Gary Lightbody: a deeply personal interview about life, love, loss and the crisis that kept Snow Patrol apart for years

Gary Lightbody has not had a girlfriend in eight years. He’s a handsome rock star, the lead singer in Snow Patrol, known for great anthems of love and longing like Run and Chasing Cars, but still he’s single. “Yeah, it doesn’t really make sense, does it?” says Lightbody with a wry smile, running a hand through his longish black hair.

Snow Patrol are about to make a comeback after a very long time away, but they are still one of the biggest rock bands in the world. Lightbody can connect with whole stadiums full of people, so why does he have nobody to connect with as a partner?

“I wasn’t a great boyfriend. I cheated and I was shut down, emotionally. All the clichés of terrible boyfriends. So I wanted to sort myself out before I started anything with anyone. That coincided with us coming off tour seven years ago. And I started drinking heavily. And I thought, ‘That’s another reason not to get involved with anyone.’ I didn’t want them to be with me in this mess…”

And what a terrible mess he was in, it turns out as we talk in a deserted hotel bar in New York, ahead of an intimate warm-up gig at the Irving Plaza (see video for a clip of the band performing Run). Today, Lightbody is feeling much better and ready to solve the mystery of where Snow Patrol have been all this time, and why they quit at the height of their fame back in 2012 …

They are warming up to release and tour a terrific new album called Wildness, featuring songs as good as any they have recorded – but Lightbody admits it nearly didn’t happen. The band nearly ended. And again he blames himself.

“The period of time off just kept extending, it wasn’t meant to be this long. I couldn’t write the songs. I didn’t know what to write about …”

The deeper truth – as he subsequently tells it – is that Gary Lightbody got lost in a fog of drink, drugs and depression that drove him to think about the end of his own life, let alone the band. The story of how he got himself and his band back together is a fascinating one, involving a therapist called Gabrielle, a singer called Ed Sheeran and Monica from Friends. But first the crash.

“The last tour of America was very tough. We were all just tired of each other’s company. No-one could see the funny side of anything anymore. We’d been doing album, tour, album, tour, album, tour, album, tour. So on that last one everybody was in the middle of a nervous breakdown at some point. We sort of swapped nervous breakdowns.”

They had been together since their days at Dundee University in the early Nineties, and slogged away as a band for a whole decade without any success, before sudden global fame brought a relentless schedule. “You can’t stop anything, you have to keep moving and it’s all organised a long way in advance. I would look in the diary to see when we had some time off and I would count the days.”

He makes the rock and roll life sound like a prison. “It’s a really bad way of living your life. We were going to burn out at some point. Everybody was like, ‘I just want to see the finish line, I don’t care about anyone else.’ It became a toxic environment.”

Yes, but they were superstars: himself, the guitarists Nathan Connolly and Johnny McDaid, the bass player Paul Wilson and the drummer Johnny Quinn were at the top of their game. This was everything the band had wanted, back when they were down on their luck and wrote Run as a kind of desperate plea for something good to happen: “Light up, light up, as if you have a choice …” It worked. The song was an unexpected hit in 2005, then again when Leona Lewis took a cover to number one.

What happened next was extraordinary. Eyes Open became the biggest-selling album of the year in Britain in 2006 and gave the world Chasing Cars, one of those songs you hear everywhere, all the time. The video has been seen on YouTube 185 million times. Their songs have been streamed online a billion times. So however tough it was on tour after that, surely they were rich, famous, adored and living their own rock and roll dream? “One hundred per cent. I felt so guilty about feeling so bad. If I ever complain, my brain is immediately like, ‘Shut up you wanker!’ I’m fully aware it sounds like complaining about having the best life. But even when you’re having success, you go through periods of questioning everything or having a shit time. We needed to deal with that, before we could even think about being a band still.”

This 41-year-old from Bangor in County Down is not like other rock stars. He’s thoughtful, articulate and wants a conversation rather than to deliver an address. He’s also more than a bit crumpled, in a grey hoodie and jeans. We first met when Snow Patrol were at the height of their fame and played the Royal Albert Hall, with an orchestra and a lovely set of supporting musicians led by my friends Iain and Miriam Archer. We saw each other backstage over three days and Lightbody was edgy, nervous but bright and apparently loving life. Between then and now, he fell apart. Today, Lightbody is disarmingly honest about what he has been through.

