Living Memories: On Derren Brown's Underground, and the humanity in magic.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

When I was little, I wanted to be an illusionist.

I had a deck of marked cards that made me look just the right side of mediocre until I had to refer to the book mid-trick to remember what each marking actually meant, and when David Blaine hung in a box over the Thames for 44 days (or however long), a group of us from school spent most afternoons on the grass beneath, half fascinated by this man who had come to our corner of town and wanting to see what we were missing, and half just for something to do. I'd always had an interest in mystery and the way magicians told a story, but had never come across someone who was working with the exact blend of dark storytelling, showmanship and magic with meaning that I didn't even know I was craving. I assumed, like the times I wanted to be a pop star and run my own horse riding school, I'd forget all about illusion soon enough. I didn't love it that much.

Then Derren Brown shot himself in the head on my birthday and I was in.


I won't work backwards through his career here because it is long and illustrious and I could never make him sound as completely compelling as he is. A few highlights, then:

Derren Brown once stuck my Mum to the sofa. Through a TV screen. She couldn't stand up.  His series of event magic (a name I just made up, mostly because it was called The Events) came at a time when my family were rarely all in the house at the same time, particularly on a Friday night. But for as long as that lasted, we were. Every week.

By the time he tried to make a member of the public jump off a roof (no, I'm not joking) we lived in a few different houses, but shout-texted each other throughout. That the man was a genius was something we could all agree on. Watching him on TV made me very happy.

The first time I saw him live, during his Enigma tour, the last two seats in the highest balcony at the New Wimbledon Theatre, he completely blew my mind.

I've seen almost every show Derren has done since then (as in one performance of, not literally every show. That would be insane. It might also ruin it), so when I was invited to the opening night of Underground, his Greatest Hits, as it were, currently playing at the Playhouse Theatre in the West End, I didn't even check my diary. Anything else could be rescheduled. I couldn't wait.

To talk about a Derren Brown show on the internet is not always an easy thing. We who have been are the initiated, you see. We know things now; we've seen things, and we made a promise not to tell. It's a Secret. Capital S.

Anyway, I'm going to try.

Underground is an amalgamation of some of Derren's earlier live shows (and it seemed to be the earlier of the earlier, from what I can remember of the order the shows came, which was an absolute treat). Knowing his work as I do, and having had years since to think about some of these tricks, there are things I have worked out; things I've been told about since seeing them originally, that I thought might diminish my wonder a little. I sort of know the signs to look out for. Someone told me (completely unsolicited) how he does the thing (well one of the things) that overarches the whole show; the big finish. Still, it remains my absolute favourite 'trick' I've ever seen.

On the subject, though, of knowing how it's done... I don't want to. Not even a little, really. I say I do, and I flirt with the idea, and think, and discuss, and get probably very close. And then I'll retreat. It would be easy to assume my love of magic is an inherent thirst for knowledge, or wanting to know how things work, but I would rather stay in the dark. The thrill is in being close enough to touch the answer... and not reaching out. I want someone to prove I can still be wowed by it. I want there to be things I don't know the answers to.

There is a trick in Underground I have thought about often since I first saw it performed in Enigma (and a lot of the show comes from Enigma, which is such a huge bonus. To see some of that material performed again was the greatest joy). Without giving too much away, through a story about his own life Derren gives a total stranger in the audience a connection with their past, and with the idea of legacy, and the things we inherit, and the people that make us who we are. Both times I've seen it, the woman he chose has cried, overwhelmed with nostalgia and grief and joy. It's a moment of real theatrical sorcery.

If I think about it logically, I know it isn't real. But does that logic hold more weight than the reaction of a human being, pulled from their seat and given a personal living memory to hold on to? Not even close. Because this, beyond almost anything else, is a show about humanity. It relies so heavily on the audience being on side; wanting to be moved, that their reactions are as much as part of the show as anything Derren himself is doing.

It must be like walking a tightrope; a knife edge. He must have contingencies, but when humans are so unpredictable even the contingencies would have to have contingencies to come anywhere close to being completely secure. Every second is a risk, and therein lies the real magic.

If you want to figure out how he does it, you probably can. He makes no pretence at being psychic; this is showmanship and misdirection and the ability to read a person down to a twitch. He will pick up on the way you breathe, the way you move your eyes. It isn't magic as we imagine it at all, it is extraordinary intelligence.

Or maybe that's what he wants us to think. Maybe the beauty is that we're all doing that thing that humans do, where we think we've cracked it; worked out what nobody else seems to be able to, when we're being double crossed right until the end. We walk away feeling clever; he walks away knowing that even if we're close, we're never quite going to get there.

I wonder as I write this if it has ever gone truly wrong. I've never heard of it happening. I can only assume it has not.

Underground is as much of a masterpiece as I knew it would be. It would be naive not to refer to the way it has been written and directed; none of this comes out of his head as he's saying it. Every word, move, probably breath, is scripted and rehearsed and perfectly timed, and that's even more of a skill than if he was improvising the whole thing. It is theatre in the purest sense; intense and moving and living.

I can't keep a Secret, but I will, this once. You've got to see it for yourself.


I'd love to take my Mum to Underground, and let Derren at her in the flesh. If he could stick her to the sofa through a TV screen, I can only imagine what he could do in a pretty intimate theatre.

The cards were in my parents house for a long time. I lost the book, which rendered them almost entirely useless.

It's 11pm on a Saturday night. I'm about to press play on Enigma for probably the 10th time since it's release.

I didn't become an illusionist. I became a writer instead, which in so many ways is the same thing.


Almost everything Derren has done is available on 4oD in the UK. It's well worth a cosy Sunday of your time.

Before anyone zooms in and sees my it says Marketing Guest, let's just disclaim. I did not pay for my ticket, but nobody asked me to write this. I was there as a friend's +1, not in any official capacity. I wish. 

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