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lamontI do a number of talks; but there is only one that contains no magic references whatsoever.  And yet this is probably my best.

I was pondering why this might be so whilst simultaneously re-reading Peter Lamont's very entertaining book on the history of the infamous Indian Rope trick, called The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick: A Biography of a Legend.  It is a great story and told in an amusing style by Peter.  I thoroughly recommend it.

There were numerous explanations how the Indian Rope trick might be accomplished, ranging from mass hypnosis to wires stretched across the top of trees.  Peter's style is such that whilst relating these possible solutions, he is sending them up as being clearly ridiculous in their proposed methods.

understandingIt made me think, though, whether somebody who has no prior knowledge of magic would necessarily be in on the joke.  I suspect that average Jo-Public would have no idea whether mass hypnosis might be possible (after all, isn't that how extreme religious leaders hold their sway over their followers?)   Similarly, when it comes to magic methods generally, most lay people haven't got a first clue how a trick is done; and will believe any hogwash, provided it is dished up in a convincing manner.  Wires stretched across tall trees sounds eminently plausible.

The problem is that once you are well-versed in magic, it is very hard to somehow put yourself back in the minds of lay people.  So when I do magic related talks, I slip in phrases like 'sleight of hand', 'illusions', 'method' and 'effect', assuming that audiences know what I am talking about.  But the chances are they don't; or, if they do, they have a completely different understanding of the meaning.

gillrayMy most successful presentation is on James Gillray, arguably the first ever political cartoonist.  Three years ago I knew nothing about the subject matter.  So in my talk I try to answer all the questions which I asked myself when I started researching the subject.  I therefore don't have to guess at the audience's potential lack of knowledge: I can remember vividly when I shared the same ignorance.  And that, I suspect, is part of the reason why it is my number one lecture.

I am not sure what the lesson is from all of this.  Perhaps just the simple conclusion that when talking magic terminology with non-magicians, try and make sure you are both on the same page.

acting magiciansDuring the summer months The Magic Circle, rather than having a lecture or show, attempts something a little different.  It often brings in performers who are not magicians but can bring other abilities to the table.  This year there was a very inspiring drama teacher who wanted to show how some of his skills could be applied to magic.

I always find it rather fascinating how many people want to try and make magic somehow a subset of acting generally.  Being a magician, it is argued, is like being an actor playing the part of a magician. 

Except it isn't.

Firstly, magicians break the fourth wall, which actors don't; secondly, magicians are normally playing themselves, whilst actors are impersonating somebody else; thirdly, magicians write their own scripts, whilst actors use those written by other people.

pollockThat is not to say that some of the skills that actors use can't be utilised by magicians; but I'm yet to be convinced that going to drama school or attending improvisation classes can somehow enhance your abilities as a magician.  As far as I'm aware, the likes of Dynamo, Derren Brown, Paul Daniels and Tommy Cooper never had an acting lesson in their life.

It also works the other way around; there is no great magician who has succeeded in becoming a great actor.  The best example of somebody attempting this is perhaps Channing Pollock, in his time - and still today - considered to be one of the greatest magicians of them all.  He deliberately gave up magic (he famously gave his act to his London chauffeur) to pursue a career as an actor - but with very limited commercial or critical success.

goshmanAll of this offers no disrespect to the drama teacher who made some excellent points in his presentation. Interestingly his most significant conclusion was that what both acting and magic have in common is that what you need to bring to the table is 'yourself'. 

But then we knew that already; "the magic" as Albert Goshman used to say, "is you".

magic squareWith Edinburgh Festival fast approaching, ones sympathies turn to those performers hastily putting last minute touches to what many will hope be career changing shows. I only ever did Edinburgh once (back in 1992 if you must ask) and can't really see myself doing it again. To some extent it is a young person's game.

So for that reason I particularly admire performers of my own age who are still prepared to venture North and face the potential lack of audiences attending, coupled with the inevitable indifference of ignorant reviewers.

One such brave soul is Ian Saville, who takes his show Revolution in the Magic Square up there this year. This week I saw its first outing. Sometimes the fates and times work kindly for us - and for Ian, who calls himself a 'Socialist Magician' - this deserves to be his moment.

die boxThe conceit of the show is that Ian has just become President of The Magic Square (any resemblance to The Magic Circle is purely coincidental) but his election was both unexpected and greeted with dismay by many. As a magician he feels he can defeat the untrustworthy 'Spiritualists' in a popular TV talent show, but there are dissenters in his own ranks determined to replace him with a Welsh outsider, precipitated by his unenthusiastic support of the International Guild of Magicians - which The Magic Square has just left, following a referendum of its members.

Hopefully by now you will have clocked the analogy with the predicaments of the Labour Party; and Ian embraces the similarities with relish. The empty Die Box is a perfect representation of the depleted shadow cabinet; whilst the eponymous Magic Square becomes symbolic (with the allied arts assisting him) of his initial election to President. 

corbynWhat gives it even more verisimilitude is that Ian could himself be mistaken for Jeremy Corbyn (audiences will probably assume he deliberately grew a beard for the show); and Ian amusingly blurs his own persona with that of the Labour leader. At one point he states that he had been accused of being anti-Semitic by some of his magical detractors. "How can I be?", he queries, "I'm Jewish myself." Which Ian indeed is.

Throughout Ian maintains a balance of self-deprecation and gentle send-up; his trademark ventriloquism with Karl Marx (now his rather exasperated political advisor) makes a welcome return; and there is a hilarious sequence (reminiscent of Tommy Cooper's routine of changing hats) with a vent dummy representing the right and left of the Labour Party arguing with each other. 

Ian would be the first to admit that his magic is not of the highest quality (although certainly good enough to puzzle and entertain the lay person). But in this case that is part of the charm of the show. Somehow it nicely mirrors the perceived incompetence of Corbyn as Labour leader. 

All in all thoroughly recommended if you are going up to Edinburgh this year.  Catch Ian at The Theatre Arts Exchange, from 6th to 14th, and 16th to 21st August: details and tickets here.  Guaranteed to remain topical - at least until September 24th!  

British MuseumIn some respects research for academic purposes has similarities to attempting to recreate a new magic routine. You begin with what has been done before, reading all the relevant journals and papers. And then see how that can be moulded to your own specific area of interest. Occasionally you have that eureka moment - in a routine it might be a funny line or honing a sleight. With research it is uncovering something pertinent to the topic you are investigating. 

And then, of course, you have your dead ends. In magic this often comes out in performance; a bit of subtlety or misdirection that seemed cast iron in the comfort of your own room, emerges as fatally flawed in front of real people. Fortunately in academic research the wrong turning is not quite so public.

british libraryI have recently been investigating the perpetuator of an 18th century conjuring hoax; trying to determine when the prime suspect was first fingered in print as the culprit. The closest I could get to was some 30 years after the event. 

As quite a lot of research has been done on this topic, I wasn't confident about finding anything new. However I came across the write up of a print in a catalogue about the hoax which specifically referenced the scam artist. The print also, in passing, mentions a famous general, a brothel owner, a Roman physician and the second son of George II. But these were all very tangential connections 

What was potentially exciting was that the citation was extremely obscure - it just said "memoirs" (p.c. 21 a). The Wellcome Library couldn't help me, nor could the British Museum, despite owning the print and also having compiled the catalogue. I was advised to try the British Library, so that was my next port of call.

brothelThe general Reading Room librarian was stumped - and said my only hope was a curator from the Rare Books department. The man there recognised the initials 'p.c'. as meaning 'private case' - these were documents kept locked away in the old British Library housed at the British Museum, as they were considered too controversial for public viewing. My excitement level was rising. Perhaps I was finding something that hadn't been checked out for many a long year - a paper that both emininet historians Eddie Dawes and Ricky Jay (who had both also done research on this hoax) had overlooked.

