whether you go for a higher profile immediately or whether you allow cable to nurture you and build the show, and then build over to a network. Which I think probably is a more sensible idea. And certainly in this country we've gone for a slower burn, we haven't tried to rush anything. So we may take that road, but then other options open themselves up. Doing a joint production with Channel 4 here and an American one, so something between the two. It's an ongoing discussion that isn't being rushed, I've got so much on my plate at the moment here, as has my production company for the same reasons, so there's no rush. I'd certainly wait until I had some profile in the U.S. before touring or trying to do something on Broadway. It's still in the pipeline, but I'm taken up with work here at the moment and have no time to breathe. It's an expensive show to make, and I wouldn't want to compromise on the quality. So it may take a little longer before we convince the U.S. channels to go for it. So definitely there are plans for an American show, inroads have been made, but we're not rushing anything.
A Taste Of The Material
JAMY: Most of our American readership have not seen much of your work--maybe they've read the books--so let's take a couple of moments for you to describe a couple of pieces that you're fond of.
DERREN: In terms of the TV work, one of the most popular pieces would be the one with the advertising agency. This idea we credit to Richard MacDougal. Obviously they come out of discussions, but there are a few that we always seem to have someone's face behind them, and this is Richard MacDougal. And it started off as a Cheat the Gallows or Russian Roulette type of routine, where you would have four packages, and some advertising executives were asked to look at the four packages--or 10 packages or whatever--to decide on the one they'd like, and put their hand in the box. And then it turns out that the box they put their hand into is the only one that was safe, the other ones had, acid or spiders or whatever in them. But then the kicker of the effect would then be to show that we'd used the advertisers' own sales technology and subliminal technique and packaging theory and all of this to influence them. Such as, how they came into the building, signs that we put up, and shapes and colors that we'd used to influence them. So that was the original idea. And I kind of felt that the stunt itself was a bit drab, so I suggested the idea of more of a drawing duplication.
So it ended up being one of the most ambitious drawing duplications probably being done. The idea was that these ad executives are brought in and we see them having a taxi trip to the office, with my voiceover at the top, and they're given an assignment, which is that they have half an hour to come up with a poster for a taxidermy company. Taxidermy is an interest of mine, so that was why I chose that.
JAMY: Yes, the cat ... the photo of the cat in the first book, Pure Effect .
DERREN: Yes, that's right!
JAMY: Which completely took me in. I was tickled to read the secret, as it were, in the second book.
DERREN: ( Laughs ) I can't help laughing about this, because this summer a friend called me to say that his girlfriend had seen the photo and didn't think the cat was real. And so he phoned me up and said, "Do you own a stuffed cat, you sick f**k?" ( Laughter ) The same cat makes an appearance in the sequence with the ad agency, I put a stuffed cat on the table and put the envelope underneath on which I've made a few predictions.
JAMY: Right! ( Laughter )
DERREN: So they get an hour to come up with the poster, and then we look at their poster and then we compare it to what I had in this envelope, which no one has touched, and there are ... it's not the same, it's not an exact drawing of the final poster but it bears a striking similarity, especially when we go back and look at some of the notes and drawings that they've done but maybe rejected, or some of their earlier drafts. And then we get their reactions to that and so on. And then the kicker is that we say, well, if you knew the lengths that we'd gone to to make this work, you'd be impressed, I hope. And then we show again the taxi journey that we'd seen earlier on, which is their journey on the way to the office, and all the way along the journey we had planted subliminal techniques.
JAMY: And we kind of saw the journey, we follow them in a brief montage at the beginning of the show, but we don't see these particular elements and images.
DERREN: You do see them, but you don't focus on them.
JAMY: But the point is, it doesn't just all come late as a new thing, we've been there before, we just didn't ... we're kind of in the role of these ad agency guys. There are people crossing in front of the car, signs, images ... the stuff is there--we see but we don't notice--we look but we don't see.
DERREN: Exactly. It was a slight The Usual Suspects logic. A few film references throughout there just to amuse us more than anything else.
JAMY: What's interesting about this is that the effect, the final effect, is a pseudo-method.
DERREN: Absolutely. And the other one was the greyhounds, the dog race track. The idea of this was making the girls that work in the betting office at the dog track pay out for losing tickets. There's are lots of things in the show which reflect the seedier side of London. So the idea of this was that we found a "punter," as we call them, just a guy, a spectator, that's there betting on the dogs, and he sticks with me for the day, and he picks a losing dog each time. He tries to pick a losing dog, which actually he ended up doing perfectly each time., and I make the girl in the office pay out on the losing ticket each time, using a suggestive waiting hypnosis kind of technique. I do it, I think, two or three times, I can't remember now, and on the last time I snap her out of it halfway through, so that we get her reaction to it, and her trying to understand what she's doing and why she's doing it. And the guy walks away with a few hundred pounds, which he can keep.
One of the things I like about that ... and also another thing that you may have seen with the SAS guy, when I'm blindfolded walking across ...
JAMY: Oh, yes, the hazard course.
DERREN: That's right. What I like about those things is the British way of approaching it--and it's something that Blaine and I feel differently about--I like the fact that it's all underplayed. You know, that the guy at the race track doesn't walk away with ten million pounds, and I'm walking across these planks of wood six feet from the floor, so I could twist my ankle, maybe break a leg, but I'm not walking through fire.
JAMY: And he disagrees with you in what way about this?
DERREN: Blaine's always egging me on to be bigger, more huge, more and more dramatic, but my tendency is towards more of a downplayed, modest, British way of doing things. As I was entering into publicity for the Russian Roulette sequence, I could feel how the way I was going to talk about it in interviews and so on was that we needed to downplay it, and it's exactly the same. And when I was being interviewed about it, rather than saying "I could die if this goes wrong, this is it, I could die, my career would be over," I always said, "It's no different than six cups on the table and somebody puts something under one of the cups and it's a puzzle."
JAMY: ( Laughter ) Right. Sure, let the audience do the work.
DERREN: Exactly! As long as I don't freak out about it.
JAMY: I would suggest that it's not an element of British vs. American, I would suggest it's merely an element of good taste. ( Laughter )
DERREN: It's something that I like and there's a lot of it in the show. There was an issue with that assault course piece of needing to avoid something like "Tonight, on Derren Brown! Five tons of solid wood!" and this dramatic overplaying. So it was very underplayed. But there is a British-ness to it.
JAMY: Yeah, maybe. But going back to this thing at the dog track, was the track your first thought as far as this effect? I mean, it occurred to me when I first saw it that one of the things I really like about it is the setting, the track, and the idea of paying off a losing ticket. To me, once you have this fundamental effect, you could certainly think of, well, going to a bank for example and cashing a blank check, or something like this, and that's very straightforward. But in a way there's a much deeper artistic and emotional hook when you talk about cashing a losing ticket, like a losing lottery ticket. Everybody would like to be able to do that.
DERREN: I think so. There are ideas that we've nearly put in a special and then never done, and then we come back to them the next time we're making a special, and we take the ideas a little bit further. One of them was the casino sequence on the series. That was hidden cameras, going into a casino and scamming them at Blackjack, and then showing them the technique that I was using to win. And they were quite pure ideas in terms of what do you want see this guying doing on the television if I have these abilities? You don't just want to see me doing "which hand is the coin in." You want to see me use it for my own personal gain or something.
JAMY: Now these are things that are really purely television. What kind of pieces have seen on TV that are part of your live show?
DERREN: Well, a particular favorite of mine is the which-hand-is-the-coin-in piece. Which started off as something that I did live in one form or another, I'd put down two books with something under one of the books, a 20-pound note under one of the books or in one of the envelopes, or whatever. And we'd do it fairly, it was absolutely fair. You know, I didn't always get it right, but it came from watching the Chan Canasta sequence.
JAMY: Well, even in one of the specials you had something like this with the two envelopes, didn't you? And the book in the library?
DERREN: Yes, that started off in the specials with the game with the two envelopes. Later on it was which hand is the coin in, a similar 50/50 theme. But now it's something I do live, it's how I start off the stage show, both on the tour and with the corporate work. I come out, I get the whole audience to stand up, I get them all to put a coin behind their back, and I whittle the audience down to one person. I do two or three rounds, and there are patterns that everybody tends to follow, depending on how I phrase the question of how they're to hide the coin. And after a couple of rounds there's a few people left that haven't sat down, and those are the people that I've got wrong every time. Rather than whittling it down in a hypnosis show to the person that's most susceptible, I apparently whittle it down to the person that's most difficult for me to manipulate or whatever. And then I get that person up, and I play it for money with them, one-on-one on the stage. I think it's a really nice plot. And one of those things that I think most people would overlook, because it's only a 50/50 chance.
JAMY: Very difficult to stage it too, and also only a 50/50.
DERREN: Absolutely. But for me it's the ideal effect. It's everything I would want to do. It's all in performance, it's utterly plausible and straightforward, and simple. And what's fun about it is not the fact that you can guess which hand the coin's in, it's the torturous psychological loops that you throw the person in when you appear to be bluffing, of influencing them one way or the other. And vicariously the audience gets a huge amount of fun out of it too. And once I had all that in a nice scripted four-stage routine it became a trademark piece.
JAMY: Give us one more example like that, something you use both on TV and in your live work.
DERREN: I think that my favorite one, from examples in the show that are in the series, is in the Tate Gallery. This is a young doctor, a scientist in a white coat, and a bunch of students. I start off with him, he's brought a few objects from home, he's got a case with him, and I tell him to set something out, and I don't know what these are, he hasn't told anybody what they are, etc., etc. He holds this object in his hand and I do a cold reading, fishing expedition, and then I just tell him what it is that he's holding. And that sets up the effect. And then for the next stage, he chooses one of these students that are watching, and the girl sits down opposite him. He then thinks of something that he hasn't brought with him, anything he likes from home, and she does the same thing with him. What I do is turn to her and I say, "I'm going to tell you exactly how to do this." I make the scientist put his fingers in his ears. And we turn the sound down on the show while I explain to her exactly how she's going to do it. And then the sound comes back up, and she looks at him and she starts to describe mentally what she's picturing, and she starts to get half ideas, and more ideas, and she's genuinely doing it, and then I give her a pen and paper and I say, "As soon as you know what it is, just draw or write something." So she does, and then he says, "What are you thinking of?" And it was a baseball cap, and she freaks out because that's what she was thinking of, and that's what she wrote down.
