The first man to fool Penn & Teller on ITV’s “Penn & Teller – Fool Us”. A past winner of the ‘Magic Circle Stage Magician of the Year’ and certainly one of the best comedy magicians in the UK today. Comedian, magician, actor, singer, musician, writer.
Describe something that has recently amazed you and how it made you feel.
There have been a few moments in my life when an act has felt very special and I suppose, amazing too. The first I remember was watching Harry Blackstone Junior perform the floating lightbulb in 1986 at The IBM British Ring Convention in Southport. It was truly mesmerising for me at that time in my magical life. More recently I remember watching Jann Frisch at a Blackpool convention several years ago when he performed his cup and ball routine it was delightful and several times in the routine I just hadn’t got a clue how he was doing what he was doing. The most recent I suppose is watching the clip of Shin Lim performing his winning routine on America’s Got Talent. So slick and again he amazes me so many times in that routine.
How would you personally define wonder, awe and curiosity? And how do they relate to each other?
It’s not something I have dwelt long or hard on. I suppose wonder and curiosity feel more like the areas I deal with in my performance. Awe feels much deeper, and when you are doing comedy and magic it is hard to take people past that sense of curiosity and wonder to a state of awe. Awe to me implies no solutions and no reason to seek them. We feel awe when we look at the vastness of space or the incredible power and beauty of nature. I doubt I will ever invoke true awe and I don’t really yearn too, but I do think it is possible for a more serious magical performer. I’m happy to play with wonder and curiosity.
What inspires you to be creative?
I wish I could pin that down. It is a host of things or combinations of things: Seeing other performers of all types do something different. A piece of music. A film. A quote. Something I read in a book. Seeing a bad trick and challenging myself to try and make it work.
Do you have any ‘rituals’ or an environment that aids your creativity?
Oh I wish I did, that would make life so much easier. Quiet helps, but not always, often quiet is like the big white canvas that an artist stares at and can’t bare to tackle for fear of being making a mistake. So sometimes loud music helps (Blues for me). I love Leonard Cohen’s quote “If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often…” For most people I don’t think there is a secret ritual or environment. Thoughts and ideas can come to me at any point and in any place. Often it’s just a three or four word idea that I write down and it never develops into anything more, sometimes the whole thing can just come to me in a flurry of thought and activity. Most of the time though, it is a constant plugging away at those thoughts and ideas until eventually they become something real and useable.
What do you love about magic?
For me it is about the laughter. My first love is to try and make people laugh, my favourite routines are always the ones where I feel the laughs are. I think the reason that I fell in love with magic is because I saw how people would laugh at the experience of confusion, amazement, disbelief. It is close to comedy in the way it surprises us, like a punchline surprises us. So I suppose what I love about magic is how it makes people feel, specifically happiness and how that can complement the comedy and vice versa.
What do you think hinders an audience from experiencing wonder when watching a magician?
So many things. Just as with any performance. If an audience isn’t in the ‘right place’ then the magic just may not happen. It can be the wrong environment, the wrong time, too hot, too cold, too noisy, maybe at times too quiet (awful for comedy), maybe the ceiling is too high. Then there can be so many distractions too, from other audience members or the performer themselves. The performer could be badly lit or dressed inappropriately, the character may be wrong, music too loud, microphone too quiet etc etc… The list does go on and on. Some things are out of the performers control but a lot isn’t. Enough in this one question alone to fill a book.
Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and what can we do to cultivate it?
That’s a hard one, I’m not sure I know. It certainly starts in childhood. That natural instinct of a child to explore and discover. In some sense I suppose it could also come from a need to survive. Things that we don’t understand could possibly be a threat so we strive to know and understand everything. If something doesn’t fit our understanding it can scare us, make us feel smaller and the world suddenly seem bigger again, it can remind us of how it was to be a child. How we cultivate it is harder. Make people feel more child like, connect them to a time of wondering? I’m not sure.
You’re a prolific joke writer (for stage and screen). Do you have a particular process?
It’s very similar thing to general creativity that I talked about earlier, there isn’t a secret formula. I have tricks that I can apply to help me write a joke such as exaggeration, the rug pull, the power of three etc. but these only help when you have a comedic idea to apply them to in the first place. Sometimes it is just hard work, writing rubbish till something comes along. It certainly helps me to write with somebody, but there must be some mutual trust and a similar sense of what is funny. I find that bouncing off someone who won’t judge all the rubbish that I spout, very helpful.
“Help! My supply teacher’s magic” was a hit Children’s TV show in the UK where you were part of a team performing unexpected magic to school children. You’ve also been involved in a programme called Undercover Magic which was aimed at an adult audience. How does the audience’s reaction differ when they’re not knowingly watching a magic show? Does framing magic as magic change people’s perceptions?
Magic when it is not expected can be very powerful. People will believe in it so much more. We had children fully believing they could float things in class or vanish items in a box, just because it was framed as science, of course they are children too and in school in a place of trust and a mood for taking in new ideas. Having said that, on Undercover Magic we had intelligent members of the public happy to spend money for miracle products that were just magic tricks and others who truly believed we had produced a ghost in a haunted house. Certainly magic framed as ‘real’ is still very believable to some.
You were the first magician to fool Penn & Teller on their hit TV series. Do you like the term “fooling”?
Not really, I suppose it’s because it comes from the word fool and sort of implies that someone is a bit silly to have fallen for it. Having said that I can’t really think of a better way to describe what the aim of the magicians in that show were trying to do. As Penn has said, when it comes down to the raw basics of judging a trick on ‘Fool Us’ it basically comes down to if you fooled them or not. Anything else which is obviously important in performance like entertainment, art, emotion etc are much more subjective and I suppose harder to quantify. There is something very clear about the aim of the show which is why it works so well. Penn and Teller are smart, they show us that some amazing performances are not ‘foolers’ and some mediocre performances are, which teaches us that magic isn’t just about the fooling.
You will often feature a ukulele in your act. When it first appears, I think a lot of the audience think it’s a joke or for a silly song but then you start playing. Can you tell me more about why you include it and the effect it has on your audience?
I started off singing and playing guitar in bands and in my very early comedy magic days I would include a guitar and silly songs. Eventually the guitar and amplifiers etc faded from my act and it was just pure comedy and magic. I have always thought that having a USP (Unique Selling Point) as a performer was a good idea and at the time I suppose one of mine was using prop/sight gags, though I was beginning to question if I needed them or if they suited who I was. Then one Christmas my kids all chipped in together and bought me a ukulele and I loved what a simple joyful little instrument it was and decided to try it in my act with a few of the silly songs I used to play on the guitar. I had started to phase out most of my sight/prop gags and the ukulele seemed like a suitable substitute. I am a little bit of an old school style performer and have always loved the old tradition of a comic closing with a song. There is something very nice about that ‘tears of the clown’ moment, the pathos and also the skill are appreciated by an audience, so closing with a slightly more serious ukulele bit at the end makes sense. It is an exposing moment comedians are usually hidden behind their character and to break that barrier down with a touch of honesty can be a powerful ending. Other magicians have since had a pluck on the old ukulele and who am I to stop them, but hopefully it’s still my USP.