Derren Brown on an inspiring Whitgift teacher and the noticeable changes in acceptance at school
PUBLISHED: 08:41 27 August 2015 | UPDATED: 11:19 01 September 2015
©Seamus Ryan 2012
Magician and illusionist Derren Brown might not admit his school days were the best of his life, but he is quick to admit they have informed his career to a huge extent.
I went to Whitgift School in South Croydon. It was a posh grammar school and we had peacocks and quadrangles. It wasn’t quite a boarding school but it had that kind of feel to it.
I had a good drama teacher in my early years there called Mr Dunbar, who was inspiring. He was the one who got me into wanting to perform and into doing plays. I could sense there was a spark there to perform and I liked the idea of it, but at that age I never really had the energy or discipline to go after it. I mean, who wants to sit at home memorising lines?
So while I wasn’t really fulfilling much more back then than the average schoolkid, I think his inspiration did lay the groundwork for what was to come.
Creatively, magic can sometimes come from the wrong place and the reason why you would take this fraudulent route to impressing people is because you don’t feel that impressive yourself. Probably a lot of acting comes from a similar place, borne out of a need to impress people. Unsurprisingly, a lot of kids who get into those things are actually under-confident. They’re essentially hiding behind a trick or an act, and people are telling them that they’re amazing when, in reality, they feel anything but... at first, at least. And, of course, when it comes to magic, if you do the trick well enough it doesn’t make much difference whether you’ve just got it out of a cracker or if have spent 15 years of your life perfecting it, and there’s a lesson for life in there somewhere.
So it’s tricky from a writer’s or a dramatic point of view. The magician character is almost like a God character - he can wave his hand and something happens. What’s more interesting from a story point of view is a hero rather than a God figure, just as good drama on TV is about other people going through a real life dramatic story with someone like me behind the scenes pulling the strings. That’s not so different to good teaching – it’s taking the attention away from the teacher and impressing on kids the fact they need to take something forward themselves. I really like that philosophy, though I accept it’s easier said than done on occasions.
School was definitely a challenge for me. I think 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. And I took that forward even though that wasn’t what the school was encouraging, as such, but that’s what happened. And that was a big reason for me having a happier, more relaxed time at school than I perhaps would have done.
Without being at a school where it was deemed okay to express yourself, I don’t think I’d be doing what I’m doing now.
With that in mind, occasionally when I go back to my old school, and I have some friends who are teachers, I do get the opportunity to see how things are these days. I’m amazed at how grown up pupils seem in 2015. Those that are now in sixth form are like students were when I was at university, and that was 20 years ago.
When I was at school, and at sixth form, you’d never come out 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.
That is what I find interesting about schools today, and those at the top should be applauded for creating a culture of understanding, acceptance and respect. It didn’t exist when I was there and gradually, over time, it’s been created, because to style clever pupils you surely need happy pupils in the first place.
As I said, I had an outlet where I could ‘perform’ and gain acceptance, and by doing that I relaxed; but not all kids were as lucky, and not all kids were as happy.
I’m writing a book on happiness at the moment and some of the ideas from that have fed into my current show and tour. There has been autobiographical stuff in previous shows, some of which is true, some of which has been heavily tweaked for theatre, but this new material has a strong desire behind it to say stuff that I think is real and important, and school experiences have played a part in that.
People ask me about ‘passing on’ the courage and inspiration given to me by teachers such as Mr Dunbar, though if I’m honest, right now I’ve no particular desire to take on a magician’s apprentice. I know plenty of magicians who have now started doing this kind of thing, but it’s just not for me.
When I first got into mentalism – which is the technical term for what I do – I think there were about four of us doing it, but now there could be any number. I’m sure Dynamo will have inspired a generation of magicians as well, as Blaine did Stateside around the time when I got going. I think that naturally happens so there’s probably no need to be teaching any protégé – maybe one day.
But my point is that youngsters learning and being inspired today have as much chance of finding that outside the classroom as they do from inside it. We shouldn’t worry about it because most influences are positive. I feel education needs to be respected in the wider context of it being freely available from everywhere.
Schools do magnificent jobs, but they’re not exclusive because we now have a generation that’s so well connected. We all need to work out how to complement each other.