Unfortunately, explained the helpful curator, the citation was now no longer used; private cases had been re-indexed quite a few years ago. It would take him sometime to track where the relevant memoirs were. Leave it with him, he said, and he would email me when he had discovered more.

Yesterday I received his email. He had found the new shelf number and could tell me the title of the private case.  It was the "memoirs' of the brothel owner!

fooled youSo nothing to do with my suspect and, in any event, the memoirs had been written 25 years before the hoax even took place.  Given the subject matter, it was clear now why they were considered (at one time) to be of a sensitive nature. 

Although it was indeed a dead end, I couldn't help be amused by the thought of the compiler of the catalogue lasciviously reading these scandalous memoirs in the name of 'research' - knowing full well they had nothing to do with the subject matter he was writing about.  Perhaps the citation had been deliberately obscure (his own idea of a hoax), so as to provoke a future reader into a wild-goose chase.

stand upThere was  a recent posting on The Magic Circle Facebook page asking for your favourite line: most of the results posted weren't in fact lines at all, they were jokes. The difference was made in my Stand-Up book on comedy magic and I think is an important one that bears repetition. 

A joke is a gag that stands on its own - entirely self-contained.  A line, however, only works in the context of what has happened either before or during its utterance. Lines are particularly useful to magicians because they can refer to a prop that they might be showing or in response to something that a participatory audience member might have said. 

That is not to say there isn't a place for jokes in magic acts; but the comedy magicians I admire most tend to be those who have very few jokes 'per se'. An advantage of lines is that they are much harder to copy, because you need to be doing something, or speaking directly to somebody, in order for them to work.  They can't be told at any time or any situation, unlike jokes. 

lectureI find that the use of lines is just as applicable in presenting illustrated talks as it is to magic.  In my case the line only works because of the image I have projected on the screen; without that being present, there would be no laugh.

chilcotUnfortunately two of my funniest lecture lines have become redundant because of recent political events.  I used to say that the verdict was still out on how good the first Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole was (having displayed his image) - we are still waiting for Ye Olde Enquiry conducted by Sir John Chilcottee. With the Chilcot enquiry now published, that no longer works.

Secondly, I talk about British magicians boycotting an Austrian conjurer's show when he was performing in London in the 1840s, worried that he might be taking their jobs.  They called themselves the United Kingdom's Incensed Prestidigitators - or UKIP for short.  With our exit from the EU, and Farage's resignation, that is also probably a goner.

Ah well, back to the drawing board or, in my case, the lecture lectern.  

jamie raven blog"In case you don't know who I am...", said Jamie Raven, soon after walking on stage; he then proceeded to give us his CV to date.  As prior to that we had just seen a three minute video featuring highlights of Jamie's meteoric rise since he came second to a "three legged dog" on Britain's Got Talent, you would have had to have been brain dead not to have twigged who he was.  But that seemingly modest demeanour is part of the reason for Jamie's success. "Likeable" and "nice" are the epithets that are most commonly often said about him; and Jamie does all he can to reinforce that stereotype.

"My name is Jamie",  he must have said half a dozen times to different people who helped him out, before asking their own name.  Afterwards they were profusely thanked - many of them hugged and kissed - for their assistance.  Nobody on stage was ever embarrassed or made to look demeaning (leaving aside a girl's father having his head sawn off). Two children were given gifts (admittedly they were gifts that were also on sale, but let us not be ungracious); a man won a five pound note (although he did lose out on a cheque for fifteen thousand pounds, to make him feel good about his choice of envelope).  And of course we, as the paying punters, were told what "an absolute pleasure" it was for Jamie to have a chance to entertain us.

Although this personable demeanour might seem to be a minor point, it is not necessarily a quality you automatically see in the majority of magicians. So it is certainly not something to be scoffed at, even if, at times, Jamie comes close to being obsequious. Perversely, though, along with Jamie's 'niceness' is a continual reminder of just how good he is.  Besides the pre-show, over-hyped video, there were plenty of newspaper headlines, photos and film clips that were displayed on the screen during the two halves to reinforce his newly acquired fame - not to mention his own statement that he had "headlined" (alongside the likes of Kevin James and David Williamson, although that was not mentioned) a record breaking West End theatre run.

jamie raven ticket blogJudged on the quality of magic that Jamie does in this show, I'm not sure if all the self reassuring back-slapping is wholly necessary.  Perhaps he can't really believe he has had this amazing break; and has to keep reminding himself how he is now playing sold-out theatres - when a year ago he was, like the rest of us, just another jobbing magician.

For, make no mistake, Jamie is a good magician. Most of what he does is well executed and technically proficient and he definitely has 'the chops'. He is articulate and his explanations of what he is about to do, so the audience can easily follow along, is clear cut. The tricks he did comprised strong magic and there were many gasps throughout from the appreciative audience.

His background as a close-up magician meant that Jamie was most confident with 'smaller' magic.  Thanks to the now accepted presence of a cameraman on stage together with the huge screen at the back, such tricks play just as well - sometimes even better - than traditional stage tricks.  It has long been realised that on television producing a mouse can be as impressive as vanishing the Statute of Liberty; and now, in a large theatre, a card transposition can garner as much reaction as levitating a small child. 

It was therefore no surprise that the camera was a constant presence; nor that there was continuous underlying music both to build up the tension, raise expectations and cover any dull bouts of procedural instructions, of which there was a fair amount, in a number of the stage tricks.

jamie raven paper blogGiven the available technology, it did seem strange that in demonstrating the tricks with which he earned his living for many a year, Jamie should choose to do them in the aisle, rather than on the stage itself.  The decision was probably made because he wanted to perform them exactly as he used to; and misdirection is rather easier in the middle of the audience, where the camera can decide where we should look, than in the glaring spotlight of a stage. The sequence of various card tricks - finishing with card in mouth - fork bending and ring on car keys and nest of wallets, was seemingly made at the same pace and, I presume, presentation, as he used to do at his table-hopping gigs.

For Jamie's choice of repertoire outside close-up, all the remaining  genres were covered: mind reading, card tricks, illusion and general magic.  The tricks were done with children, with male and female helpers, with both single and many volunteers.  There was also a rather anonymous stage assistant who participated in the 'Cardboard Box of Death' illusion.  Jamie's self-effacement didn't extend to giving his male helper much credit; possibly a mistake that he paid for - as we knew nothing about him, we didn't really care that he was potentially going to be impaled with wooden sticks. 

Out of all of his tricks, it is difficult to pick any that especially stood out.  Most magicians have one or two that sum up their style or personality or that they have indelibly stamped their mark on. Perhaps it is too early in Jamie's career to expect it.  But his present choices seem to be derivative, inspired by those done by other performers.

So his opening trick was a variation on John Archer's - the 'Yours Mine' envelope choice; there was an iPhone to an impossible location, reminiscent of Dynamo; a long winded, multiple coincidence routine, involving five spectators and numerous choices, which very much brought to mind Derren Brown; the McDonald's Aces direct to camera used to be featured by David Copperfield; and the Cardboard Sword Box Illusion is presently performed by Young and Strange in a show which has also been recently touring.

