Face-off: detail of Self-Portrait (2014) by Derren Brown
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Derren Brown’s tricks of the eye

Helen Lewis meets the illusionist and secret portrait painter. 

It began with drawing his teachers. The young Derren Brown – a quiet, nervous boy – discovered that he could impress his fellow pupils at the Whitgift School in Croydon by caricaturing authority figures. “It was all a big play for attention,” he says now. “Magic’s also a bit like that – a distancing measure; a way of being impressive if you don’t feel impressive.”

Performing tricks and illusions on television has been Brown’s day job for more than a decade now. Throughout that time, he has also painted celebrity caricatures on vast canvases, further cluttering his taxidermy-stuffed house. In 2009, he gathered them into a book called Portraits. Its cover features a monochrome Clint Eastwood, whose hard-eyed stare is perfectly recognisable despite being placed in a face shaped like a butternut squash.

At 43, though, Brown feels that he has finally grown out of the need to caricature. In his latest portraits, displayed at the Rebecca Hossack gallery in central London, he has resisted his natural urge to distort his subjects’ faces. “It was a conscious effort to move away,” he says. “I just feel more grown up.” Instead, the new paintings are hyperreal: layers of acrylic paint give astonishing detail to hair and skin.

Brown’s own appearance has followed a similar path away from the OTT – the Mephistophelian goatee has gone, as have the Gothic outfits. Today, he is wearing a flat cap; it’s warm, but it also reduces the chances of being recognised.

Being so well known must make it difficult to capture the street photographs that make up part of the exhibition, I say. “I’ve always been used to keeping my head down, but once you start taking pictures like this, it’s the opposite. You have to be very engaged and very open. I was very struck that it didn’t make any difference – I didn’t get any more stopped or less stopped.”

The controlling, superior image that it is necessary to project in order to be a successful hypnotist brings its own problems: “I have had friends who have said that, the first few times they met me, they thought I was ‘doing something’ to them.” It was only several meetings later that they realised he was honestly trying to be friendly, rather than playing an elaborate mind game.

I tell Brown that the caricatures seem more like the natural product of his stage persona. “Yes, because they’re warping and controlling. Once, a student had a massive go at me – he launched into a tirade about how I clearly have to take the world, and shift it, and control it . . . before I can accept it.” He smiles equably. “I don’t think that’s the case.”

Brown also feels that his magic has matured: he now does fewer television shows and concentrates instead on touring in theatres. “I’ve moved away from doing magic on TV now, because you’re in people’s homes. What we hear on TV, we’re used to that being gospel. That’s a different context to being on stage, where it’s a show and you’re clearly seeing an entertainer.”

What does that mean? “You have greater licence. Ultimately, my job is to entertain. There are a couple of magicians I really like, but they insist on never lying to the audience, which is an interesting choice. I think it’s misguided. When I see the show, I’m screaming in my head: just lie to me. It’s fine.”

He does not, however, apply that rationale to his portraits, which are honest to the point of brutality in recording laughter lines and other human flaws. “Mum doesn’t like hers,” Brown says. “She was a model when she was younger. She’s a beautiful lady but, clearly, it’s not very forgiving.” 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the insurgents

PETER MACDIARMID/REX
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Ken Clarke: Theresa May has “no idea” what to do about Brexit

According to the former Chancellor, “nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next”.

Has Ken Clarke lost the greatest political battle of his career? He doesn’t think so. With his shoes off, he pads around his Westminster office in a striped shirt, bottle-green cords and spotty socks. Parliament’s most persistent Europhile seems relaxed. He laughs at the pervasive phrase that has issued from Downing Street since Theresa May became Prime Minister: “Brexit means Brexit.”

“A very simple phrase, but it didn’t mean anything,” he says. His blue eyes, still boyish at 76, twinkle. “It’s a brilliant reply! I thought it was rather witty. It took a day or two before people realised it didn’t actually answer the question.”

A former chancellor of the Exchequer, Clarke has served in three Conservative cabinets. His support for the European Union is well known. He has represented the seat of Rushcliffe in Nottinghamshire for 46 years, and his commitment to the European project has never wavered over the decades. It has survived every Tory civil war and even his three failed attempts to be elected Tory leader, standing on a pro-Europe platform, in 1997, 2001 and 2005.

