In my previous article (which, if you haven’t read it, you probably should: here), I spoke about how I toured with Ken Dodd for three years with a ‘classical’ magic act, and ended by vowing to never perform that act again. In this post, I'm going travel back to about a year into that tour. Essentially, I’m trying to establish myself as the anecdotal equivalent of Marty McFly.
I heard about a competition that was being held during the Showzam Festival - an arts initiative, which was organised by the same people who arranged the Blackpool Magic Convention. The competition, open to applicants from around the world, was to try and find that year’s World Junior Magic Champion.
To apply, magicians under the age of 18 had to submit an audition video of their act. It could be of any genre of magic; be it silent, comedy, illusions etc. The only real rule was that the act had to last between 8-10 minutes. Anything beyond that would lead to disqualification. As it happened, the act I’d been performing with Ken fell into those requirements perfectly - so I sent off my video and waited to hear from them.
As you can imagine, magic competitions are a strange beast. They normally work by having a panel of expert magicians (along with the occasional non-magician, to offer some balance) judge the acts presented on a range of categories. These categories typically include originality, showmanship and skill level.
It’s particularly nerve-wracking, especially at the age of 13, to find yourself being judged by your peers. They know exactly what you’re doing. They know how the tricks are done, and they know the inner-workings of the various techniques you’re using to achieve them.
So with that said, your job in a magic competition isn’t to necessarily fool the judges per se, but to make the sleight-of-hand so invisible they know it would fool everybody else. As I say, these competitions are a bit weird.
A week or so later, I received an email from the competition’s organiser, Derek Lever, thanking me for my submission and saying I’d been accepted into the competition! I was suddenly filled with exuberance and dread in equal measure. It was one thing to say I’d do it, but to now actually be committed to doing it was something entirely different.
The competition was being held in The Winter Gardens theatre - a theatre I knew particularly well, as that was where the Blackpool Magic Convention was held each year. So, in the weeks building up to the night, I’d practice my act and visualise myself standing on that very stage. I’d almost become one of the ultra-confident performers I’d seen on there before. I’d imagine that I wasn’t a short, 13-year-old magician from Liverpool. Instead, I was the Las Vegas headliner they’d flown in especially for the night. I was the magician who did something so perfect, so magical, that the audience before him leapt to their feet with applause. I was essentially running around pretending life was a play, but it was all so I could summon up enough courage, enough self-confidence to fool myself into thinking I was even remotely ready to do this.
The day of the competition arrived, so my mum, dad and I packed my props into the car and headed to Blackpool.
From the moment we stepped in, I remember being utterly taken aback by the sheer scale of the theatre and was suddenly hit with nerves by the magnitude of the event. I’d performed in theatres with Ken Dodd before, of course, but there was just something about this particular auditorium that had a real impact on me.
I sat silently, about half-way in the stalls, watching the other acts each do their rehearsal in turn; some of whom had flown in from all over the world with huge pieces of scenery and illusions. I, on the other hand, had one small suitcase, my suit, and that was pretty much it.
I heard my name being called over the sound system and headed up towards the stage. The moment my feet landed below the proscenium arch I had what was almost an out-of-body experience. It was as if I was still sat in the audience, except I was watching myself. I can’t quite describe it. There was just something about being stood in the exact same place where I’d seen so many of my magic heroes perform that appeared to have a major impact on me.
The tech team approached, quickly bringing me back into the moment. The production manager, Russ Brown, is a magician himself and could not have been more kind, friendly and welcoming. We walked through my act and he directed the technicians as to what they needed to do in regard to my music and lighting. Fifteen minutes later, we were done! He thanked me for coming, warmly, and said I needed to be backstage by 6pm. I moved my props to the side, and we went off to grab some food.
I don’t actually remember much about the build-up to the show. I don’t remember being in the dressing room. I don’t remember seeing any other acts. Nothing. The only thing I do remember, clear as anything, are the 20 seconds before I walked onto the stage. The 20 seconds it took for the compère, Mick Miller, to finish my introduction.
Although I’d performed this act quite a few times before, knowing I was moments away from stepping in front of a panel of judges and 3,500 magicians filled me with total trepidation. Had Mick taken an extra 5 seconds to say my name, I actually think I might have either made an excuse to leave, or projectile vomited over another contestant waiting in the wings. But, thankfully, he didn’t. And, more importantly for the other contestant, I didn’t.
I heard my name being announced and made my entrance. Probably my best trick that night was giving the illusion that I had any sort of confidence.
The act, thankfully, went pretty much exactly as I’d planned and the audience were truly lovely and appreciative with their applause. I headed backstage, thanked Russ for his help and watched the rest of the show from the back of the theatre.
I didn’t think I’d win. Truly, I didn’t. The problem, of course, is that it’s expected that I’d say that to preserve a certain degree of false modesty, but the other performers I saw that night really were brilliant, so when my name was called, to say I was taken aback would be a tremendous understatement.
I walked away that night, overwhelmed, with the title of being the World Junior General Magic Champion. I was ecstatic!
As I write this, 10 years later, Showzam are still yet to hold another competition - so it could be said that I technically still hold the title. Who needs a BAFTA; I’m taking that trophy to the grave!