Ian Keable – magical historian (#67)

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Ian Keable has been a full-time professional magician for over 30 years, specialising in Comedy Magic.  More recently he has branched out into talks both on magic but also subjects such as 18th Century hoaxes, satirical prints and cartoons.  He has written three self-published books aimed at magicians including Stand-Up: A Professional Guide to Comedy Magic and Charles Dickens Magician: Conjuring in Life, Letters and Literature.  He is presently writing The Century of Deception: The Birth of the Hoax in the Eighteenth Century, due to be published by The Westbourne Press in autumn 2020.


Describe something that has recently amazed you and how it made you feel.

I don’t really use the word ‘amazed’.  Instead I say I have been ‘entertained’, or have found something ‘very funny’, or really ‘admired’ somebody or some event.  But I can’t really think of when I might use the term amazed, except perhaps in describing a magic trick that completely fools me – in the sense of ‘that was amazing’.  I have an instinctive antipathy towards over the top words, my present bête noire being ‘fantastic’, which is used both to describe events and also just to acknowledge a mundane answer to a question.

So if I was to answer your question honestly, I would have to think back to when I was last amazed by a magic trick.  And that happens very frequently with me, as I’m easy to fool.  A great inventor, Angelo Carbone, recently showed me his impossible Card House made of cards.  I wasn’t so much in awe of the trick but at the fact that someone had the creative inventiveness to come up with the idea.


How would you personally define wonder, awe and curiosity? And how do they relate to each other?

Again these are words that I don’t really relate to.  I’m not a particularly curious person, apart from in the academic sense of really understanding what I’m researching.  I don’t walk around in wonder and awe at my surrounding.


Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and what can we do to cultivate it?

There is almost certainly a philosophical, anthropological or scientific answer to that question – I don’t feel I have the knowledge to even attempt an answer.  As to cultivating it, it is not something which I have ever personally wanted to do.  I am, at heart, a cynic – the natural enemy of the lover of wonder!


What do you love about magic (the performance by magicians on stage/TV etc.)? And what do you dislike about magic and/or the performance of it?

Magic, to me, starts and finishes with the performer.  It’s a cliché, but if you like the performer the chances are you going to like his or her magic.  Unless it is deliberate and thought through, I dislike magicians who rely on the trick, rather than on themselves, to entertain the audience.  I really dislike magicians who are arrogant or full of themselves.  My favourite sort of magic tends to be comedy magic, so those with great comedic personas are the performers who most appeal.  I was brought up on magicians with really strong personalities – Paul Daniels, Ricky Jay, The Great Soprendo – and they are the ones I really admire.


When asked about this interview you mentioned you’re not really into the ‘wonder’ of magic. Can you expand upon this?

I think by now 99.9% of people watching a magic show know that it is a trick, so to talk about the ‘wonder’ of magic seems a misnomer.  Audiences instinctively know that they are fooled because the performer was very skilled or the trick was very clever.  ‘Wonder’ seems to imply that some sort of supernatural or unexplained force was at work.


What is the role of magic and magicians in the 21st century?

I have got no idea what the role of magic and magicians is in the 21st century.  Magic has never been more popular and successful; there has never been so many lives shows and magicians touring around the country; more and more youngsters – of both sexes – seem to be taking it up as both a hobby and a profession.  And yet much of it I can’t really empathise with, as most of it is not the type of magic that I ultimately enjoy performing or watching.  And I think that is probably how it should be.  As the music of youth upsets their elders; or the young comedians are considered ‘unfunny’ by their parents; so it is right that I shouldn’t really understand why the younger generation enjoy watching, and performing, the type of magic that I don’t.


You’re a student of the history of magic. What have contemporary magicians forgotten that our forefathers knew?

Contemporary magicians are adapting, very successfully, to what appeals now.  I don’t think the good ones have much to learn from their predecessors.  I’ve never been one who thinks you have to study long-dead magicians to flourish as a performer.  I am a big fan, though, of checking out old magic books to discover magic tricks and effects that have perhaps been forgotten about.  Take old tricks, and put a contemporary twist on them, would be my advice for somebody wanting to learn from magic history.


At the moment you’re writing a book on 18th century hoaxes. Do you have a particular favourite you can share? Why does the subject appeal to you? What can we learn from them?

Hoaxes appeal to me because the best hoax is like the best comedy magic trick: it is funny and it should be fooling (at least to those who are taken in by the hoax).  I chose to write about hoaxes because you can write about everything to do with them – how and why they were perpetuated.  That is much harder to do with magic, because to write fully about magic you have to write about the secret.  And I wouldn’t want to reveal magic secrets in a book which is written for the general public.