I should stress that Jamie is not doing anything unethical here; the tricks are often very different, both in method and presentation. But you do regret that he and his team could not have been slightly more innovative in their selection.

If asked, Jamie, I suspect, would probably say that Card-Toon was his signature piece, as it was with this trick that he initially made his name. But the idea of presenting it as a stage effect didn't originate with him. And on this particular night it was all rather too speedily done (following the extended choice of the card, with the inevitable chucking around of a ball) and the filming of it was poorly executed; so that it was in the end, particularly after another over-the-top build-up, rather an anti-climax.

Jamie's script was essentially, perhaps as one might anticipate, descriptive and instructional. There were some deliberately funny remarks but few lines that could be considered 'character' based or especially original.  Even when Jamie was trying to give a little more of himself, it didn't really ring true.  The idea that he was fascinated by coincidences was unconvincing, despite the regurgitation of facts relating to Abraham Lincoln and John F Kennedy.  Whilst the occasional attempts at sentimentality and his love of doing magic with everyday objects appeared contrived.  British magicians really can't pull this sort of stuff off - unless they are deliberately sending it up. 

Sometimes you do see what is perhaps Jamie revealing his true colours (the cheeky character?) with a line slightly insulting a spectator - but it is instantly followed by a reassuring "only kidding" in case anyone should take offence.  For part of one sequence he had to pretend that a man was getting on his nerves.  But his own nerve failed him and he only said it once, and quickly apologised - a more experienced comedy magician would have turned that into a running gag.

It was unintentionally amusing that when Jamie attempted to be 'right on' by telling us that he liked to tell men, who said to him "can you make my wife disappear", if you carry on with that attitude they will vanish of their own freewill, the audience looked rather bewildered.  You could almost hear them thinking that that was a bit cutting from our nice Jamie. 

Smart lines is not what the Raven-fans have come out to see.  They don't want to hear anything other than that what you would expect from the polite young man who participated in the three rounds of BGT. He created his new persona for twelve minutes of career-changing television and, at least for the time being, he is now stuck with it. 

At one point in the show, Jamie said, for no very obvious reason, "this is a trick that Paul Daniels used to do five hundred years ago". It didn't get much of a reaction but that is not surprising given that most of the audience had probably never heard of Paul Daniels, yet alone seen him. In one sense Jamie was right though: his magic, today's magic, is far away from what Paul Daniels used to epitomise.  Back then the emphasis was as much on the comedy as the magic; now it is all about magic and more magic. 

In my view something is lost as a result; to be blunt, it is easier to succeed by just working on the 'tricks', rather than having to work on an interesting character.  It is easier for the 'okay', rather than the 'outstanding', to rise to the top. And instead of magicians with 'attitude', you have 'blandness'.  The truth is, back in Daniels's day, Jamie would not have got a look in. But that day has long gone.  The younger generation of magicians should make the most of it.  Jamie Raven (and now Richard Jones) should be an inspiration to you all; get that BGT - or equivalent - break, be nice, choose your tricks well to suit the format and you, too, might make it.

I was talking not so long ago to an extremely successful magician who works the same circuit as Jamie used to do. "Give it couple of years", he said, "and he'll be back doing our gigs again". On the basis of the present magic zeitgeist, and the enthusiasm of the audience that I observed at this show, I wouldn't be so sure. 

We have all had terrible gigs in our time.  And of course it is not just magicians who face such horrors.  Here is a friend of mine describing a talk she recently co-presented, all in her own words.

Tom JonesWhen we arrived to set up, a group of about 30 very elderly people were sitting around eating lunch.  A smell of school dinner cooked vegetables pervaded the large, echoey hall and soon stuck to our clothes and hair.

The booker was nowhere to be seen; instead we were greeted by a loudly spoken Polish carer who buoyantly asked if we'd brought microphones; we hadn't, so she warned us we would need to shout.

Tom Jones Greatest Hits was trying to make itself heard on a small, inadequate portable CD player.  We had to move it to set up our equipment and the CD stopped abruptly and we had trouble getting it to work again.

footballLunch was cleared away and we were invited to start.  One of the bus drivers then appeared and began asking in a loud voice, who would like to go and watch the first half of the football in the pub across the road.  Several people stirred.  "It's Wales England, come on, we can be back in half an hour".  A handful of elderly gents shuffled off with him.  I looked at my colleague; I could tell he wasn't best pleased. 

asleepSo I began telling my stories and giving some background but within seconds, at least four people were asleep.  One of the kitchen staff then emerged and began walking amongst the group, saying goodbye and having chats with various people.  It was like we had suddenly become invisible.  I carried on regardless even though some of the sleepers now resembled corpses, their mouths wide and heads back.

After a while, a couple of elderly Indian ladies shuffled off.  Then a group of kitchen staff sat at the back and began having a private conversation in loud voices.  My colleague fast forwarded the video, no-one was really listening, no-one would notice.  We finished 15 minutes early and invited questions.  Blank faces greeted us (those that remained awake).  We packed up, put Tom Jones back on and left. 

Will GoldstonAs far as I am aware Will Goldston was the first person who stated that Charles Dickens had written the article 'Out-Conjuring Conjurors', a review of Robert-Houdin's autobiography, which appeared in his journal Household Words in April 1859. He did this when he reproduced the article in Goldston's Magical Quarterly in 1934. This incorrect claim was subsequently repeated by many other magic historians, as set out in my book Charles Dickens Magician.

Will Goldston was the leading magic dealer and authority on magic in the early 20th century; by all accounts an extremely successful businessman and a pillar of society. However a talk at The Magic History Gathering at The Magic Circle this Saturday by Fergus Roy (from the Davenport family) revealed that both his public, and private life, were rather more intriguing than was previously thought. 

magic quarterlyIt turned out that, although he was respectfully married, his wife had previously had an illegitimate daughter. And then, later on, he himself had a son by his mistress. During the weekdays he lived in London with his wife, where his work was; and during the weekend he was with his mistress and son in Folkestone. Fergus Roy only managed to uncover the existence of the son because the latter wanted to join the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. The original birth certificate did not state who the father was. But the authorities needed that information to allow the young man to serve his country. Tragically he was killed before the war finished.

davenportsAnother of Goldston's juggling acts for many years was that he was declared bankrupt - part of the reason undoubtedly due to the fact that he was having to pay for two households. With the connivance of the administrator, this information was kept from public view - otherwise his livelihood would have been ruined. It was clearly successful as his numerous business ventures - which not only included dealing in magic and writing magic books, but also embraced performing and managing other acts - continued to the end of his life.

His final magic trick was his will; where he left much of his property to his wife - but only in trust.  On her death it would pass to his mistress. As she was many years younger, he calculated that his real love would eventually inherit the bulk of his wealth; this is indeed what happened. The poignant end to this talk (one of the best that I have heard at this day, combining great detective work with a passionate delivery) was that neither his wife nor his mistress spent much money on his gravestone.

hobson egg bagHaving worked relatively slowly up to this point, Daniels now performs swiftly, matching actions with words: “If the ball was in my left hand, then it can’t be here.  If it wasn’t in the left hand, then it would be there; if it’s up there, it can’t be down here.  If it’s in the pocket, it can’t be there….”  Whilst he is saying this, the ball is jumping unexpectedly from under the cup to his pocket and back again.  It is visual magic and so slickly done that it cannot help but amuse and entertain everybody.  Daniels then repeats part of that sequence as a “television action replay”, both performing and speaking in slow motion.  This, again, is very funny.  It is noteworthy that Jeff Hobson uses the same conceit in his Egg Bag routine: and with equal effect.

