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Derren Brown: “I own a gremlin from Gremlins 2”

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Ralph Jones
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Derren Brown talks stuffed animals, horror films and pushing old men off buildings.

In your recent Pushed To The Edge show, you put someone in an elaborately contrived scenario to see if they could be persuaded to push a small, elderly man from the roof of a huge building. I was watching most of it through my hands. It was like an episode of Fawlty Towers.

[Laughs] That’s what we were aiming for.

What have you made of the controversies surrounding the show?

I’m blissfully unaware of them. 

Surely you’ve read about the 14 Ofcom complaints…? 

I just don’t read anything.  My mum liked it; thought it was the best thing I’d done. So that’s great.

The protagonists seem pretty distressed by the experience. What did you want them to learn from it?

We are handed scripts – whether it’s “You need to be successful in order to be worth something” or “Life is about helping other people; you have to be selfless”. I remember reading a case of a Pan-Am flight that landed in Tenerife in the fog. Another plane took off right over the top of it and ripped a big hole in the side of the Pan-Am flight. And there was a period of a couple of minutes where people just sat in their seats. The plane was about to be engulfed in flames, and there’s a big hole in the side of the plane, so obviously you can get out. They all sat there – apart from about seven people who’d either been in a similar situation before or had been trained. Everyone else sat there rather glassy-eyed – not unlike when a fire alarm goes off and the last thing you think is it actually is a fire. At some point we need to take a bit of authorship of our own stories. 

You’ve also designed the first ‘mind-bending’ ghost train ride for Thorpe Park. Are you… 

I’m not prepared to talk about that.

Could you explain the idea?

It’s a reinvention of the ghost train. It’s Thorpe Park’s biggest investment to date. It’s taken 1,000 people to make it. You go in with a bunch of people, but you’re essentially alone as you go through it. It’s multi-sensory, multi-layered. Virtual reality is one part of it, but it’s not the whole part. It’s very much its own thing and I would imagine is where theme park rides will go more and more in the future. 

Are you easily scared? Given your expertise in mind tricks and psychology, can you see horror film techniques coming a mile off?

I love horror films, but always find them disappointing and not scary enough. I have in the past played a scary zombie computer game. I just hide in a cupboard. I don’t understand why you would venture out. One of the most disturbing films I’ve ever seen is Funny Games – do you know it?

Yes.

Michael Haneke. Extraordinary thing.

Horribly bleak ending.

Horrible. And it’s the only film that I’ve seen where, when the villains return, I had a feeling of absolute “You can’t... you can’t do that, that’s just horrible.” Phenomenal film. The things I really don’t like are those walk-through horror experiences where someone’s going to run at you with a chainsaw. That I hate.

So, in other words, what you’ve designed for Thorpe Park?

Pretty much. I should say it isn’t a walk-through experience at all. But given that I’ve put someone through a zombie-infested, post-apocalyptic experience, it’s a bit ripe for me to say, “Ooh – scared of that myself.” 

You’re known for having lots of strange objects in your house...

[Laughs] My house seems oddly famous.

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve bought recently?

I got a gremlin the other day. An actual gremlin. From Gremlins 2. You can still operate it; it’s got the controls. I got a two-headed calf that had lived and died for a while on someone’s farm. They kept the head on a shield, and then it ended up in someone’s attic for 20 years. So they’d sold it to a taxidermy dealer and I bought it with this interesting back story.

Do you wander around looking for these things?

They get in touch with me now. I was walking through London the other day and I got a call from one dealer, and he said, “Oh, I’ve just passed you. I’ve got a kiwi in the back.” Didn’t sound comfortable.

What’s the going rate for a two-headed calf these days?

It’s quite expensive. It’s become quite trendy; there’s a lot of arty taxidermy now.

Are there any celebrities you would like stuffed and mounted in your house?

[Laughs] Oh God. I don’t know if I’d go for a stuffed person. There’s something very beautiful about taxidermy. 

You also paint striking portraits of people. Who was your last subject?

I’ve done a lot of friends and family. I find that more interesting. I never really sell them or do anything with them. They’re huge. So I’m trying to think about doing them smaller. No one wants a massive 6ft picture of Maggie Smith. 

I do.

Maybe you do.

I do.

Well, that’s very kind of you. 

Derren Brown’s Ghost Train for Thorpe Park arrives in the spring; www.mindswanted.co.uk