“For the ten years before Run I used to think, ‘If only we could have a hit, then everything would be okay.’ Then we did and I was like, ‘Why has nothing changed? Why am I still the same? Why do I still have the same self-loathing?’ One moment you’re standing in front of thousands of people who are singing back at you the words to a song you wrote when you were alone in your bedroom: ‘Light up, light up …’ Then you go back to the hotel or wherever and it’s quiet. The silence is deafening. I’ve spent many nights in hotel rooms just in tears, just going, ‘How did you get to this?’

“It’s kind of like having bipolar forced on you. You go from a sort of triumph to a pit of despair every night. That yo-yoing between the two means you’re never fully peaceful.”

Where does it come from, that self-loathing he talks about?

“Oh, since I was a little boy. A teenager, when the hormones kicked in and I started feeling things, in the way teenagers do. I didn’t understand what was going on in Northern Ireland. I felt like I didn’t belong. There were sides. There were very clear sides. ‘Pick.’ I didn’t want to pick a side. So I just felt alone.”

And that was how he felt again when Snow Patrol ended in 2012. The plan was for them to take a year or two away from each other. Lightbody already had a side project going with members of REM, the country-tinged supergroup Tired Pony. He moved to Los Angeles to try to break into the movies. “That was much harder than I expected it to be. I went into movie studios for meetings, not realising that’s the perfect way to get nothing done in LA. You get smoke blown up your arse then they show you out the door and you’re never thought of again.”

In the meantime, he was drinking. “I’m told I was always a pretty good drunk. I was never aggressive or anything like that. I was always having fun. Then it turned darker when I was in LA. This is about three years ago. Most of my friends there had kids or they were recovering alcoholics, so not a lot of them drank that much, if at all. I was wanting to out every night, so I would go out on my own. I had always been warned against that by my father and my friends. That’s when I realised I couldn’t stop. It was horrible to go a day without drinking.”

The feelings he had suppressed for years surged up to overwhelm him and Lightbody admits that he lost the will to live. “I thought I was wasting myself. I was drinking because I was unable to write and I was probably unable to write because I was drinking, so this snake was eating its own tail and I fell into this cycle of self-loathing compounded by my own actions.”

He thought about “not existing” – but had not got as far as working out how to actually end his life when a nasty infection gave him a jolt.

“Basically from the neck up was just infected. Gross. The doctor was like, ‘Whatever you’re doing, don’t do that!’”

He laughs at the desperate absurdity of it all. The infection was in his ears and throat and also both sinuses. Does that suggest cocaine was involved?

“Yeah. I mean, drugs were around and I never shied away. I don’t want to glamorise drugs because they’re such horrible things. But yes I did. I had good times and bad times, but mostly bad. When you turn your hangover into a come-down, the half-life of it all gets multiplied.”

The infection was very serious and the doctor wanted to operate, but Lightbody sought a gentler option. “A dear friend of mine, Gabrielle, is an acupuncturist and she is the most glorious human being on planet earth. She was like, ‘Give me a month and we can fix this. But no drinking.’”

That was a huge challenge, but he saw it as a matter of life and death.

“On my fortieth birthday I was dry. I went back to the doctor after a month of getting treatment with Gabrielle, three times a week, four times a week sometimes. And he did the CT scan again and it was clear.”

The song Heal Me on the new album is dedicated to Gabrielle. “The whole record would never have happened without her. My whole life today would not be what it is. I wouldn’t be here.” Is this a romantic attachment? “No. I mean yes, in the sense that I love her. Absolutely. But not the other way.” She’s not his partner? “No.”

There’s nobody else either. “I didn’t want to be with anyone when I was a mess. And I’ve come out the other side of it all now but I’m still not with anyone.”

Is he wary of messing up again? “Yeah,” says Lightbody with a sigh. “I’m very vigilant about everything at the moment, because I think I need to be. I’m hoping at some point it just clicks in and I don’t need to think about it all so much. My health, my mental health. I have to do certain things every day. I have to meditate, I have to do my Qigong, I have to go to the gym. I find that on the days I don’t do those things, I start to feel the shadow.”

