London is the home to the premier ‘Magic Circle’, an exclusive members-only society that meets every week in their own, very impressive premises. Members are required to be over the age of 18 - however, they do have a youth initiative called ‘The Young Magician’s Club’, which I joined when I was around 12 years old.
There’s something I really enjoy about the idea of magic clubs. They’re often self-indulgent, political and bitchy, but I think that’s a part of the charm. The lengths to which a magician will go to prove he has a better way of turning a playing card over are nothing short of extraordinary.
Although ‘The Young Magician’s Club’ was too far away for me to visit regularly, each month the society would have a magic magazine delivered called ‘Secrets’ - featuring tricks, stories and all the latest magic news. This particular month featured a full-page advert with the words, ‘Audition to star in a SONY advert!’ written bold as brass. Let me tell you, for a 13-year-old kid, this is a ridiculously exciting idea!
As it turns out, Sony had just released a massively successful advert for one of their Bravia products and were looking to do something along the same lines in Japan. The original advert consisted of colourful balls bouncing down a road in San Francisco. This colour idea seemed to be something they wanted to stick with, but they also wanted it to seem magical - so they were on the hunt for a young magician who could make colourful objects appear out of seemingly nowhere.
With that in mind, they’d sent out a worldwide audition call, and were looking for magicians under the age of 18 to submit videos of themselves silently performing as much colourful magic as possible. It was around this period that I was also working on my own silent, sleight-of-hand classical magic act - so the timings for this seemed absolutely perfect. The only snag? The video had to be submitted two days after I saw the advert. Two days!
Frantically, I compiled a list of the various different tricks I could possibly perform, or ideas I’d be able to adapt to make them more colourful. It quickly seemed like the best option would be to create something of a ‘routine’ - so rather than just doing different ‘takes’ with each one having its own individual trick, I opted to make a flowing set with one trick going, somewhat seamlessly, into the next.
A number of local magicians helped me out with a few ideas and that was it! Less than 48 hours later, I’d filmed a brand new colourful magic act in my parents’ living room and had sent it off to the production team. Silk handkerchiefs, sponges, liquids and streamers - it was camp as anything. I’m not going to say the act was necessarily any good, but my god was it colourful. What on earth the neighbours would have thought I was doing if they looked through the window is beyond me.
About a month passed after I’d sent the video without a single word from them. To be honest, I’d almost forgotten about it, until an email suddenly landed in my inbox. It was from a man called Sosuke, who was co-ordinating the initial stages of the audition process. He said I’d been shortlisted to the last ten people and asked if I could send him some more information. They were looking for things like my height and build, and presumably, from the ten of us, whoever had the ‘look’ they were going for would be chosen. It was just like The Hunger Games, I suppose - except in this case, little-to-no magicians were killed in a forest.
I replied with my details and immediately wondered whether I should have said I was just slightly taller. I reckon that including my quiff would have given me at least another two inches.
I awaited some kind of reply from him with baited breath. Seven long days later, another email hit my inbox. I read the first sentence over and over again in my mind, not quite being able to believe it… “Stephen, we’ve chosen you to star in the advert.”
I was genuinely ecstatic… I couldn’t believe it! This was the first time that doing magic had taken me or my family anywhere outside of Liverpool - so for Sony to now be offering to fly us all the way to Japan was almost indescribable.
We knew what the filming dates would be based on the initial advert in Secrets magazine, so in the email Sosuke broke down exactly what the advert would be like, what I’d need to provide - and tremendously excitingly, asked for the passport details of my dad and I, so that he could make the necessary travel arrangements and flights. Looking back, it’s amazing just how quickly everything progressed. We went from knowing literally nothing about whether I’d been chosen, to having someone who we’d never met in person book accommodation for us on the other side of the world, in a matter of days!
It was such an amazing opportunity and so completely out of the norm for us that I don’t think anyone could believe it was actually happening. It all seemed so surreal.