JAMY: And she's done it but she doesn't really know how. She's as surprised as he is.
DERREN: She doesn't know how. And it's something I really love, the idea of me stepping out of it completely. And having it happen between the two of them.
JAMY: Becoming a conduit.
DERREN: So one of the things I do in the live show is a a similar piece where I've brought two people onto either side of the stage, and one person thinks of a couple of digits from his phone number, or sometimes it's been a word that you've used or whatever, and the other person is doing automatic writing on a pad. The automatic writing thing, I love, and I use a lot of hypnotic inductions on stage, so, you know, a girl comes out of the audience and she just like collapses into the chair, and I give her the pad and pen, and she's counting out loud backwards from 500, and she's just allowing the pen to move on the page, and the other guy is sending these numbers across ... it's really dramatic, and I really build it up, and then it stops and she turns around what she's got and we can kind of see that there's a number there, you can recognize a number, and he says what he was thinking of and it's the same one. And it's great and always gets a huge reaction.
Brown In Print
JAMY: Let's talk about the books. You've written two books about magic. How did the first book come about? Nobody knew who the hell you were. I didn't know who you were.
DERREN: No, neither did I. ( Laughter ) I had done a lecture and a couple of competitions, at National Magic. I think I was beginning to get a few people to know who I was, and maybe I just got the bug for it, and I thought, well, I'd like to write some of this stuff. And I'd had a draft going for a while before that. I think I just wanted to write and to do a magic book. I can't quite remember its genesis, or exactly how it came together, but I had a lot that I wanted to say, in an arrogant young first-time writer ...
JAMY: How old were you when you wrote it?
DERREN: I was nine. ( Laughter ) I think it was 1999, because it was that magic convention I went to, so I was 28. And I had a lot that I wanted to say, and I can't remember how much I was lecturing before. And I've never lectured a lot. But I think it all happened around the same time, but I must have done a couple of lectures first and then started specifically to get the book out, and it took off.
I don't like going back to things that I've done, so I'm not going to have a lot to say about it, I haven't really gone back and read it. Anything that I've done in the past ... I hate watching old performances, they make me cringe.
So after a while I wanted to write something on magic. And also, again, I was feeling, like with the card video, that I was going to move away from doing magic, so if I was going to say anything about it or write anything about it, now would be a good time. And a lot of that as you know also came from conversations with Teller that were cementing ...
JAMY: That's more the second book.
DERREN: Yeah, this is the second book. So the second book was about the time I was going to be leaving traditional conjuring, so it seemed to be a good time to write it. And again, it was having stuff I really wanted to say.
JAMY: One of the things that's interesting is that both of these books, especially the first one but I think really both of them, occur in the course of your thinking--unfinished, incomplete thinking--and in the midst of evolving with these ideas. You know, most magic books ... well, traditionally in the past, most magic books occur later on when someone really knows something about what they have to say. More recently we get a lot of books from people who have no idea what they're talking about because they're still young, but they think they've figured it all out--you know, I remember when I was young enough to know everything, too, but somehow I keep learning more and more about what I don't know. But in your books, you're kind of opening a window to the machinery that's going at the time. And you're not always sure about what it is.
DERREN: Well, I hope so. I'm sure I wrote that book in the same spirit as the young who are writing books now. At the time, I don't think I was totally different from whatever they're thinking when writing a book. I'm sure there's a lot there that is a little naïve. And I certainly read it and disagree with things now, but then again I've moved into a different area, so I try not judge myself too harshly on that.
But yes, I think a lot of it was about trying to put a bit of interest and excitement back into it. I feel there's a journey that ideally most magicians go through. You have your initial enthusiasm for it, then you form maybe a little bit more of an idea of what you want, and then you become jaded and bored with the whole thing, then whether or not at that point you rediscover it determines what happens next. And I was rediscovering it around that time, and felt that I was talking to most magicians that I knew hadn't rediscovered it. So I found myself evangelizing, which seemed to give enough of a starting point for the book. Part of it was just about being able to take risks and do all the things that we often don't do as magicians--or some of us do and some of us don't, and it doesn't suit all of us, either--but that was my feeling for it, and the idea of taking risks and concentrating on performance, that that was important. But, equally, avoiding the overly dramatic, rather kind of weighty and pretentious extreme that had sprung up in antithesis to the meaningless card juggling. I think both extremes can be equally masturbatory, and I was just trying to find something in the middle that wasn't over-weighty but had a bit more meaning.
Magic With Too Much Meaning
DERREN: I think meaning is very ... perhaps ... trivial. I don't think magic is about meaning, or about getting any meaning across. It's about having a vision and all of those things, but I think the moment magicians try and slap some kind of dramatic meaning on it, they miss the point. It should be about magic, not about preaching.
JAMY: Well, how would you compare that with other arts, then? Other narrative arts?
DERREN: Well, I think it's all about context. If you have a show and people are coming to see you in the theater, then you can do whatever you like with it, of course. And you may decide to have a show that's very theatrical, meaningful, and more like a play, or more like ... you may wish to get all sorts of things across. But in the world of close-up magic and entertaining at parties and all, and going around tables at restaurants, I think you have to balance a whole load of different factors together.
JAMY: Well, but you always have to balance. Even a playwright who wants to talk about some weighty issue still needs to balance his method, if you will, with the desire of the audience to be entertained and engaged, right?
DERREN: What comes from me is that the message of the performance is the performance itself, and the character that you're creating, and everything you want to leave those people with. What I don't like is the routine where a packet trick or rope routine is done against a background of being told about stories of life and death and regeneration as, for example, when rings are unlinked. The idea of these very heavy stories up against a simple trick has crept into things. I've just found this so over-laden and so weighty that in the end it's just alienating, because certainly in the U.K. you're slightly embarrassed by the pretensions of the performer. And if we are just watching a trick, surely it just makes it even clearer that it is just a trick that you're watching, rather than actually amplifying the magic. To me it just makes it clear that it's just a trick you're watching.
JAMY: Okay, but are you talking there about the idea of meaning and magic, communicating ideas through magic, or are you talking there about just what really comes down to a particular style?
DERREN: I'm talking about a particular style. Because of course in performance you're going to communicate ideas, and there is going to be a meaning to it. But as I said, the meaning should be the performance itself.
JAMY: Well, I don't know what that sentence means.
DERREN: At the moment I'm talking about magic where it's most normally performed, as opposed to the situation where you're lucky enough to have your own stage show. Copperfield can do what he wants to do, like the whole trip to Hawaii ["Portal"], which I thought was fantastic. And all of that over-laden with sentimentality, it was great in that situation. But I'm just talking about commercial magic and particularly close-up magic. When I was going out and doing that, for me, what I wanted to get across was to transport people, and for this magic to be as powerful as it could be. And the way that I felt that would work is through considerations of character and routining and structuring a performance and all those things that we know are important, and all pointed toward making the experience of it as powerful as possible, but in a way that reflected back on the performer, that would reflect back on me. So they wouldn't go away saying, "Well, we saw some guy do this amazing thing with four cards," but it would be, "We saw this amazing guy."
JAMY: Then does that entail the performer revealing something about himself? Revealing a point of view?
DERREN: I think that's a huge ... I'm sure actually we are in agreement and talking about the same thing. All of those are hugely important. But if I sat down and spoke to people about ... I don't know, gave them a little theatrical piece on the meaning of life as demonstrated through ...
JAMY: Yes, but you're about to cite me an example of something you wouldn't do, so it's not very useful.
DERREN: Exactly, that's what I mean, that's why I'm trying to draw the line between where I feel meaning works and where it doesn't. I don't think it works in a situation like commercial close-up, when you are in someone else's space. I think you have the task of very slowly shifting it from being their space into your space.
JAMY: You talk at length in the second book about taking control and not just being subservient. Don't you complain in Absolute Magic at length, and with some degree of fury, about the idea of just sublimating yourself into their event, being another centerpiece at the cocktail party table? As opposed to seizing them and bringing them into your world?
DERREN: Absolutely! I'm only talking about extremes. I'm talking about the extreme of being a meaningless mingler--that's as repellant as being a kind of inappropriately heavy and solemn performer who's just being pretentious and over-weighted. I think we've all learned to dislike and move away from meaningless card juggling, but I think no one stood up and said, "Well, but equally the reaction to that has also led to some stuff that's rather over-laden and pretentious at the other end," and it's just a question of neither extreme is ideal. It's about degrees.
Obviously, because you know what I've written--about performances having substance and meaning and those things--and that you are absolutely communicating something. And in everything I did, and I would go out and do my whatever, five or 10 minutes at the table--this is when I was doing restaurant in a lounge/bar, and I would go from table to table, or if I was doing commercial work where people would come to me--absolutely everything was routined in terms of what I wanted to get across. But what I was getting across was me. The performance was ... this is what magic's about, this is what I'm about, this is what I can do, this is the world that I live in, and this will transport you. It all came back to the performance itself. It wasn't about life, death, the universe, concentration camps, the Hindu creation of the universe, and various sorts of other things. For me that was always distracting and weird, and I felt a little bit off-putting for people in that situation. But again, in other theatrical contexts, it's absolutely expected ...
JAMY: But someone could say for example that the "Floating Ring" should be about the floating ring and not about the overly weighty metaphor of someone's alleged relationship.