Routine is vital, he says.“I didn’t do Alcoholics Anonymous but I respect it. They talk about not making any big life decision within the first two years of your recovery and I’m still within that framework. In June it’ll be two years. I think that’s probably a good benchmark, before making any significant changes in my life.”

So come June, romantically, he will be open for business again? “Yeah. Perhaps. I’m definitely opening up again, that’s for sure. I feel more like what I hoped myself would be. Somebody lighter in spirit. Somebody that doesn’t need to drink to laugh, doesn’t need augmentation to have a good time. I feel like I’m easier to be with, quicker to laugh, quicker to have fun with.”

Part of his return to health has been writing songs with other people – including Biffy Clyro, Taylor Swift, One Direction and Ed Sheeran, who became a mate.

“Ed is unlike any other musician I’ve ever known. He has more ideas than anybody else ever! I’m not even exaggerating, you sit in a room with him and he’ll write ten songs in a few hours. It’s a thing of magic really, he’s so unfiltered, so uninhibited, so in tune with his muse, his guitar bends to his will. I bend to my guitar’s will.”

So how did they meet? “We were both doing the Energy festival in Switzerland and we clocked each other on the plane on the way over but didn’t say anything. When we got to the venue I wrote a letter and I put it in his dressing room, he wasn’t there. It just said I was a big fan of the first record, let’s get together and have a pint and a chat.” That was sweet and Sheeran responded. “So we went out and got drunk together and we had a really good laugh. It’s funny, that night he was just starting to get into tattoos, he had a few but not the way he is now. I said, ‘The only tattoo I’d ever get is a song lyric by Bon Iver.’ Straight away he went, ‘Everything that happens is from now on!’ And I went, ‘Fuck me! Yes! That’s the one!’ That’s how we became fast friends.”

Did Lightbody get the tattoo? “No! But Ed did. I just chickened out, I don’t really want a tattoo.”

Sheeran also writes with Johnny McDaid, who is also part of Snow Patrol. “After the gig they would go to the hotel room to write songs together and they would always ask me ‘Do you want to come?’ Sometimes I would go and most of the time I didn’t. Those songs went on Multiply which obviously went on to become an extraordinary record and a massive success.”

McDaid is a highly accomplished song-writer and producer outside the band and he has written for movies including The Fault In Our Stars and Just Before I Go, the first film directed by Courteney Cox. They started dating four years ago and are due to be married this summer in Malibu. Isn’t it a bit weird for Lightbody that his mate is engaged to Monica from Friends? “Ha! No, it doesn’t freak me out at all. No. I haven’t really thought about it. She’s so down to earth and lovely though. I don’t really ever think about that. Not in a million years would you ever think, ‘You’re a star …’ We’re approaching off the record stuff here…”

Let’s talk about something closer to home then, but perhaps even more difficult. The new album features proper big Snow Patrol blockbusters like Life On Earth and Empress but there are also haunting ballads, including one called Soon. It’s about his father Jack, who has Alzheimer’s. “He was diagnosed three years ago but he was showing signs long before that. I can’t wait to sing it live.”

Will that be difficult? “When he’s there, maybe. He’ll be there.”
Lightbody’s eyes start to fill up as he recalls the last time he sang in front of his father – and 50,000 other people – in Dublin a few years ago. The song Lifening made reference to wanting to be a father like his own.“Everyone cheered the line and I looked over at him and he was smiling. He’s kind of inscrutable most of the time. He was standing side of stage, I went over and got him and the place went nuts.”

There’s a long pause now, while Lightbody fights real tears. “I stood in the middle of the stage with him and he turned to me and whispered in my ear in the way only he can: ‘Well this is great, isn’t it?’” Now Lightbody laughs. “I was just like, ‘Oh my God!’ It was perfect. The feeling of sadness that I’m having right now is the feeling that I was having then, until he said that and then I just laughed and laughed.”

Is he worried for himself? “Yeah. That’s where the line in the song comes in: ‘Soon you’ll not remember anything. Some day neither will I.’ I don’t remember my own song lyrics most of the time. My memory has never been very good. So yeah, I think about that. A lot of this record is about memory. Maybe there’s something of my childhood in there.”