Daniels changes the pace again and turns his attention back to Richard.  “Where’s the ball?  I take it out and put it in my pocket.  Where is it now?”  If Daniels had stopped at this question, then there would have been a danger of the trick losing its momentum.  He has already asked Richard “where is the ball?” and Richard got it wrong.  So the audience assume he will get it wrong again, especially as we have just seen Daniels do some unbelievably slick work with the ball and cup.  However what Daniels actually says is: “Where is it now – for fifty quid?”  The audience is intrigued: just possibly Richard might guess right now and win fifty pounds.

fiftyIt is also an example of a closed question.  Richard replies: “Under the cup”.  “Wrong”, replies Daniels, “it’s in the pocket.”  However if Richard had responded with: “In the pocket”, Daniels would come back with “wrong, it’s under the cup.”  The answer in itself is not necessarily funny to the audience – they instinctively knew that Daniels would win and their sympathies are probably more with Richard.  So Daniels continues: “If you had said it was in the pocket, I would have said ‘wrong’, it’s under the cup” (or vice versa, depending how Richard had initially answered).  Now the laugh comes – with the realisation that whatever Richard had said, he would definitely have lost. 

Once again Daniels adroitly changes tack.  He offers to teach Richard the trick.  This, again, engages the rest of the audience: because clearly they are going to learn too.  Daniels now asks the third basic question: “What do you do for a living?”  Again there is a reason for it, as we are about to discover.  Richard replies he is a teacher.  Daniels comes back with his standard response: “Give that up, son, give teaching up.  Get a cup.  You can make a lot of money with this.  I’ve only been up here a few minutes and you owe me fifty quid.” 

orangeAgain a huge laugh, not just because he has incorporated Richard’s profession into the gag; but more particularly because he has reminded Richard that he owes him fifty pounds.  If Daniels had demanded his money straightway after Richard had guessed wrong, it would not have been especially amusing.  But asking Richard what his job is has made the audience temporarily forget about the wager.  The call back reference to the debt owed hits the funny bone.

Daniels then goes into a rather absurd cod explanation of how the trick works: which in itself is funny, as it is clearly nonsense.  Under the misdirection of that patter, he loads the lemon.  And on revealing the lemon, loads again.  The routine ends with great visual magic combined with the perfect applause getter closing line: “If you liked that, you’ll go mad over the orange.”

fifty tricksAs has been stressed, the danger of analysing a routine in this manner might somehow suggest that Daniels deliberately designed the trick from the outset in this fashion.  My suspicion is that the trick only gradually evolved into the finished product: that is, he added, cut and substituted lines and bits of business over many performances.  It is most unlikely that Daniels ever sat down during the course of its construction and rationalised why it was working, or not working, in the manner that I have done. 

A little after I wrote that last paragraph, Daniels’ Chop Cup routine was featured on a British television programme called The Fifty Greatest Magic Tricks.  Interviewed all too briefly about the trick Daniels said: “That took a lot of shows.  That was an incredibly long process.  I was doing a lot of working mens clubs and I guess I did about close to 300 performances before I came home one night and went ‘yes, that’s it – that’s right’.”  It is some comfort to know that my instinct was correct and that great routines do take a considerable period to mature: they rarely, if ever, spring fully formed over night.

stand upDuring these posts I have commented that in my view Paul Daniels' Chop Cup was the best cabaret trick I had ever seen.  When I wrote my book Stand-Up: A Professional Guide to Comedy Magic, back in 2008 I tried to justify this assertion by doing a full analysis of the trick - with reference to various techniques that I mention in the book.  However, on sending it for approval to Paul, he very reasonably didn't want it included: as he intended at some point to talk about, or write up, the trick in depth himself.  I therefore with-held it.

However I thought it might be of interest, so am now reproducing what I sent to Paul over the course of a couple of posts.  Even if you don't have a copy of my book to refer to, I hope it will make sense.

If I had to choose only one trick by one performer as being the perfect stand-up routine, then I would select one that uses an assistant sitting in the audience.  It is Paul Daniels’ Chop Cup.  It is worth analysing in detail, not just for Daniels’ brilliant use of the assistant; but also for the manner in which he uses many of the principles that have been discussed in previous chapters.

don alanThe Chop Cup is a single cup variation on the Cups and Balls and was invented by Al Wheatley.  It was first popularised by Don Alan and quickly became, and still is, a classic close-up trick.  As far as I am aware it was Paul Daniels who first performed it with success to larger audiences: and if he was not, he has certainly stamped an indelible mark on it.  The Chop Cup is certainly not a trick that instantly suggests itself as a stand-up item.  You require a table; the props themselves are relatively small; and the angles, particularly on the final loads, can be tough.

Daniels begins by engaging somebody’s attention in the audience and asking for their name and where they are from (“Richard from Hastings”).  He then takes out his Chop Cup and places it on his table.  He asks Richard if he knows what it is?  Richard replies “a beaker”.  Paul responds with: “A beaker it may well be in Hastings; but from where we come it’s an aluminium cup, lad”.  This is an absolutely brilliant line that just on its own deserves further scrutiny.

  • You will notice that prior to this, Daniels has asked his assistant two out of the three basic questions: his name and where he is from.  He discovers that Richard is from Hastings, which is a town in the South of England.  Paul Daniels comes from the North, as big a contrast as you are likely to get in terms of culture and geographical location.  Straightway he incorporates where Richard lives to make the line even funnier.

  • Asking his assistant what is the Chop Cup is a classic standard response question.  Although Daniels does not know exactly how he is going to reply – Richard could say bowl, goblet, chalice, beaker or even cup - he can be virtually certain that he will not respond with “aluminium cup”.  And even if he does say this, Daniels will still be covered: the way Daniels pronounces ‘cup’ (more like ‘coup’) is very different to how a Southerner would say it.

  • It is a perfect character-situation line, telling us so much about Daniels.  It demonstrates that he is quick witted and therefore always likely to get one over his assistant; he is from the North and proud of his roots (seen by his pronunciation of the word ‘cup’ and the use of the word ‘lad’); and, above all, he is funny without causing any possible offence.  All in all it would be virtually impossible to imagine any other magician getting anything like the mileage that Daniels extracts from this single line. 

cupDaniels then introduces the Chop Cup ball and tells Richard to “follow the antics of this, a little white ball.”  Having done a few quick moves he leaves the ball on top of the inverted cup: the line that is to follow is another example of a standard response question.  “Richard, where is the ball?”  Richard replies: “On top of the aluminium cup”.  In this performance this is even more of a perfect answer for Daniels than the usual “on top of the cup”. 

Richard thinks he has now got one over Daniels by stressing the word “aluminium”. This, though, is mere verbal misdirection on Daniels’s part – he has moved on from what  type of cup it is.  Back comes Daniels with: “Wrong – it’s on the bottom: the cup is upside down.”  Having got a mega laugh with that line, he then follows it up with a perfect topping gag: “Perhaps my speed is baffling you”.  As Daniels is doing absolutely nothing at that point, this makes the line doubly funny.

