Archive for the ‘magic’ Category

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.

The Encounter: time-travelling magic

June 14, 2016

1438630284encounter_02

I’ve written before about my, shall we say, complicated relationship with the theatre.  I take the approach once described by Sir Michael Parkinson: “I have never sat in a theatre without wishing I were in a cinema instead.”

Except…sometimes.  This was one of the sometimes.  Tempted by a friend who promised that it would appeal to my love of magic and illusion, I saw The Encounter, a one-man show with  Simon McBurney, produced by Theatre Complicite.  It was on at the Oxford Playhouse and is now touring France, a nice change for football fans tired of the Euros.  It’ll be back in the UK soon, I’m sure: it’s terrific.

This is how the programme describes it:

Inspired by the book Amazon Beaming by Petru Popescu.

In 1969 Loren McIntyre, a National Geographic photographer, found himself lost among the people of the remote Javari Valley in Brazil. It was an encounter that was to change his life, bringing the limits of human consciousness into startling focus. 

Simon McBurney traces McIntyre’s journey into the depths of the Amazon rainforest, incorporating innovative technology into his solo performance to build a shifting world of sound.

It’s this “shifting world of sound: that provides the illusion aspect of the evening.  Audience members are asked to wear headphones and McBurney uses multiple tricks and devices to create a truly three-dimensional picture of McIntyre’s extraordinary  – and true – Amazonian adventure.

When he encounters the more-or-less undiscovered Mayruna tribe in the depths of the jungle, McIntyre realises to his astonishment that at least one of the tribe – an elder he nicknames “Barnacle” – is communicating with him telepathically – the so-called “Amazon Beaming” that is the title of the book on which the play is based.  Subsequent research reveals that this “beaming” has been a long-standing, if little-understood, mystery.

TTWAHThere was another aspect of the drama, however, that caught my imagination, and that was the Mayruna’s concept of time.  In my research for Time Travelling With A Hamster, it became clear to me that our “Western” perception of linear time was not the only one.  Other cultures viewed time as more fluid, and often “circular”.  In the legends of Australian aborigines, this is called Dreamtime; ancient Hindu texts refer to a “wheel of time”.  The Mayruna, too, regard time as cyclical.  In The Encounter, the Mayruna are attempting, in effect to “time travel” back to pre-Columbian times to escape the encroaching modern world.

McBurney is superb in this show, which is bare theatre at its best.  The set is non-existent: a desk, some sound equipment, that’s it.  It’s a bit like watching a radio play, except it wouldn’t be anywhere near as good on the radio.

 

The glorious myth of the “book launch”

January 24, 2016

Well, it’s out.  Officially.  My book, that is. (Time Travelling With a Hamster.)

I know that because I have had a “launch party”, which – it appears – is something that everyone (myself included) assumes happens for every book that is published, more or less.  And which, in actual fact, almost never happens unless:

  1. The author is famous writer or another sort of celebrity;
  2. The author is not a celebrity, but has loads of celebrity chums;
  3. The author pays for it him- or herself

Almost as soon as the words, “My book is being published'” were out of my mouth, my lovely friends, a bunch of freeloaders to the last, were saying, “Oh great, where is the launch party?”

It’s one of those enduring myths.

image001According to a fascinating chart on Wikipedia – here – there were 184,000 new books published in the UK in 2011.  No wonder publishers cannot afford to give them all a launch party.  This was put to me fairly bluntly when I raised the subject.  Even if everyone who turns up – and there were about 80 people at mine – buys a book, that goes nowhere near covering the cost of the event and unless you fit into categories 1 or 2 (above) then journalists are simply not going to turn up.  Think about it: why would they?  It’s just a book.  There’s 183, 999 others…

As it turns out, when I stated my intention to go down route 3, my lovely publishers at Harper Collins could not have been more generous with organisational help and booze provision.  And Waterstones, Kensington High Street, provided an excellent venue.

IMG_1580We sipped wine, ate lovely canapés;  there were speeches (mine was a little less polished than I had hoped owing to leaving it in the Uber car and having to wing it, but people laughed anyway.  In a good way, I think); there was an old friend who endured an hour in a hamster outfit before revealing himself; and there was baffling magic by my friend Max Somerset who, in a final genius flourish,  produced a hamster from nowhere to proper gasps of delight.

I think next time, though, I’ll launch a book in the kingdom of Oman.  There, they publish only seven books a year, guaranteeing stand-out status!

 

Master of deception

January 17, 2016
derren

Derren Brown: is the joke on us?

A lifetime love of magic and illusion means it’s no surprise that I’m a fan of Derren Brown, and especially the way that, by pretending to be totally open about how he achieves the remarkable effects he does, he has avoided being “exposed” on YouTube as many more conventional magicians are these days.  In truth, he isn’t totally open about his methods.  At least not always.

A recurring theme in his work has been his (apparent) ability to persuade, trick or otherwise get people to do things they may not otherwise do.  Pushed To The Edge (Channel 4, UK) was a highly sophisticated version of  the old stage hypnotists who who persuaded volunteers that they could eat a raw onion like an apple.

