Mentalist, genius, cat killer, cheat: these are just some of the names Derren Brown has been called over the years.
Derren Brown is an enigmatic performer whose career in the UK has taken the public on a journey through the ethical mires of mentalism. Although he’s now a household name and pretty much synonymous with psychological manipulation, he’s managed to provoke outrage throughout the years with some of the dramatic routines he’s performed.
Born in 1971, his career first took off in 2000 when he starred in Channel 4’s Mind Control. Since then, he has gone on to star in several stage and television shows, bewitching the public with his apparent powers of perception. The British national treasure has won two Laurence Olivier Awards for Best Entertainment and debuted across the pond on Broadway in 2019 with his show Secret.
So, what is it the public finds so captivating about the mentalist and his shows?
Derren Brown’s performances can be summed up in one word: tension.
The psychological illusionist is a master at facilitating situations designed to create high stakes and intense anticipation in his audience, all paid off at the end when he makes his ingenious deductions, often accompanied by a dramatic twist. But his career has also been marked by a negative tension comprised of numerous complaints that what he’s doing is unsafe or promotes something immoral.
Over the years, the UK has watched as Brown has eaten glass, hypnotized someone into assassinating Stephen Fry, orchestrated a zombie apocalypse, and glued viewers at home to their seats. But these aren’t the routines he’s been heavily criticized for.
In his show Trick or Treat, a participant was led to kill a kitten (in reality the cat was never in any danger) leading the charity Cats Protection to complain and label Brown a “cat killer.” When Brown played Russian Roulette on Channel 4, the network attracted high viewing figures but left the nation disturbed. And when the mentalist led the nation in a séance, it was the third most complained about show in the UK’s television history at the time.
Ofcom cleared Derren Brown and Channel 4 of any wrongdoing, and Brown himself says he isn’t interested in controversy but is rather drawn to creating dramatic routines.
He is nothing if not a consummate showman whose primary goal is to entertain his audience. He takes care to make his shows as compelling as possible. It makes sense that some of his routines might be unsettling at times. But he emanates a sense of control as he performs that acts almost like a safety net for the audience who know they’re in good hands. After all, he’s the master manipulator, the puppet master pulling the strings; surely he wouldn’t let anything truly bad happen?
He carefully crafts each show to create something of quality that his audience can enjoy. It is this considered approach that stops his shows from being tasteless and exploitative.
An Honest Liar
Derren Brown has taken a very particular approach to his shows, both on and off-screen. Arguably, the most controversial aspect of any Derren Brown show is the very concept of mentalism that they’re based upon. He uses many popular techniques and principles that mentalists across the globe have been using for years.
But, unlike some mentalists, psychics, and so-called healers, Derren Brown makes it clear that he does not possess any supernatural powers. As an atheist and a skeptic, he’s even gone so far as to tackle unethical practitioners like faith healers and fraudulent psychics head-on in some of his shows like Messiah and Miracles For Sale, following in the footsteps of the great James Randi among others.
This highlights the grey area many mentalists find themselves operating in: treading the careful path of moral entertainment. Mentalists and magicians alike cannot afford to expose their methods; to do so would be to strip their routines of their appeal. But does that mean they have to mislead audiences into believing what they’re doing is real?
Derren Brown has managed to achieve a precarious balance between being dramatic and honest. He connects with his audience through the deceptions and truths he shares on stage. For me, Brown is at his most powerful when he’s opening up to his audience, like in the opening speech of Infamous. He uses truth as a jumping-off point for his tricks, sharing something personal about himself and his perspective of the world while allowing them to delight in the deception occurring before them.
A Man Of The People
This is where Derren Brown shines. He doesn’t try to elevate himself above his audience or make them out to be fools like some mentalists and hypnotists. He's stopped placing the emphasis on his skills of persuasion and instead builds his shows around an element of truth, a common desire or yearning, that everyone can connect with.
As his career has progressed, Derren Brown has gone from a close-up magician seeking validation to something of a performing philosopher. His shows, while still grand and captivating, feel intimate and genuine. In fact, he’s become increasingly comfortable being vulnerable before audiences, sharing personal elements of his life and allowing us to learn more about the man behind the mysteries he presents on stage.
Outside of his career as a mentalist, Derren is an incredibly talented painter, writer, a vocal atheist, and lover of Stoic philosophy. He’s written three books for the public, including the self-help book Happy which, ironically, criticizes the self-help genre for putting too much pressure on people to be happy.
By all accounts, when he’s not performing, Brown is an intelligent man who speaks eloquently and earnestly. Rather than the confident showman we see on stage, he exudes a shier charm in person.
It would be all too easy for someone in his position to lean into the power of celebrity and influence he’s accumulated over the years, but Brown keeps his private life out of the public eye. Perhaps he’s managed to find the same balance in his personal life as he has achieved in his professional career.