DERREN: True. But you see I try to do that without making it overly weighty. I wasn't saying, for example, "Sometimes in relationships this happens and that happens and then we do this and we do that," while making the ring go up and down and then just handing it back and walking off. You see, what I don't like about that, the overly weighty and what is to me over-laden and rather pretentious presentation, is that they don't draw people in, they actually alienate people, and that, for me, is what's wrong with it.
JAMY: Well, that would seem to me to be certainly true when it's badly done. But that would be true of any style badly done.
DERREN: That would be true of anything, isn't it?
JAMY: It's kind of like saying comedy really sucks when it's not funny.
DERREN: Exactly. Of course. But that ring routine, for example, it's all about making that person, and the people watching, absolutely involved, and as deeply involved as possible. Which I feel would be different than giving them a little lecture on ...
JAMY: Well, what some would call a lecture, others might call ... metaphor, poetry ... which has been known to interest the occasional human.
DERREN: ( Laughter ) Absolutely. And it's so difficult to talk about this, because it all depends on the performer and the context, and how deftly and sensitively they can judge the situation.
JAMY: like salt in the recipe: you should just add just enough, and not too much.
DERREN: Exactly. And then it's about pacing, routining, and having just the right amount of everything. I felt that that extreme wasn't getting looked at, whereas the other extreme of the meaningless card juggling was getting knocked from every side. Everybody knew to criticize that.
JAMY: Right, good point. That there are always excesses on both sides, and we need to be wary of them.
A Complete Toolkit
JAMY: You bring an interesting set of tools to what's gotten you where you are, probably a broader set than we're often accustomed to seeing. You've been a close-up magician and a card guy, you're some mentalist, you're a pickpocket, you're a hypnotist. How does that set you apart? How does that perhaps uniquely inform your work?
DERREN: I think it's always been a search for me to find what I liked in magic. I started off as a hypnotist at university ... and incidentally, I wasn't doing any of this before I was 19, so I started a little bit late. So I saw a hypnotist in my first year at university, and started doing that, and spent a year or so learning that and started to do shows for the college, and had students as useful guinea pigs, someone always happy to be part of it. But then in order to earn a living doing that, it was rather difficult as a hypnotist because the pressure on you to humiliate people and so on is enormous, and that wasn't really what I wanted to do. And the places that were trying to hire me, which were pubs and some fairly seedy places that wanted that hypnosis show, I didn't want to perform in. But the idea of doing close-up magic made more sense because it was a similar entertainment, but it was something I could happily do in those sorts of places without it compromising anything. So I ended up concentrating more on the magic and less and less on the hypnosis, because I didn't want to compromise how I wanted to perform that.
JAMY: What were you in school for?
DERREN: Law and German. And concentrating on the magic. And then as that took off, the interest in the hypnosis obviously was still there, I was still doing occasional shows. And I was never a member of any magic clubs. I didn't really know any other magicians to speak of. After a while I did find a couple. I hadn't been to any conventions until very late. I think 1999 was the first convention I ever went to. So I didn't know any of that. So I was trying to find my own part of things I found interesting. And then I came across pick-pocketing, and I thought, well, that's great. What's nice is, because there is a strong psychological aspect to pick-pocketing, there's an angle to approach it from if you're known for your psychological techniques. And I do like to have my cake and eat it too, so before I was doing both magic and mentalism, things that might seem to contradict each other, and trying to get them to work together. Now I don't really have much opportunity to do classical magic, but I am finding ways of bringing a bit of card material back in for the TV shows at least, and the pick-pocketing and so on. I think it just rounds things out.
JAMY: It certainly gives you a broad palate, and I think these skills bring texture and depth to the work, and maybe help you to differentiate your work.
DERREN: I hope so. I think it does mean you come up with a few methods that I know that magicians are never going to get close to. I mean, there are ... I can't wait to write this mentalism book eventually. ( Laughs ) I have some things that I'm just so excited about.
Anyway, I hope so, and--I'm loathe to say this, it always sounds pompous--but I think that the people that move our art form forward tend to be the people that are doing other things as well, and aren't swamped by the field. My personal relationship with mentalism and performing is such that I could walk away from it, I really could. It wouldn't make financial sense at the moment to do that, but I stumbled across something which really suited me, and I really enjoyed, and I felt could be done in a way that for me, in all my arrogance, would make it better. You just see holes in things and ... anybody would do that in any field. You are making it better if you just see something and think, "Oh, I could do that in a way that for me would make that better." So you start doing that. But it could have been anything. I kind of feel that it could have been opening a restaurant. I could have stumbled into probably a number of things and maybe ended up in similar relationship.
But this really appeals to me, but I don't need it and want it for its own sake. What I enjoy out of this is the fact that I can't think of anything else at the moment I'd rather do, but while I'm earning a little money from it so I can live the lifestyle that I would like to, and I can have fun coming up with good ideas and working with people I like.
What's In A Claim?
JAMY: In your live theater show, how much is drawn from the palate of the traditional mentalist--a sealed prediction, a drawing duplication, a book test? Do you do anything like that, anything that's in Corinda or Annemann?
DERREN: There certainly are my takes on some of those things. I had a sequence when I was on tour--I'm telling you the effect here--I learned the phone book for each city that I visited, and I had people throwing an object around the audience and people would stand up and call out their name and part of their address and I would tell them their phone numbers. And I'd have somebody on stage with a copy of the local phonebook verifying. And I'd describe what the pages look like. You know, you've got this up at the top, and then you've got a few of this name, and then the name after that is this, and it's the third column and fourth down, and that thing. So that's in a way a book test.
A photo-reading [speed reading and memorizing] piece in one of the specials at the British Library, which again was my take on book tests. The photo reading piece came from trying to make a bit more sense out of book tests.
JAMY: What was the basic effect?
DERREN: It was in the British Library, 16 million books, and it's got one copy of everything in it, at least in this country. I give a librarian a dictionary and ask him to look up any word he likes and to give me the page number, and the number of entries down on that page, and I tell him what the word is. And then I tell him the word that would come after that, and the word that comes after that, and I explain that I've done this by learning the dictionary using a form of photo reading.
JAMY: It's an Oxford unabridged dictionary, I think.
DERREN: Exactly. So then he picks any book he likes off the shelf, and ... we're in fairly familiar territory here ... but what I do is I spend 20 minutes photo reading the book first, before we proceed to the book test, which is then a question of him opening the book anywhere he likes, sticking his finger on a line or just counting down anywhere he likes, and saying how many lines down on the page he's on, and I read to him what's on that page and then the line that he's on and so on. So it's just a new take on that.
And there was a metal-bending piece we thought of, that I really quite liked, where in a lunatic asylum with girls holding forks and spoons, and seeing and feeling these things bend in their hands, but nothing happening at all.
JAMY: Do you use something like that in the live show?
DERREN: No, that's not in the live show. But in terms of more traditional mentalist's fare, putting a take or a twist on them, I think that's another example.
JAMY: So how do you describe what you do these days in your live show? You're selling your live show, what do you say? Or do you just say, "I'm the guy from those TV specials who does Mind Control."
DERREN: Well, with the live show, the tour, I didn't much need to say who I was. With the corporate stuff I get introduced as a "psychological illusionist," which is something I think one of the TV listings magazines came up with that. It's a bit of a mouthful but it worked. I'm trying to create a line where I'm saying on the one hand it isn't psychic and on the other hand it isn't hard science either. Certainly I touch on it in the TV show, but I'm much more explicit about it in the interviews and commentary I did on the DVD, saying that what you're seeing is not a documentary, it is entertainment, these are effects, and that it's not hard science. Because I was just a bit disturbed by, for example, the amount of people that got in touch saying they want to go on photo reading courses after seeing the photo reading piece that I did. And I was having to e-mail these people, through my management, saying that I was kind of using some of that, but there's no way to learn photo-reading so that you'll be able to duplicate that thing. I'm also using all sorts of other techniques to nudge things in my favor, and blah, blah, blah.
JAMY: Do you ever mention the word "deception" in those explanations?
DERREN: I make it clear that I come from a magical background as well, and that I use magic techniques in what I do.
JAMY: Well, it's a timeless and never-ending debate in the mentalist field about the subject of claims. And your thoughts have obviously evolved in that regard. In the first special you said something very different than the second special, and in the third special you say very little at all one way or the other. So what do you think these days? What's your position?
DERREN: My position at the moment is, again, having my cake and eating it. At the beginning of the first special it was important to stake a claim and set myself apart from things. Artistically perhaps it wasn't a great decision, but nonetheless it was there and it probably didn't work in my favor. Now I don't want to be in a position of having to defend myself. This is what I tell people in interviews: I wanted to come up with a form of magic that was more thought provoking, involving, and a bit more challenging and difficult to dismiss than a lot of magic can be. And this psychological form of magic is what I've come up with. But I absolutely tie it back to that. I don't say that what you see is documentary footage of me using my superior psychological techniques.
JAMY: But the fact of the matter is, whether we like it or not, when you talk about people calling up the station and wanting to take a course in photo reading, that certainly seems unarguable evidence that they are drawing education and information about the world from your work.
DERREN: Exactly. And it think it's a question of fine tuning that and taking responsibility. But also allowing for the fact that people will do that anyway. People will watch soap operas and make life decisions based on that, and mistake the characters for being real.
JAMY: Well, my response to that would be that in considering the bell curve of possible responses, it's very easy to acknowledge--it should be stipulated, if you will--that we cannot do much about the ends of the curve. There will be people who will never believe, and there will be people who will always believe. And when we have these discussions in magic, I get very tired very quickly when I'm faced with the so-called argument that someone will always believe, because that's actually not an argument. It's just a very obvious observation with no other information attached to it. So what? What I'm interested in is the big honking hulk of the center swell of the bell curve.