But this went much, much further in persuading three people to commit a murder by pushing someoe off a tall building.

No one died.  Unbeknownst to the volunteers their “victim” was on a safety harness.  The edgeparticipants had been drawn into an elaborate and minutely-planned deception, to demonstrate – in a take on the old “Milgram Experiment” – that humans’ desire to comply, to obey authority figures, will push them into some pretty dark places.

If all was as it appeared on the programme, it would be very, very disturbing.  I, for one, was duly disturbed.  I mean you’re getting someone to believe they had murdered someone.  Well, until Derren turned up like a latter-day Jeremy Beadle, to tell them that they had been had.  Erm…ha ha?

Except…I don’t believe it.

I think  that the joke is on us, the viewers.

Here’s why:

It seems obvious that there is a real risk that convincing someone that they are  a murderer when they are not might well be, to say the least, massively upsetting. Short or even long-term psychological damage?  Imagine the lawsuits!  Besides, it’s a truly horrible thing to do.

So I think it’s (nearly)  all been scripted and staged. A fabulous, well-thought-out hoax.

Remember: the one volunteer that was followed all the way through the 90-minute show did not go through with the murder.  The three who did were included in a montage sequence in the last part of the show. They were, I contend, actors.

I think we got the show Derren, and his writers, and producers, and Channel 4 wanted.

Just as well made, but  easier, less cruel, and a lot safer.

And he is, after all, a self-professed deceiver, by trade.

 

Impossible: where have the women disappeared to?

August 13, 2015

Impossible (Noel Coward Theatre, London) is one of those show about which you wonder, “Why has this not been seen before?”

impossible

An ensemble magic show featuring multiple performers doing different kinds of tricks, from huge illusions (yes, a car vanishes, a helicopter appears) to card and coin tricks.  It was packed, the audience loved it, and the 12 year-olds with me pronounced it “awesome”.

This is surely west-end gold.  For a start, you don’t need much English to watch a magic show, and it’s very family-friendly (even the ticket prices are lower than the west-end standard).  From a producer’s point of view, the ensemble nature of the show means than no performer is irreplaceable.

The magic was baffling, funny, slick and pretty much flawless in execution.  Maybe it’s because (wisely) almost the whole programme was built around tricks that  have been around for decades if not centuries – what magicians call “classics”.  I’ve been into magic almost my whole life and there were very few illusions here that I haven’t seen – in one way or another – before.  From Ben Hart’s opening “Diminishing Cards”, through Jamie Allen’s “sawing a lady in two” (OK, he used a “laser beam”, but it’s the same trick), to Ali Cook’s Houdini routine: these are classics but still look fresh and mystifying.

Funniest of all is that the trick that truly captivated the boys I was with was not the helicopter, or the mind-reading, or any one of the (frankly FAR too many) boxes in which pretty girls underwent myriad contortions and transformations, but a simple card trick performed by Luis de Matos involving all the audience which provoked gasps of amazement and delight.

For me, though, the biggest mystery was the absence of the only woman of the troupe, Katherine Mills.  What on earth happened there?  She was in all the pre-publicity.  She’s in the brochure.  She never made it much past the first night.  Done.  Gone.  Vanished.

And keeping very schtum on FB and Twitter.

The remaining line-up is all men, plus their compulsory “glamorous assistants”.  I’m the very last person to bleat on about “sexism”.  It didn’t strike me as sexist, just…old fashioned.

Despite the jeans-and-t-shirt chic, the magic with iPads and all the rest of it, the curtain call demonstrated that live magic has yet to get fully comfortable in the 21st century.

And now, just for fun a truly MYSITIFYING magic trick.  Not part of the “Impossible” show, but impossible nonetheless

The strangest optical illusion of all

June 25, 2015

This is called – with variations – the Motion After Effect.  The reason that it happens is a wonderfully complex interaction between your brain and your eyes.  It was first observed by Aristotle, but was not fully described until the 19th century, and not understood until the 20th.

Stare at the spinning spiral for about thirty seconds, and then look at something static, such as the back of your hand.  Go on, do it now!  It probably won’t work if you’re viewing this post on a phone: it’s better full-screen.

Freaky, eh?  I once saw a children’s entertainer rig up one on stage.  He got the kids to stare at the circle as it spun around, and then look at the nose of the kid siting next to them.  It brought the house down.  He told me he hated the trick, because it required no skill or presentation, but that every time he took it out of the act, he was asked by clients to put it back in.

I also observed the phenomenon myself after a long ride facing backwards in a flat-bed truck in Venezuela (though I daresay it works in other South American countries as well). After several hours of staring at the retreating road, we stopped beneath some cliffs and they appeared to be leaning in towards me.

Magic or maths?

June 25, 2015

This is an old puzzle re-done by a clever magician called Greg Rostami.  I have watched it three times now and I have NO IDEA how it works.  It’s not a trick (I don’t think) – that is, there’s nothing “secret” going on.  But it’s got me completely baffled.  (Best watched on full-screen).