And he’s come full circle, because after all these years Lightbody is living in Northern Ireland again.

“When I left for university I was happy to go. When I finally bought a house there, in my thirties, I fell deeply in love with the place again. Northern Ireland is an amazing place. We punch well above our weight in sport, in music, culturally, all the art forms. We are a very small country that gives a lot out into the world and it’s something to be very proud of. So when I moved back, I did it out of love. I understood the place better. And its peace. Northern Ireland is a different place now.”

Gary Lightbody looks down at his hands and smiles, having found a peace of his own. “I’m in a very different place now myself …”

This is an extended version of a piece that first appeared in Event, the magazine of the Mail on Sunday

Derren Brown: ‘I totally saw how you can start to go mad.’

Derren Brown looks deep into my eyes and smiles. ‘Being a hypnotist is the ultimate fantasy of control really, isn’t it?’

I can only agree with this master of manipulation, a grand illusionist with the power to read the minds of strangers and make them do outrageous things like rob a security van, shoot Stephen Fry or push an innocent victim off a roof. Those were faked for television specials The Heist, The Assassin and The Push (To The Edge) but the men and women involved though it was all happening for real.

So did the viewers who were alarmed when he risked blowing his brains out on television with Russian Roulette – or astonished and envious when he seemed to predict the right numbers on How To Win The Lottery.

So is that why Derren Brown became what he is: for the sense of power over people? ‘Big time. The desire to perform was huge, and so was the controlling aspect of it.’

The greatest mentalist magician of our age is making a new special for Netflix soon and touring Britain with a show called Underground celebrating his most successful stage tricks and illusions.

Then he’ll go to Broadway and attempt to seduce America.

Critics and audiences are always sworn to secrecy about his shows and Brown will never normally explain – except today is going to be different.

For once he will reveal some of his secrets and talk about a time it all went spectacularly wrong, live on stage. ‘I had nothing! I just had to say, ‘Sorry! Goodnight!’’

He’ll describe how one show got way out of hand when people started experiencing real ‘miracles’ even though he knew he was faking it. ‘There was one woman who had been paralysed all her life, she was in floods of tears, it was the first time she’d been able to move the side of her body.’

The success went to his head so much he thought about setting up as a real-life stadium healer. ‘I totally saw how you can start to go mad.’

And the great manipulator will warn that we are all in danger of being manipulated all the time by the politicians we elect to lead us.

’The more bewildered we are, the more suggestible we become.’

But what’s most fascinating – as we drink tea near his home in East London – is to see the mask slip and get a glimpse of the private emotions that motivate every trick and stunt that Derren Brown does.

Gone are the rakish frock coat, startled hair and devilish goatee with which he became famous at the start of the century. Today his head is shaven and he looks relaxed in jeans and a sloppy pink jumper.

Brown is out of his comfort zone, as he can’t control the questions, and keeps rubbing his head with apparent nerves. His eyes drill right through you though, when they are not restlessly scanning the room.

When I ask where he got this desire for power over people, Brown remembers his days as a shy, gay Christian pupil at a public school in Croydon, intimidated by the other boys as he struggled to reconcile his emerging sexuality with his faith.

‘I was not sporty in a fairly sporty school and not closeted but still working all that out. A step behind everyone else. They can sniff it out, can’t they? School is such an unforgiving environment.’

For self-defence, he acted larger than life and showed off with magic tricks. ‘I responded by being fairly intolerable, a terrible attention seeker. Then when I got to university, I saw this hypnotist perform, pretty early on. The people who tend to come up on stage at university gigs like that are the sporty types who really intimidated me back at school.’

So suddenly he saw the chance to get his own back on those jocks, by learning hypnosis and making them do something ridiculous in public like eat an onion thinking it’s an apple, or worse? ‘Exactly. Suddenly being seen as a powerful figure as opposed to a ridiculous figure was very appealing.’

He did need help though. ‘I did my first show at the end of my first year [studying law and German at Bristol University]. I mean, it was dreadful. Three hours long. I had trouble getting people up on stage so my Mum came up and played along. I remember that fondly.’