DERREN: Absolutely! But I think with my shows in this country, where the show is also surrounded by a lot of press and TV interviews and so on, I think people ... that the bell curve, if you like, the people in the middle, do get that.
JAMY: You think?
DERREN: The vast majority of people do. I do think it is an issue, and that as I do this I'm going to get different waves of reaction, and possibly have an eventual wave now when I have to pay a lot more attention to the line that I take. But when people do take a line of saying that it's not hard science, my reaction is, I've always said that. And I've always said that it's born out of magic and that it is a form of magic, but hopefully a more interesting and thought-provoking one. And that's it. And I've always had my tongue in my cheek in interviews. So it's absolutely something that I have to think about, and I have to take responsibility for, but I've been fairly good with it. I don't want to be Uri Geller. I don't want to have to create and defend something to that extent, that's not what life's about. I do it because I find it fun and entertaining, and that's what I would like people to get out of it. And part of making it as fun and entertaining as possible is creating ambiguity, plausibility, and all the rest of it.
JAMY: So you think ambiguity is part of the point?
DERREN: If it wasn't ambiguous, it wouldn't be challenging.
JAMY: So does that set magic apart from other forms of theater, for example? Is it the only one?
DERREN: I don't know. I think it's a special case. And then you've got magic vs. mentalism. I think there's normally very little ambiguity in magic effects.
JAMY: Well, there's normally very little ambiguity I think with any other form of theater. I don't think any actor tries to actually confuse the audience about whether or not he is about to die on stage. And every time a mentalist says to me, well, we don't have to tell people that it's just a movie, well, the reason we don't have to tell them is because they already know clearly, and there's absolutely no confusion. And to me what makes conjuring really interesting--and this may just be to me--but to me what makes conjuring truly interesting is to do the impossible in the face of someone who has absolute knowledge and confidence of what "impossible" means. Of what is possible, and what is not possible. I think it's what makes it interesting. Because once that's not the situation, once that clarity is absent, to me it's not theater at all anymore. Now it is religion. It's a cheat. It's a big cheat that mentalists have relied on through the history of mentalism.
DERREN: Sure ... absolutely. To me, it's an interesting issue, and it's one that I don't have a neat answer for other than the fact that I have personal feelings on what I don't want to do. I believe it's equally unhealthy for people to make life decisions based on false information from psychics as it is for people to make life decisions based on misunderstandings of what I do.
JAMY: Right, but the request for the course materials on photo reading certainly demonstrate that they are willing to make life decisions.
DERREN: Absolutely. And I'm ambiguous with them when they make those requests. And I think it may be something that will be reflected in how the shows continue, and maybe the line I take will soften a little, I don't know. To me it's about getting it right, so that I want to balance nobody being upset or offended by it. I don't mind making people uncomfortable, but I don't think people have the moral gripe with me that they may have with Geller, for example, because for me that's not what I want my life to be about, and that's not why I do what I do.
JAMY: Right, but it might just be collateral damage.
DERREN: Well, I don't know. All I can tell you is it's a matter of degree. The people I meet, the people I meet on the tour, the people that talk to me, the fans, and the emails I get ... it all encourages me in my feeling that it's pitched about right. And all I can do is continue to be sensitive about it, and continue to tweak that, and address it when it comes up, and respond to things as they happen. It's an odd situation because you're either going to come out and pretend it's something that it isn't, or you're going to retain a ambiguity. Somewhere along the line you're going to have to try to have your cake and eat it in a way that offers the minimum amount of problems. But I think that some level of ambiguity is important. And maybe that's just to me. At the end of the stage show I say, "Everything you've seen tonight is real, but it has nothing to do with reality." And throughout the show, especially the second half which is, as I've said, a lot more theatrical, it's quite uncomfortable and it's quite strong, and it does play with beliefs in the reality of what's going on. But at the end of it I absolutely blow it out, and expose it as being not real. I don't explain the exact methods I've used, I just make it clear that what you've seen is not what it was.
JAMY: What's the difference between people's unhealthy decisions based on a self-described psychic's claims, or people making life decisions based on their misunderstanding of what are in essence a mentalist's super-normal psychological claims?
DERREN: Years ago the issue was whether or not you told people it was psychic because people were prepared to believe in psychic ability--and how far down that road do you take them. Now we're in a situation where we're into pop psychology, and NLP [Neuro Linguistic Programming], all these huge industries, and people are prepared to believe in that, and maybe in a way that's the new psychic realm.
JAMY: Right. A substitution of one set of false claims for another set of false claims.
DERREN: Yes, in one way, but no in another way.
JAMY: Well, I want to take a course in photo-reading. I want to take a course in body language. Is that more or less misleading or dangerous than now I want to take a course in how to improve my ESP? What's the difference? Is there a difference?
DERREN: The difference is presumably that you can do a course on body language and you can do a course on photo-reading and you will learn a bit about body language and learn about photo-reading.
JAMY: What exactly would you learn in a course on photo-reading?
DERREN: I've done a course on photo reading and you learn "photo reading"--speed reading techniques.
JAMY: So you're referring to speed reading and memory techniques there.
DERREN: Well, it depends on whose course you take. In the same way I've taken NLP courses and learned some NLP.
JAMY: Well, there are differing opinions on NLP. There's not a shred of scientific support for it, outside of its own self-sustaining industry, plus a lot of mentalists.
DERREN: Well, I not a big a fan of it, but I've done it and think in some contexts there's some use--that's a whole other conversation--but it's a dirty word as far as I'm concerned. If somebody came up to me and said, "Look, I really liked your show, and I'm going to go to an NLP course," which I've had happen, I would say to them, "Well, if you want to do that, do that, but here's what you'll get out of it. It's not what I do. It's part of what I do," which is I think true, I think that's fair enough to say.
JAMY: But today it's become almost standard practice for mentalists to couch their work in claims like it's body language, it's lie detection, it's this, it's that, it's yadda yadda yadda, and really, it's all nonsense. It's a mentalism show. We can go down the list, it's a nail writer and a book test and so on and so forth. And isn't it just substituting one lie for another lie? Is he really doing any better than a guy who says, "I'm actually psychic?" Is he doing any better service to his audience? Or to the truth?
DERREN: I think there is a difference. I don't think you can just substitute one for the other. I think if somebody goes off and learns photo reading or goes off and learns to be a hypnotherapist or whatever, they can actually do that and get something out of it.
JAMY: Let's say they don't go off and do that. Let's say they just go off assuming they've learned something about it from his magic tricks.
DERREN: Oh, I see. Well, what you're saying there is there's this amazing guy who could tell what drawing someone had drawn just by their body language or whatever.
DERREN: And you're talking about that one amazing guy who was able to do that. It's not the same as saying, "Oh, I know that psychic powers are real because this person told me about my relationship."
JAMY: But you enlarge from the one person. When you see a Uri Geller, you therefore perhaps learn from that, draw the conclusion from that, that there is such a thing as ESP, this guy has it, maybe I can learn it, or I can go pay someone to help guide my life using the same tools, since they exist. And it's the same thing you enlarge from this guy. Gee, there is such a thing as lie detection from body language, there is such a thing as ... I mean, it's not just limited to the one guy. If it was limited to the one guy they wouldn't be asking you about a course.
DERREN: But I kind of think it is. If you go and then look into lie detection through body language, you find out actually it's quite a complex and interesting and valid. It's a real subject, it's just a complex and interesting one. And if you hear me talking about it on television, I will say, "I'm using all sorts of techniques to control the situation, and be in charge of it, and create an effect at the end of the day. What I do there on television, it's not that simple in real life. It couldn't be. It's a huge area of research, and it's actually very complex. And don't mistake what I'm doing, which is entertainment, for the real thing." I am quite open about that. And if somebody goes away and says "That that guy is great because he can just memorize an entire book like that in 20 minutes," well, great, that's kind of like saying, "Well, that guy is great, he can take a shuffled deck of cards and pull out a poker hand from it." You're just attributing it to the performer and his skills. But unlike saying "He is psychic and therefore I'm going to go pay some money to this psychic now and have him tell me to break up a relationship, or that my parents don't trust me," or whatever, I think it's a very different thing. Because you look into that world and you just get duped, and you get told to make decisions based on false information. If you look into the world of interpersonal psychology and body reading and all of those things, you come up with a real world of real research, and then you're either going to find out that, oh, well, okay, it's not as easy as I thought, or you're going to discover that actually this is quite interesting, I'm going to learn about these things. You know what I mean? You're not getting people into the same shark pool at all. I really don't believe that.
Part II: November 7, 2004
Predicting The Future
JAMY: So, going forward with the new series, is it the same creative team? Is it a lot of you and Andy Nyman?
DERREN: Yes. We work really closely. We do think so similarly. I mean, he jokes that he sees more of me than he sees of his wife, which is absolutely true. Because to make the shows, and certainly with the eight-part series and the two specials, that takes eight months of the year. The other four months are touring and working on that. So it is constant. So although ultimately it's up to me to drive it in terms of ideas and so on, and to bring the material in, we still work on everything together, and just having that extra head, you know, we challenge, hopefully, each other, and it's very useful for me. I think if you realize the value of having a director, and the luxury of having a director, I can't ever imagine doing a stage show now without a director.
JAMY: And he directed the live show?
DERREN: Andy did. Along with another friend of mine. But mainly Andy, and it's enormously valuable.
JAMY: And are you feeling the pressure yet of the difficulty ... any difficulty in filling this endless insatiable maw of television with material?
DERREN: No, weirdly, it seems to get easier. Because it's as if that character that I'm playing--which, weirdly, is me--has become more defined. So I now know more what I want to see me doing, and what I expect and where I want to push it. And that way it's good, because it feels like it's moving forward, as opposed to just slowly running out of ideas, until it fizzles out. Everything we've done seems as if it's fresh. And I think there's a real inherent problem with magicians that they end up being hated. Because as delightful as it is to be fooled, and to know you're being fooled, equally, if you know the guy out there appears to be taking it seriously, after a while you want to pull him down a few notches and say, "Look, we know it's just technique, so don't pretend it's real." And the only magicians I can think of, in terms of famous magicians that have that audience, that haven't ended up like that, are Penn & Teller. And that's because their agenda has never been about themselves. It's always been about something outside of themselves. Whether that's pulling apart magic, or pulling apart the New Age stuff. I love Bullshit [Penn & Teller's Showtime series].
