What I Learnt at School: Derren Brown

  • What I Learnt at School: Derren Brown

I have fairly mixed memories of school. I went to Whitgift School in South Croyden; it had a boarding school feel to it, although it wasn’t one – and I was definitely in the wrong crowd for a lot of my time there. Not in the cool sense; it was just embarrassing. I was in a group of kids who liked classical music – even though I didn’t, at all! I was just mixed up with the wrong people, somehow.

I wasn’t very sporty but my dad was a sports teacher at the school. And I think if he probably hadn’t have been I would have got properly bullied. I wasn’t, but I was very much intimidated by the sporty crowd – and it was a very sporty school.

I was good at English and art, creative stuff like that. I was that sort of kid. It was a posh grammar school and I could definitely give the impression of being a good student. But I could also be quite duplicitous. I went through a shoplifting phase, which might be quite typical of a creative person. I didn’t have any siblings until I was nine, so for that early formative period I was an only child. I could be a charmer if I wanted to – but meanwhile, I was nicking stuff from the shops!

I don’t know if school encouraged me towards magic, but I did have a magic set when I was young. I had a free floating interest as a child but that died and then started up again when I was at university; it became much more serious then. At school, though, I did quite like the idea of performing, so that kind of laid the groundwork for what was to come. And I also think that if you’re slightly intimidated at school and don’t feel part of the right crowd, you quickly pick up that desire to perform as a way of getting attention and to get people to like you.

My interest in professional magic really came at university. I saw a hypnotist performing and then I learned how to do that, and started doing close up magic. But one of the reasons I’ve moved away from doing mind reading on my TV shows is I think that another ‘hey look at me I’m so clever’ gig just isn’t as interesting as good drama. So now on my shows it’s other people who go through a real life dramatic story. I’m behind the scenes pulling the strings – but it’s not about me, it’s about them, and that’s more interesting from a creative and dramatic level.

I occasionally go back to my old school and I have some friends who are teachers, and I’m regularly amazed at how grown up pupils are these days. The pupils that are in sixth form now are like the students were when I was at university – and that was 20 years ago. Back when I was at school and at sixth form you’d never come out to your classmates and say you were gay. That would have been absolute suicide. You certainly wouldn’t have done it at my school. Whereas largely that kind of stuff all seems to be fine now and I always find that so impressive.

With something like that, if you carry it around with you for a long time and you make into a massive secret, you turn it into a much bigger thing that it actually is. When in reality, what you believe and fear other people are going to think doesn’t bear much relation to what actually goes through their heads… I think it was David Foster Wallace who said you’d be a lot less worried about what other people think of you when you realise how seldom they do! Coming out in my thirties taught me that, in the nicest way, other people don’t really care.

Derren Brown is an illusionist, whose performances captivate both TV and live audiences. He is currently on tour. derrenbrown.co.uk.