She was a model and Brown inherited her cheek bones. His father was a swimming teacher. Wasn’t their son scared of making a fool of himself, up on stage using techniques he had learned from books and only ever practised on friends? ‘I’m quite shy but I don’t have any nervousness about stepping on stage. As long as it’s something I have prepared. As long as I am on top of it.’

And Derren Brown has been on top of things ever since, creating a more elegant, even sinister persona for his debut Channel 4 show Derren Brown: Mind Control in 2000, in which he read the lives of complete strangers – from their habits, mannerisms, verbal ticks and other hidden ‘tells’ – before bending them to his will.

These days he deals in spectacle. Brown will sift through hundreds or thousands of volunteers to find the man or woman most open to his powers of suggestion, then place them unwittingly in an extraordinary situation: usually an elaborate set-up involving actors, a stunt crew and special effects. So a group of mild-mannered pensioners were somehow persuaded to steal a valuable painting in The Great Art Heist. A hesitant man called Matt was given the controls of a 737 passenger jet he thought was crashing and became – as the title suggests – a Hero At 30,000.

‘That made a real difference to him in real life,’ says Brown, who spent months and a small fortune creating a convincing zombie invasion for a different target, a self-confessed layabout called Stephen, who also discovered courage he didn’t know he had. ‘My favourite. I don’t know if the show can take all the credit, but Stephen’s life has changed a lot.’

So has Derren Brown, over the years. He’s as calm as you might hope from a man who has a best-selling ‘anti-self-help self-help book’ called Happiness: Why More Or Less Everything Is Absolutely Fine. Inspired by the ancient tradition of Stoicism, having shaken off his Christian faith long ago, Brown says: ‘It is not events out there that cause our problems, but our reactions to them.’

A cynic might say that’s easy to suggest when you’re a highly-acclaimed 47-year-old with an estimated £5 million in the bank, but Brown’s success was created by his insecurity. As a young man he hid shyness behind an act that only ended with fame.

‘I stopped being such a dick in real life when I started performing, because I would just funnel everything into that. Then once I started doing television, I stopped the need to ever perform in real life. I just grew out of it. I stopped doing tricks with people in real life. I’m a bit introverted and that’s fine.’

Still, everyone expects him to be able to see into their soul or take secret control of them and that’s exhausting. ‘I’ve got a good friend now who was convinced when we first met that I was controlling him – everything, every gesture, every turn of a cup.’

Brown leans forward as he says this, turns the paper tea cup that is sitting in front him with a very deliberate action and looks up with a sly smile, holding my gaze. ‘It took a few meetings before I convinced him. It’s so far from my mind, all of that, when I meet people.’

Is he controlling me now? He insists not. ‘When I go out and do a show, that’s the best, very charismatic version of me. That’s a lovely feeling. But doing it in real life all the time? That would be sad. Maybe I’m just reacting now against having done that for years.’

Is this reticence for real? ‘Yeah. Not all the time. I can easily go back to feeling a bit intimidated if I’m in a room with big characters, which can happen as you get well known. I do shrivel up a bit.’

One of those intimidating big characters used to be the host and comedian Stephen Fry, who he first met as an undergraduate. The memory makes him wince. ‘I met him at a book signing and he could not have been any nicer, but it was disappointing to me.’

He felt he knew Fry already, from having seen him on television, and at the back of his mind thought they would bond instantly, but of course to Fry he was just another face in the queue. ‘I think I expected we’d go out for dinner or something. I brought so much weight to that meeting, expectations which could never be met.’

Now Fry is a friend who even pretended to be shot on stage for a show back in 2011, and they do actually go out for dinner, but Brown still remembers what it felt like to be on the other side of fame in that first shy encounter. ‘I always try and be very present when I meet people.’

Rubbing his head again, he laughs apologetically. ‘I can’t remember what you asked me now … sorry!’

I press on, asking if his public persona makes it difficult to have a genuine relationship with a lover. ‘Not really. The guy I’m with now, Justin, was sort of aware of me when we met but not like a big fan or anything. That’s kind of nice. Dating a fan would be a bit odd.’