[To be continued]

sh societyLast week I did a performance for the Sherlock Holmes Society in which I touched upon Sir Arthur Conan's Doyle rather naive belief in Spiritualism.  I thought therefore I would repeat an anecdote which I recounted in one of my Dickens's newsletters back in May, 2013. 

At one of his later séances, Conan Doyle claimed to have communicated with the spirit of Charles Dickens.  The séance was conducted by the double handed act of Florizel von Reuter and his mother.  Apparently she would point so rapidly to letters on the Ouija board that it was impossible to follow what was spelt out: fortunately her son was on hand to write the words down!

florizel von reuterConan Doyle reported the encounter in a chapter titled 'The Alleged Posthumous Writings Of Known Authors' in his 1930 book The Edge of the Unknown (the year he died).  Conan Doyle was convinced it was the spirit of Charles Dickens because the latter revealed what had happened to Edwin Drood in Dickens's final, uncompleted book, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.  Drood was not, as the logical narrative of the book seems to suggest, murdered after all; but instead was hidden by another character in a large cupboard.

conan doyleConan Doyle was convinced of the truth of this - partly because Florizel claimed never to have read Edwin Drood, whilst his mother only had a “very vague memory” of it; and also because this was "a solution entirely new" to him.  He concluded that “this seems to me to be exceedingly important, both from a literary and from a psychic point of view”.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood was completed by a number of writers; although none of them came up with the ending which Conan Doyle thought came direct from the author's mouth.  A medium finished the book by channelling the spirit of Charles Dickens.  Dickens's son wrote that he had never read it but understood that it offered "sad proof of how quickly the faculties deteriorate after death".

paperback pickwickStephen Jarvis, the author of Death and Mr Pickwick, spent nearly a year trying to track down a missing, unpublished manuscript called The Life of Robert Seymour, which had mysteriously vanished in the 1920s; and which would have considerably helped him in his researches.  Having run up against one blind alley after another, he was persuaded by his brother to consult a professional psychic who worked with the police, to see if she could assist in finding the document.

During the consultation (which unfortunately failed to shed any light on the actual whereabouts of the manuscript), the psychic suddenly said "Who is Spencer?" This was a very significant name to Stephen, as Walter T Spencer was a man who had attempted to purchase the manuscript when it was put up for auction at Sotheby's in 1919 - but had been unable to pay the very high reserve price.  According to Stephen, only he really knew this fact, so it was, to quote him: "VERY weird for the psychic to say that name".

psychicMy explanation to Stephen was as follows:

"Asking a question such "Who is Spencer?" is a classic technique of a psychic. You will probably find she asked many such questions, but you forgot the others: you only remember the one that has some significance to you. Notice the vagueness of the question. She is not saying why Spencer might be of significance to you - she's asking you to make the connection. Most people when asked such a question would desperately search in their mind for anything vaguely related to a Spencer. Maybe they saw a film recently starring Spencer Tracey? Perhaps they were a big fan of Lady Di? Possibly they had a relative called Spencer? Whatever you come up with, the psychic will latch onto that and infer that is what she was thinking about when she asked the question. Occasionally they will strike lucky, which is clear she did in your case. If, at that point, you had given nothing away but said: "Yes, Spencer does mean something to me, can you tell me what?" she would have been flummoxed. But the natural response is to tell her why it is of significance and then she can enlarge on that (i.e. feedback to you what you've already told her).

spencer"If you had come back and said that Spencer meant nothing; either she will just forget about it and move on (in which case you will probably forget afterwards that she even asked the question) or she will make some vague statement like: "The name might have some meaning to you in the future". Then a few days later (or the next month, or the following year) you meet someone called Spencer (the fact that you meet myriads of other people with different names you conveniently forget about) - and give the psychic the credit for an amazing prediction."

Of course the other, far shorter and simpler, explanation - which is far easier to understand and agree with - is that the psychic was genuinely psychic!  

austin"Is magic an art?" is a question that is often asked.

Even if it is not, there is certainly art contained in The Magic Circle collection: and exceedingly valuable art too.  These are the tarot cards designed by an artist called Austin Osman Spare, who has recently received a huge surge of interest (and the commensurate value of his work) in recent years. 

tarotSpare came from a working class background and was hailed early on as an infant prodigy; but later in life fell into obscurity.  So much so, that he was forced to earn money by selling racing forecast cards.  The advertisements for these cards, it must be said, were very honest: they actually stated that as winning wasn't guaranteed through their use, the price of the cards were not that expensive.

He was born in 1886 and produced his tarot cards around 1906 - they passed into The Magic Circle collection in 1944, gifted by member and magician Herbert J Collings. Spare's other work that survives is very avant garde - a touch of surrealism, the grotesque, weird self-portrait and pop art.  It is, though, very striking and, at times, very sexually explicit.  Rumour has it that Hitler tried to get a portrait commissioned from Spare; but was turned down.  Hitler got his revenge when Spare's studio was bombed during the blitz and he lost some 200 paintings.  He died in 1956.


The Tarot cards are presently on display at the Camden Arts Centre in London; but only until 15th May.  And a book, edited by Jonathan Allen, titled Lost Envoy which reproduces Spare’s deck in its entirety, alongside commissioned texts, can be purchased here.  

death JarvisIn Death and Mr Pickwick by Stephen Jarvis, the author convincingly argues that Robert Seymour, the original illustrator for Pickwick Papers, actually had more to do with the creation and naming  of the characters and the initial storyline than he was given credit for by Charles Dickens.  One of my favourite pieces of evidence for this is in the preface which Dickens penned for a new edition of Pickwick in September 1847 (the original book was serialised in 1836-37). Here Dickens wrote: "My views being deferred to, I thought of Mr Pickwick and wrote the first number."

seymour"My views being deferred to" essentially means he over-ruled Seymour's ideas of how the story should proceed.  However it is the phrase "I thought of Mr Pickwick" which is rather ambiguously worded.  To quote from Death and Mr Pickwick: "Its apparent meaning was that he had created Mr Pickwick, but there was a buried meaning, to be called upon in an emergency, that he had 'thought of Mr Pickwick' in the same way as he might have remarked: 'I thought of my mother'. "  In other words, Dickens thought about the character of Pickwick that Seymour had created and drawn; and wrote the first number with that image in his mind - thereby indirectly admitting that he was very much influenced by Seymour.

dickens quarterlySo what is the correct interpretation of Dickens's carefully chosen phrase?  One way of resolving it was put forward in a review of Death and Mr Pickwick in the Dickens Quarterly published in March this year. Adam Abraham, the reviewer, argued that the preface could effectively be ignored (in using it as evidence for, or against Seymour's actual role) as "a preface is a paratext, rather like the elaborate Pickwick prospectus, published on 26 March 1836.’”

I must confess I hadn't come across the term 'paratext' before so had to look up the definition.  Apparently it is a concept in literary interpretation: it is material supplied by editors, printers and publishers which are outside the actual text itself (such as a précis of the book, notes about the author, cover design, end pages, footnotes) and therefore not necessarily endorsed by the author. 

So in other words, it would seem that this particular reviewer's way of assessing what Dickens had written in the preface, was to assume that Dickens hadn't actually written it.  Brilliant!

What is the legacy of Paul Daniels?  I think there are four principal ones.

