I took my proverbial ‘box of tricks’ (actually two carrier bags) back to the holiday park. In my early days I was fearless when it came to new material.
I was in the lucky position of knowing absolutely nothing.
That night I marched out in front of the audience with no experience of performing magic, very little practise with the props and zero idea of what I was going to do or say.
The trick I planned is called ‘The Missing Spade’.
After pointing out a rolled up banner on the table, the magician has someone choose a card which happens to be the four of spades.
The magician unravels his banner (which has been wrapped tightly) to reveal it has three spades printed upon it. The audience quickly point out that there is a spade missing and the magician produces a full sized spade (pictured below) from behind to resounding laughter and applause.
In my case, this did not happen. With haste to get the trick on stage my brain didn’t fully engage and I set things so that the chosen card was THREE of spades.
Upon unravelling the banner I was met with lukewarm applause for an average trick.
Realising my mistake, I triumphantly exclaimed that I’d packed a spare and revealed the full size gardening tool. The audience stared.
They were not amused or amazed, just confused.
I resolved that day to at least practise the tricks and then perform them once for my team prior to taking them onstage. This minor, entirely inadequate change saved me from many embarrassments. There were still plenty of those, but they weren’t all so entirely created by ego.
The next week I tried that trick again and was much more successful.
The holiday park guests changed twice each week. People came from Monday to Thursday or Friday to Sunday. These combinations of three and four day breaks meant that I’d have a supply of fresh audiences to try out my magic for. Each new audience had no idea of the previous weeks blunders and so I was granted a clean slate upon which to make brand new mistakes.
One of the huge bonuses of magic is that the audience are rarely aware of catastrophic failure. They often see pale, uninteresting, unsurprising or completely transparent tricks, but usually put it down to the magician not being very good. In either case they are right but sometimes it’s because of an undetectable mishap.
Like the time in a kids routine I intended to make a large black and a large white pair of square silk scarves (referred to by magicians as ‘silks’) combine together to create a black and white striped version. I forgot to load the secret compartment of my bag instead causing them to vanish. Something magical still happened, but it was entirely at odds with the build up. The audience were surprised, but in a way that left them underwhelmed.
There was an occasion performing a ‘danger trick’, when I accidentally sliced my forefinger. The trick involved placing 6 separate razor blades into my mouth, followed by roughly one meter of string. Upon retrieval the razor blades were found to be tied at intervals along the string. This trick was a favourite among the fakirs and continues to be popular for performers and audiences alike.
One of the key elements to the trick is the proving that the blades themselves are sharp. This is done by slicing a sheet of newspaper.
On a holiday park in the middle of nowhere, newspaper was surprisingly hard to come by and I didn’t always plan ahead in the same methodical (and possibly obsessive) way that I do now.
On the evening of the performance I decided to substitute the newspaper for two playing cards. Which are already much smaller. I had one card per three blades.
I sliced up the every shrinking first card without issue. The tension was duly building. I picked up the second card with a noticeable swagger. I knew what I was about to do was good! I then sliced at the card with the first blade, then the second and then…
Well, on the third blade I was positively euphoric with confidence. The effect of the first two blades had significantly reduced the playing card in size. On my third swipe I misjudged the swing and leaving the card in place, sent a small piece from the end of my finger flying through the air.
The blood that now flowed freely from my slightly shortened appendage was magnificent. Bright red, horror movie blood was redecorating the small area around me when I had the idea to plunge it against my shirt.
My white shirt.
The sudden appearance of a Japanese flag between the buttons of my shirt created quite the drama. One which I was powerless to take control of as I already had the previous five razorblades in my mouth. I took a rather inappropriate bow without reason and scurried from the stage, right into the arms of some distinctly unqualified medical attention. I never did that trick again.
Mistake and malfunction aside, the rest of my attempts at magic were successful enough to convince me I should continue. Towards the end of the season I spot of luck came my way.
We had the same visiting show at our park almost every Wednesday. Run by a company called Explosive Productions, the was called Decade Explosion. The quality of production was second to none. The company brought their own light and sound set up and as a consequence had the controls for it all in the venue. As the last thing before their show was usually me, presenting a family based hour of entertainment, including some of my growing magic repertoire, they would sit out front and watch me. In the penultimate week of the season asked if they could meet me the next day for a chat.
