Three Weeks: 3 Things To Control #2

Alright there? Chris Cox, the mind reader who can’t read minds here. I’m doing a show called ‘Control Freak’ and have cleverly combined the name of my show, along with the name of this newspaper to write about three things I’m going to control people to do this week. Hurrah.

1 Walk Quicker
The other day I had 15 minutes to get from The Pleasance to The Assembly Rooms. This is just about do-able. Until you hit Prince’s St where people walk far too slowly and often in large groups who like to stop. I urge you, if you see a skinny, slightly sweaty mind reader running to get somewhere, pick up the pace or move out of the way. I thank you.

2 Be More American
My audiences have been beautiful and lovely, but my shows are always really good if I have a State-side visitor in. Why? Well it’s because they whoop and hollah and cheer, and despite this being a little bit annoying, it does make for a rather fun and lively atmosphere. So Festival-goers, make the occasional ‘WOO!’ and brighten up your performer’s day. Oh. It should be said this kinda only works for the more light hearted show, don’t go doing it at some play about murder or something. You’ll look like a mental… And not in the good way.

3 Have a M&M fest
M&M, Mark and Minchin. I can not recommend Mark Watson and Tim Minchin’s shows highly enough this year, so go see them. Tim’s only on for a little bit and is once again being a devil with the piano, the songs and the lyrics that put other singers, both comedy and serious to shame. Mark is doing what he does best, being very funny indeed, being nice and friendly and making people laugh. Go spend an evening in the converted gym at the Pleasance and you won’t be disappointed.

Control Over.

The Times: The New Generation Of Mentalist Magicians

Pete Firman is tapping a 4in nail into his nose with a hammer. A few moments later he is swallowing a maggot. And if that makes him sound like the sort of performer who puts on whiteface, harasses pedestrians and generally makes the Edinburgh Fringe feel like a compulsory trip to the circus, think again. Firman is a magician. He is light entertainment to the bone. He performs in a three-piece suit and plies the gabby patter of a northern comic. But Firman knows that magic has to stay surprising to survive.

He is not alone. It’s a big year for magic on the Fringe. This year a dozen acts at the major venues alone are trying to show that this stuff is too interesting to relegate to weddings, cruise ships and kids’ parties; trying to show that Derren Brown isn’t the only man – and, sorry, it is just men we’re talking about here – who can trick us into feeling good about being fooled.

“Why do we care if the magician is pulling handkerchiefs out of a box?” asks Firman. Offstage now, he is dressed in a tasselled leather jacket and cowboy hat that make him look more like a regular 28-year-old from Middlesbrough than his onstage mix of indie band frontman and Seventies quiz show host. “When a bloke’s got a maggot in his mouth, swallows it, and it comes out of his eye, you can’t watch it passively. There are only a few main ideas at play. It’s how to present them.”

If magic is fighting its way back centre-stage, we have two men to thank or to blame for that. One is David Blaine, the blank-eyed American illusionist who rose to fame in the mid-Nineties, while many Fringe magicians were still at school. “He opened the gates,” says Firman, “after Paul Daniels had locked them.” The other is Brown, the “psychological illusionist” who’s about to make his sixth series for Channel 4. His influence can be seen most explicitly on other “mind magicians” or “mentalists” – the proper term, albeit one co-opted as a teenage insult – such as Philip Escoffey and Chris Cox. But his credibility casts a shadow on everyone in British magic. It’s mentalism’s claims to illuminate concealed psychological truths that gives it purchase to audiences who’d happily go to their grave without seeing another glamorous assistant sawn in half.

Escoffey, 37, is a mentalist known to his corporate clients as the Grey Man. A close friend of Brown’s – magicians, like the priests in Father Ted, all seem to know each other – he admits that Brown has opened up options for the rest of them. His show, Six Impossible Things Before Dinner, fools us with impossible feats of mindreading while hinting that the explanation is a logical one. “If done well,” he says, “you can get rational people thinking, ‘Maybe there’s something real going on there.’ There’s more to hang on to.”

Chris Cox, a 24-year-old mentalist who signed to a big comedy agency after appearing at last year’s Fringe, suggests that his act is 50 per cent conjuring, 50 per cent psychological techniques. Escoffey isn’t sure of the wisdom of this. “I think you probably want to use 100 per cent conjuring,” he suggests. Some mentalists claim to use neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) to plant ideas in our unconscious through the artful manipulation of language. NLP, says Escoffey, “is just New Age horseshit: Nothing Like Psychology.” Could it be that mentalism’s scientific credentials are merely decorative?

