Paul Kieve interviewed by Alec Gamble

 In Articles about Paul Kieve

Paul Kieve was interviewed by Alec Gamble for children’s book website Write Away on the publication of Paul’s Hocus Pocus.  The wide-ranging discussion covers a great deal of Paul’s stage work including Lord of the Rings, And Then There Were None, the history and philosophy of magic and his work with Daniel Radcliffe.

Paul Kieve is a professional illusionist whose consulting work for both stage and screen has contributed to changing how magical special effects in productions are approached. His work for the stage production of “The Invisible Man” holds the world record for the most effects in one show. His current projects include the Harry Potter film series and Phantom of the Opera.Alec Gamble talked to Paul about the publication of his new book, Hocus Pocus, due out in paperback this month.

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Hocus Pocus draws a lot on your personal and professional interests. How much of it is autobiographical?

Well, obviously all the most fantastic bits! Actually, the elements of it that are true are: that I really live in Hackney; I have a fascination with the Hackney Empire Theatre, which is down the road from where I live; the house is in the book is based on my real house and I do have a collection of old magic posters, which I’ve been collecting for about ten years.

Some events in the story are true as well. When I was 10 or 11, I went into a magic shop where I can distinctly remember seeing an Egyptian Mummy case behind the counter. I very seriously asked the man in the magic shop (which was actually in Hamleys) how much it cost. He just said, “That’s more than a few weeks’ pocket money for you son,” in a very patronising way. I recall feeling belittled by that, but also I was determined that one day I would show him! I did end up with a Mummy case, which I used as my tool cupboard, so that’s all true.

Another true thing is that my dad used to take me to the British Museum and I used to nip out and go to the magic shop opposite.

The stories of the magicians are true, as well, though obviously not autobiographical. I’ve always been fascinated with the lives of the great magicians, so it is very difficult for me to talk about the book without talking as though I’m the main protagonist.

Do you have to be part of the Magic Circle to buy certain pieces of magician’s equipment? I would imagine you can’t just drop into a shop like Davenports and buy anything.

The shop in my book is actually based on Davenports because it used be situated opposite the British Museum. At the back of the book, there’s an incredible optical illusion that was loaned to me by John Davenport, who was related to the founder of Davenports, Lewis Davenport.

They’re actually the longest running family magic business in the UK. As to whether some pieces of equipment are restricted, the truth of the matter is that the world of magic is quite confusing, especially now that you can buy things on the internet. The thing is that magic dealers are there to make money; it’s their business.

So that’s a strange tension – turning people away and taking the business. I think if you have enough money, you can probably buy anything and that would be true of the mummy case in Hamleys as well.

There was a wonderful magician called Alan Alan who used to run a magic shop on Southampton Row and he made a fortune as an escapologist. He was the first man to escape from a straitjacket hanging upside down from a burning rope, have you ever seen that done?

It’s become a standard act of escapologists but Alan was the first one to do it. When he opened his magic shop, he’d already retired and had already made a lot of money, so he used to take great pleasure in sending people out of his shop, if he thought they were a bit spoilt or asking for things in the wrong way.

Would the mummy case have been used in a live performance?

Well a lot of these great magicians drew on anything that seemed to be exotic and mysterious. There was a magician called Carter the Great and he capitalised on his name when he was performing in the 1920s because of Howard Carter the explorer. I’ve got a wonderful poster which shows Carter the Great with the Mysteries of the Sphinx. Egyptian hieroglyphs and Egyptian imagery would have been painted on props just to give them a sense of the mysterious. I suspect that the prop I saw in Hamleys was a trick called “Cutting someone into fifths”, where you would put someone in the box, and then you put five blades in, and apparently cut them into five pieces.

The Mummy case that I have is a theatrical one. Most of my work has been designing magical effects for theatre productions like The Witches, and Scrooge, the Musical and a play called Theatre of Blood.

I saw that at the National Theatre.

Well, I did all those strange killings. Previously at the National Theatre I worked on a play called Le Grande Magia which was directed by Richard Eyre. In that play, there’s a character who disappears in a Mummy case which needed to look like a traditional magic prop. It was designed by a wonderful West End designer called Anthony Ward. When the play came to the end of its run and they were going to throw it out, I rescued it. And now it’s my tool cupboard!

When you’re creating an illusion, do you start with an idea and then find a means of making it happen, or do you take a known illusion and turn it into something new and exciting?

That’s a good question. In theatre, it’s almost always something in a script that has been written without any sense of how it will be achieved. It’s just a stage direction and I have to make it happen. So, in the production of The Mysteries, there’s a direction that says Moses changes a snake into a staff. It’s the approach that I prefer, even when I’m inventing magical illusions.

One of the great magicians, David Devant used to say that he would come up with an idea and then find out a way of doing it, and I think that’s the best way. An example that Devant uses in one of his books was “Wouldn’t it be fun to think of a way of a fish spelling words”? So he came up with a plot by asking, “What is the story, what’s that going to be?” Then he found a way of doing the trick. I think it’s much more interesting for the audience, if there’s a good story being told.