He is wary. ‘I have a few stalker fans: nothing terrible, but they like to find my partners and become best friends with them, or at least act like they are.’ Insinuating their way into his life by sucking up to his partner? That sounds scary, which explains why he is so protective of Justin and was of his previous long-term boyfriend, a graphic designer called Mark.

Brown was brought up with an Evangelical Christian faith that told him homosexuality was a sin and he even took part in a counselling course to try and ‘cure’ himself. He stopped believing in that (or any other) vision of God in his twenties, but was in his thirties before he came out as gay to family and friends. ‘I’m embarrassed a bit that it took so long,’ said Brown after revealing the truth publicly for the first time in 2007. ‘But if I hadn’t had a weird and slightly self-absorbed twenties then perhaps I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now.’

Has he ever used his powers to get a date? ‘For evil? Ha! No. I honestly don’t even know what it would mean to hypnotise someone into a date, or anything else. I just keep it on the stage.’

How does he feel about those self-styled pick-up artists who use psychology, people-reading and the power of suggestion to approach their ’targets’ on the street or in bars?

‘There’s that whole weird world of seduction isn’t there?’

Their techniques – revealed in a controversial book called The Game – are not so far away from some of what Brown does, surely? ‘No, they’re not and it’s so easy to sniff at them but I know somebody who absolutely used them and now has a wife and a couple of kids.’

Still, pick-up artists have been widely condemned as sexist and creepy and Brown is not a fan. ‘I think so many of those techniques and what passes off as hypnosis in that world is just doing stuff and not feeling guilty. Being unpleasant and cynical and not feeling bad about it.’

Some use an approach called neurolinguistic programming, which he went to a conference about. ‘There was a seat at the front which I went for and another guy went for it as well. He looked at me and said: ‘You will lose.’ So I politely said for him to sit down and he said to the guy next to him: ‘Did you see what I did?’ I just thought: ‘Is that hypnosis? Or is that just being a dick?’

Scrupulously polite, quiet and thoughtful off stage, Brown likes to read, paint and take street photographs. He lives in an ultra-fashionable part of East London with a couple of dogs, a live parrot called Rasputin and a menagerie of stuffed creatures, one of which he helpfully offers to our photographer as a prop: ‘Shall I get my penguin?’

Later this year he will try to break America, having tested the waters at a small theatre in New York last year. ‘I really loved it. Here you get a group reaction, everybody laughing or gasping together. There it was like two hundred individuals, each shouting on their own. ‘No way!’ Everybody’s turned up to 11.’

His Netflix special will also be based in America. ‘It’s very exciting. I can’t say what it is but I was tweeting a while back for American right-wingers and left-wingers, so politics certainly plays a part.’

One fan responded to this appeal by posting: ‘Please tell me you are re-running the Russian Roulette stunt but with six loaded chambers every time …’ That says a lot about our feelings towards politics these days and Brown is alarmed that we are all having our strings pulled by party advertisers and leaders including Donald Trump.

‘It’s a classic hypnotic technique to induce confusion then give a direct suggestion which someone is more likely to follow because it’s a relief. So politicians will give you a whole load of statistics and things you can’t quite follow, then say: ‘Therefore, we must do this …’ And you believe it a lot more because you’ve just heard all this stuff you haven’t quite followed.’

The claims made during the Brexit debate come to mind. ‘Yes. If we end up uncertain of everything, that can make us much more susceptible.’ Have we been conned by the Brexiteers? ‘We’ll find out, won’t we? It’s early days really, but we’ll see where it takes us.’

You might imagine his fame would make it harder to get British audiences to go along with him during live performances, but Brown says the opposite is true. ‘People are more suggestible if they know – or even just imagine – that I’m constantly doing stuff to influence them.’

This led to some astonishing results in his last show Miracle, as he sought to expose and recreate the way fake faith healers work. Like them he called people to the stage and offered instantaneous healing. ‘I imagined somebody might have a bit of a bad back and come up and say, ‘I feel better.’ The adrenaline would clear the pain, essentially. But it was so much more than that.’

