Guest Blogger: James Went
It really is an immense honour for Mr. V to ask me for a contribution, as I’m a huge fan of his work. I’ve known Mike for a number of years now. I originally met him at a lecture here in Cardiff and subsequently arranged to have a private lesson from him. That lesson was a pivotal moment in my development as a magician. I’d seen sleight of hand done very well previously but, Michael really broke it down and for the first time I was given a glimpse at WHY things worked not just HOW. It was a very important lesson to learn. We’ve kept in touch since and I consider him a dear friend. Hell, I even booked him to perform at my wedding!!!!!
Even though I’m probably best known for being ‘that bald bloke from that kids show’ here in the UK, I’m deeply passionate about well-executed sleight of hand magic. It pretty much the reason I got into magic in the first place. Here’s a potted history…
I started relatively late at the age of 24, which is about 9 years ago now. I’d always enjoyed magic, especially the Penn and Teller shows on Channel 4 in the 1990’s and David Blaine’s early specials but never really sought out to learn any tricks. I was heavily into guitars at the time and was far more interested in becoming the next Steve Vai than learning card tricks (I still play guitar professionally as well as lecturing in music). Derren Brown started getting very popular in the early 2000’s and like most of the country I was completely in awe of his performances. This sparked my interest in all things magical once more. At the time I was working all over the UK as a sound engineer and it happened that I was working in London at the same time Jerry Sadowitz was doing one of his Xmas runs at the Soho Theatre. I’d heard of Jerry, and was aware that is humour might be up my street as a lover of all things slightly twisted in the comedy stakes. I also remember reading that he was a very accomplished card magician. I went along with 2 of my friends and that show changed EVERYTHING. As well as being infinitely funny (and sick) I saw unbelievable feats with a deck of cards, I remember most of the routines vividly, the revelation in Spades, the Triumph and the card trick who’s name it would not be polite for me to type here. 😉
After that show I decided that I wanted to be able to do what he did (such naivety). My first books in magic were Card Zones by Duffie/Sadowitz and 2 issues of the Crimp magazine; I aware of how ridiculous that sounds for a beginner in magic, but all I knew was that I wanted to do tricks like Jerry. I didn’t know that there were things such as ‘self working’ tricks and thought that all ‘professional’ magic required great technical skills like guitar did. My background in music had drilled into me the importance of discipline and the practice of repetitive exercises, so the necessary work didn’t put me off. I was under the impression that ALL magicians thought the same as musicians. I was sadly mistaken.
On reflection getting those books was actually a great starting point. I’d read a Sadowitz trick and see that it required a ‘top card cover pass’ or a ‘Neil Elias multiple shift’, which weren’t explained in the text, and would have to go and research what they were from other sources. The books also introduced me to names such as Dai Vernon, Roy Walton, Alex Elmsley and Edward Marlo so the natural progression was to go and learn about these guys and see what they were about.
As a young magician I remember reading in an interview that ‘it’s a stupid generation that doesn’t know it’s fathers’, of course this is not meant to be taken literally, rather that in any art it’s important to be aware of what has happened previously, in order to develop and grow. In the musical context this opened up me up to artists like Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, Miles Davies and Frank Zappa. The same happened in magic by studying those early Sadowitz books. As my interest and ability in magic grew over the next year or two I started to get asked to perform at several events for several companies who were already clients of mine in a sound engineering capacity. This gradually snowballed into doing the usual wedding and corporate gigs that most magicians do. Things changed in December 2010 when I saw an advert by Objective Productions for magicians to appear in a new TV show. I never really had any aspirations to work in TV or ‘be famous’ (not that I am in any capacity) but something was telling me I should go for it; even if it was just for fun. I applied and was invited for an audition at Objective HQ in London. Oh dear!
I dragged my lovely friend Tom along for moral support and was terribly nervous. This was made infinitely worse when I was brought in front of the interviewing panel which consisted of Anthony Owen, David Britland and ANDY BLOODY NYMAN!!!!
These 3 guys were behind the Derren Brown shows that had inspired me in the first place, and now they were sat opposite me! I instantly regretted my decision to apply, but did my best, was polite and hoped they didn’t kick me out. They didn’t and I got to the end without crying. I even got Andy to autograph my book, and later that evening went to see him in appear in Ghost Stories, which had just opened in the West End. Even if nothing else happened I’d had a great day and a wonderful experience.
That was the first of 3 grueling auditions, which tested not only your performance skills but also your ability to think creatively and get outside your comfort zone. I worked stupidly hard and how my lovely girlfriend (now wife) didn’t leave me during this period of about 4 months I’ll never know. At the end of the audition process Anthony called and told me that I’d got the job. GET IN!
It transpired that the audition was the easy part. Previously, I’d just worked as a close up guy and like most magicians wasn’t used to getting constructively criticized or working with camera, or a director, or a script, or having a routine that you’d worked on for ages pulled from the schedule at short notice because a TV person somewhere important didn’t like the fact it used staples! The first series was really tough and admittedly I was out of my depth but kept treading water and hopefully improving all the time. It was very well received and was one of the highest rating shows on the channel. All 13 episodes were also repeated on BBC1.
By the time the second series came around I was FAR more comfortable with the process and worked even harder, both as a creative consultant to the show and as a performer in it. I stopped being nervous of the process and started enjoying it. I personally feel that it came across on camera. I realize that it’s a somewhat pompous thing to say but I honestly believe that you can’t understand what it’s like to be a ‘TV magician’ until you’ve actually done it. There are so many more elements to it that just the trick and so many compromises that have to be made to get it on air. This is always a frustration when reading on magic forums about how TV magic is rubbish etc. C’est la vie!