Is that a more experienced approach? Do beginners normally start by imitating and copying good magicians?

It probably depends on the field of magic. I’m particularly interested in stage illusions and stage magic. There are other people, like Derren Brown, who are interested in mentalism – and have a particular expertise in psychological magic. Then there are other people who are very skilled at card magic. You might think these things have a lot in common but in truth they are very different. Derren came to the opening night of Lord of the Rings where I’ve created, amongst other things, the vanishing of Bilbo Baggins. At the beginning of the show, the audience sees Bilbo standing on a lit stage, surrounded by a circle of Hobbits. He puts the ring on his finger, and he literally vanishes before your eyes. In one second, he becomes transparent and disappears, it’s like watching a film, but you know you’re watching it live.

In Derren Brown’s show in the West End, he ends up with an impossible newspaper prediction. A couple of weeks after Derren had seen Lord of the Rings we sat in a restaurant for about two hours and explained to each other exactly how each trick was done. It was fascinating. We’d never had that conversation before. He’d never explained all the detail of his newspaper prediction. I’d never really gone through the detail of the Bilbo disappearance.

He’s obviously a supreme expert in his field and although I would understand some of the principles in his act, I wouldn’t have the same mastery because he’s taken it many, many steps further than anyone else.

To come back to your question, I think when you’re a beginner, in magic, it’s tempting to think it’s important to come up with your own tricks, and actually it is not.

There are a lot of clever people in the past who have come up with brilliant stuff and beginners can do very well by learning from the experts of the past. Sometimes
people think they’re improving an old trick but they actually make it worse. If an illusion is a classic then there’s a good reason that it’s a classic, and there’s nothing wrong with learning classic things. When I was a young man, a Magician called Peter Ware told me to go the International Magic Shop and buy a set of linking rings and learn the classic ring routine. Linking rings is one of the oldest tricks but it’s a classic of magic. Audiences all over the world are enchanted by it.

So which of your illusions do you think is the most fascinating one?

There are lots of things in the theatre shows that I’m proud of because I’ve had to come up with new ideas. For example, one of the plays that I worked on was the first stage production of Roald Dahl’s The Witches. I was in charge of changing the children into mice! To make this happen, I invented an illusion that I called “Formula 86” (named after the mouse-making formula that is fed to the hero at the end of the first act). On stage you see the boy shrink before your eyes. His coat crumples up onto the tabletop, but you can see underneath the table so you know he’s not going under it. Eventually they lift the coat up and there’s the little puppet mouse on the table. I loved the reaction that that used to get.

One of the first stage productions I worked on was H G Wells’ The Invisible Man. At the end of the first act, he’s confronted by the
villagers and he unwinds the bandages off his head, and sits there without a head, smoking a cigarette. That one got a lot of attention when I first devised it in 1991 for The Theatre Royal, Stratford East.

On a number of occasions, I’ve had to come up with stage vomiting. Now, you wouldn’t think about that as a thing that a magic consultant has to do. One of them was for a play called And Then There Were None, based on an Agatha Christie story. One of the characters was meant to have been fed arsenic, and they had to projectile vomit in the most violent way possible. We came up with a very elaborate system, which involved a foot pump that used to project the vomit forward. On the first performance, the person who normally operated it wasn’t very well, and they were replaced by someone who hadn’t operated it before. They accidentally projected chunky vegetable soup over the first row of the audience. It actually made into the Evening Standard newspaper, with the
headline “And then there was… a dry cleaning bill.”

So are you the equivalent of the special effects team in film?

Yes, you could say I’m the special effects for theatre. For Theatre of Blood I worked with the the Director, the Fight Director and the Designer. In Lord of the Rings it is different because someone else does all the smoke and flying. For The Invisible Man and Scrooge I basically did all the tricks that involve the actors. I suppose that’s the thing that is different – I’m concerned with performance, so it’s like doing special effects but live.

The two are closely related and if you look at the origins of film special effects, they were all done by Magicians because in those days they used to be done live.

The father of film was a man called Georges Meilies, who was a good friend of Devant. He was the first Englishman to show film to the public in London. There are lots of connections between magicians and film, so it’s an interesting loop that I ended up doing physical effects for Harry Potter.

There’s obviously a lot about the history of magic in your book, so why did you choose to write it in a fictional format?

Well, I thought the real stories of the Magicians are great. My father was a historian, and he used to bring history to life. If we visited the Tower of London or went on trips to Rome, he’d stand there and make it come alive as if it were happening then and there.

I know that people love magic, but they love it even more when it as part of a story. For example in The Invisible Man, if something floats off the table, it’s not just being done as a trick, it’s because someone invisible is supposedly lifting it off the table: the story gives it a reason. So to set Hocus Pocus as a fictional story in contemporary London seemed more fun and also for me, a real challenge. I hope it brings the stories alive.

