Unlike so many of my fellow magicians, my love for magic didn’t start with a box bought for me on my 9th birthday, by seeing a live magician at a party, or when I watch, wide eyes, a super-star magician on TV. No, I trace my love of magic back to movies. Growing up in the 80s, we had a grand total of three channels to watch, four after the first few years. That meant we didn’t have the massive amount of choice that exists for people now. Basically, we watched what the schedulers decided we should watch. But that meant two things. Firstly, a trip to the cinema was a big deal, and secondly, I was exposed to some absolute classics.
Today the massive amount of choice is great, but I do think that because we are so flooded with movies of all types we don't have the chance to sample different films and learn to appreciate different styles. Netflix's content algorithms create a little echo chamber when it doesn’t just recommend movies I might like based on what I've watched previously, it doesn't even show me other types of films. But growing up that wasn't the case. Though I had no real choice in what I watched, I was exposed to a wide range of films which I think helped me understand the language of cinema all the more. And so Sunday afternoon, bank holidays, and – most importantly - the Christmas scheduling would bring black and white war films which in my mind always stared Richard Todd, Bond, who back then only had three faces, and the greatest gift of all: the name Ray Harryhausen.
Last night I watched the 2010 Clash of the Titans and the follow up Wrath of the Titans. As a pallet cleanser I decided to watch the original, 1981 film. Now, bearing in mind that this really isn’t one of Harryhausen’s greatest works, the fact that it is so embedded in our minds is staggering. As Stephen R. Wilk once wrote "most people today who are aware of the story of Perseus and Medusa owe their knowledge to...Clash of the Titans." That is not bad going. Still, I’ve quoted Wilk, but a more apt quote for the magic Harryhausen was able to cast would have to come from Penn Jillette who once said “The only secret of magic is that I'm willing to work harder on it than you think it's worth.” In my, his work is the very epitome of that ideal. This is a man who would spend hour upon hour painstakingly altering the position of models to build a few moments of film. There is no way on gods green earth that I could ever do something like that. But this man, this absolute genius did. His hard work and dedication created worlds that I believed whole heartedly. The skeletons and Talos in Jason and the Argonauts and Kali in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad remain some of the strongest memories of my childhood.
It is that feeling of absolute wonder, the yearning for a world where such beautifully grotesque magic actually existed that has really brought me to where I am now. If I don’t have the mind set to create that feeling by spending hour after hour alone in a dark room with only models for company, how else can I? The obvious choice – for me at least – was magic. But I think I still have a little bit of the Harryhausen spirit in me. His craft, which the man undoubtedly raised to the level of art, was solitary, and did not make him the star. Though I knew his name, I knew nothing else about him until I was much older. I didn’t need to. I didn’t care. All I knew was that he made me feel like anything was possible. And in his room, Harryhausen knew that that was the gift he was giving. His magic happened not just on the screen, but in people’s minds. He was never the centre of their attention, his creations were. His creations and the dreams – and sometimes nightmares – that they sparked.
For me, that is the essence of what my magic is about. Magic happens not BECAUSE of me, but THROUGH me. My performances are my way of helping people see the world I do, even if it is just for a moment. I’m not suggesting for a moment that I’ve elevated my craft to the level of art Harryhausen attained, but the man remains an inspiration and an aspiration. The other day I bumped into a lady in the street. I didn’t recognise her but once she started talking I knew who she was. About six months ago I had been in a restaurant puzzling over a new effect. Behind me was a very noisy family. Now, I have no problem with that at all; it is my opinion that 6 year olds are designed to be noisy. However, as they were leaving the father came over and was polite enough to apologise for any disturbance. As I was telling him not to worry the young son asked what I was doing. At that point his older sister told him I was probably a magician. He instantly asked if I could do a trick at which point his parents apologetically tried to manoeuvre him away so that I could finish what I was doing. But I was happy to do a few things, and so I did, finishing with a bit of a signature trick for me that ends with a signed card being left with a member of the audience, in this case the son. And so, six months later here I was, talking to the mother who told me that her boy still has the card and still talks about what I did. Because of that they bought him a magic set for his birthday and he’s started practicing.
I have never, in all of my life, been paid a higher complement.
We all find our inspiration in different places, and it can lead down many unforeseen paths. Find your inspiration wherever you want, and enjoy whatever song you sing because I guarantee that there is someone who will hear you, and want to join in.
I think I'll leave you with the absolute joy that is the skeleton fight in Jason and the Argonauts.
Paul's Edinburgh Fringe show “Illusions of Depression” will be showing at Tollbooth Market, Gladstone’s Court, EH8 8BN from the 15th August to the 25th August.