In Steve Martin’s autobiography Born Standing Up, the former boy magician quotes a key 1943 text by themagician Dariel Fitzkee that derides magic as “old-fashioned”. People have been saying the same ever since. Fitzkee also suggested there were only 19 types of magic trick, including “production” – making something appear from nowhere – and “restoration” – such as tearing up a volunteer’s fiver and then making it whole again. Oh and “thought reading” – mentalism. Learning tricks is hard. But learning ways to make those tricks feel fresh is how you make your mark.

Cox found out the hard way that there is no short-cut to doing that. When he was 18, he interviewed Derren Brown for a student newspaper in Bristol. They got on well, and later Brown offered him a job as his assistant tour manager. Cox opted to stay at university. Then he put on his first show at a tiny Bristol theatre, for which he “borrowed” a couple of Brown’s tricks. A magician was in the audience, and told Brown what had happened.

Cox got an e-mail from Brown. “It taught me the word ‘galling’,” he says. “I had to go and look it up in the dictionary. I felt so embarrassed and ashamed.” He sent apologetic e-mails, but the two haven’t met since. And when Brown visited his workplace one day – Cox’s day job is working for Radio 1 – he hid until Brown had left the building. “I went through a stage when I wouldn’t watch any of his stuff so I couldn’t be influenced by it,” says Cox. “The only good thing about it is that it’s made me find my own persona.”

Cox does his shows in T-shirt and jeans: he’s a bit gawky, an enthusiast who doesn’t mind the odd balls-up. “There is a failure rate,” he admits. “If I can pull it off 80 per cent of the time I’m happy.” If Cox gets away with that, it’s because his naivety is part of his onstage persona – what magicians call their “premise”. Firman’s premise is more lewd and ironic. “When you start taking yourself too seriously you’re dead with a British audience,” he says.

The New York magician Eric Walton, who looks like Lex Luthor and dresses like a camp stockbroker, lends an intellectualism to his mix of mentalism and card magic in his show Esoterica. Nineteen tricks? Walton would be surprised if there were ten: “That’s why the magician’s character is so important.” A 37-year-old actor, he discovered the art eight years ago: “So I have to practise a lot to catch up with people who have been doing this since they were 4.” His sleight of hand is superb – some tricks, he says, take years to perfect – but his emphasis on the workings of the mind is what makes him modern. He quotes Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, the father of modern conjuring: “The magician is an actor playing the part of the magician.”

The Fringe hasn’t had this much magic for years. But is it a resurgence or a blip? Jack Delvin, the public relations officer of the Magic Circle, has been watching and performing magic since the last days of music-hall. Its popularity, he says, goes in cycles. Blaine brought it up to date a decade ago: “Everything he did is stuff that the rest of us can do, but he made it look cool.” Brown has further altered perceptions: but, again, it’s the way he tells ’em. “If you have somebody select a card and you make it disappear from a pack and then reappear,” says Delvin, “that’s magic. But if someone pulls a card and you ‘read their mind’ to tell them what it is, that’s mind magic.”

Harry Potter has had an impact too: “Kids want to see ‘real’ magicians at their parties, not ‘silly sausage’ magicians.” But magic needs a primetime Saturday night act to be big again. “When Paul [Daniels] was on, magic was doing phenomenally well. Back then I did 300 or 400 shows a year. Now I do fewer than 200. Because it’s not on television like it was.”

Of the Fringe acts, Pete Firman looks like the one who just might become a popular entertainer. There are sharper comics, there are bolder magicians, but there are few who so comfortably combine the two. He would love, he says, to have his own “shiny-floor” television magic series. But Brown remains the man to beat: “He is the best magician in the world right now.”

And Brown’s best trick may be the way he’s got the nation to think he’s not even a magician. “The thing about Derren is

you’re never quite sure if it’s real,” he says. “And magic needs that sort of needle in the arm; you have to make people think, ‘Is he really doing that?’ But ultimately, he’s here for entertainment. That’s what we do.” He chuckles. “It’s all bullshit.”