Magicians, you just do get tired of them. And I'm aware of that now, I've been aware of it from the beginning, and I think that the important things are to have an agenda that isn't just your own ego, to have a bit of humility, and try and keep things fresh and not stale. And those are things that don't come easily. Especially the humility. ( Laughter )
JAMY: And to have an idea of something, a vision just beyond your own success? And maybe part of that vision is an artistic vision, too. If you're really committed to making something beautiful. I think many people are more committed to success than they are to presenting something beautiful.
DERREN: Agreed. You know, doing the stage show was such a learning curve. Just doing it, first of all in the little studio theatre, where we ran it and were just learning how to work with an audience of 400, and then learning how to work with an audience of 2,000. The payoff was so great. And I think it should always feel that you are challenging yourself and genuinely moving forward. I hope that will always be reflected in the material. I can only ever talk about what I'm working on at the moment, and at the moment it feels like it gets more interesting to do it. And I've found a couple of things that we'd love to do but we've done something similar before, so I can't do it again. Occasionally, that happens, but generally it just feels easier, the material becomes more defined, and I guess because now I'm thinking in terms of me and what I want to do, as opposed to making a mentalism show, and what's out there, and it does seem to get easier.
JAMY: And is the humility a challenge in the face of all this celebrity?
DERREN: It's an impossible one to answer, isn't it? ( Laughter ) The question is like, Do you still beat your wife? ( Laughter ) It is very useful having people like Andy and Andrew O'Connor around to be the first to tell me if I start to believe my own hype. It's important. You know, you're surrounded by people that just tell you nice things about yourself, and again, like I said about having a director. One thing I've really learned, and particularly in magic and mentalism, is that self-indulgence, fooling yourself into thinking you're doing something you're not. I remember Judy Densch interviewed ages ago, and asked by the interviewer, "What was your best performance?" And her answer was, "Well, I've no idea. You'd have to ask the directors I've worked with." And at the time I didn't really get it. I thought it was false modesty. But I've realized that doing that same show every night on tour, coming off and thinking, "That was a bad night." And having Andrew O'Connor go, "That's the best night I've ever seen." And equally, coming off nights going, "By god, that was amazing, I was just flying," and being told that it was quite poor. You realize that your internal sense has nothing to do with what you have externally achieved, which is all that matters. Since magicians never work with directors they're prone to indulgence and a really misjudged sense of what effect you think you're having. Aside from just the ego issues that come with that, it is so difficult as a magician to make that step and decide you are going to work with a director, and then realize that you can absolutely trust his opinion of your abilities over your own. And that thing has become quite addictive to me. It's almost as if you have become a bit famous or something, so you've won that game. You've got the credit for things that aren't necessarily yours, and you've got all the nice things that come with it, so the least you can do within your work is to give credit where it's due, and be generous with the credit, and not believe your own hype when you step into the rehearsal room.
JAMY: The Russian Roulette special was wildly successful by any measure. Has that changed things for you?
DERREN: The Russian Roulette did change a few things, and one of the moves forward was to a looser look and feel. That Victorian gothic thing I had is gone. It's now got a slightly '60s feel to it. I was getting a bit sick of the frock coat and the weird hair.
JAMY: So you've changed your look somewhat?
DERREN: Just a little bit. The show does feel different. It's a bit cooler, and looser. I used to script things very tightly and I don't anymore. And the Russian Roulette, that felt a little bit different, it was a bit of a step forward.
JAMY: Well, let's start with that. Talk to me more about the Russian Roulette. Give us a brief summary, and more importantly, talk to me about the aftermath and the reaction.
DERREN: Well, it marked the difference I think between me being on the map and not on the map. It was widely watched and widely reported, and part of its raison d'être was obviously a publicity stunt, and it fulfilled that goal.
The first 50 minutes of the show followed this whittling down process of anyone that applied throughout the whole country, down to a hundred people who were invited to London, down to five people who were chosen from that hundred, through a series of games and tests and so on, down to five. And then those five were taken to Jersey, which is this little British island off the mainland that has slightly different, more relaxed gun laws, or the pistol clarification is slightly different, and that allowed us to do it there.
JAMY: And the 50 minutes, essentially that's all taped material.
DERREN: That's all prerecorded. And in the last 10 minutes, the game itself was live, with a slight delay. Which was important if anything did go horribly wrong then. So that went out on the Sunday, and then I came back on the Monday to find that it was just massive news. I was the third most talked about person in the country that following week ( Laughs ).
JAMY: And what happened in those last 10 minutes?
DERREN: Well it was pretty nerve wracking. Because I'd never done anything live on TV before, and given the nature of what I'm doing, I couldn't be ... you know, normally if you do live stuff you've got an ear-piece and a gallery talking to you, as I'm sure you know, and we couldn't do any of that, obviously. I remember there was this 30-second period when we were waiting to go on air, and it was just extraordinary. And also knowing it was going out in other countries as well.
And then we went into the thing, and the story is that this guy, who it's now been whittled down to, loads a bullet into one of the six chambers, which are numbered. And then I have him count from one to six, and I have to tell what number he's thinking of, or feeling guilty about, or what number chamber he's thinking about, and then I have to somehow fire that one into the sandbag and the other five safely into my head. And I did a few shots and then there was this long pause after I got one wrong, of about a minute and a half of me just sitting there doing nothing, and then I suddenly picked it up and fired it.
JAMY: Right, I heard about this very long wait before I saw it. This is the thing that several colleagues thought was so terrific, that you were willing to wait so painfully long.
DERREN: It was too long, it was great. ( Laughter ) And then it was odd because I didn't realize that of course the papers out in Jersey, although they're the same newspapers we get here, they're different editions. So there was a little bit about it in the paper but not by much. And then I came home to find out actually it was quite big news. Because my mobile phone didn't work over there, so I came back to hundreds of messages. And yes, it was good. Because the Jersey Parliament out there got into huge trouble for letting it happen. Because the idea of doing it was to take something which is in essence a classic magic plot but just do it absolutely seriously and authentically. And there were lots of complaints beforehand that it was going to glamorize guns and everything, which it really didn't.
So yes, they got into trouble for it. Which meant that it just turned into this big debate all the next week as to whether it was real or not real, and should I have been allowed to do it, and was it disgusting and pornographic and tawdry, or was it great showmanship, was it just a hoax ... it was just great.
JAMY: That's really very interesting. I can't remember when a magic special ever engendered a national debate of the nature of illusion. That's my impression of what happened, that there was this argument, that somewhere along the line, somebody raised this issue of was it real or not. Right?
JAMY: And eventually you actually came out and said something about this?
DERREN: Well, I couldn't. You see the problem was we couldn't really say anything about it from our side because there was this potentially massive police inquiry hanging over it. So we just had to not really say anything. Which of course was very frustrating, because there was guy who was saying, "Well, it was just a blank bullet," and of course we know as magicians that if you fire a blank bullet against your skull it's still going to hurt you.
JAMY: We had a movie star a couple of years ago here in the States who did just that and died.
DERREN: Exactly. So that was frustrating, especially because we'd taken it so seriously in terms of the safety aspects, and not giving out a flippant message, the irony was ...
JAMY: That the critics were making it appear more safe!
DERREN: Exactly. The very press that were saying that this shouldn't happen were now saying, "Oh, it was obviously a blank, therefore it's safe." And now some kid's gonna go out and play it with a blank bullet thinking it was safe.
JAMY: They're the ones minimizing the danger.
DERREN: And then obviously we're gonna get the blame for that. But luckily nothing like that ever happened.
JAMY: So you never commented on it one way or the other?
DERREN: No, I never commented on it. The only thing I ever said was that I'm legally not allowed to tell you that they were live bullets. I think that was the only comment I ever made.
JAMY: Really? You never said anything either way. Isn't that interesting.
DERREN: No. Nothing.
JAMY: And so the controversy ended open-ended as to whether it was real or not.
DERREN: Yes. Which I thought was great.
JAMY: Oh, that's spectacular.
DERREN: It was frustrating at the time because it all felt misplaced and misguided. But of course it was the first thing I'd done where I'd put my head above the parapet, or whatever the phrase is., and it's fair enough that people could now take shots at it, as it were.
JAMY: Well, had you had the chance to say something, what would you have said?
DERREN: Well, I don't know. It was kind of more interesting not saying anything. The arguments that came out against it all fell a bit flat. Like, all the people were stooges, or it was a blank bullet, and all those things that in themselves just couldn't explain it. So it was always easy for me to undo any explanations that came up. But I didn't ever want to, because the show, I felt, spoke for itself. It dealt with the issue of blank bullets. But the thing is, three million people watched it, but 10 million people were reading it in the papers.
JAMY: Right, exactly. And so eventually it just kind of faded away. There were no legal after effects.
DERREN: No, it just faded away. But you know, I got in a cab a couple of days later, on the way to some press meeting about it. And this cab driver asked me what I did for a living, and I said I'm a magician, and I explained, "You know, I did the Russian Roulette over the weekend." He said, 'Oh, yeah! That was all fake, wasn't it?" I said, "Did you watch it?" He went, "No, no, I didn't watch it, but I read about it." And it was just so frustrating. ( Laughter ) But now it's balanced out. People just seem to have their own opinions about it. And I think that actually it worked extremely well for me, really. Although at the time, it was the first time I think I'd come across any negative press. Because until that point I was always somebody that somebody had discovered, or said, "Oh, you should watch this guy," or whatever, and this was the first time I was saying, "Look at me. I'm doing something." And of course you then have to take the criticism and the flak that comes after that.