They’d been given a contract to provide entertainment at a private holiday village called Ribby Hall and needed a full time presenter/supervisor to look after things in the venue. The job came with a decent pay rise (more money to spend on magic) and included somewhere to live. What’s more, it was just outside of Blackpool! I took the gig in a heartbeat and was delighted to be able to hang out in the magic shop all day and then go perform magic on stage at night.
I graduated from doing a trick per night to reserving my magic for two nights per week when I’d put on a longer more formal ‘show’. This was my first taste at stringing magic routines together and I started to learn about ‘call backs’ and how one trick could set up or intertwine with another. I continued for almost 18 months and by the end of it had a proper act that was ready to take elsewhere.
There was only one problem with that. How could I take my act elsewhere, if I was already hired to perform every night? The answer came at just the right time.
One day, I was standing in the magic shop when two customers came in. I was in the back chatting to Mark Mason the owner. As it was just he and I in the shop and he was busy, he asked if I wouldn’t mind jumping behind the counter and helping the two strangers out.
Because of my obsessive study of the shops catalogue and my continued presence inside it’s walls I was familiar with almost every product on sale. By this point, I’d bought most of them!
When Mark came off the phone, my two new friends had roughly £500 of magic lined up to buy. Mark must have been impressed. Once they left he asked me if I’d like to come back tomorrow, but this time go straight behind the counter. I’d just found myself a new job.
In October of 2007 I ended my contract with Ribby Hall. I began working at JB Magic during the day while pursuing work with my fledgeling cabaret show around the hotels of Blackpool at night.
Working at JB Magic was a dream. I spent my days making props, learning magic tricks and chatting to the customers. Mainly I remember laughing. All day long laughing. Mark is one of the funniest people you’d ever be lucky enough to meet and his stories would make me laugh until I wept. My coworker (and soon to be manager) was a magician named Paul Roberts. We became fast friends and with his incredible technical skills he would fool me with tricks all day long. He was never backward in coming forwards with advice and his influence on my early shows is undeniable. I count his friendship among the things I most value to this day.
One day Paul and I were making props when I had an idea that would speed up the process. Paul tried to talk me out of it but I was certain. My idea involved doing all of the required gluing on the hundred or so cards upfront, and then placing the magnets afterwards. A mistimed hand going down caused a magnetic implosion that ruined over an hours worth of work. Paul looked ready to explode but instead calmly went to the toilet. In his absence I opened his diet coke bottle and put glue around the lid. Paul returned and tried to remove the lid without success. A small glance up to the grin I was attempting to hide told him what happened and he casually went into the next room clutching the bottle.
I heard a strange sound. Paul returned having transformed his bottle into an impromptu cup using a saw and entirely removing the top.
Neither of us mentioned it and we restarted the work.
It was around this time I began to learn to drive. It was November now of 2006 and I lucked upon a driving instructor named Simon (BAL Driving Tuition) who loved magic. Simon’s diving tuition and friendship were of great benefit to me. We would take my lesson ending at the venue, Simon would sit and watch the show then I would take a second lesson to drive home. It was tremendous fun and I was lucky to have found someone so amenable and willing to support a young performer in the way he did.
I passed my text on the second try, Simon and I remain friends.
The eventual shows came about when I heard about a showcase. This is an event where new acts (or old acts looking for new work) perform a variety night for prospective bookers and agents. This one was for a man named Neil Grant in Blackpool. It took place at the Craig-Y-Don hotel on Blackpool’s seafront promenade and successful acts would be signed to the books of the Michael James Agency for work in similar hotels around the town.
For all I’d had two and a half years experience in cobbling together magic shows, I’d never performed under my own name as a professional stage magician. I was always part of the resident team and never yet been the ‘main event’ of the night. I got some terrible promotional pictures taken and turned up at the show case with a box full of tricks and a heart full of enthusiasm.
Thankfully the general standard of auditions was low and my comparative experience shone. It was all smiles and pats on the back. My Christmas diary soon filled with gigs and on weekends I was doing up to two or three shows per night, hopping around Blackpool using taxis and driving lessons.
I was certain I’d be the next David Copperfield. Those big ideas would soon come crashing down when I arrived for my first ever real gig.
Between the showcase and the onset of reality there was something to celebrate.
I was now a professional magician!
FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENED NEXT IN PART THREE