Three Weeks: 3 Things To Control #1

Hello beautiful reader. I’m Chris Cox, a mind reader who can’t read minds. I’m doing a show at the Pleasance
Courtyard called Control Freak every day at 6.20pm. I’m flattered that the brilliant ThreeWeeks want me to write some stuff, and, since I am a control freak, I thought I’d write about the things I shall be attempting to control the people of Edinburgh to do this week. You can read them if you want. Or just move on to reading something else. You pick.

1. Not Give Me Flyers.
I am going to try at this, but shall no doubt fail. I plan to see about 40 shows this Festival, but I kinda already know which ones. So I’d like it if you didn’t thrust your paper cutting devices into my face. That said, I would like people to take flyers for my show. So how about this? I promise to take a flyer every time you take one of mine. Deal?

2. See My Show
What? You expect me to write a column and not try to plug my own show? How silly of you to think such a thing. It’s true though, this first week is the toughest one for any performer. We want to get people in seeing our shows so they tell their chums about how good we are, so more people come to see the shows, and thus we don’t have to perform to an empty room. However, often there aren’t many people about to come to shows in the first week so we have to resort to shamelessly plugging our shows in ThreeWeeks. Come see mine please? I’ll do some “tricks that’d make Jesus proud” (Time Out) and mess with your mind a bit.

3. Try not to go over my word count
I’ve been given 300 words to write about these things, so I’ll try not go over my word count… Ah bugger I’ve failed. Oh well. Till next week, enjoy your festival, see you in the Courtyard for a drink, or something.

Chris x

The Observer: Funnily Enough, it’s a Great Start

If you fancy a change from the usual stand-up fare, book up quickly for Chris Cox’s hugely entertaining Control Freak – last year he sold out early on. It’s not quite comedy or magic, but a mongrel hybrid of both, featuring mind-reading tricks in the style of Derren Brown. Cox moves with a manic energy, presumably to distract you from all the subliminal messaging going on; there’s plenty of audience participation, and the fact that not every trick comes off as slickly as it might is all the more convincing, as the outcome is always close enough to what was predicted to reassure the audience that his techniques really do work. The grand finale is a short film, apparently locked away from the beginning of the show, and if I tell you any more it would spoil the impact, but you will spend the rest of the festival trying to work out how he did it.

Chortle: Control Freak Review

When it comes to tricks of the mind, we’ve all been spoiled by the jaw-dropping shenanigans of Derren Brown, setting expectations almost impossibly high. Those simpler days when audiences would have been happy to see a goateed weirdo in a cape guessing the number some stooge was thinking of have thankfully long gone.

Chris Cox brings youth and vigour to the genre, and his finale – if all is as it appears – is properly impressive. The cynic, however, may still suspect some technical or sleight-of-hand jiggery-pokery in his act, despite all his assurances.

He bills himself as the mind-reader who can’t read minds, admitting to what everyone pretty much knew anyway; that such displays are a mixture of psychology, neurolinguistic programming, magic tricks and the ability to read body language. It’s the magic trick aspect that’s cause for scepticism, though, as the inquisitive will spend as much time wondering how he did something as being impressed that he did it at all.

Such disbelief is only testament to the fact that his demonstrations are so remarkable you are left thinking that he couldn’t possibly have done them without cheating. But suspend your disbelief, and you’ll be gobsmacked.

Cox is a sprightly performer, animatedly and mischievously interacting with the audience, cheekily playing on their reluctance to get involved, even though such participation is clearly a vital element of a show like this. Some of the jokes, to be honest, are fairly ropey, but he’s not pretending to be a comedian.

He opens with an astonishing display of prophecy using a volunteer and the Fringe programme, and goes on to successfully determine all manner of seemingly unpredictable occurrences. Unusually, he gets the audience to do much of the work, too, collectively guessing a mobile phone number or selecting the right key to open a box. The tricks are made more impressive from this reversal, though Cox often subverts the result with a little joke.

Some tasks require a fair bit of preamble, but he keeps things lively, and the payoffs are worth the set-ups. And as he builds to his show-stopper, demonstrating that he guessed a complex series of events determined by various audience members long before he took to the stage, the pace builds up nicely.

Cox might not quite be Derren Brown – yet. But you don’t have to be able to see into the future to predict a good future for him.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett