The unseen man of magic
Article from The Northern Echo, 21st December 2006. Full version here.
Viv Hardwick talks to the magician who conjures up illusions all over the world and is making startling things happen for Scrooge at Sunderland.
THE man who has taught Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe to be a real magician admits he loves every moment of amazing live audiences with the ghostly stunts created for North-East Christmas show Scrooge.
Paul Kieve has a long association with the production currently amazing audiences as ghosts pop out of doors, walls and furniture for the run at Sunderland’s Empire Theatre. And the illusionist, who switched from performing to creating the on-stage magic for top shows such as The Woman in White and The Invisible Man, says: “There’s nothing like seeing something happen in front of a live audience and having them rub their eyes in disbelief.”
Scrooge remains his favourite project, particularly because creator Charles Dickens was an amateur conjurer who lived at a time when inventions fascinated Victorian society.
“Some of the descriptions in A Christmas Carol almost sound like magical illusions, like the disappearance of the Ghost Of Christmas Yet To Come. However, if you’re going to do Scrooge you’ve got to tackle how the ghosts get there and how they go again.
“I went back to that period and took some inspiration from the illusions that were being done in Victorian times. The term Pepper’s Ghost was very popular as an illusion at the time and was the first appearance of a ghost on stage a transparent figure, which was an amazing thing in 1860.
“Scrooge in some respects cries out for magic and these effects but the ways we make the ghosts appear are mostly different to the book,” Kieve explains.
Kieve’s own Scrooge story starts in 1993 when a version went out on tour from Bromley starring Anthony Newley and brought back together the partnership made famous by Oliver! of Newley and musical book, mucis and lyricist Leslie Bricusse.
“Newley played Scrooge until 1996, a year before he died. The original version was junked and then around 2002 Bill Kenwright took it on and the director called me in again to create the ghosts,” says Kieve.
“There were a lot of improvements and illusions, in particular the Ghost Of Christmas Present (an eye-popping arrival on stage). I went back to Dickens for this arrival.”
Events of the book were changed so that all the characters appear in Scrooge’s bedroom and Bricusse cleverly embellishes the Ghost Of Christmas Past into the spirit of the miser’s dead sister
“Just as she disappears, he realises who she is and this makes the scene very poignant. As he recognises this beloved sister, she’s gone from him. In some ways this is more dramatic than Dickens,” Kieve says.
“I don’t think I’ve ever worked on any shows for as many productions as I have for Scrooge. I think this current version is my 14th time that I’ve shown up. I’ve even done a version in Poland as well as the Australian one in 1993 and the US one with Richard Chamberlain which we did years ago. Scrooge has become a little like Groundhog Day for me,” he jokes.
So who has been the best Scrooge so far?
“They are all different. It’s interesting to see what styles different actors bring to it. I think, in a way, Tommy Steele was Tommy Steele in Scrooge whereas I found Shane Ritchie wasn’t recognisable as himself. Shane did the tour last year and was dynamic but Michael (Barrymore) brings something very different to the role. He is possibly the most moving Scrooge I’ve seen in the way he plays him. He’s obviously had a very difficult few years. It’s an obvious thing to say that he needs a break in his career.”
So how does Kieve rate Barrymore in the role of Scrooge?
“What I did remember was seeing Michael Barrymore doing his show in Bournemouth when I was in the Zodiac Brothers and being blown away by him as a live performer,” says Kieve. “So when I heard he was cast I thought he’d be brilliant because he has presence, particularly when you realise that Scrooge is only off-stage for about three minutes of the show. So you need a tour de force entertainer who is used to fronting a production and has that light entertainment background in variety. There’s a fine line between playing it out (to the audience) and taking the role seriously. I regard Barrymore as an exciting idea. What the press has said about him doesn’t interest me.
“I’ve never had the desire to be famous in that way and whenever I think about things like this it reminds me of the flipside to celebrity. I would never want to be recognised in a supermarket.”
Kieve’s TV days were in the late 1980s and early 1990s and his early ambition was to go to Las Vega. He did get the chance to spend time with the famous US double act Siegfried and Roy.
“I didn’t actually meet Roy, who ended up being attacked by a tiger in 2003, but I spent time with Siegfried the magician and realised that he might have been on $50m a year but he was trapped in a show night after night and rather put me off.
“I loved the idea of creating but found that doing the same three shows every night in Japan for six months was rather boring. So theatre magic allows me to come up with new stuff to put on stage and then on to the next project,” says the illusionist, who has gone on to work with the Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban film adaptations.
“The director Alfonso Cuaron is Mexican and comes from a background of live entertainment without a great love of CGI, so he brought me in to do magic sequences,” says Kieve, who ended up designing and making the map which folded up by itself and made a cameo appearance as a pub newspaper reader who produces candles on his fingers to provide more light.
“I have the honour of being the only magician to appear in any of the films and actually doing any sleight of hand magic. I also trained the kids in Hogswarts for another scene. Daniel Radcliffe turned out to be very keen on learning magic and I gave him some private tuition. He really took it very seriously and practised hard and he still does magic tricks after three years. He’s definitely Magic Circle standard.”
Kieve has just finished a book of magic for children, to be published by Bloomsbury using J K Rowling’s editor, and Daniel Radcliffe has written the introduction. It’s due to be released in autumn 2007.
“I’ve written 60,000 words and can’t come up with a title yet,” laughs Kieve.
* Scrooge runs at Sunderland’s Empire Theatre until January 13.