The Mind Reader Who Can’t Read Minds – Bristol Post

Russell Howard, Bill Bailey, Marcus Brigstocke, Simon Pegg… the list of major-league comics with ties to Bristol is a long and illustrious one. And it’s just about to get longer, we’d wager, with the addition of the name Chris Cox.

Raised in Backwell just outside town, Cox is a magician and comedian who uses a mix of quick wit, magic, psychology, body language and, well, lying to make you think he knows what you’re thinking. In fact he is (as his stage sub-moniker “The Mind Reader Who Can’t Read Minds” indicates) not a true mind-reader – but he’s terrifically talented and very funny to boot, as a 2011 Top Comedy award from our colleagues at venue.co.uk bears witness. He’s also got a growing army of celeb fans including Jonathan Ross and Ricky Gervais.

In his new show, Fatal Distraction, Cox re-evaluates love and rejection. “On the surface, Fatal Distraction is a mind-reading and magic show, but in reality it’s so much more than that,” Cox tells us. “It’s actually a piece of proper theatre, with highs and lows, jokes and emotions all wrapped together with tricks that have never before been seen by the world.

“You can expect some audience interaction (don’t worry, there’s nothing to fear), and you will also be able to control what you see me do by thoughts alone. You can also expect to laugh and to be amazed – but most importantly you can expect a very entertaining time.”

Magic’s Moment – Evening Standard Magazine

Magic’s Moment – Evening Standard Magazine, London, March 2012 by Lucy Hunter Johnston.

At Stella McCartney’s London Fashion Week evening wear presentation, the model, presenter and fashion plate Alexa Chung was hypnotised and levitated until she was hovering three feet above ground on the tip of a scimitar.

She had volunteered to play magician’s assistant to the Dutch illusionist Hans Klok, an Eighties throwback with Boris Johnson hair and the swaggering air of a young David Hasselhoff. Hans stared deep into Alexa’s eyes, clicked his fingers and raised her up, as guests, including Anna Wintour and Rihanna, looked on, agog.

One month on and the evening is being talked about as the fashion event of the decade. Asked what led her to use a magician in her show, Stella explained: ‘This is London, I wanted to do something bold.’ But if it seems too bold, not to mention a little uncool, to include such tricks in a high-profile fashion event, rest assured that good old-fashioned magic has the Kate Moss seal of approval. ‘It was crazy,’ explains Hans, 43, in an almost incomprehensible Dutch accent. ‘Kate Moss saw me performing on The One Show on BBC One, and she called Stella McCartney and told her, “You’ve got to book Hans Klok for your opening.” Kate found my agent in Amsterdam, and I thought, “Well, this has got to be a good thing.”?’

Magic is having a moment now that Kate and Alexa, the women who set the trends for trendsetters, have embraced all things abracadabra. In fact, Moss had originally wanted to play the assistant herself. ‘Unfortunately she had something wrong with her arm so it had to be Alexa. But she came up to me at the end and said, “I liked it a lot tonight but it was missing the wind machine,”?’ says Klok. ‘Well, I haven’t used a wind machine for two years so she must have been following my career. I suggested she should be my manager. She said, “Give me ten per cent and we can talk.”?’

Klok started performing magic in his native city of Purmerend, Holland, when he was just ten, and learned English from the magic books he borrowed from the local library. He is known for spectacularly fast, bombastic illusions; earlier this year he broke his own world record for the most illusions done in five minutes, performing 12 tricks, which involved a lot of vanishing from seemingly impenetrable boxes, on the live BBC One show The Magicians. He opened the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany by making the trophy appear out of thin air, in a trick televised to 500 million viewers worldwide; and in 2007 he booked Pamela Anderson as his assistant for a six-month run in Las Vegas. ‘She was the best-paid assistant in the history of magic,’ he jokes.

Chris Cox, 28, a gangly, geeky-looking ‘mind-reader’ from Bristol, who is Ricky Gervais’ favourite magician, credits the Harry Potter books with propelling magic back to popularity. Although the publication of the first book in 1997 barely caused a ripple, sales of the seven volumes now stand at more than 450 million, and the final film instalment grossed $1.3 billion worldwide. ‘People read the books and think, “Wouldn’t it be cool to do that? Isn’t that a world you’d like to live in?” As a kid you believed anything is possible; Harry Potter reminded people how much they loved that feeling,’ he says. Cox believes that people are particularly drawn to escapism in times of economic gloom. ‘In a recession people want to be amazed, and magic is one of the few art forms where, for a split second, your belief systems collapse. Those moments are a bit like a drug, people crave them. Society is a bit shit at the minute, and people want to be entertained by something that feels different. Plus, magic shows are a lot cheaper than going to see a West End musical.’

