Getting on with the job

Once I felt comfortable with the mechanics of drawing a crowd and controlling it I had to concentrate on my character.

I am a self-confessed magic geek but I dislike most magicians and I felt that the pompousness shown by magicians is their downfall and I could capitalise on this if I got the character right.

My costume, I decided, would be the traditional tailed coat and bow tie. My reason for this is that as soon as I walked out in front of an audience they would recognise me as a magician and would have preconceived ideas of what I would be doing.

The idea of playing with those assumptions was very intriguing and I decided that the same thinking should be applied to the tricks I selected to use. My idea was to use tricks that everyone is familiar with and the laughs would come from me getting into trouble and not presenting the tricks as people would expect, the tricks still needed to be baffling but presented this way any audience would be back-footed and if I could catch them off guard they would be trying to catch up with me for the rest of the act.

A lifelong fan of silent and slapstick comedy; my absolute idols are Jacques Tati and George Carl so it was inevitable that I would introduce ideas from their work. I'm not talking about plagiarism or even paying homage (plagiarism with a fancy title) to them, I was intrigued by Jacques Tati's use of rhythm and whether it be audible or visual his use of it is stunning in its simplicity and George Carl was masterly at using his face and body to make to people laugh.

One thing both Jacques Tati and George Carl had in common was the ability to never "telegraph" anything, all actions were consistent with their character and they never stepped out of character - that was what I was aiming for. I wanted a balance between the stately gentlemanly characteristics of Jacques Tati's character Monsieur Hulot and George Carl's frenetic comic character.

I eventually ended up being perhaps a little more frenetic than I had intended.

How to transport your act is always a consideration when working on the street. I have seen street acts turn up in huge vans and unload large structures for tight-rope or slack-rope acts. These worked well on the street because they were so incongruous to the surroundings that they captured attention. I couldn't drive then so anything that was in the act I would have to carry and use Public Transport, which is almost door to door in London. If I carried something it would have to be part of the act. The bag I carried everything in was part of the act and the costume was adapted to do tricks so nothing was wasted and could only help form the character's identity.

My character went through a lot of different phases; I tried being really smug so that the comedy would be highlighted by the ineptitude but I am not a smug person and I couldn't carry it off, I tried the completely inept character approach but again it wasn't me. An old magician and friend of mine, Ken Brooke, was very interested in what I was doing and I would visit him often with updates and one time he simply said "just be yourself" and that was what I went with. My comic timing appeared to be very good and I was by nature a conservative looking person but with a very quirky attitude to life and this suited the character perfectly. It's funny how it takes an outsider to see the person you really are.

Now that I was comfortable with the character it was a matter of filling in the details; I had to know how to react to heckles, how to pace the act, how to structure the act to keep it moving as the character fell apart at times and was moderately in control at other times. There is only so much you can plan and the only way to learn is to go out and get your hands dirty - this was my approach. If I saw members of the crowd walking away I made a mental note to alter whatever was happening at the time, they were obviously bored and voted with their feet. It was very steep learning curve but I was in for the long-haul and wanted so much to succeed.

I tried all sorts of tricks but it wasn't until I realised that I was going about it all wrong that things started to fall into place. The accepted way for a magician to work is to get a trick and develop a routine for it but after a while I came to understand it was best to be character led, and when I wanted to add a new routine I would start by thinking about a situation I wanted to create then picking the trick or tricks to fit the situation. This approach led to a seamless act with one thing leading onto the next in a logical manner instead of the usual unconnected collection of tricks that magicians delight in.

Toy shops have always fascinated me and I would spend hours in them looking for something to spark an idea or train of thought. The idea of a grown man in evening attire playing with toys was one that I found amusing. The idea of never coming out of character and yet being able to play with toys worked, I think, because I was just being me or the person I would like to be.

I found a big hairy spider in a toy shop, one of those with a tube attached to it and a bulb at the other and when the bulb was squeezed the spider would jump. The spider had to get it into the act somehow; I bought a few of them and took the tubes off two of them, which I connected to a third spider and had a very long lead so that I could take the spider for a walk. Sometimes I would take it for a walk while I was waiting for a crowd to form and other times I would just take out spider between routines and walk it around the crowd. I would always manage to get it to jump up onto someone's shoe and make it jump it up and down very fast against their leg while I apologised for its behaviour and told the spider it was very very naughty. Body popping and break dancing was becoming very popular on the street and I would flip the spider over onto its back and using the long lead I would spin it around then lift the lead up sharply and the spider would look as if it was standing on its head.

Taking the spider for a walk only worked in areas where the entire audience could see the ground. So eventually I would not say a word and bring out the spider which was placed on the table top. The spider would jump a couple of times then I would reach into my bag without taking my eyes off the spider and bring out one of the rings from the set of linking rings. I would place the ring in front of the spider and it always got a laugh, the audience could see that I wanted the spider to jump through the ring and it was just so ridiculous the crowd would laugh. I would squeeze the bulb and the spider would jump but I would give a short backward pull on the lead (just the original length) and the spider wouldn't have jumped through, next the spider was given a series of short sharp squeezes and this had the effect of it jumping up and down getting ready for the big jump. The next jump was a big jump but with a sharp backward pull and the spider would fall of the table, I would retrieve the spider and look at the crowd as if I was apologising for the ineptitude of the spider and I would put the spider back onto the table without noticing it was on its back. I would look at the ring, ignoring the spider, and squeeze the bulb quickly a few times then squeeze hard it leaving the thing that makes it jump sticking in the air. I would look at the spider then at the audience and back to the spider then give a little start as I realised what had happened and what it looked like. The spider would then be returned to the table and would jump through the ring to tumultuous applause.

The routine looks simple enough but to distil everything down to the routine mentioned above took countless number of performances. I know lots of magicians who have tried to steal the spider routine but it just didn't suit them and they never got a reaction. One act did steal the entire routine and have passed it off as their own for quite a few years now, it works because when the lead guy in the act was wanting to work on the street I gave him a lot of advice and the result is that it fits in with everything I taught him - he has a great act, part of the magic establishment now and the reason it is great is that the concept and most of the content was ripped off from an Eastern European mime duo who spent years putting their act together.

Every so often I would hear of someone who had stolen (paid homage to me) parts of my act but it didn't usually work for them because the act was all about me and how I reacted to what was going on around me and not about the tricks or gags - the character was the act, not the routines.

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