“We get very obsessed about whether or not we should change people,” says Derren Brown, “and we miss the importance of letting other people change us.”
For a man who is often paid to irreversibly change the lives of the guinea pigs that take part in his TV shows, this might sound rich. But Brown thinks that if you want to make friends, you have to be the one willing to be changed. You must become the guinea pig.
As we get older, making friends becomes trickier. As Brown says, “You’ve probably settled into some sort of unit – whether that unit is a partner and family or dogs, or whether that unit is just one crustated self.”
It might not feel like it but, like it or not, our lives tend to narrow as we age: new people are mainly work people, and we devote more and more of our time to fewer and fewer of our friends. Buddies you once saw weekly become buddies you see once a month and before you know it they’re buddies you don’t see at all. But can that seam of empathy, that capacity to be vulnerable to change, open up again?
“We do develop a sort of hard crust when we’re left on our own for too long,” says Brown. He suggests that technology has made things worse rather than better. “Nowadays we’re all presenting ourselves as a brand on Instagram. We’re always so self-conscious of how we present ourselves, not to individuals but to a world. We have no evolutionary basis for it – we don’t know what to do with it other than to go mad or have to walk away from it.”
Brown’s new show, Sacrifice, asks a version of this question. In typically Brownian fashion, it’s a question with somewhat higher stakes: would you die for someone you’ve never met? We are introduced to Phil, who has some unfortunate opinions about immigrants. By the end of the programme, will Phil throw off the narrow confines of the story he has told himself for so long, and take a bullet for a Mexican stranger?
Sacrifice is not only about sacrifice. It’s also about the capacity to imagine the emotions of another person. This, says Brown, is indispensable in a good friend: you have to do your utmost to honour the otherness of the person with whom you share a relationship.
As a young man, Derren Brown didn’t have many friends. He wasn’t sporty, but his school was. He felt like an outsider. Even at university, as a teenager who was gay but not out, he felt alienated from the blokey tone of male gatherings. “You get very good at dazzling with surfaces,” he says. “And I think it’s easier to do that if your relationships are more one-on-one. If you’re hanging around in a group, it’s much harder to hide or have control.”
He thinks that his approach to making friends might also have been flawed. “I remember desperately trying to impress,” he says. “That’s the only way I knew how to do it. I think it’s an urge that a lot of magicians have when they’re young.” As you get older and are on the receiving end of this tactic, he says, you realise that it is one of the last qualities that you look for in a friend.
Brown also thinks that we spend a lot of time trying to be like the people we want to impress, “as if that’s going to make them warm to us more”.
But things changed. Coming out helped enormously, and finding fame didn’t exactly hurt. Although Brown says that he still doesn’t belong to a social group – and sporadically ‘inherits’ the gangs of friends to which his friends belong – he says that he makes friends easily.
“I’m not fazed by people,” he says. “I like strangeness. I don’t need people to be like me or to agree with me to be friends with them.”
“Everyone’s embarrassed. Everyone hates parties. If you go to bed a couple of nights a week thinking, ‘What am I doing with this person, this is terrible,’ that’s sort of normal”
Many of the journalists that have spent time in Derren Brown’s company use phrases like “soothingly sweet” and “instantly likable”. How has he become so good with people where once he was so awkward, I ask. He says that he was sitting outside a café in New York recently and heard a PR talking to someone. No matter what the person on the phone said, the PR responded with, “Oh my God that is so true, that is amazing.”
He wondered why that was so inane and irritating. He decided it was because “ultimately in life we don’t really want to hear that we’re amazing because we know that we’re not. We know that we all have this big, clumsy, stupid, fumbling private life that we carry around with us.”
Professionally and personally, Brown listens to people. He gets inside their heads and tries to perceive things from their point of view. “Everyone’s embarrassed. Everyone hates parties. If you go to bed a couple of nights a week thinking, ‘What am I doing with this person, this is terrible,’ that’s sort of normal.” So, when I ask him for advice on making friends, he says that he doesn’t have a snappy tip such as ‘When they fold their arms, fold your arms’. Life is more complicated than that.
“We all want to be heard and we all want to know that our private experience of the world is OK – that we haven’t got it as wrong as it feels like sometimes we must have it. Essentially,” he says, “I think what we all want and what we all need is to know that the things that are wrong about us – the things that are embarrassing and make us feel like a liability – are OK, and our fallibilities are part of being human.”
It’s a bit long to fit on a fridge magnet, but it works.
Sacrifice is available on Netflix now