Emil JarrowFirstly, I suspect he was the first magician in the UK who showed that it was possible to combine great magic with great comedy.  Now clearly there had been plenty of comedy magicians before Daniels - one thinks of names like Carlton, Fred Culpitt, David Nixon, Billy McComb; but Daniels was surely the first to achieve laughs on a level that a stand-up comedian might achieve whilst simultaneously performing superb magic.  Dai Vernon used to say that there were only two magicians (both US based) he ever saw who got "belly laughs", Frank Van Hoven, 'The Man Who Made Ice Famous' and Emil Jarrow.  I have always thought that Jarrow, unlike Hoven who was more of a burlesque act, was similar to Daniels; both relying on small magic combined with sleight of hand to achieve their success; and both getting those "belly laughs".

Secondly, there were numerous magicians who were clearly influenced by Daniels.  Some of them in a very direct way - the most obvious, and best known, was Wayne Dobson, who achieved his own television success with three series of Wayne Dobson - A Kind of Magic, before his career was cruelly cut short with Multiple Sclerosis.  Sadly there was no love lost between these two great magicians - with Paul accusing Wayne of stealing much of his material; and Wayne retaliating with his own unsubtle insults.  Objectively, if you compare the two acts, there isn't a great deal where there is a direct overlap.  But there is little doubt in my mind that the structure of Wayne's main Ventriloquism routine (which made his name) was very much based on Paul's own routine.

Wayne DobsonBoth started with having two men on stage.  Both involved borrowing money (and both used the same gag to pocket the money).  Both vanished one of the borrowed notes.   Both pretended the trick had gone wrong.  Both then went into another routine - Wayne Vent, Paul Electric Chairs.  And finally both recovered the note in an unexpected place.

It is a similar structure that plenty have followed - including me.  And it's not just my generation.  When Pete Firman, arguably the leading comedy magician performing today, did a TV spot on The John Bishop Show back in 2015, he used exactly the same format.  Two men on stage, money borrowed (same gag as Wayne & Paul had used to retain the money), note vanishes, into a comedy chain escape routine and finished with the recovery of the note.  It is because of that construct surely that Daniels tweeted (with commendable hyperbole) after watching it: "Keep getting asked if I saw Pete Firman's act. Yes. Great act.  I know it is because I have been using that patter and trick for 49 years!"

StuffDaniels, though, had an indirect effect on some magicians who were completely opposite to his style.  Geoffrey Durham has stated that part of the reason he developed his character of the Great Soprendo was to be the antithesis to those magicians who came out of the Ken Brooke school of magic (such as Wayne Dobson and Paul Daniels).  John Lenahan, the host of the ground-breaking TV series, Stuff the White Rabbit, deliberately took the mickey out of Paul Daniels in appealing to his Comedy Club audiences.  Similarly Penn & Teller, when they first appeared in the UK, made derogatory remarks about Daniels - to emphasise their differences (something that Penn has subsequently apologised for).

Thirdly, magic on television today - and the resultant huge upsurge in the popularity of close-up and mind-reading in the UK - probably wouldn't have come about if it hadn't been for Daniels.  For once The Paul Daniels Magic Show was taken off air, magicians had to try and find something completely different - if they wanted any chance of getting on television.  No longer was the 'invited audience in the studio watching a comedy magician' acceptable - either to the viewers or the programme makers.  So instead of 'invited audience', we had people stopped in the streets; instead of a 'studio', we had 'real life environments'; and instead of 'comedy magician' we had 'monosyllabic mystery men' (Blaine or Dynamo) or 'mind readers' (Derren Brown).  The results couldn't have been further away from what Daniels had given us.

chop cupAnd the final legacy? - well that is personal; and increasingly private.  Occasionally I do talks in schools.  And I'm often asked who was my greatest influence as a magician.  My response was always the same: Paul Daniels.  However recently I have stopped saying his name because the kids have never heard of him and have no idea who I am talking about.  

My friend Alan Hudson, himself a comedy magician who of course, like we all do, owes so much to Paul Daniels, claims to have seen more magic shows than anyone else of his age - and I wouldn't argue with him.  He recently selected on his blog his five greatest magic shows of all time.  And Paul Daniels wasn't included. 

But then he was too young to have been around in 1981 when Daniels stepped on stage at London's Prince of Wales theatre with just a single cup and a ball and changed my life forever.

pd maliniAs noted in previous postings, I saw Paul Daniels live at various times throughout his career.  Perhaps his most unusual and innovative venture was a show called Paul Daniels presents The Magic of Max Malini.  Max Malini was a famous American magician (1873-1942) who earnt his living as an itinerant performer, travelling around the country and abroad and doing his tricks in different hotels and other venues.  He was not a theatrical performer, rather he specialised in private parties.

One can see why Malini appealed to Daniels.  Both men were small in stature and had strong, dominating personalities.  It would seem that Malini performed at the drop of a hat to anyone and in every situation: he was never 'off', whether performing or telling amusing stories.  And this was true of Daniels too.  Malini by all accounts was a master of misdirection and sleight of hand, performing skills that Daniels certainly would have considered himself an expert in.

Daniels was good friends with Ken Brooke, a magic dealer.  And Ken liked to relate the story of a magician wanting to buy a book and that he suggested Malini & his Magic by Lewis Ganson.  The potential purchaser flicked through it and said he wasn't interested.  Ken then performed a trick which completely fried the magician.  "Where can I buy that from?" he asked.  "It's on page 35 of Malini & his Magic" was Ken's response.  I'm sure Daniels must have heard that anecdote.

malini and his magicBarry Murray, who worked with Daniels on BBC's The Paul Daniels Magic Show, gave Paul the idea of playing Malini in a dedicated show. However the finished product was solely down to Paul's self direction.  The first time Paul did it was at the Edinburgh Festival in August 2003.  There it lasted one hour; but when I saw it in London, the following March, he had expanded it to a two hour show including an interval.

The ticket price was £57; here again Daniels was following Malini, who was very good at honing in on wealthy private clients for his magic.  Possibly he was also following the example of Ricky Jay, who four years previously had charged an unprecedented £45 for a ticket to see Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants.

If ever a show summed up the strengths and weaknesses of Paul Daniels, this show did.  To start with the positive: many of the audience the night I was in seemed to know Daniels - this included the ex-politician David Mellor and his wife.  Daniels was great with the by-play with these people and his relaxed style and chatting his way through tricks gave it a cosy and intimate atmosphere. 

By far his best, and most amusing trick, was the Coin Game, the very trick that Ken Brooke had performed from the Malini & his Magic book.  It is essentially a 'con bet' although it is presented as pure skill on the magician's part.  Daniels made the audience members stake money which, having won, he said would go to charity.  It was a throwback to his Bunco Booth days on The Paul Daniels Magic Show and, as such, suited Daniels perfectly.

The main problem with the show was that it appeared so under-rehearsed.  At times Daniels would refer to a sheet of paper he had with the tricks listed on them.  He would look down at it and say something like: "what comes next – oh yes, we’ll do this now".  In the middle of one trick he told Debbie to go to the dressing room and fetch a prop he had forgotten.  Most of the patter was descriptive, rather than having any specific lines to go along with the tricks.  He had plenty of technical difficulties too - which again almost certainly resulted from lack of practise. 

maliniAnybody who wants to go back and read my original review of this show on Magic Week may be rather taken aback by the above.  Was I being disingenuous?  Partly, yes.  I had to write something, as I had been given a free ticket; but couldn't see there was anything to be gained by criticising the show at the time (although one magician has never forgiven me to this day, claiming that my review had persuaded him and his family to go). 

