Just an illusion

This article is from 2007

Forget Paul Daniels. Get out of here David Copperfield. Allan Radcliffe meets the new breed of magicians who are more likely to dissect a rabbit than pull one out of a hat

Ask most people what they think of magic, and you’re likely to be greeted with snorts of derision. The British public’s perception of stage magic is still recovering from the glitter-festooned nightmare of spinning plates and disappearing rabbits that was The Paul Daniels Show, whose prolonged run coincided with the rise and fall of a certain unmissed female Prime Minister. When David Blaine spent 44 days suspended in a Perspex box near London’s Tower Bridge, the American illusionist’s temporary home was regularly pelted with eggs, golf balls and paint bombs.

Cut to 2007 and the bickering panel on recent ITV variety car crash Britain’s Got Talent were icily unanimous in their hatred of magic. The patronising triumvirate proceeded to gong off the tawdry parade of second-rate conjurers who had the effrontery to dream of a date with her Madge. ‘Audiences have moved on,’ says Pete Firman, the gifted young magician whose irreverent Channel 4 series Dirty Tricks thrills and appals with foul language and scenes of ritual killing. ‘I just wonder what producing silk hankies from a sparkly box means to my generation. If I eat a packet of lit cigarettes or blend up a mouse, that’s something that you can’t really watch passively. You’re either disgusted or engrossed but you’re involved.’
While magic has performed its own vanishing trick from prime-time British television, the art of entertaining audiences with seemingly impossible feats continues to enjoy a robust live following around the world. As Firman suggests, magic performance is reinventing itself to accommodate sophisticated contemporary tastes, with great success. The elaborate, large-scale illusions of Penn & Teller, David Copperfield, and Siegfried & Roy are a lucrative mainstay of Las Vegas hotels, while UK audiences are in thrall to the psychological mind control and showmanship of Derren Brown, whose Something Wicked this Way Comes tour rapidly sold out. This rebranding and updating of magic has trickled down through the spit and sawdust clubs and cabaret bars all the way to the ‘hit and run’ impromptu thrills of street magic.

While the Edinburgh Fringe programme regularly features magic, illusion and hypnotism, performers tend to play up the incidental aspects of their acts, perhaps fearing that the threat of a man in a top hat attempting to saw his scantily clad assistant in half would be considered something of a turn-off. The notorious Jim Rose Circus Sideshow relied heavily on shock tactics for its appeal, with performers dangling heavy weights from body piercings. In recent years, outrageous stand-up and acclaimed magician Jerry Sadowitz has successfully performed to intimate audiences of around 30 people, though his skilled card tricks and sleight of hand have been liberally interspersed with his trademark angry, close-to-the-knuckle humour.
Edinburgh-based magician Ian Kendall, a veteran of 16 years performing at the Fringe, including spots at the notorious late-night Bear Pit, strives in his cabaret set to walk the precarious tightrope between finely-honed magic and sustained comedy. Kendall regularly battles entrenched prejudice against magic when promoting his show around the capital in August, but generally succeeds in converting the cynics to his cause. ‘People’s natural state is astonishment,’ he says. ‘If you don’t believe that then just look at any two-year-old. It’s only when we get older that we become cynical about mysteries and puzzles and things that don’t make sense to our eyes. When people get over the fact that magic involves a kind of puzzle they quite like being returned to that childish state of amazement.’

Pete Firman argues that the injection of comedy into so many magic acts has come about for practical reasons rather than as a means of duping audiences into seeing something they would rather run a mile from. ‘When I started out as a magician I would try to inject humour into my act. Later, when I was looking around for a venue where I could perform regularly it struck me that the best and most accessible place was a comedy club.’

The fact remains that the most successful performers in the field are those that have moved the art of illusion to new extremes. For all the ridicule tossed at him, David Blaine’s stunts like the ‘Premature Burial’ and ‘Frozen in Time’ generate column inches. Derren Brown scored a huge talking point when he performed Russian roulette live on Channel 4. Meanwhile, Canadian hypnotist Tony Lee, whose world-renowned act XXX: Aggressive Comedy Hypnosis is coming to the Fringe, has delivered more than 5000 performances to a hungry fanbase in a 22-year career.
‘We have found our show has mass appeal between the ages of 16–35,’ says Lee. ‘That doesn’t mean the older generation can’t enjoy it, they are often more twisted in their sense of humour. My conclusion is there is a little pervert in all of us.’ Lee vociferously refutes any suggestion of the supernatural in his act, arguing that hypnosis is rationally explained by science but whatever his methods, he succeeds in compelling volunteers to perform eye-wateringly embarrassing and ridiculous acts. ‘We have worked with athletes and medical associations to create positive awareness in the benefits of hypnotism,’ he says. ‘But I find making people orgasm and mating with various objects way more entertaining.’

Despite the best efforts of this new generation of entertainers to reinvent magic and illusion for a contemporary audience, the ancient art’s naff image is unlikely to dissipate completely any time soon. ‘I would always introduce myself as a magician,’ says Firman. ‘Unless I’m applying for something on the phone like a credit card in which case I’ll say I’m a comedian. Strangely enough that doesn’t get the embarrassed laughter that magician often gets.’

Pete Firman, Underbelly, 0870 745 3083, 4–26 Aug (not 14), 7pm, £9.50–£10.50 (£8–£9). Previews 2 & 3 Aug, £5; Ian Kendall’s Magic Show, the Zoo, 662 6892, 3–18 Aug, 8.50pm, £8; Tony Lee, UdderBELLY’s Pasture, 0870 745 3083, 4–27 Aug (not 14), 11.30pm, £11.50–£13.50 (£10–£12). Previews 2 & 3 Aug, £6; Jerry Sadowitz, UdderBELLY’s Pasture, 0870 745 3083, 4–27 Aug (not 14), 8.50pm, £12.50–£14.50. Previews 2 & 3 Aug, £8.

Pete Firman

  • 4 stars

Entertainment from the comedian and magician, star of BBC 1's Magicians, bringing together weird tricks and a cocky performance.

Ian Kendall: An Afternoon of Magic

Seasoned Edinburgh magician and fringe regular who pulls the odd joke out of the hat. Ages 7+.

Tony Lee

  • 3 stars

Lee brings his global comedy magic phenomenon to Edinburgh with 'Agressive Comedy Hypnotism', with sometimes disturbing consequences. 'Part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2007'.

Jerry Sadowitz: Comedian, Musician, Psychopath

  • 4 stars

Brushing aside his reputation for the offensive, Sadowitz is also an amazing magician and King of the sleight-of-hand. Over 18s. 'Part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2007'.