Live And Learn
JAMY: How have the live tours gone, the show with the secret second half?
DERREN: Well, I did it again this year, the same tour, followed by a West End run. Which was ... well, this is me saying it, but without blowing my own trumpet, it was the most successful thing in London for that period. It was extended from two weeks to three. So that was hugely exciting. It was in probably the most prestigious theatre in the West End as well.
JAMY: What theatre was that?
DERREN: It's the Palace Theatre, where Les Miserables has been on for 19 years, and had just moved. And it was just a dream come true. Had a big set built for it, and had a few production values put into it, and it was just terrific.
JAMY: Wow. How many seats?
DERREN: Just under 2000.
JAMY: And did the second half remain secret?
DERREN: It did! I couldn't believe it. Essentially, I had done that show over three years.
JAMY: And the press never reported it.
DERREN: Yup. Nobody talked about it. You couldn't read about it on the Internet, no one was talking about it, the press didn't write about it, and it was just great. I was loving it.
DERREN: I think by the very end of it, after that third year, a few little things were starting to be talked about, but it was really lovely that people did do that. So after we finish working on this series in the middle of January, then I'm straight on to working on the next tour, the next live show. Which will be a brand new show, it will start in the middle of March, and then there will be a tour followed by another West End run of that show. And the idea will be to do a new show every year.
JAMY: Really? And so can you talk to us at this point at all about the second half?
DERREN: Oh, well, the second half was a séance. But in order for it to work, it was important that people not know. Because it's similar to the séance special, and you realize at the end that it couldn't have been real. But it was important that people be taken along for that ride.
JAMY: I see. And how long was the second half?
DERREN: Both halves were about 55 minutes each.
JAMY: And how did you stage the séance live?
DERREN: Well, it was séance themed. The first half was essentially cabaret, and the second half was more theatre. I would talk about the Fox Sisters, talk about the fraudulent basis for spiritualism, and then I would talk about a friend of mine who died. And the idea was that normally what we would do now is try to contact one of the relatives of the people of you guys in the audience, but tonight is a bit different because the parents of my best friend who died nine years ago are in tonight, they're watching the show, and with their permission we're going to try and contact him. Their son and my dead friend. So immediately it's quite uncomfortable for everybody.
JAMY: Right! ( Laughter )
DERREN: So the audience are invited to call out letters of the alphabet to spell a boy's name. They spell a boy's name, and later on it comes out that that was his name. We see his name on a tee-shirt. And a couple of people come up as potential mediums. We try a few exercises where they handle some of his belongings and give character descriptions that they're getting. I keep the more accurate ones, they then go into more intense questioning, then they read out a letter of his that was written for a job interview before he died in which he gives a lot of information about himself. And I'm asking questions that I know are answered in that letter, and it all matches up. And most nights, there'd be tears as the woman was reading it. It absolutely would cover tears, physical ... I mean, real shock, real jumps, and kind of laughter as well.
And then we went into using a Ouija board to actually contact him. I was doing the Ouija board every night for 40 nights or whatever, on each tour and then in the West End run, and over the three years it never once didn't work, and it just relied on how Ouija boards work, you know. (A), we never contacted a real spirit, and (B) it never didn't work! And one of the Ouija board tests is that the spirit is asked to identify the year that it died, and I write down four dates, and we know that my friend Steven died in 1994 or whatever, and I put down the four dates on cards but face down. So all the letters are face down as well, so as to eliminate any possibility of just psychological expectations, this is the idea. And it goes to one of the cards, we turn it over, it's the wrong one, it says 2003. So we do it again. Mix the cards up, and it goes to another one, turn it over: Oh, it's picked the 2003 again. So now it feels like it's going wrong. At this point the bell--that I've come out with at the very beginning of the second half, ringing it, saying that these were used to announce the arrival of a spirit at a séance--this bell flies off the table at the side of the stage, and everybody jumps.
So we get the whole audience holding hands, and everybody's very involved in it, and everyone's doing the hyperventilating and breathing in time. So we allow the board just to spell out whatever it wants to. So the cards with the letters are face down, remember, and we're using an inverted wine glass as a planchette, and the glass is moving around, we're turning over the letters, and it's spelling something. You know, maybe R-O-W-A-S-T-T-N or something. And we put those letters out, it doesn't look like anything, but it could be ROW A, STEVEN. "Is there a Steven in Row A?" So a few people stand up in Row A called Steven, or one person stands or whatever, and I ask him, "Well, have you been thinking of somebody who died while this has been going on?" And he says yes. "And what year did that person die?" And he says, 2003. So we realize we've been contacting his relative. At that point, behind me, the two gals have still got their hands on the table, and the table shakes. And I don't see it, it's behind me. So the girls shriek and jump back, but they've still got their fingers on the glass, and the whole audience see it as well. And I've just said to him, "What year did this person die?" And he says, "2003." You've got the gasp from the audience as they realize that was the date that the Ouija board kept telling us, it was 2003. At that point the table goes, and I just don't see it move, and it's great because then only about half of the audience see it as well, but it's a real moment.
And then I get that guy up on stage, and when that guy comes up at the end, I stand him there and I then debunk the whole of the séance. And then I just finish with an absolute on the nose reading about the person that he knew that died.
JAMY: What do you say in the debunking?
DERREN: I say, "I lied to you." All the way through the show there's this thing of, "I lied to you." It becomes a bit of a common thread. "I lied to all of you. The whole of the show is about this moment. The first half is about making you laugh and making you suggestible. The second half is about focussing and amplifying that suggestibility, until a handful of you just throw yourself open. And it's when you're in that state that I can see right into you." And I'm looking at the guy here. "I don't believe we contacted a spirit tonight. I don't think we contacted Steven. And you know what? Maybe I never even had a friend called Steven who died in a car crash when I was young," and so on. "I don't need the cards or the glass or the table, all I need is you in the right state of mind. Hold my hand, face the front, if something is correct, say yes. Are you happy doing this?" "Yes." "Great. The person you're thinking about, was a he, it's a man." "Yes, yup." "And his name is ..." and I can't get the name. So I go on. "He used to work ... a florist, he worked in a florist." "Yes." "And he did this, and did that, and lived here, and lived there," and I keep trying to get the name and I can't get the name, and in the end, it's like, "And his name is ... his name is ... look at me ... oh, Christ, it was your grandfather, his name is David." "Yes!" Oh! Big gasp, and then I say, "Look, you are intelligent enough to know this is not psychic, we're not in touch with your grandfather, but I want to thank you for coming up and doing this, I know it can be very exposing and nerve-wracking nonetheless, and I'll ask you to go back down." So he goes back down and that's how it ended.
JAMY: Oh, spectacular! This is thrilling to hear you describe this. Because mentalists say you can't do this. They say you simply can't. They insist this, they take this as an article of faith that you simply cannot tell them that it's fake and expect to have a response. And mentalists also create this straw man, they say, "Well, you can't just tell them it's all a trick." Well, you're not going to do that, and I'm not going to do that We're going to do it in some way that's theatrical and part of the show and part of the point of view.
DERREN: I think that's it, I think you can. Often saying it after, when you've taken people on that journey, and they've really invested and they've had that emotional response to it, then yes, I think it's very interesting to then say, "None of that is real."
JAMY: Yes, exactly, it is interesting! Because like we were talking about before, it's provocative. To me it's more provocative to say it than to let them go out with some comfort level of belief.
DERREN: Absolutely. And I'm most proud of the séance because those people are taken to the edge of what they can take.
JAMY: And so what do you think ... when you, in the midst of this dramatic revelation, or a series of dramatic revelations--one of the dramatic revelations being that it's not real, the other is the dramatic revelations of the effect, of revealing real information--what do you think people take away from that? Are you disappointing them?
DERREN: No, it's just the knife edge, isn't it? It's just that they don't have an answer, hopefully. And so all they can do is question. You know, there's no answer given to them. And that's it. Which is why I think, concerning the Simon Singh article, if you said to somebody afterwards, "Would you be disappointed if you found out that was just magic tricks?" Then I think if you phrase it in that way, then yes, I think the answer would be yes. But equally if you said, "Do you think this is a really interesting way of approaching magic? And did you feel drawn in by it," or whatever, then I think that they will agree.
A Clear Statement
JAMY: And so how do you come away from the experience of the Russian Roulette, and some of the negative press?
DERREN: I'll tell you one interesting thing that came out of it. This séance was originally going to be shot for when the Russian Roulette came out. We were going to shoot it before the Russian Roulette. And we had to pull it three days away from filming because there were legal issues around that. So we thought we'd simply do it later and concentrate on the Russian Roulette instead, which we were also working on at the same time. Now because of the Russian Roulette, it then changed the way we did the séance. And I realized that after the Russian Roulette I was by no means a household name, but now I was established in what I was doing. And whereas beforehand it was about trying to get noticed, and really staking a claim in what I was doing, it then changed, and I thought, well, now if I'm becoming established, that has to balance with me backing off slightly in terms of the character that I have, the claims that I making, and so on. Just to soften all of that because otherwise it could just start to get annoying, or too much, or whatever, for people. So the séance changed quite a bit. I started off saying very openly, "I will be using fraudulent techniques, similar to those used by the Victorian mediums. So the question is, will these fraudulent techniques work with a modern skeptical audience?"
DERREN: Yes! And the series now begins with me saying, "This show fuses magic, suggestion ... "
DERREN: It's great. Every episode begins now with a very clear statement. "This program fuses magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship. Everything you see me perform in the show is the result of a varied mixture of those techniques. At no point are actors or stooges used in the show."
JAMY: A lot of our conversation 18 months ago was about this. And you were arguing very strongly for the need for the element of ambiguity.
DERREN: Well, it still is.