A few weeks later we headed down to London, where they’d arranged a hotel for my dad and I, where we were told that a representative from Sony would meet us to go for something to eat and discuss the plans.
Arriving much earlier than required, we checked into the hotel, which did indeed have a reservation under our name, and killed time for a few hours before going to meet the man. Well, that was the plan, at least.
We made our way to the hotel’s reception where we anticipated someone from Sony being there to welcome us with open arms. We waited. And we waited. We waited for what must have been well over an hour as deafening silence played in the background. Maybe they were stuck in traffic? Perhaps they’d been trying to phone to apologise about the delay, but I just had a bad signal in Central London? I picked up my mobile and yes, although I did have 5 strong bars, I decided it was best to assume that was the reason.
At this point I would have just phoned them, but the entire correspondence had been done over email… with a man in Japan. I didn’t have a phone number to ring, or really any contact information at all. This suddenly all started looking a bit too good to be true. Could this just be some kind of prank? I stood up to see if Jeremy Beadle was hiding around the corner, but then I remembered that it wasn’t 1989.
A few more moments passed before the front door of the hotel burst open. “I’m terribly sorry!” said the well-dressed Japanese man as he quickly made his way towards me, outstretching his hand. “I got stuck in traffic on the way here.”
In writing this story, only now do I think how absolutely bizarre it was that the whole thing happened without ever talking to someone on the phone or seeing someone face to face. We based the entire thing on a handful of emails, and that was literally it.
The man, Uyeda, was our translator and chaperone for the trip, who would mostly be there to ensure I didn’t turn the wrong way and find myself at large in Japan.
We went for some dinner, chatted about what the advert would entail, exchanged all the usual pleasantries and headed back to the hotel in anticipation of our 13-hour journey the following morning.
Fast forward a day and we were in Japan! I vividly remember being absolutely awe-struck by the scale of everything and just how advanced it all seemed. Automated car parks that worked just like vending machines, talking robots and heated toilet seats! I’m being completely serious when I say that it amazes me that the heated toilet seat still hasn’t become a worldwide phenomenon. Having said that, I’m also genuinely surprised the Umbrella Hat isn’t yet widely used, so I might not be the best person to judge.
The first few days were spent in the offices of the production company, where we met the director and spent many hours rehearsing. They’d brought in a team of local magic consultants to overlook the project and work alongside me in developing the magic as well - so we’d tweak the various methods as we went along to ensure they looked as good as possible on camera.
We tried every kind of trick you can imagine over those few days to be able to offer the widest range of possibilities - everything from producing doves to making a TV disappear - all of which had to be performed wearing a short-sleeved shirt. It was a difficult challenge to make some of it work without resorting to ‘camera tricks’, but even now I’m still really proud of some of the methods we came up with.
The day before filming was due to start, Uyeda took my dad and I out on a touristy adventure around Japan, which was absolutely incredible. We visited local temples, commuted on the train (which was an experience in itself) and looked around Akihabara, the ‘electronics city’.
The local food also took my fancy, so I bought some cooked chicken from a market stall. Read that sentence again, and I’m sure you’ll see where this is going.
Looking back, why on earth I ate, and indeed my dad allowed me to purchase what can only be described as chicken-looking meat from a stall on the street, is absolutely beyond me. But, you know, this was Japan! This was a place to try new things! Create new experiences! Even so, stall-cooked poultry is definitely risky business.
The following day we were back in the studio and I suddenly started to feel a bit off. I was looking a little bit more pale than usual and, let’s not kid ourselves, that’s saying something.
I’m quite adventurous when it comes to food - so although this was the first time I thought I was going to die after polishing off some unidentifiable meat, it certainly wasn't the last. Most people come away from exotic locations with souvenirs and photos… I come away with some paracetamol and a new story about how I got the shits this time.
Dripping in sweat and curled up into a ball on a sofa, the production team were understandably worried. Having said that, whether they were worried about my general well-being or just whether I’d be fit enough to do the shoot is up for debate, and frankly…
They sent my dad and I back to the hotel so I could sleep it off and return the following morning. Meanwhile, they’d hired a stand-in to take my place so they could set the camera focus settings, find the correct lens and sorting the lighting out, all while I was away.
