From the acts that inspired them to their toughest trick,meets two of the world’s top magicians: Derren Brown and Keith Barry
MAGIC’S a beautiful thing; mystery its very essence. We’re hardwired to unravel mystery and intrigued by that which evades our understanding. British mentalist Derren Brown is a master of that. We gawked in amazement when he manipulated a man into shooting Stephen Fry (with his prior consent of course), and another into committing armed robbery.
We scratched our heads when, appearing on TV, he managed to ‘stick’ viewers who were watching from home to the very sofas they sat upon. We held our collective breaths when he played Russian Roulette live, and lived. We know he’s not magic, but we can’t understand how he does what he does, or how it was that he predicted the British National Lottery numbers. He regularly confirms that he has neither magical powers nor psychic ability. We never thought he was magic, but because his mind-power and mind-control antics are baffling, we mull over ‘psychic’ explanations. We’ve nothing more concrete to go on. Clearly, he’s gifted. He appears to operate on a different level to most of us, in the way, perhaps, that contestants on the academic quiz show University Challenge do. The word ‘appears’ is key, though. What we see is what Brown wants us to see. He’s in control.
When I ask who, in his line of business, he most admires from the golden years, he replies: “Mentalists have been few and far between historically. My heroes are Chan Canasta, from the ’50s and ’60s, and David Berglas, who has just simultaneously been awarded an MBE and created a new category for MBEs, namely ‘Services to Magic’.”
He elaborates: “Canasta, for his charisma and methodological chutzpah; Berglas for his vision and a never-paralleled ability to mine every last drop of gold from his effects.” He’s generous in acknowledging their influence: “I’ve drawn a lot from both of them, and they can be found on YouTube. Favourite personal moments are Canasta making a sceptical Ted Moult change his mind and Berglas’ floating table.” Canasta and Berglas are indeed fascinating to observe. What’s profoundly charming is not only their apparent ability to read and control minds, and indeed furniture, but their gentlemanly personas and modesty.
Not everyone’s so genteel. The Scottish-American magician and comedian, Jerry Sadowitz, once greeted his Montreal comedy festival audience with the line, ‘Hello moose-f**kers,’ a salutation that resulted in him being knocked unconscious.
Fear is not the friend of magicians, and neither is technology. Who but the greatest could keep their secrets intact when punters can watch and rewatch their every move online, in slow-motion, in an effort to see the techniques behind their illusions? Our own Keith Barry, for one.
Ask him whether he thinks that sort of online scrutiny’s a hindrance and he’ll tell you it’s a benefit.
“People think they can figure out how we do magic. This is a benefit to those of us who develop our own original material, as nobody, other than us, the inventors, knows how we do it. That viewers consistently try and fail to figure out our techniques is good for us,” Barry says.
Giving the global addiction to tech, I ask Barry whether digital magic is the way of the future. “It’s just a style choice for some magicians,” he says. “In the UK, Jamie Allan is a well- known digital performer. Also Keelan Leyser. These guys are fantastic. Making use of technology in their acts works for them. But it’s not for me. I’m not interested in that style at all. I’m going in the opposite direction.” When digital effects are used live or on TV, it’s easy for people to write the magic off as a camera trick: “They think technology’s doing the magic. For me, being rather old school, it’s important for the magicians to get the credit for doing the magic,” Barry says.
He’s a big fan of veteran magician Doc Shiels. While the octogenarian Englishman is rumoured to have worked with a coven of naked witches to invoke monsters, Barry makes no mention of that. Instead, he alludes to that gentleman’s “possible” link with crop circles and to his “definitely” being behind “the Cornwall owlman hoax”. Barry says he takes inspiration from “these older generation magicians,” before adding that he’s “kind of anti-technology.” While he’s taken his life in his hands for many of his shows, he doesn’t believe the bigger dangers are necessarily the best of the work he does. That said, he has good reason to take dangerous risks.
“The demand for big stunts is driven by networks, rather than by any inherent belief of mine that I need to be doing these things. Networks want that, so I give them what they want.” Does he think modern audiences are a little desensitised and therefore less conscious of the risks he takes than they might otherwise be? “I do. I’ve been injured many times in the course of action. Lots of magicians have. Others have been killed. You can see one dying on YouTube. That video probably shouldn’t be up there,” Barry says.
He thinks his more subtle work is his best. I agree. For me, his brain-hacking is mesmerising. For him, it’s the variety of his work, and particularly performing magic, that he most enjoys. Asked about the future of magic, he tells a story: “Magic goes through peaks and troughs. In the early 1800s, there were lots of touring shows. After that, there was a shift, followed by Paul Daniels and David Copperfield making magic popular again. Then it waned a while, until David Blaine came along and made it cool again.
“We’re now at a point where magic could reach saturation point. There’s so much out there online, so much being absorbed. There’s almost too much out there. That’s a challenge for me. It pushes me to think outside the box when presenting live and online.” He’s unperturbed by Instagram and YouTube magicians: “Many have a massive following, but can’t stand onstage and perform. For me, live-performing is what separates the men from the boys. That’s the medium I most enjoy.”
In delivering his brief lesson on the history of magic, the bare bones of which you read here, Barry is entirely intriguing: “There was a time when magicians were hired by prominent politicians as advisors. For example, Stalin hired Wolf Messing, and Hitler hired Erik Jan Hanussen.” This reminds me of Grigori Rasputin, the Russian mystic who influenced Tsar Nicholas II and his family.
Knowing nothing of the magicians who became fascist puppets, I researched them, to discover that Hitler was apparently afraid of Messing and that Jan Hanussen not only assisted Hitler in his evil work, but did so having been born into a Jewish family. These magicians brought darkness and shame to the history of magic, during a time that should never be forgotten, as magic, as a force of good, clever, enchanting entertainment, weaves its way into the future.
Keith Barry is currently on tour. His nationwide tour ends in Cork with three shows at the Everyman on March 14, 15, and 16. For tickets and venue dates, see www.keithbarry.com and www.mcd.ie