JAMY: Well, sure, because you're still mixing the list of claims. But still, you weren't really ... although it said you had a magic background on the website, this was not something you were very loud about. And certainly not about the use of deception.
DERREN: No, absolutely. But the difference is that I've become established. There's a difference between trying to get established, I think, which is pre-Russian Roulette, which was a little bit different, and post the Russian Roulette, and the series and everything that came out of that. It felt like, okay, I'm now on that map, and now that responsibility that comes with it. I'm now in a situation where the line that I take is more important that it was before.
JAMY: What do you mean by responsibility?
DERREN: I mean that the line that you take and the message that you give out is being picked up by more people. You're accountable for that. I'm accountable for interviews that I do, and anybody emailing me, asking for advice, and that kind of thing. And also, I didn't want to give myself an ulcer defending something ... I wanted to try and do it in a way that was as honest as possible. In the back of my mind I knew that all the things that make mentalism interesting, and all the things that you adore talking about with fellow performers because some method or something is so satisfying and delightful, those are all the things that you're not allowed to talk to the general public about. So you make up some line that isn't true. But because it's not essentially true, people will sniff that and know it. Because people do. So my feeling was that if there was a way of still maintaining, still maximizing the impact of the effects, but allowing people in to appreciate the process or the thinking behind it, in a tantalizing way ...
JAMY: Right! So it seems to me that what you're saying--and correct me, I don't want to put the wrong words in your mouth--but it seems to me that what you're saying is, is you want to keep the mystery but you want to avoid the dishonesty.
DERREN: Yes, absolutely. Now, it's a difficult line, and I still maintain it's not all tricks. When I say at the beginning it's a mixture of psychological techniques and magic, I do hold by that. Because some of the stuff I do is magic based and some of it is genuinely suggestion based, and there is a mixture. So the idea of just saying, oh, it's all magic tricks, that never felt right to me. But there was definitely a shift in what I wanted to say, and the message I wanted to give out, between the early days of wanting to get established--when I think it does make sense to exaggerate your claims a little--and then to, once I'm there, then it was important to me to clarify the message.
JAMY: But now, that's not an automatic conclusion to draw. Certainly some, getting a tiger by the tail and getting a taste of success, might say, "Oh, in order to continue to increase this, we should ... "
DERREN: "We should be even more ... "
JAMY: "... we should be even more ambiguous. We should be making even more claims. We should be even more controversial." You could have taken that tack, no?
DERREN: I don't know, it just never occurred to me. I mean, possibly if the Russian Roulette had never been questioned, maybe I'd have thought about that for longer. But there was a process of thinking, okay, I'm now in this for the long run, what do I want to be saying? It's difficult to describe, but it's not something I feel I definitely need, or need to do. I love doing it, I adore it, but equally, I would happily walk away from it if I could maintain the lifestyle that I've got, say, painting, for example, or doing something else that I enjoy.
JAMY: And you say that because ... that's relevant because you want to be comfortable with what you're doing.
DERREN: Yes, exactly.
JAMY: You don't want to hang onto it any cost, or do or say anything in order to be successful.
DERREN: Exactly. So that it's something that I want to be comfortable and enjoyable, and I want to feel comfortable and enjoying it when I'm being interviewed about it and when I'm talking about it.
JAMY: So it's not that the fame and the controversy over the Russian Roulette somehow scared you, rather it's that it gave you the opportunity perhaps to assume more responsibility?
DERREN: Yes, that's it. I think what's happened. There've been a couple of things that have come up where ... there was an article in the Telegraph by Simon Singh.
JAMY: The writer said he was a fan of magic and in fact very much enjoyed your work, but took issue with the nature of the claims you were making, with regard to the science of psychology, for example. And that was one of the first somewhat critical pieces of press about you, which focussed on the subject of claims.
DERREN: And my feelings on it now are actually that it was a good thing. I think his main frustration point was that the show was classified under the science part of the Channel 4 website. Which is a perfectly understandable objection.
JAMY: Right. I thought the two most interesting ideas of this piece were that, first, he casually surveyed 16 people after one of your live shows, and 11 of them believed that these things you had accomplished were by psychological means rather than magic methods. And second, he claims that you thereby ultimately do a disservice to the science of psychology. Because you can't accomplish these things through established scientific norm.
DERREN: A lot of journalists asked me about it. As in, "Well, what is your reaction to this?" And I think that what the article ended up doing for me was that it allowed me to say, "Well, yes, this is the point. It is a mixture of real stuff and not real stuff. Hopefully part of the fun is working out where the real stuff ends and the cheating starts. And it is about performance, and showmanship, and all the rest of it." So it actually came as quite a useful opportunity to clarify that, and to just allow that more honest approach to settle comfortably around me, without that being an awkward or difficult task to do. The more I got asked about any sense of exposure, or any sense of criticism, it allowed me to clearly state that position. Which was great! Which made it a very positive thing.
JAMY: These questions become even more interesting and important when you consider that in the magic world there is a groundswell of almost faddish popularity right now of mentalism. In the States, mentalism has become this phenomenon, especially for example selling it in the corporate sector, and as well among amateur interests. I don't know how many book tests there are on the market right now, it's like packet tricks were in the '70s. What do you think about that?
DERREN: In a way it's difficult to answer, because I've ended up being so separated from what's happening in the magic fraternity that I'm not so aware of those trends. But I'm sure it's a good thing. I think it's a very interesting area of magic. I think it has potential for being repugnant, in areas of it, the dark side of it that we don't like, and try and expose. And then you've got the potential for very resonant and interesting performance.
JAMY: What do you mean, "the dark side?"
DERREN: Oh, I mean, as in the fraudulent psychic, spiritualist end of it. But it's a very rich area, isn't it? And I can't see it as a bad thing if more and more people are doing it, I think it's like anything else. There are people who will do it well and people that do it badly. I don't think the fact that the numbers increase and there are a lot more people doing it changes that. I think, like anything, the wheat and the chaff will sort themselves out.
JAMY: But specifically, let's return to some of what we discussed previously, with regard to this notion of claims and the never-ending conversation about that, there are two things that seem to be going on. One is the longstanding notion among mentalists that it must be ambiguous, you can't tell them either way, they have to believe there's an element of reality to it, otherwise you ruin the whole thing. That's one angle. And another angle, increasingly commonplace today, is to attribute it to different mechanisms, to attribute it to body language and psychology and all of this kind of thing, and not make a psychic claim about it.. And yet it seems to me that even though you're thoroughly in the milieu of all that, what you're telling me now is that in the past year or so, you are being a little, or maybe a lot, more clear than the rest of them, because while you're keeping that list out there, you're adding very clearly, unmistakably if I understand you correctly, that the words "magic" and "deception" and "cheating," whatever you want to call it, are part of the list.
DERREN: Absolutely. You're right, it doesn't have to come with being established, because you could choose to go the other route. But for me, for my own experience with it, if you take the situation of just a cabaret mentalist who does 45 minutes after a meal, no one really knows who he is, he's a hired-in act, he could stand there and say it's genuine psychic ability, and you don't feel that's as terrible a crime as somebody on a national television program saying they're really contacting the dead or they really are psychic. You feel it's worse when you're more successful and have that larger audience. And on that way up, as you're getting established, my experience of it is that you should become more and more honest, until you reach a point that--and obviously you're never going to spell out your methods, of course--but until you reach a point that feels ...
JAMY: But it has nothing to do with spelling out methods. Magicians don't need to spell out their methods in order to clearly state to the audience that they are professional deceivers.
DERREN: True. You know, I did my stage show in London and then sometime after that another mentalist was doing his show in London, and I remember he was being interviewed in one magazine and they were saying, "This is like Derren Brown with all the tricks taken out." Which is great.
JAMY: And what do you think about that?
DERREN: Well, I think it's great for him, because he's in a slightly different situation here from me. I wouldn't feel comfortable now saying everything you see is the use of abnormal super psychology skill. There's no way I could say that. I may have hinted at that at the beginning, but not now.
JAMY: And there's no way you could say it, why?
DERREN: Because it would just feel ugly. It would take the beauty out of it. The beauty is in the illusion, and acknowledging that it's an illusion. I don't think there's an easy answer. I think that it's a line that I'll constantly have to work out, and there is some ambiguity about it in what I say, but I will acknowledge the fact that I'm being ambiguous on purpose.
JAMY: Right. But it seem to me you're saying that part of the beauty is to get the credit for doing the illusion of the impossible, not doing the real.
DERREN: Yes, absolutely, I'd say that. I think what mentalism can offer--genuinely can offer--is that reaction of people questioning what is possible and what isn't. And not in a trite kind of, "Oh, it makes me really question what the mind's capable of." I don't mean that. I don't mean just buying it, hook, line and sinker. But actually the ability to provide a magic that is a little bit more resonant, and doesn't just have people go, "Yeah, that was a great trick," and then move on. But rather to do something that says to people, yes, it is more resonant, isn't it? And it is supposed to get under your skin. And I'm not telling you how I do it, although I'm telling you the sorts of things that I use, but the point is that ultimately it kind of works, doesn't it? And that effect is reached. And it's at its best, for me, if it makes people question things a little bit, if it challenges a belief system, I think for me that's always a good thing. And that doesn't mean that I say, "This is super psychology, therefore question what the mind is capable of." It's not that. It's not that on the nose. It's just if you are a skeptic and you refuse to accept any kind of anomalistic possibilities of anything, then I'll show you something that's impossible and make you question that at some level. Equally, if you're a believer in the paranormal and you absolutely buy those things, then I'll show you the same thing and tell you that it's not paranormal, and hopefully question those same possibilities for you from the other side.
This is why as debunking goes, I've chosen a route of not--and you see this in the séance special--of not actively debunking, but of just taking a kind of third way with it. Of just presenting and saying, you know, this isn't real, or this is a mixture of this, this, and this, or just letting it sit there in a way that people know it is there to ...