Genuine healings appeared to happen, to his astonishment, including the paralysed woman. ‘Every night, someone with tinnitus would put their hand up and say it had gone. There was a guy with trigger finger, where your finger or your thumb lock. This 60-something guy just couldn’t believe it, he could move his fingers.’

What was really happening there? ‘I did nothing other than to create this environment whereby the guy with the trigger finger would stop telling himself the story of ‘I can’t move my fingers’. That’s all I’m doing. And it doesn’t mean that everyone with trigger finger is going to be healed. Maybe there’s something in people breaking the constantly negative cycle and doing something positive for a bit. Then the shock at feeling, ‘Oh God it’s not hurting!’ That gets the adrenaline going even more.’

How long would this last? ‘I imagine that for most people the effects wouldn’t last more than the ten minutes they were on stage, but I was getting letters and emails from a small percentage of people months later saying, ‘Look, this is still the same.’ Somebody said their husband had watched the show on TV and this golfing injury he’d had for 15 years cleared. He was too embarrassed to say so at the time, he just didn’t believe it, but a year later he said: ‘Just so you know, it’s been gone since and it was from watching the show.’ Amazing, isn’t it?’

‘I totally saw how you can start to go mad, to the point I was semi-seriously saying to the guys I work with: ‘I could do this at the O2 couldn’t I? I could be very upfront and say it’s nothing more than suggestion and adrenaline, but a certain percentage of people seem to have really been healed…’ You just start to go down that slippery slope into thinking you have some kind of special ability.’

So why didn’t he hire the O2? ‘No matter how carefully and honestly you advertised it, you’d have people turning up desperate for a real healing.’

He couldn’t behave like one of the charlatans he sees preying on people who still believe sincerely in a faith he used to hold dear.

But shouldn’t he be talking to the NHS about what he has learned? ‘That would be an interesting thing to talk about with professionals. Really, it comes back to bedside manner. The sad thing is, if you go and see a GP and get your allotted six minutes and he tells you to relax more, you’re going to feel unlistened-to. If you go to a holistic therapist you are there for an hour, the advice is essentially the same but you’ve been physically touched, you’ve gone through some sort of ritual and feel listened to. It’s all very important stuff … but I didn’t want to get into that world of having people turn up expecting that their problems will be solved.’

When he first started out, Derren Brown used to quote Sherlock Holmes a lot and he even lived in a £3.5m apartment on Baker Street. He shares the fictional sleuth’s uncanny ability to read people and pick up hidden signals, so shouldn’t he be helping the cops?

‘I did get an email from the police asking whether I’d come and talk to them. I’ve always avoided anything like that. I’m quite open about how the whole thing I do happens in inverted commas, so not to believe everything you see or hear. It’s a form of entertainment. Some of it’s real and some of it isn’t. Hopefully part of the fun is trying to unpick that.’

Nor has he been tempted by the corporate dollar. ‘There’s a whole world of business people who might want to learn these techniques to improve sales and so on, but it’s just not me. There are people who do that, but they are pretending. They’re passing off tricks as real stuff. That’s not my world and I don’t need to do it.’

Since he refuses to say which of his greatest hits are in the new show Underground, how about his biggest flop?

‘Oh God. There’s always things that don’t work live. The most excruciating was in the show Infamous. There was a running gag about not being able to mind read someone’s phone number like a bad psychic, just getting the zero and the seven then leaving it there.

‘Then at the very end of the show I’m getting numbers called out by the audience, I’m doing all this lightning calculation and the grand total of multiplication is the big reveal. ‘This is your phone number!’ Only, this one night, it wasn’t. Not even close!’

Brown had done this hundreds of times before and always managed to successfully predict and reveal the phone number of the person he had targeted. But this time, as a thousand people watched, he got it wrong.

’That was the very last moment of the show, the climax of this recurring theme we’d had for two hours, the cue for all the confetti to go off. And I was just really wrong. The audience was confused.’

Brown was totally exposed in front of all those people.

‘I had nothing. I just had to go, ‘Oh! Sorry! Well, goodnight!’’

They probably thought it was yet another mind game. ‘Yeah, they might have gone, ‘That certainly made him seem human.’ That’s always a plus point. But not during the finale!’