However I feel I made the right decision.  Magicians like myself might find plenty of faults; but there was no doubt in my mind that the non-magicians in the audience had genuinely enjoyed the "Daniels's experience".

Furthermore, if I had been overly critical, it surely would have sounded like professional jealousy or sour grapes.  On the same day as my review appeared, there was a round-robin email from Debbie McGee, in which she effusively sung the praises of the show.  She wrote: "I have known Paul now for 26 years and have seen him perform, literally, thousands of times in every kind of venue. I have never seen  him give a better performance than on this night [this was three nights before I saw it].  He was relaxed, in control and quite amazing.  The audience, mostly made up from lay people and dotted with British stars from entertainment, were totally baffled and that amazement was very real.  A standing ovation came at the end."  And this was followed up with a PS:

"We just had a phone call from Mike Margolis, who worked on the David Nixon show for six years. Mike said that he learned more about the true Art of Magic on Monday night than in all of those six years.  'I have worked with so many magicians, but that night I saw real magic at work.  Thank you'. "

Sometimes you just have to bow to the inevitable and I'm glad I did on this occasion. 

legend leg endThe final time I saw Daniels performing live was in his Legend to Leg-End tour in September, 2013 at the Millfield Arts Centre in London.  By this stage in his career, Daniels was very much playing to diminished audiences.  This venue contained about 100 people, and was about one third full.  The reasons for his decline in popularity could be for several reasons: the fact that he hadn't been on television in any serious capacity for many years; the failure to introduce new material into his live shows; a style of performing which was considered rather dated; or just a public image which he presented of being outspoken and not someone you necessarily warmed to.

To be fair to Paul he did at least try to address one of these in this particular show - the repetition of old material.  The only trick which he did that helped make his name as a live performer was his version of the Linking Rings, with the patter about his assistance getting "confidence" to do the trick. 

village hallAfter the opening fifteen minutes of Legend to Leg-End I was fearing the worst.  A disjointed and awkward beginning with Paul and Debbie trying unsuccessfully to ad-lib with each other, was followed by the most bizarre and nonsensical trick that I ever saw him do - involving the Demon Wonder Box and production of a silk.  To make matters worse, he did an Indian accent half-way through, only to discover in a subsequent trick that there was an Indian woman sitting in the front row.

This was followed by a cringe-inducing version of Cards Across, when the two women helpers were told to put their cards down the front of their cleavages; and where he followed up his catch phrase of 'say, yes Paul' with 'good training for the car park'.  I was sinking into my seat with embarrassment.

However after that, matters considerably improved.  He did Harry Anderson's Three Card Monarch (a giant version of the three card trick) very competently, the above mentioned Linking Rings and finished the first half with an entertaining rendition of the Spirit Cabinet, sans Electric Chairs (see previous posting).  The second half, after an opening illusion, only comprised two tricks.  A rather long-winded mind reading effect (which the audience enjoyed though), followed by a borrowed note found inside a candle which also involved plenty of red herrings in the form of various fruits.  This was all done with plenty of laughs and the eventual finding of the note got a good reaction from the audience.

When Daniels borrowed the note and began to fold it up, I knew that he was almost certainly going to switch it for something else; indeed it ended up inside an envelope that was subsequently burnt in a frying pan, so there must have been an exchange.  But, watching like a hawk, I failed to spot it.  It was perhaps at that point that I had to remind myself just how good a magician Daniels was when it comes to sleight of hand magic. 

There was no greater master of the Classic Force (making someone take a specific playing card without their knowledge) than Daniels.  It was the fact that he was so obviously skilled (in a way that his television predecessor David Nixon was not) that partly brought Daniels to fame in the first place.  It was a pleasant feeling to be left with as I emerged from the arts centre - my final memory of him as a live performer was the knowledge that I had been completely taken in by something which, in all probability, was very simple. 

newcastleDespite the small audience in a rather unprepossessing venue, Daniels gave of his all that evening.  He didn't draw attention to the lack of numbers - perhaps at this stage he was used to it.  About a year before, in one of my newsletters, I had written that "audiences have stopped coming to see Paul Daniels".  I got an immediate rejoinder in the form of an email (I don't know who passed it on to him, as he certainly didn't subscribe) from Paul himself: "Having just done a tour with more than enough sell out shows, I do wonder where you get your information from. Audiences have not stopped coming to see my shows, but I know some magicians have, but who wants to do shows for magicians?"

As my sources had been second hand, I wrote an abject apology for my comment in my next newsletter.  But, on the evidence of my own experience, I suspect that I had probably been at least partly right in my assertion, tactless though it was to say it at the time.

high wycombeIn my first posting of this series, I mentioned that I saw Paul Daniels at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London in 1981, where he performed for some 18 months.  He had another run in London a few years later - I think it may have been at the Savoy Theatre - a show which I saw a couple of times.  On the second occasion I did something which I have never done before, or since, which was to sneak into the second half without paying.  I just turned up at half-time, mingled with the audience enjoying the break and took an empty seat to watch the remainder of the show.  As far as I can recall, this second half was essentially the same as he did at the Prince of Wales show - Daniels at his best.

The next time I saw him live in front of the general public was at the Swan Theatre in High Wycombe as part of his It's Magic National Tour.  This was in 1993, his penultimate  year before The Paul Daniels Magic Show on BBC 1 would come off air; and included not only Debbie McGee but also his son Martin - so it was very much a family show.

programmeThe majority of the tricks were 'as seen' although there was a prediction effect involving six envelopes.  This became part of his repertoire because I saw it again in a subsequent show.  Mentalism really wasn't Paul's forte and you got the impression that it was very much a 'time filler', enabling him to chat his way through a relatively dull procedural explanation of what he was doing.  The most interesting aspect of the show, though, was a combination of the Spirit Cabinet and the Electric Chairs - which, after this tour, I don't think he ever attempted again.

In theory it was a good idea: the 'spirits' that caused items to be flung out of the cabinet were so powerful that they also caused the two men, sitting on chairs next to the cabinet checking that nothing untoward was happening, to jump up too. However it was all too much for the audience to really appreciate what was going on; and it became a little confusing, diluting the impact of the Electric Chairs and taking the focus away from the Spirit Cabinet.  The next time I saw Daniels present the Spirit Cabinet, it was without the Electric Chairs.

Overall, though, the show was very entertaining - and it certainly provided value for money with plenty of illusions , including the one which he closed his Prince of Wales show with - the Asrah (a levitation, followed by a vanish).   It was themed around Star Wars in 1981 but in 1993 it was Phantom of the Opera.

weymouth flyerPaul was also in good form six years later when I saw him in Weymouth in the Paul Daniels Magical Laughter Show: this was a summer season show and, to its advantage, was more tightly scripted than the one in High Wycombe.  Paul himself performed no new trick or illusion that I hadn't seen before.  He reprised, again from the repertoire from his Prince of Wales show, perhaps my favourite illusion of his - Backstage with the Magician.  This is where the audience are apparently let in on the secret of how an illusion works by watching it from the rear.  Once again, though, it was very much his note in Lemon, Egg & Walnut and Electric Chairs that was the highlight of the show.

