Successful spell at the top – Paul Kieve

 In Articles about Paul Kieve

This article was published in The Stage, 22 July 2004. Full version here.

From the West End to TV, from ballet to Holly wood, magician and consultant Paul Kieve has established himself as a leading light in his field and still hopes to push the creative boundaries of his profession, as AK Bennett-Hunter discovers

Paul Kieve has had a few magical moments in his career. Some of them apparently defying logic to such a degree that they would not be out of place in one of the many shows and films where his skill as an illusionist have been employed.

Born in Woodford, just within the London postcode of E18 – “I was so nearly an Essex boy ” – Kieve’s theatrical genes came from his mother. She had been a child actress and, when Paul, his sister and two brothers had grown up, set up the East End Theatre Company . He was taken to the theatre regularly but it was not Hamlet at the Old Vic that inspired him but musicals such as The Desert Song and My Fair Lady at the Pier Theatre in Cromer.

“It was in a Cromer variety show that I saw my first magic act and I gave my first performance in a talent competition there with my sister. My parents were very supportive and years later my mother told me how many football matches my father had given up watching so that I could see and record magic acts on television.”

The first coincidental opportunity came after Kieve’s mother had been working on a pop video for The Kinks. The producer got the idea that she was an illusionist and asked her to work on Sade’s first single Your Love is King. She pointed out that it was her son who did the magic tricks. They really wanted a female as the job was be a hand-double doing card tricks as Sade but Kieve, with shaved arms and nail varnish, got the job. He was 16 years old and it led directly to an appearance on Blue Peter and a spot as guest young magician on Thames Television’s series Illusions.

The following y ear he was runner-up in the Magic Circle Young Magician of the Year competition and in 1986 worked on his first summer season as resident support act at the Inn on the Park in Jersey . “The British tradition of magic acts inv olved a lot of chat and comedy with fewer tricks. I wanted to focus on visual magic which was more my sterious and flashy , where magic was really magical.”

When his assistant got a job in pantomime he formed a double act with Laurence Ley ton and they called themselves The Zodiac Brothers and had an appearance on New Faces. “In the late eighties there were still discos and clubs which were presenting variety acts. We thought we would do it for about three months but the partnership lasted for four and a half years. We did shows in Wales for £120 and tried out new stuff at the variety nights at the Theatre Roy al, Stratford East.”

Soon they were appearing at the Magic Castle in Holy wood and on cruise ships but in the end Kieve became frustrated with the life and wanted something different. The Zodiac Brothers had agreed to split up and Kieve had applied for a place on a television production course. The day after they left the QE2 on their last booking saw the second life-changing opportunity in Kieve’s career.

Actress Kate Williams, who hosted the Theatre Royal variety nights, rang to see if he would be interested in advising Ken Hill on his production of The Invisible Man at Stratford East.

“This was the first time in four and a half y ears that I would have been able to take the job on. I was very nervous. It was a great opportunity but also a great responsibility . It was a burden as well as a pleasure. I suggested audacious ideas because I didn’t know any better but I had Ken Hill’s backing and, as writer as well as director, if something wasn’t quite working then he would rewrite the scene.”

Kieve was so new to this kind of theatre that he did not even realise that the show would be reviewed by the national press but he was very much at home with Hill’s commitment to entertaining the audience and with the variety tradition that was behind his work.

As a direct result of The Invisible Man, Kieve was invited to work on Jeky ll and Hyde for the Royal Shakespeare Company – which was only three weeks from opening – and the next year The Invisible Man transferred to the West End. Since then he has worked on many shows including The Witches, Sam Mendes’ production of The Tempest, Leslie Bricusse’s Scrooge, Richard Eyre’s La Grande Magia at the National, The Witches of Eastwick, Robin Cousins’ international tours of Holiday on Ice, Our House and the latest Harry Potter film.

Although he performs less these days – most recently he was in the Olivier Award-winning C’est Barbican – he hopes one day to develop the my sterious visual magic show that has alway s been in his mind. However, Kieve is keen to promote illusion as part of a bigger show.

“When I was ten, I was taken to Disneyland. The rides were incredibly inventive – the Haunted Mansion was a theatrical experience. I like the idea of making magic mean something, using it as a metaphor.

The effect should be really magical, not just an illusion. The”magic of theatre” and “a magical experience” are common phrases and we should be able to create wonder and astonishment. But if you do it wrong it can be distracting.”