His laughter is edgy, because the old shyness is never far from the surface and the mistake caused him distress and soul-searching. But the answer was to go back over the show with forensic precision, examine what went wrong and make sure it never happened again. In other words, to take back control.

When he’s not on stage or in front of a camera, this great pretender certainly does seem human. Warm, self-aware, charming even. He’s given a little more of himself away than usual today.

But later, when I’m describing how Derren Brown was surprisingly good company, I think of the precise way he turned the cup as if it was some kind of mind control signal and the mysterious smile he gave me at that moment – and I wonder: ‘Is that what he told me to say?’

This is an extended version of the interview that first appeared in Event, the magazine of the Mail on Sunday

‘Derren Brown: Underground’ tours the UK from April 3 to July 5,

Hear how a young man’s death broke the heart of an Irish island community, on the Great Blasket 70 years ago

IMG_2752Seventy years ago, a young man known as Seánín died on the Great Blasket, a remote island at the tip of the Dingle peninsula in County Kerry, Ireland. He was one of the few remaining strong, youthful men in an island community that had once been strong and vibrant and famous for its oral, storytelling culture. Most of the young had gone to America, where they gathered again in a place called Hungry Hill and flourished. The death of Seánín broke the hearts of the remaining islanders and ultimately led to the evacuation of the Great Blasket in 1953.

I was privileged to be able to tell his story and go in search of the islanders for the book Hungry for Home (published by Viking 2001 and later by the Curragh Press, and now being prepared for a revised, updated edition with details here) with the help of my friend and guide Mícheál de Mordha. The photograph above shows Dr Mike Carney looking out across the Sound to the island where his brother died, when Mike risked his life to go back for one last look in 2013, at the age of nearly 93. In tribute to Seánín and the rest of the remarkable Ó Cearna – or Carney – clan, here is Enda Oates reading from the first chapter of the book, describing those final moments. It was originally broadcast by RTE.

Since posting this, I have learned of the death of Ray Stagles, a fellow Englishman who was passionate about the Blaskets. He was a friend, a mentor and a great support when I was writing the book and I will always remember him as a gentleman and a scholar.


Listening to Henry Allingham, the boy who saw the Somme from the air: “Those were my pals.”

Henry Allingham saw WG Grace bat. He saw the battle of the Somme from the air in an aircraft made of wood, cloth and wire. He was the oldest man in the country when I met him in 2007 and he lived to be the oldest man in the world, dying just over a year later at 113. I publish this edited version of my story from The Independent today, the centenary of the start of the Somme, in honour of the boys who were lost. They were still boys in his eyes and always will be. 

Henry is a very, very old boy indeed. Nearly a century has passed since he flew over the trenches of the Somme in the back seat of an aircraft. The pilot was hit by rifle fire from below and began to pass out. The ground came up fast but Henry survived the crash landing. He knew he had to haul his friend out of the cockpit before the engine fumes caught fire and they were both burned alive. He had seen that happen to other people.

“Bunny Edwards!” he shouts suddenly, startling the only other resident in the lounge. That was the pilot’s name. “Beautiful swimmer,” says Henry. His milky, half-blind eyes are weepy. “I pulled him out of that plane. He had a bullet in the groin.”

Continue reading “Listening to Henry Allingham, the boy who saw the Somme from the air: “Those were my pals.””

“When they talk about the war, will they remember me?” A last interview with the remarkable Dame Vera Lynn

Softly, with a voice that is still clear after all these years, Dame Vera Lynn begins to sing. “For a little bit of heaven fell, from out the sky one day …”

She is 97 now and rather frail, the light from the window making a halo of her finespun white hair. But some of the old strength returns as she duets with her younger self. Every word is right, even though this recording was never released and she is hearing it for the first time in 70 years. Back then, Vera Lynn was the “Forces’ Sweetheart”: the girl with the bright smile whose songs kept the home fires burning.

When the song was recorded in 1944, she was about to go on a dangerous mission: to sing to “the boys” on the front line in the jungles of Burma. “I reminded them of their sisters, their sweethearts and their wives they had left behind, and what they were fighting for,” she says when it is over. Continue reading ““When they talk about the war, will they remember me?” A last interview with the remarkable Dame Vera Lynn”