“My political career looks as though it will coincide with Britain’s membership of the EU,” Clarke says, lowering himself into an armchair that overlooks the Thames. There are model cars perched along the windowsill – a hint of his love of motor racing.

Clarke won’t be based here, in this poky rooftop room in Portcullis House, Westminster, much longer. He has decided to step down at the next election, when he will be nearly 80. “I began by campaigning [in the 1960s] in support of Harold Macmillan’s application to enter [the EU], and I shall retire at the next election, when Britain will be on the point of leaving,” he says grimly.

Clarke supports Theresa May, having worked with her in cabinet for four years. But his allegiance was somewhat undermined when he was recorded describing her as a “bloody difficult woman” during this year’s leadership contest. He is openly critical of her regime, dismissing it as a “government with no policies”.

For a senior politician with a big reputation, Clarke is light-hearted in person – his face is usually scrunched up in merriment beneath his floppy hair. A number of times during our discussion, he says that he is trying to avoid getting “into trouble”. A painting of a stern Churchill and multiple illustrations of Gladstone look down at him from his walls as he proceeds to do just that.

“Nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next on the Brexit front,” he says. He has a warning for his former cabinet colleagues: “Serious uncertainty in your trading and political relationships with the rest of the world is dangerous if you allow it to persist.”

Clarke has seen some of the Tories’ bitterest feuds of the past at first hand, and he is concerned about party unity again. “Whatever is negotiated will be denounced by the ultra-Eurosceptics as a betrayal,” he says. “Theresa May has had the misfortune of taking over at the most impossible time. She faces an appalling problem of trying to get these ‘Three Brexiteers’ [Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox] to agree with each other, and putting together a coherent policy which a united cabinet can present to a waiting Parliament and public. Because nobody has the foggiest notion of what they want us to do.”

Clarke reserves his fiercest anger for these high-profile Brexiteers, lamenting: “People like Johnson and [Michael] Gove gave respectability to [Nigel] Farage’s arguments that immigration was somehow a great peril caused by the EU.”

During the referendum campaign, Clarke made headlines by describing Boris Johnson as “a nicer version of Donald Trump”, but today he seems more concerned about David Cameron. He has harsh words for his friend the former prime minister, calling the pledge to hold the referendum “a catastrophic decision”. “He will go down in history as the man who made the mistake of taking us out of the European Union, by mistake,” he says.

Clarke left the government in Cameron’s 2014 cabinet reshuffle – which came to be known as a “purge” of liberal Conservatives – and swapped his role as a minister without portfolio for life on the back benches. From there, he says, he will vote against the result of the referendum, which he dismisses as a “bizarre protest vote”.

“The idea that I’m suddenly going to change my lifelong opinions about the national interest and regard myself as instructed to vote in parliament on the basis of an opinion poll is laughable,” he growls. “My constituents voted Remain. I trust nobody will seriously suggest that I should vote in favour of leaving the European Union. I think it’s going to do serious damage.”

But No 10 has hinted that MPs won’t be given a say. “I do think parliament sooner or later is going to have to debate this,” Clarke insists. “In the normal way, holding the government to account for any policy the government produces . . . The idea that parliament’s going to have no say in this, and it’s all to be left to ministers, I would regard as appalling.”

Clarke has been characterised as a Tory “wet” since his days as one of the more liberal members of Margaret Thatcher’s government. It is thought that the former prime minister had a soft spot for his robust manner but viewed his left-wing leanings and pro-European passion with suspicion. He is one of parliament’s most enduring One-Nation Conservatives. Yet, with the Brexit vote, it feels as though his centrist strand of Tory politics is disappearing.

“I don’t think that’s extinct,” Clarke says. “The Conservative Party is certainly not doomed to go to the right.”

He does, however, see the rise of populism in the West as a warning. “I don’t want us to go lurching to the right,” he says. “There is a tendency for traditional parties to polarise, and for the right-wing one to go ever more to the right, and the left-wing one to go ever more to the left . . . It would be a catastrophe if that were to happen.”

Clarke’s dream of keeping the UK in Europe may be over, but he won’t be quiet while he feels that his party’s future is under threat. “Don’t get me into too much trouble,” he pleads, widening his eyes in a show of innocence, as he returns to his desk to finish his work. 

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories