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.”