Archive for March, 2017

Me and the world’s greatest magician (and Keith Chegwin)

March 11, 2017

Uri Geller is at it again, and proving once more that our appetite for his particular brand of film-flam remains remains unsated.

Check this out: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/thinking-man/uri-geller-cia-wanted-turn-weapon/

IMG_1956Yes, this is Uri is on the front page of the UK’s Daily Telegraph today with a story picked up by most of the other newspapers.

He is claiming (yet again!) that, back in his heyday of the 1970s, he was tested by security agencies like the CIA and MI5.  Today’s “revelation” is that his appearance on a British TV show in 1973 was a “front” to get him into the country in order that MI5 could test him.  Or some such nonsense. (Uri’s mental powers are no so great that he remembers that the host of the show was Jonathan Dimbleby and not – as reported – his brother David but hey, it was 44 years ago.)

He also claims that when the British Prime Minster, Theresa May, visited him three years ago he placed his hand on a bent spoon that had once belonged to Winston Churchill (no, really), and predicted that she would occupy No. 10 (this is long before Mrs May was anything other than an outside chance for the position of PM).

It’s all related breathlessly and unquestioningly by a credulous reporter who has flown to his home in Tel Aviv – nice job – and not bothered (apparently) to verify his claim with Mrs May herself.

I don’t know where to start, especially since – as an amateur magician – I find myself admiring Uri for his ability to turn a couple of tricks (done very very well indeed) into a lifetime’s career.

Spoon bending existed before Uri came on the scene.  It was, apparently, something of a speciality of one or two Israeli magicians in the 60s and early 70s, but Uri did it far better than anyone.

“Drawing dupes” (when the “mentalist” replicates with greater or lesser accuracy a drawing done in secret by a spectator) likewise are a staple of many performers’ acts.  There are literally countless methods and I’m sure Uri knows them all and maybe has one or two of his own.

That, more or less, is his schtick.  And people STILL lap it up.  In terms of the number of people fooled, Uri Geller is, without a doubt, the greatest magician the world has ever known.

Yet for all I sneer at the craven journalism in the Telegraph, I too played a tiny part in the creation of Uri Geller’s myth.

KeithChegwinIt was about 1996, and I was producing a show for ITV with the peculiar name of Perfectly Pets,  in which  all-round TV cheeky chappie Keith “Cheggers” Chegwin (left) and his dog visited celebrities and their pets.  (Highbrow it wasn’t, but it paid the bills.)

A luck would have it, Uri Geller owned a Jack Russell called Joker (why I remember this, I have no idea) and so Cheggers, a camera crew and I trooped off to his grand home in Sonning on Thames to interview him and his dog.

Before we rang on his doorbell, we knocked off a “piece to camera.” Keith said something along the lines of, “I’m here to meet world-famous psychic, Uri Geller and his dog.  I’ve already done a drawing [holds up folded bit of paper] and I’m going to see if he can divine what I have drawn.”

Uri was charming and welcoming.  He really is a nice guy.  His house was lovely and a bit bling. His dog was sweet and – according to Uri – very psychic.  Uri bent a spoon for the cameraman, but declined to do it on camera (having been caught on camera before) and when it came to the “drawing dupe”, Keith said “I did a drawing earlier: I wonder if you can guess what it is?”

Uri demurred, but charmingly.  “I think it will be better if you re-do it.  The energy will be fresher,” he explained.  He gave Keith a bit of paper and a pen and turned his back and did the whole routine and – amazingly – duplicated Keith’s drawing.

No, I don’t know how he did it.  I’m as sure as I can be, though, that it wasn’t through psychic means.

But here’s the thing that shows, in part, how Uri’s myth survives.  When we got back to edit the film, Keith’s piece to camera still said he had drawn the picture in advance, in the car on the way there as I recall.

Except we were there to do a piece about Uri’s dog, not an exposé of fake psychics.  To have included the bit where Uri declined to bend a spoon, or imposed his own conditions on the “drawing dupe” would have got in the way of a gentle tea-time pet programme.

So it stayed in, and viewers will have had the impression that Keith Chegwin drew something in advance, kept it in his pocket, and top mind-reader Uri Geller mystically divined what he had drawn.

Decades on, he’s still at it.  No that’s magic.

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World Book Day and the nicest school I have ever visited

March 5, 2017

 

I have now done two World Book Days as an author, and I always think back to the ones when my own two children (now 14)  would dress up for school as a favourite book character.

We did, among others,

  • Angelina Ballerina (a fairly easy costume, that one, largely achieved with face-paint and a tutu),
  • Tom from Tom’s Midnight Garden (pyjamas and a large grandfather clock made of cardboard),
  • a Mallory Towers schoolgirl (easy if you can borrow a grey pinafore dress),
  • Karlsson from Astrid Lindgren’s Karlsson On The Roof (involving a box with a moving propellor strapped to the back and a willingness to explain to everyone who Karlsson was and why the books are brilliant)
  • Scamper the dog from The Secret Seven (an existing teddy-bear costume with a collar saying “Scamper”)
  • John Thornton, the gold prospector in Jack London’s The Call Of The Wild (checked shirt, stick-on beard, bag of “gold”)

 Above left: Tom’s Midnight Garden – a book.  Above right: “The Vicar Dibley” – not a book               

I was – and remain – privately scornful of those who dress up as film or cartoon characters.  I’m not keen on Superman costumes, either. Do comics count?  I don’t think so.  And I retain an especial sniff of disapproval for the teacher who turned up dressed as Dawn French from the Vicar Of Dibley.  This is not, and has never been, a book.  It’s a television sitcom, and surely the WHOLE POINT of World Book Day is celebrating and promoting BOOKS over other forms of storytelling.  The clue is in the title.  Sheesh.

Anyway, there I was last week, surrounded by ten year-olds in their costumes and I was the guest author for the day!

Tower Hamlets is one of London’s very poorest – and most ethnically diverse – areas, where children of a white, English heritage must be a pretty small minority.  It includes much of the old “traditional” east end of Pearly Kings and jellied eels and the Kray Twins, right next to the shiny towers of money in Canary Wharf.

Hanging onto the edge of the Isle of Dogs is Cubbit Town, its primary school set among low-rise social housing and boarded-up pubs.  It turned out to be probably the nicest school I have ever visited.

Two prefects had been assigned to greet me.  They called me “sir” and shook my hand, and showed me around the school and delivered me to the first classroom, where the year 6 children (10-11 years old) were lively, funny, engaged, polite and a complete joy.

And so it went on for the remaining sessions.  They listened, they contributed, they asked interesting questions.

Many of them, I found out later, had not had the best start in life.  Broken families, homelessness, addiction, learning disabilities, language differences and more – some of these kids were quite significantly disadvantaged.  And yet here they were: happily engaging with the whole idea of learning, guided by hard-working and caring school staff.

I was moved, and struck by the profound wish that, when these children move out of this school next year and onto secondary education, they do not lose the lively spark that made my World Book Day such a joy.