Derren Brown decided not to rob an art gallery - instead he’s getting a bunch of OAPs to do it for him as Sophie Herdman discovers.
Derren Brown has an unusual CV. During his career he’s played Russian roulette live on television, successfully predicted winning National Lottery numbers, hypnotised someone to ‘assassinate’ Stephen Fry and, last year, created an apocalypse for one man.
“When you’ve ended the world for someone, what can you do next?” says Brown, 42, who is looking slim and dapper in a grey suit.
Well, for a while, he’s been considering robbing an art gallery.
He’d always planned to steal the painting himself, up until recently when he suddenly felt the need to make his programmes less about him.
“I think the earlier shows were very much, ‘Oh hey, look at me’, which came from a desire to impress people,” he admits. “But as I grew out of that urge, the shows have been more about the people participating.”
And so for his latest project, The Great Art Robbery, he decided to train them to steal a valuable piece of art - right from under the nose of art dealer, Ivan Massow.
But the would-be thieves he chose were not just any people - they were all old-age pensioners.
It was an experience a few years ago in Bristol, where Brown lives, that inspired him to choose more mature ‘subjects’ for the show.
“There used to be an elderly couple down the road. The lady was always out on the street talking to people as they went past, her husband was shy, though, and rarely came out,” he recalls.
“But then she died, leaving him a bit lost, because he never really engaged with people. So he used to come out to try to talk to passers-by.”
After a while, Brown decided to pop in to see the man and they had a long chat.
“Of course, all of his stories were amazing because they were happening during the war,” he says.
What particularly struck Brown about this conversation was how the older generation are so often ignored. Once we grow older, he observed, we become, in many ways, invisible.
“I don’t really know why,” says the pensive illusionist. “We’re not geared up to respect the older generation in the way other countries and cultures do. It’s such a shame, because we all want to be that age.”
Being less visible, however, made them the perfect candidates for Brown’s art robbery. And so he set about teaching them the tips and tricks they’d need to pull off the audacious task.
In turn, Brown admits that he learnt a lot from the silver-haired bunch.
“They were all social, open and friendly. It made me wonder what things I need to have in place now, so I’m not regretful or bitter when I’m that age,” he says.
He felt a particular connection with one 74-year-old woman, called Rachel.
“When she was asked how old she felt, she said: ‘I feel 74, and that’s great’.”
She might feel her age but she’s still clearly young at heart - she swims in London’s Hampstead Pond every morning and travels the world.
“She was in North Korea last year,” Brown points out. “I hope I become like her.”
As well as her many talents, Rachel has a lot of confidence.
“We did a task with the group where I took them out for dinner, then I left early, called them and said they had to leave without paying,” Brown says.
“They just walked out one by one, Rachel was last and she was cool as a cucumber.”
Surely, confidence must be one of the things that Brown feels he has in common with the pensioner.
“Confidence is just about being prepared,” he states. “Whether you’re giving a speech in front of people, or anything, it’s being so on top that you’re not thinking about what you’re supposed to be doing next.”
Brown first became interested in illusions when, while studying Law and German at Bristol University, he attended the show of hypnotist Martin S Taylor.
He started working as a hypnotist himself, and later a magician in bars and restaurants, slowly graduating to the stage.
By 2000, his first TV series, Derren Brown: Mind Control, was aired - followed by a string of programmes and one-off shows exhibiting his talents. Highlights include The System, in which he successfully predicted the winner of a horse race, Miracles For Sale, where he investigated controversial faith healing, and Seance, in which he demonstrated methods used by spiritualists.
As well as being an atheist, Brown’s also a sceptic of all things paranormal, and has attempted to reveal the ‘tricks’ behind many of the practices he deems dubious.
In an interview with The Independent in 2007 Brown stated that he is gay. In an interview with the Radio Times in 2011 Brown talked more about his sexuality, stating that he is blissfully happy in a relationship. He said, “I spent a lot of time thinking about me and working on what I wanted to be before I came into a relationship. In some ways, it’s bad because you come into relationship quite late without a lot of experience and you have a lot to learn. But that can also be exciting. Certainly, it’s lovely to have somebody love you and it’s lovely to love someone else.”
The Great Art Robbery, though, is less about banishing beliefs, and more about creating new ones - the belief that the older generation is just as interesting and worthy of our time as everyone else.
“It’s not something that’s going to change overnight,” he says, “but I hope this will be something that affects a couple of people.”