I am drawn to 18th century hoaxes for numerous reasons; it’s the first era they were properly recorded; intellectuals at the time were intrigued by the whole concept of credulity; scientists and philosophers were beginning to develop the tools to ascertain whether someone was telling the truth; they permeated society, and famous people, in a way that hasn’t been seen since; and many of them are great fun and amusing.

My own personal favourite hoax is the Bottle Conjurer, when a man claimed he would climb inside a two pint bottle on the stage of a London theatre.  It has been an under-researched hoax; and I think I have discovered both new images and facts about it.

I hate the phrase ‘contemporary resonance’ as it is used about so many subject matters these days.  But there is no doubt that many of the 18th century hoaxes had all the attributes of ‘fake news’, ‘social media bias’ and untruths going ‘viral’.  This teaches us that human nature never fundamentally changes; the same basic reasons why people fell for hoaxes in the 18th century equally apply today.  We really haven’t moved on much further as a society.


If you could concoct a hoax for today, what would it be and why?

I don’t think I could bring off a hoax myself.  Personally I don’t enjoy practical hoaxes, especially if someone is made to look stupid.  However if I could choose, it would be a hoax to get back at someone who I thought was behaving in a disreputable way.  I would love to see a con-artist who is out to make money, or a fraudulent faith-healer, being hoaxed.  I think ridicule is a much stronger tool than trying to persuade people that they are being gullible – that never works.

One of the hoaxes in my book was perpetuated by Jonathan Swift who, pretending to be an astrologer himself, predicted the death of another astrologer.  That was so brilliant because he was using his own supposed skill set against him.  I could imagine that still working today.  Getting a message from the other side that a well-known medium is about to meet a nasty end.  How could they argue with that?  They receive messages predicting the future all the time, so why couldn’t another psychic predict their demise?


You’re just about to host an event at the Magic Circle interviewing curators from 3 big magic exhibitions in the UK. What have you learnt from attending them and talking with the creators and visitors?

Without being overly arrogant, I’m not sure if I learnt much from the exhibitions in terms of magic history.  I am relatively knowledgeable on the subject.  However I did discover what perhaps appeals to curators, which is very much on the mind-reading or mentalism side of magic, as opposed to straight entertainment/magic tricks.  Historically they are intrigued by the link between witchcraft and magic or spiritualism and magic.

Part of that appeal probably lies in the type of apparatus that can be displayed.  The instruments used by spiritualists, and indeed the images, are more intrinsically interesting than showing a magic prop or a poster or playbill.  The best magic props look ‘normal’, which hardly makes them a great museum piece.  How, for instance, could you display the Vanishing Birdcage, apart from displaying a birdcage?

As a result, as Geoffrey Durham put it so well, the really excellent Wellcome Exhibition which is presently ongoing until September 2019 (I would urge everybody to go and visit it) is more about ‘deceit’ than it is about ‘deception’.


Last week on the Magic Circle facebook group a heated discussion took place about ‘exposure’. What’s your thoughts on the subject?

I don’t think, at the end of the day, that exposure harms magicians, not the good ones anyway.  Who loves watching magicians the most?  Answer: other magicians.  And most of the time we know how the tricks are done.  I always fall back on the David Devant quote: “The presentation of the trick is everything; the little secret around which the trick is woven, is comparatively unimportant”.

I also believe in the cliché, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.  And exposure usually gives a little knowledge to the non-magician, who then assumes they know how all tricks work. Those type of people are particularly easy to fool.

Nevertheless I am against exposure for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it’s a lazy way of ‘entertaining’ an audience.  Show someone a trick, fool them with it and then explain how it’s done.  That is a form of entertainment that undoubtedly works (look at the Masked Magician).  But it requires no effort from the magician unless he or she is inventing their own trick and then revealing the method (to a certain extent Barry & Stuart did that in their innovative ‘Show & Tell’ show).  It is much harder to entertain an audience by finding the right presentation for a trick – and just doing it – than it is to show them how it is done.

Secondly, I think it harms other magicians in that if they see something exposed on, say, television, they will be reluctant to go out and perform that same trick the next day – convinced that their audience will have seen the exposure.  It is therefore psychologically harmful to performing magicians.

Thirdly, those who expose tricks are ‘giving away’ for free someone else’s creativity.  Very few have earned the right to do that.

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