It was interesting that for this show Daniels didn't open with his Chop Cup, but instead his version of the six card repeat.  Indeed, after 1993, I never saw him do the Chop Cup live again.  I guess he thought it was a trick that most people had seen; but, as I said in an earlier posting, for me it was the greatest cabaret trick of all times - and really was one that could bear constant repetition. 

1999 was a watershed year, not just for the millennium, but also I suspect for Daniels's career when it came to live performing.  Never again, after this, would he be able to fill out a large theatre on his own.  Instead he would mainly perform in art centres and municipal halls, at  festivals and even village halls.  He always put a positive spin on this, claiming that he much preferred such venues to West End Theatres. In some ways this was in keeping with his life's philosophy: he always maintained, if the worst came to the worst, that he could earn a living doing tricks down the local pub - and he was quite happy with that thought.

It was always greatly to Paul's credit that if some of us felt sorry for him for his decline in popularity, he never gave the impression that he felt sorry for himself.

daniels magic showPaul Daniels became famous because he was on prime-time television for many years:  The Paul Daniels Magic Show ran from 1979 to 1994.  I am sure I would have seen Paul on various guest spots before he had his own show; but can't recall any specific occasions.  But I do remember him on For my Next Trick with magicians John Wade and Terry Seabrooke.  This was not a good show in that it copied the very successful The Comedians, in which there were extensive cuts from one comedian to another; this worked well with jokes, but not with magic.  If you cut away in the middle of a magic trick, it is easy for the audience to forget the plot - and also, they might surmise that something was hidden from them in the intervening edit.

seabrookeDespite this, there was no doubt that Daniels was the star of the show.  Both John Wade and Terry Seabrooke were at the top of their game; but somehow they looked rather old-fashioned compared to Daniels's quick repartee.  It was perhaps at this point that the BBC realised he could host his own show.

The early years of The Paul Daniels Magic Show were outstanding.  One suspects this was due as much to the guiding hand of John Fisher as the producer and the magical advisor of Ali Bongo - later to be supplemented by Barry Murray and Graham Reed - as it was to Paul's own performance.  Many a good magician has been severely handicapped on television because of the terrible format.  But The Paul Daniels Magic Show played to Paul's great strengths of his relaxed inter-action with the studio audience, seemingly nerveless performing abilities, some great outside stunts (for example, vanishing the elephant and escaping from been crashed into by a racing car), quirky guests (no singers and comedians allowed!) and regular slots that fitted his persona like a glove (the Bunco Booth was the most successful).

elephantThere is no doubt that as the years went along, the standard did deteriorate.  It is hard to exactly put the finger on why that should be so.  I have always maintained that it began to go 'wrong' for Paul when he changed his catch-phrase to 'Say yes Paul'; this in answer to a question he might ask.  This had neither the subtlety nor the humility of his previous 'You'll like this, not a lot'; and displayed a slight arrogance that gradually began to grate with certain members of his audience. 

Furthermore one got the impression that Daniels was winging it a little too much; perhaps not as much time went into rehearsing the trick and working out his patter before he actually performed it.  The tricks in the earlier series seemed tighter and didn't rely so much on what was essentially an explanation of what he was doing, whilst doing it.

yentobAlthough The Paul Daniels Magic Show ended in 1994, there was one final series which was called Secrets in 1995.  I remember it well, as it was meant to be the recreation of an ultra-modern setting, supposedly a night club, as a way of resuscitating Daniels's career.  In actual fact it looked like what it was - a television studio with a few tables and chairs scattered around.  As a result the format was basically the same as it had been before; guest acts interspersed with tricks from Daniels himself.  And, of course, by this time Daniels's persona was too ingrained to fundamentally change.  The BBC had had enough.

wipe outEffectively, after that, Daniels never worked for the BBC again.  Given his pre-eminence for so many years that was both surprising and tragic.  Famously, of course, he burned his bridges by having a go in print and on the radio at Alan Yentob and the BBC management.  But you would have thought his undoubted skills - he was an excellent game show host with quizzes such as  Odd One OutEvery Second Counts and Wipeout - could have been used in some capacity other than the rather tawdry Celebrity-type shows which he ended up doing.

But happily we have the legacy of his great early years on television, when Paul Daniels was King of Saturday night television. Thanks to the wonders of YouTube, many of those memorable routines and superb guests will continue to be enjoyed by generations of future magicians and lovers of fine entertainment.

wheeltappersI remember well the first time I saw Paul Daniels.  It was on the The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club, a British television variety show produced by Granada Television from 1974 to 1977.  The conceit was that it was set in a Northern Working Men's Club with the audience in a relaxed  and relatively boisterous mood.  I can't remember exactly what Daniels did but I recall being really blown away at the time to see such an exciting performer demonstrating that magic could be funny as well as fooling.

That was on television.  The first time I saw him live was at the International Magic Convention organised by Ron Macmillan, and which took place at a venue in Tottenham Court Road.  This was before The Paul Daniels Magic Show started on BBC 1 television.  Even though he was in front of magicians Daniels was superb, getting huge laughs with his routine involving borrowing money from a couple of men.  Afterwards one of his assistants wrote in complaining to the then weekly magic magazine, Abracadabra, saying that he had been made to look stupid on stage.  He was asked to hold his note up in the air; and every time he put his arm down, Daniels would tell him to lift it up again.

flyerI think it is fair to say that when I next saw Paul Daniels he was absolutely at the peak of his powers.  This was at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London in 1981 in a show called It's Magic.  He did not do the entire show - he had three support acts, a female impressionist, a puppeteer and a foot juggler in the first half; but he did the whole of the second half.  In that show he did all the routines for which he would be known for the rest of his performing life: Cup and Ball (Chop Cup); Six Card Repeat; Linking Rings with a young girl; Equal and Unequal Ropes to a story about the Three Bears; Card in Wallet; Electric Chairs combined with paper balls over the head; and Note in Lemon, Egg and Walnut.

If there is one let-down associated with Daniels, it is that he would never again produce any trick or routine which was as good as any of these.  In Daniels's  case the reason is not hard to see.  He had been grinding his way in the Northern clubs for many a long year, perfecting his skills and repartee with his audience.  As an unknown act they would give him no truck.  He would learn what worked, and what didn't, from the bitter experience of dying on stage and being heckled.

Much later, in an interview he did in The Magic Circular with Anthony Owen, Daniels admitted that it took over 300 performances to perfect his Chop Cup routine.  That absolutely rang true with me; a trick that good (and in my opinion it is the single greatest cabaret trick that I ever saw) could only have emerged from consistent and regular shows in front of spectators who would not give any quarter.  Once he had found fame, never again would Daniels have the opportunity to 'work in' new material under the same circumstances.  And, as a result, nothing ever emerged which was even remotely comparable with his repertoire at the Prince of Wales.

note from walnutBut, wow, what heights he scaled for that show.  Every trick was superbly constructed, the patter fast and witty, the handling of the audience members exemplary, Daniels's persona - with his self-deprecating catch-phrase: 'you will like this - not a lot! But you will like it' - a perfect blend of cheeky and likeable, and the laughs and the magic coming thick and fast.  His Electric Chairs combined with the Note in Lemon, Egg and Walnut was almost a play in its own right, as great a routine as it is possible to imagine with its gradual build up, call backs, spectator management and culminating in hysterical laughs rounded off by a baffling, and focused, finish with the borrowed note found inside the walnut.

Copyright © 2018 Ian Keable - comedy magician & mindreader. All Rights Reserved.