JAMY: Make them question themselves and the experience.
DERREN: I think what mentalism can do is it can question presumptions, it can shake up belief systems a little bit. It's a little pretentious saying that, but there's a sense it can do that. Which a normal magic trick doesn't because you know that you're just suspending your disbelief and that's it. Mentalism has the possibility of doing that, and especially in this age when there are the TV spiritualists, and where belief systems are everywhere, and being shaken up, whether it's a skeptical mindset or a New Age believer's mindset, I think there is a potency in it, which I think is absolutely of worth.
JAMY: Well, I completely agree with you. I think that good art is provocative.
DERREN: It's really a challenge.
JAMY: Right. But you can be provocative without trying to change their basic understanding what's real about the world. Whit Hayden has written some very interesting magic theory in the last couple of years in a couple of books that he's done about con games, like Three Card Monte. And he says that the whole point of magic is that you present an argument to the spectator that essentially perches them on a knife edge. Where on the one side of the blade it says it must be magic, because you've provided all this evidence for that, and on the other side it says what they already know, which is it can't be magic. It can't be magic, it must be magic. And that the best kind of magic perches them on that knife edge, and they simply cannot comfortably step off. And I think this is the wonderful thing about magic, and mystery, and its invocation of the experience of mystery. And yes, I agree with you, I think mentalism gives you a great angle on that, but ultimately that's where you want them--on the knife edge, at least for the moment--whereas many mentalists have long made the argument that you need to actually perch them on the side that says it must be magic--that is, real magic.
DERREN: Yes. Yes.
JAMY: And I think what we're talking about here is that that's much less interesting than leaving them stuck in the middle.
DERREN: I agree. And I think that what's come out of it for me is that it's only ever about raising those questions. And I really try to avoid ever giving the answers. You're right, it is about maintaining that precarious knife edge and leaving them there. But what mentalism as opposed to conjuring offers is that the effects get under your skin more, so that knife edge, you feel it more keenly because it's more resonant. I've seen a magician present a card trick and clearly think that he is touching on some profound issues that are really having that emotional effect on a spectator, and--as in all areas of magic and mentalism more so than anything else--you can absolutely fool yourself as a performer into thinking you're having that effect or not. And it clearly was just a card trick and was treated as a card trick. And it was very interesting looking at that difference and seeing what the magician felt the impact was that he was having, and what the audience clearly actually felt.
JAMY: I also think that there's a range of ways that you can get under their skin, if you will, that can be very provocative, and that part of the real problem with the limitations of conjuring has to do with distance, in a way. I think the reason some really good sleight-of-hand conjurors get into mentalism is because I think that it's very hard to really challenge people at a distance with conjuring. Whereas with close-up magic, sometimes even a color change, very well done, will make somebody just jump out of their seat. But at a distance, you can't get that same impact.
DERREN: So it's about intimacy then maybe, isn't it?
DERREN: Because mentalism is so intimate.
JAMY: Yes, exactly, I think that's right: it is a sense of intimacy. That within a certain range, physical conjuring can really provoke someone. But at a distance, where the physical conjuring's impact fades, mentalism remains intimate, because, hey, it's inside their head.
DERREN: Absolutely. The reason why I first got into mentalism material was to provide the best magic that I could. That's what it came out of: A love of magic, but a frustration with the material. That by it's nature was tricks, and no matter how much I worked on the presentation, there's always a sense that people know, as soon as I start, suspend your disbelief, but when it's finished, back to normal life and that's it. And of course maybe that's exactly as it should be, but in order to do it as well as I could, and provide the strongest experience I could, I realized that if somebody thought of a card, that's stronger than if they pick one, and eventually that moved into performing essentially mentalism material but within a magic set. And then the TV show, because that was then just focussing on the mentalism, that became a bit of a niche to explore. But now what's interesting is that I'm realizing more about what I set out to do, that in a way was just to bring it back to that experience, as you said, that knife edge. And that thing that is purely about questioning, and about challenging.
JAMY: But it's still about really questioning in the moment, because you're giving them the tools to find their way back to reality. As long as you keep those words "magic" and "deception" on the list, you really are giving them all the information. Which is different than the ambiguity of the traditional mentalist point of view that says they're supposed to walk away wondering if it's real forever. And you're not really asking them to do that.
DERREN: No, no. Well, I remember you talking about the bell curve before, and that really stuck with me. You know, I was delighted a while ago when I was reading on my forum--there's a discussion board on my website--and somebody brought up--either about the Russian Roulette or about something on the series--and suggesting that it was a cheat, and it wasn't real, and there were pages of people that are fans of the show going, "Well, duh! What are you saying, he's only a showman? A trick isn't real?" That was really a very encouraging response of people who understood that it was about the showmanship and the performance. And I love it if somebody stops me in the street and says, "What I love about the show is the fact that you know that some of it's real and some of it isn't, and I don't know what is, and it doesn't matter in the end because it really has an effect and makes me spend the next two hours talking to my wife about what you just did."
JAMY: And that's a more satisfying feeling than somebody who walks up and says, "Wow, it's great, you're psychic."
DERREN: Yeah, great, you're psychic, or wow, that's great, and I've just spent a load of money on an expensive photo-reading course because I want to do that book test that you did. And of course but now that's my responsibility, that's what I say and what I put out there, and I know that there will be people on either end of that bell curve that will always have their opinions, but it's just trying to get that message right. And it goes back to what I said, again: All the things that make mentalism interesting really do genuinely make it interesting. And it's about slowly, hopefully, getting the appreciation for that out there to my audience. So there is a sense of they can share in the joy of what makes it so great, without me just exposing methods and saying, isn't that a great method, because that's not possible.
DERREN: But it's interesting, and I don't think there's an easy answer. And I think probably some level of ambiguity is important, but equally you can throw your hands up and say, "I am being ambiguous about this because that's important. It's important that you don't fully understand, because the moment you fully understand, you're going to stop questioning."
JAMY: I also think there's a difference between ambiguity in the moment of performance, as opposed to what happens in the aftermath. I recently spent several days with Juan Tamariz, and he likes to talk about "killing" the spectator's mental "bull of logic" for the duration of a performance, but expecting and indeed embracing the bull's return to life afterward as the spectator returns to reality. And if you give them this information, if you leave it clearly with them that magic and deception and cheating or whatever are on the list, that that is something for them later that's useful to them.
JAMY: And I think what you're saying is, you want to be useful. You're taking some responsibility.
DERREN: Yes. I couldn't imagine anything greater than for it to be useful at some level. I don't know ... I'm always wary about talking about magic in terms of it being primal or what have you. I think it's very convenient if it does that, and I've written elsewhere that if you don't perform magic in a way that touches people then it's pointless saying that it touches people.
JAMY: ( Laughs ) Right.
DERREN: If you do it in a way that's just average, it's average. It has no effect outside of what you communicate. And if you do it in a way that does take people back to something childlike, that's one view, or I think that one thing we both share is that it should be adult. There's the adult intellectual conundrum, which is as important as any childlike feeling of astonishment as well.
JAMY: Exactly. Yes.
DERREN: And if you get it right, you get it right. And I'd love to feel that it's challenging, and it makes people question, and maybe somewhere along the line shakes up a few comfortable presumptions about things. And that it's not a pretension, but certainly a vision for it, and I'm lucky if it ever happens.
JAMY: Right. Well, it think that the whole childlike thing is completely, vastly overplayed, and misstated and misunderstood. I also think the word "wonder" is misused.
DERREN: Well, it's become common currency now, isn't it? And it again misses the point that it's all very well talking about it, but you may not be providing it. You may be providing irritation. ( Laughter )
JAMY: Well, yeah, that's true! And I also think that in its common use it seems to always be connected with not knowing. A quote, unquote, "childlike sense of wonder," has to do with not knowing and not understanding. I think that real wonder is an adult experience, an adult emotion. It's what drives great science, it's what drives great art, and that true wonder comes in knowing. Great scientists who understand mysteries, and are constantly seeking solutions to mysteries, are the people who really walk around in a permanent state of wonder.
DERREN: Yes, it elevates it. It's like anything, it's like appreciating good wine or good music or good food, you're going to train your palate. You're going to give it more information, that extra understanding, and train it so that they appreciate that what you then end up with is more resonant.
JAMY: Right, more informed.
DERREN: It's more informed. It's an interesting point. Is an appreciation of a fine wine by someone who's trained their palate greater than someone else's appreciation of a bad wine they happen to like but they don't know anything about wine? I don't know. But I imagine that if you develop that sense of appreciation, then the end result is more profound. I'm a huge Bach fan, and when I listen to Bach, to me it's like a condensation, a reduction of experiences and emotions, but reduced and condensed to something that can then be unlocked. As opposed to a Romantic piece, which is a a poor surrogate for an emotion. You know, if you haven't spent "a night on a bare mountain," or if you haven't fallen in love, here's a piece of music which sums it up. And there's nothing to unlock there, it is just a surrogate. It's a much easier experience. Whereas something needs that little bit more work I think then potentially can yield far more results.
And so equally, you're right, the idea of being informed more, and having more information, so that the wonder that then can resonate from that, a more intelligent, adult wonder, which is off the back of that information, which is more informed, you're right, I think it's more powerful.
JAMY: Yeah, I believe all art is an act of education, ultimately you're educating the audience, if only in the sense of raising the demand of what it takes to appreciate what they're seeing, and helping their ability to do so.
DERREN: Yes, potentially. I think it's all about potential. I'm really wary about ever stating those things, because again, they simply don't exist if you're not doing it.
JAMY: Sure. Well, it's the old rule, show don't tell.
JAMY: Marvelous. This is great.
DERREN: You say this now. Cut forward to you watching the tapes of the shows, you know ... "This is real!" ( Laughter ) Everything you see is real! ( Laughter )