Two long days later, I was thankfully feeling better and we made our way back to the set. A man called Eric was in charge of the wardrobe for the shoot and headed straight over as soon as we arrived. “Let’s get you into costume,” he said as we headed down a long corridor. “This is what you’ll be wearing…” he reached into a case and pulled out a pair of nice leather shoes, some stylish trousers and, possibly, the single worst-looking shirt I have ever seen. It was pink. It was floral. It was somewhat sparkly. It was an abomination and more than anything it needed to be safely and hygienically destroyed.
Aware of how much of a diva I was about to sound, I adopted my most aghast face and said, “Sorry?! Is that what I’m going to be wearing?”
Eric looked the shirt up and down, then at me, and then again at the shirt. He paused for a moment before saying, “Yes.”
“But, it’s pink,” I said. “And floral.” My voice was getting slightly higher pitched. “And somewhat sparkly.” I gestured towards the sparkles to further emphasise my horror. He didn’t react.
It wasn’t that I had a major issue with the shirt, but I was going back to a rather rough secondary school in Liverpool after this, and it’s safe to say that the other students wouldn’t look upon it quite so well.
“If you could arrange something else please, that would be brilliant.” I said. He nodded and left the room, presumably rolling his eyes as he did.
An hour later he arrived back on set with another shirt. It was light grey and without a hint of glitter. “Perfect!” I said.
We were now two days behind schedule due to chicken-gate, had absolutely nothing filmed, and my dad and I were due to be flying out of Japan just over 24 hours later.
The weight of the entire project was now firmly on my shoulders. I had to get this perfect, otherwise the whole advert would be ruined and I’d find myself drinking whiskey in a bar and trying to seduce Scarlett Johansson, like Bill Murray did in Lost in Translation. I was quite a forward 13 year old.
I walked onto the set and the crew were already in their position. The magic consultants were huddled together looking somewhat nervous and the director was perched on one of those folding chairs directors have. My dad was positioned firmly next to the craft services table, rejoicing in the fact that he’d just tried his first octopus ball.
We’d heavily rehearsed what was to be filmed a few days earlier, so in theory, this was just a case of doing the same thing with the cameras rolling. There was a palpable tension in the room before the director shouted, “Action!”
Thankfully, I’m usually not the kind of person who gets easily fazed by situations like this, so I was able to do each scene just like we’d rehearsed. Having said that, filming an advert, or really anything for that matter, isn’t a quick or easy process - so we found ourselves shooting each scene repeatedly for hours. Slightly different lighting, different angles and any other variations you can imagine, just to ensure they had all the footage they needed.
We literally worked right through the night, but I still remember the enormous round of applause when the director finally said, “That’s a wrap!” There were probably 40 of us on set, ranging from the make-up artists to the translators - and we’d all come together to made it work in what initially seemed like an impossible circumstance.
Now against the clock to catch our flight, we said our goodbyes to the crew and in a scene reminiscent of the TV show ’24’, ran out of the studio and into a car which sped through the streets of Japan to get us to the airport.
We made it with almost seconds to spare (I say that, it was probably more like half-an-hour, but that doesn’t sound as dramatic), jumped into the plane and flew back home, looking back on how utterly bizarre the last week had been.
Amazingly, I’ve never seen the finished advert. I’ve got absolutely no idea how it turned out or if it was even broadcast! On the off chance, if anyone has ever seen it or stumbles across it online, please do email it over. Who knows, perhaps it was shown and became a huge success - there’s even a chance I was a brief sensation in Japan!
There’s also a chance, of course, that they re-filmed the whole advert after I’d left, replacing me with someone else young, British and blonde. Someone who looks just like me, but wearing a somewhat sparkly, pink shirt.
The only other possibility is that the whole thing was an extravagant hoax played on me by an elaborate millionaire. I guess we’ll never know…