Have you ever performed at the Hackney Empire?

I have actually, yes. I used to be in a double act when I started out in my early 20s, and in fact I was one of the first acts to perform when it was converted back into a theatre. It had previously been converted into a Bingo Hall for about 30 years. The great thing is that it was hardly touched; they didn’t bother ripping out the old décor. However, when they started demolishing part of the façade somebody got a Heritage Preservation Order on the building and that was the start of the restoration.

What do you think of the advantages and possibly disadvantages of revealing magic tricks in such a public way?

Well, I think the exposure of magic is a very controversial. David Devant was the first President of the Magic Circle in 1905. When he was an old sick man in a wheelchair, he wrote his book Secrets of My Magic, which was basically a record of all of his incredible work. Thank goodness he wrote it down. A little section of that book was printed in a magazine called the Windsor Magazine at the end of 1935, and Devant was thrown out of the Magic Circle. Naturally, he was very upset and argued that they were his tricks that he was revealing. Actually the record is historically very important: you can’t expect people to continue an art form and learn about it, if you don’t write it down. Fortunately, he was reinstated the following year.

I really hope Hocus Pocus will do nothing but inspire people to learn more about it and have respect for it as an art.

I do think television shows like “The Masked Magician” are very damaging. They show a guy in a mask with a terrible cynical voiceover going “It must be magic. I don’t think so”. It takes the thrill, the experience and wonder away. If you’re reading it from a book and you have to study it; people will only pick it up and read how it’s done, if they’re interested. I think that’s a very different motivation.

The magicians in your book are mainly western but to what extent is the magic we are familiar with influenced by world magic?

I suppose now it’s all a fusion but I think magic’s always been quite international. Show people have always been Gypsies travelling round the world. Carter the Great went on six world tours. Magicians who toured the world would certainly pick up tricks to bring back to use in their shows. Nobody knows for sure if the Chinese Rings come from China, but we know that they arrived in England with a travelling troupe.

And then there are amazing feats like the Indian fakirs who can lie on a bed of nails. Of course that isn’t presented as magic but as a spiritual feat. They probably use the same mechanisms but frame it in a different way. David Blaine is the modern equivalent, I suppose.

In the book you talk about rivalries between the old historical Magicians, is that still relevant today?

I think very much so. However, in those days magic was big business. Somebody like Devant would be earning the equivalent of £30,000 a week: a footballer’s salary. The Amazing Alexander apparently earned more money in his career in equivalent terms than the Beatles. So of course they were all fighting for each other’s tricks. If you were the first in town to saw a woman in half, you’d sell the theatre out. David Copperfield creates a lot of material that he works very, very hard on with his advisers and builders and it would be very easy for it to be stolen. I know it constantly bothers him and he’s very protective about his material.

Speaking from personal experience, I invented some illusions, and performed them at a Magic Convention, and within a short amount of time other people are doing them. The secrets behind magic aren’t normally rocket science. There’s a man called Jim Steinman who says that “Magicians guard an empty safe”, because very often you find the secret is a piece of bent coat hanger wire or holding two cards like they’re one. For instance, the zigzag illusion of Robert Harbin which involves pulling a girl’s torso to one side and restoring it again, is actually quite simple in its method but it took Harbin a lifetime to devise it. It was an act of genius to come up with that idea but once performed it was very easy to copy and within five weeks someone over in America was doing it.

With film do you think that CGI might eventually replace magic altogether?

In terms of my own experience of working on Harry Potter, the Director, Alfonso Cuarón, was really keen to include physical magic. He wanted the magic to be part of that world. He also had a wonderful Puppeteer called Basil Twist who did puppetry underwater and some of that was used for the Dementors.

I suppose if you rely on CGI you don’t get quite the same response from the actors. Certainly for one of the scenes
where all the kids were meant to have been to “Zonko’s Joke Shop” and had to do tricks on each other it wouldn’t have had the same impact if it was achieved by CGI.

If you could go back and see one of great magicians of the past, which one would you choose?

I suppose I would love to have seen Houdini, because he was the living legend. I wonder whether he was any good. How much of it was hype? I’d love to have seen some of David Devant’s illusions, like the Mascot Moth, which is meant to be the most amazing disappearance of a person on the stage. I sometimes wonder how much of that was romanticised. I suspect the magic was pretty good but some of the pace of the presentation would probably seem very odd to us now.

Daniel Radcliffe wrote the introduction for your book. How did that come about?

I was teaching Danny Radcliffe for the film and he got into magic for a while. I thought of the idea of the book because I’d always take an old book along and I’d tell him a story about one of the Magicians. I suppose I hadn’t really taught anyone like that before. He’s such an enthusiastic kid, and so intelligent and responsive so that’s when I started to think of the idea of doing a book. It was fairly casually that I asked him whether he would write the introduction, and he actually wrote the introduction quite a long time ago before I’d written most of the book.

Thank you Paul Kieve for talking to Write Away.

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