But the biggest reason for the sudden change in magic’s popularity has undoubtedly been its move away from provincial theatres and Paul Daniels-style patter – a transition led by the American illusionist David Blaine. His debut television show David Blaine: Street Magic, in 1997, changed the way tricks were performed by placing them in an uncontrolled environment – on any busy street. Audiences were no longer made up of a handful of people who had paid for tickets, but anyone lucky enough to be wandering by. Later, Blaine progressed to large-scale public stunts: in 1999 he was buried alive for a week; in 2000 he was frozen in ice for 63 hours; in 2002 he stood untethered on a 100ft-high, 22in-wide pillar for 35 hours; and, perhaps most memorably, in 2003 he spent 44 days locked in a glass box suspended above the Thames by Tower Bridge. Together these stunts earned him a reputation as a maverick – he once pretended to cut off his own ear during a press conference – as well as a small fortune and A-list celebrity status, not to mention a host of famous fans, from Leonardo DiCaprio to Al Pacino.

It’s a model for street magic that has been adopted by numerous other magicians, most notably in Britain by the television illusionist and hypnotist Derren Brown. ‘I definitely wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if Derren hadn’t done what he’d done,’ admits Cox. ‘People have become aware of magic again and think of it as something quite cool. We’re just surfing the zeitgeist.’

With magic now on the streets, its naff conventions and complicated traditions look outdated. Even the Magic Circle, the elite British society for top magicians, which requires would-be candidates to endure an arduous audition or write a thesis before being invited to join, is being sidelined. As Cox explains, ‘If you want to do well in magic, and make it different, entertaining and cool, then you need to avoid that old world completely. I went to the Magic Circle once to talk about joining, but to me it represents everything that’s wrong about magic.’

Although traditional magicians can still make a living (for example, Drummond ‘DMC’ Money-Coutts, 25, who started practising magic at Eton, and now hold residencies at the Mayfair members’ clubs Annabel’s and The George, has performed his close-up routine at private parties for the Queen, Emma Watson, Hugh Grant and Pippa Middleton), the way today’s younger magic acts interact with their audience and construct their performance has been transformed. ‘We are pushing against what is expected of a magician and subverting it,’ says Cox. ‘Successful magicians must credit the audience with enough intelligence to know that magic doesn’t really exist; we all agree it’s just bollocks and work from there to amaze.’

The latest magician to be touted as Britain’s answer to David Blaine is Bradford’s Stephen ‘Dynamo’ Frayne, 29, now at the forefront of the urban magic revival. His website shows him amazing everyone from Tinie Tempah to Rio Ferdinand and James Corden, with trademark tricks including making a mobile phone appear in a beer bottle and passing through a plate-glass shop window. With his baseball cap, wispy facial hair, and tendency to include hip-hop and dance in his performances, he is about as far away from the staid world of the Great Soprendo as it’s possible to be.

Growing up on a rough council estate, Dynamo suffered from Crohn’s disease, and was picked on because of his size. ‘My grandpa was my hero,’ he says. ‘He saw what was going on and taught me a trick to take someone’s strength away. I tried it on these two kids who used to throw me in a wheelie bin and it scared the hell out of them. I realised then how powerful magic is and started to dedicate myself to the art. It literally became my world.’ Like all of this new generation of performers, Dynamo is careful to avoid being trapped in the traditional magic circles. ‘I try to stay out of the magic cliques; instead I’m influenced by everyday life, music, film and art. That’s the best way to stay original and save yourself from being sucked into the industry. I have my own code. I do have friends who are magicians, but in general I tend to stay out of the magic world.’

This may be true, but it’s clear from his love of high-profile tricks that he has been more than a little influenced by the Blaine and Brown model. His most famous feat to date was walking across the Thames in June last year to publicise his TV show Dynamo: Magician Impossible, shown on the UKTV channel Watch. He made it halfway across the river before being picked up by what was apparently a river police boat. ‘I think it’s possibly one of the biggest pieces of magic ever performed in the UK,’ he says. ‘The image of me taking a stroll on the river in front of the Houses of Parliament will live in magic history.’ He now has a number of famous fans: ‘I had Richard Branson bow down to me on the floor of Cipriani in Abu Dhabi after he’d seen me perform,’ he recalls. ‘And Kings of Leon kidnapped me and took me on tour with them after I showed them some magic at their after-party.’

Magic has reinvented itself to such a degree that Dynamo doesn’t even think of his work as ‘tricks’; the intention of his performance isn’t to fool but to astonish. ‘I always aim to amaze people, that’s the difference between a trick and the magic I do. It’s about creating a moment of real astonishment. The ability to change someone’s world and create a moment of wonder is an incredible gift.

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