We did 3 series of Help! My Supply Teacher is Magic, a live run in the Southbank centre in London, a 5 star Edinburgh Fringe run and in 2013 we won the BAFTA for best children’s entertainment show. I’m really proud of it and really grateful to Anthony, Andy and David for taking a chance on me.
Working in TV has been a massive learning curve and I’ve been lucky enough to meet and learn from many of my heroes, such as Andy Nyman, Michael Weber and the ever-delightful Anthony Owen (technically he’s my boss so I have to be nice ;)). I mention this not as an exercise in magical name dropping, but more because I’m genuinely excited and blown away by the fact I’ve had the opportunity to learn from these people. I guess, as a result, my advice to any younger magicians reading would be to find good mentors. They’ll be your harshest critics and the development will be painful, but they’ll teach you more than any book or DVD ever could. Also, get comfortable with not being comfortable; it’s the best skill I’ve learned so far.
I’m a big fan of magic in general and there are loads of tricks that I love, some that I perform and others that I like to watch. Teller’s Misers Dream is a real treat every time I get to see it. The first time it fooled me so badly that I couldn’t sleep that night or think about anything else on the way back to Cardiff from London after the show. I love all of Derren’s live shows, especially the Newspaper routine from ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’. I’d only been doing magic for a very short while when I saw it, and it had a massive impact on me. It was so cleverly routined and was an excellent finale to an already stellar show! I can watch Michael Weber, Dani DaOrtiz and Ben Earl do anything and feel like a kid again, their command of the effects is staggering.
As for routines that I might perform, it would largely depend on the audience and the situation. I have different things I do whether I’m working for magicians or a lay audience. If I’m performing walkaround, it depends if I’m with a group of men, women or mixed. If I’m performing informally I might whip out that Marlo assembly variation as the pressure is off and I’m free to do what pleases me. It’s far more important for the audience to enjoy my company, so I put the focus on being (hopefully) nice and the effects are merely there as a vehicle to this.
If we’re talking specific plots, I really like Open Prediction, and although I don’t believe the perfect method exists, I have found a few that I like and also have devised a couple of methods which I’m really happy with. I also love Triumph and drawing duplications, although I’m performing less mentalism these days as I feel it is best suited to situations outside of my usual performing environment.
Intentions and Goals:
I often hear magicians say things like, “This trick kills!” or “This routine gets great reactions!” when it comes to their performances. It actually saddens me somewhat as I believe they’ve somewhat missed the point. They have successfully erased themselves from the scenario, relegating the outcome of their performances to something that exists beyond them; rather than taking charge of the performance and asserting their ownership of it. As previously mentioned, the effects I choose to perform are largely dependent on the environment that I might find myself in; more so what I feel would best suit me at that given time. The most important thing for me is to forge a genuine and sincere rapport with my audiences using the routines as a vehicle with which to do so. At the completion of my performance I would hope that the audience have experienced something wonderful and memorable, but more importantly enjoyed the time they have spent with me and now have a desire to do so again. I sincerely doubt that this is ALWAYS the case for a variety of reasons; however, it is something that I strive for as I introduce myself to each group. Failing that I’ll usually do signed card to silk stream with a sponge ding dong climax or whatever the latest downloadable street magic trick is…..
Michael has kindly asked me to talk about what it is I feel that I’m giving back to magic. It’s an interesting question as I’m not of the opinion that I currently have the profile to do anything in a grand scale to ‘improve’ magic or help change the public’s perception of it in anyway. I believe that I demonstrate a deep respect for magic and I would hope that this comes across in my performances. I enjoy the history and the literature and often try to tell people about magicians they should look to for inspiration or at least be aware of. Reading those early Sadowitz books made me very aware of the importance of crediting. I’m pretty self critical when coming up with new material, as I believe that if I’m genuinely not improving a plot or routine there lies little point in trying to change it slightly to fuel my ego. When I’m consulting or appearing on TV I try to keep the methods as honest as possible. It’s easy to cheat when it comes to editing and so forth, but working with Anthony Owen has made me strive to be as honest with my deceptions as possible. What you see on TV is a fair representation of what you would have seen had you been there. No one was paid as an actor or stooged in any way.
If talking about my private performances, the material I use is heavily rehearsed to ensure it is delivered to the highest standard possible. The congruency of the script, the aesthetic of the trick and the necessary timing have all been considered and thoroughly tested (usually on my long suffering wife or music students) before it goes into my professional repertoire. I hear too many magicians say that they bought a trick during the week and performed it at their gig that weekend. It’s impossible to understand a routine until you’ve spent some time with it and made it fit your own performance style.
I sincerely hope that my audiences have a greater view of magic after seeing me perform, I am unembarrassed to say that I absolutely LOVE magic even more now than I did when I first started and want other people to love it as well.
So that’s it! I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this blog, I’m aware it’s quite a biggie so I’m assuming if you’re reading this then you didn’t get too bored. Once again MASSIVE thanks to Mike for asking me to contribute. I hope he doesn’t regret the decision upon reading this. If anyone would like to get in touch you can at: [email protected] or via twitter @jameswent1981. In the meantime please feel free to go look at my website www.jameswent.co.uk I’ll be adding to it regularly various bits and bobs for magicians. Thanks!!
Mike’s Guest Blog Commentary
When he came down to London for his first session with me, I don’t mind admitting it, James actually fooled me with Caleb Wiles handling of Reset called “Re-Swindled”.