Interested in those areas where a magician “would not normally tread”, Kieve’s latest venture is Ghost Train, where he is able to indulge his interest in the great Victorian illusions. Ghost train, devised by Marisa Carnesky , is a specially built ride and so each member of the audience will see all the illusions from the same viewpoint as they travel through the installation. In this setting it is possible to recreate illusions which were designed to be performed in small spaces in fairgrounds and are not suitable for theatres, where the sightlines are more varied. It is a project which he describes as “fantastically ambitious” and which can be seen over the next few months in Manchester, Trafalgar Square and featured at the Glastonbury festival.

His last project with Carnesky inv olved a series of illusions in a genuine East End horse drawn hearse. “We had to rig up sound and lighting inside it and the audience followed the cortege. Then we had to dismantle it all very quickly as it was needed for a real funeral,” he remembers.

Throughout Kieve’s conversation he refers to illusionists past and present which have influenced his work and many of which he has now met or worked with. He is also especially pleased to be helping Daniel Radcliffe – who play s Harry Potter – learn about magic. “On the day when I had to audition all the kids in Harry Potter to find out their magic skills, Daniel was filming elsewhere. He told me that he was very disappointed not to have had that chance, so I have begun giving him priv ate lessons. Sometimes
we just spend three hours ‘jamming’ magic.”

Kieve is also programme consultant on the current Derren Brown television series and is contributing to the BBC History of Magic programmes. Last year he made the Guinness Book of Records for having designed the costume for the fastest quick change of a leading performer – four seconds, including shoes, in Tim Firth’s Our House – and in August the 50th edition of the Guinness Book of Records is the first to have a double page spread on magic and illusion, for which he is consultant.

So is there any illusion that he does not know how it is done? “I don’t know how Penn and Teller do their bullet catching act,” he admits and goes on to discuss their habit of sometimes describing how their illusions are done. “Usually showing the method devalues the trick,” he adds, “but as they say , the time to do it is when the secret is more beautiful than the effect.”

With a portfolio that includes opera, ballet, West End musicals, ice shows, film and television, Kieve has plenty of v ariety and wonders if he will ever get round to the things he never got round to. Whatever that might be, it is unlikely that the rest of us will be able to work out how he did it.

Summary – Paul Kieve

  • 1967 : Born in Woodford, London.
  • 1972-8: Attends Daiglen School, Buckhurst Hill.
  • 1978-86: Attends Davenant Foundation School, Loughton, Essex .
  • 1984: Performs magic in video for Sade¶s first single, Y our Love Is King. Appears on Blue Peter and on Thames Television’s Illusions.
  • 1985: Runner-up in the Magic Circle Y oung Magician of the Y ear competition with his sister Karen.
  • 1986: First summer season at Inn On the Park, Jersey as resident support.
  • 1987 -91 : Forms double act, The Zodiac Brothers, with Laurence Ley ton, appearing on New Faces and then work internationally, including The Magic Castle in Hollywood and the QE2.
  • 1991 : Magic advisor on his first theatrical production, The Invisible Man, by Ken Hill. Later transfers to West End. Works with RSC on the new David Edgar version of Jekyll & Hyde at the Barbican.
  • 1992-5: Work includes world premiere of The Witches, on tour and in the West End, Sam Mendes’ RSC production of The Tempest, effects designer for Scrooge in the UK and Australia, work on a routine for a David Copperfield TV special in Las Vegas, La Grande Magia at the National, Peter Pan at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.
  • 1996: Presented with Gold Star Membership of the Inner Magic Circle. Alice In Wonderland for English National Ballet opens at London Coliseum.
  • 1997 : Develops a new illusion called Maze of Mirrors for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s proposed Phantom 2 project, seen at the Sy dmonton festiv al.
  • 1998: Signs a contract with Walt Disney Theatrical Productions in Hollywood. Collaborates with Neil Bartlett & Improbable Theatre Company for Cinderella.
  • 2000: Works on Cameron Mackintosh production of The Witches of Eastwick.
  • 2001 : Collaborates with Robin Cousins on the first of several Holiday On Ice projects, which tour internationally .
  • 2002: Our House opens in the West End and wins Olivier Award for Best New Musical.
  • 2003: Works on the new Harry Potter film. Awarded a Guinness World Record for his work on Our House. Appointed as official magic consultant to Guinness Book of Records. Collaborates with Tim Firth on new film script for Working Title.
  • 2004: Appears in C’est Barbican, which wins Olivier award for Best Entertainment. Contributes to BBC History of Magic series. Ghost Train opens
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