Blackpool’s 64th Annual Magic
February 19th, 20th, 21st 2016
Reviewed by Walt Lees
Photos by Daniel Eden/Eden Photography
Photos © www.eden-photography.co.uk used with permission.
Eden Photography Telephone: 07759 828822.
To view or purchase official Blackpool Festival photos visit www.eden-photography.co.uk 'Proofing' and enter BMF2016
Formerly known as an annual convention, this
blockbuster event has now upgraded its title to that of a festival. But, apart
from this alteration in nomenclature, it was much the usual fixture-crammed,
non-stop, wall-to-wall magic-laden feast aficionados have come to rely on for
their regular fix after the dark days of winter. Somehow or other, the number of
attendees seems to go on increasing. This year it even topped the 3,600 which
was officially recognised in 2015 by The Guinness Book of Records as being
the world’s largest assembly of wand-wielders, box-pushers and finger-strutters.
So what is the mystique which sucks in so many, from all around the globe, to a cold, damp, old-style north-of-England seaside resort in the off season? Many will give different answers, but whatever it is, it works. Even in the age of on-line shopping, YouTube and dealer websites, a huge percentage of magicians and their families still want to be there in person, soaking up the sights, smells and sounds of actual (as opposed to virtual) reality. There is no substitute for experiencing the ambience at first hand rather than via a screen.
Registrations began at 8:30 a.m., although the first event, the Dealers’ Demonstration, hosted by Alec Powell, in the Pavilion Theatre was at 10:00. This presaged the opening of the Dealers’ Super Showcase, which ran until 7:00 p.m. on the first day and 5:30 on the following two. Altogether some 135 dealers were scheduled to exhibit, giving potential buyers the chance to touch and feel the quality of their wares in a way that no website ever can.
The first of the twenty-one lectures programmed throughout the three days, began at 2:00 p.m. A lot of these took place simultaneously, sometimes forcing attendees to make difficult choices about who to miss. Such was the case here, when Pat Fallon in the Pavilion Theatre was in tandem with Xavier Tapias in the Spanish Hall. A similar dilemma was also faced later, when George Kovari and Mark James were working at the same time. This clashing is deliberate policy, as none of the rooms would be big enough to accommodate the numbers who would probably try to cram themselves in if only one lecture was taking place at a time.
The first International Close-up Magic show began in the Pavilion Theatre at 4:00 p.m. The featured performers were Eugene Burger, Pat Fallon, Larry Hass, Matthew Johnson, Pierric Thenthory, Alan Rorrison and Paul Wilson. For most of the audience, Switzerland’s Pierric Thenthory was the high spot, with an unusual performance as a nervous young man, whose fumbles meant that he kept repeatedly having to restart the same trick, with the cards and props magically resetting themselves in readiness, every time. Also unusual was Eugene Burger’s approach of dispensing with the table and working in an easy chair to a spectator similarly seated alongside.
This and all the close-up events used a large back projection for those in the auditorium, while the pictures were also monitored on plasma TV screens around the exterior of the theatre for everyone who preferred to watch in less crowded surroundings. Two advantages of this system are firstly that the performers do not have to struggle to be heard against the background noise from nearby tables, and secondly that each only has to do their act once, rather than repeat it half a dozen times.
At the same time as the show, Zaubertrixxer was lecturing in the Spanish Hall.
That evening’s Gala Show, in the massive Opera House, was compered by the ever funny and acerbic Mel Mellers, whose efforts did much to lift a programme that occasionally needed lifting, even though there were plenty of high spots. Norman Barrett’s performing budgerigars, for example, won the audience in a big way, and Stephanie Delvaine’s combination of hula hoop artistry and UV effects was a sensational blend of skill, magic and spectacle, which really ought to have closed the show. Instead, this task fell upon the shoulders of Guy Barrett (son of Norman) and his attractive team of girls. They provided a good closing illusion act, but suffered a little because some of their thunder had been stolen by Danny Hunt’s Amethyst presenting several similar items earlier. Dion van Rijt in the guise of a white rabbit trying to reach a carrot on a high table, combined ballet, mime and magic in an artistic manner, which made a pleasing novelty. The other performers were Pat Fallon assisted by Gill and Mandy, Matthew Johnson and Jupiter.
For those who were hungry for still more magic, Pierric began to lecture in the Pavilion as soon as the show finished.
The day began with lectures by Will Houstoun and Joshua Jay, followed by Dave Bonsall and Jay Sankey. While those with VIP registrations could elect to learn from Greg Wilson and later Paul Wilson.
But for many, the main event was the British Children’s Entertainers National Championships, before an audience of local youngsters with their parents/minders, and convention attendees. Russ Brown was a lively and energetic MC, who, had he been a competitor might well have won. He certainly fired up the audience more than anybody else.
The winner, by popular vote, was Gordon Drayson, with an unconventional act which included rapid costume changes behind a screen. But a lot of the performers had novel features in one way or another. The runner-up was Norwegian Guilherme Curty, whose fluent English enabled his bouncy ebullience to fully impact on the northern kids. In third place came Billy Bo, a non-magical bubble act. He probably gained an advantage by working silently and closing the show, providing a complete contrast to anything previously seen.
The other contestants were Ali Cardabra in the guise of Willie Wonka, Careena Fenton as Miss Picklelily and Mark Bennett, who was really the only conventional children’s party entertainer.
The Wayne Dobson & Friends Show followed in the Pavilion Theatre, where Michael J. Fitch assisted Wayne with the compering. There was the usual range of hilarious ribaldry and banter between the two, including a fair quota of language which would have scandalised convention audiences a few decades ago, and probably still draws complaints from the old guard. Performers included a Chandleresque Mark James with gags that even Philip Marlow would not have regarded as new, Paul Martin scoring heavily (and getting a lot of laughs) with a version of the classic Chinese Compass, and Joe Trancini who seems to have inherited his father’s (Joe Pasquale) voice, with a slick rope routine.
Lectures by Eugene Burger and Larry Hass followed, before the Magic Speed Dating in the Spanish Hall. The idea of this is that the performers/lecturers circulate around eight tables, spending ten minutes at each, during which time they can perform, teach, answer questions – whatever the company requests. Jay Sankey caused two hearts drawn on the back of a playing card to move together, followed by Coins Across, explaining both. Dave Bonsall demonstrated his repeat version of Ring Flight which climaxes with the borrowed ring being found in a sealed envelope. Paul Wilson performed several card effects, which he would have been willing to explain if anyone had asked, but instead was requested to just perform more tricks. Mark Mason demonstrated his handling of the classic force, and also a novel cop of a card from the breast pocket. Pat Fallon, kneeling on the table to give everyone a better view, went through of the paddle trick, which is often attributed to Jimmy Rogers but is more likely Edward Victor’s. Alan Rorrison had a ring divination and some novel uses for a smart phone. Joshua Jay showed two new card effects including a Triumph variation and an Oil & Water. Matthew Johnson explained his take on the Classic Force, and a trick to use when learning it with an inbuilt fail-safe for when it misses. He then went on to teach his version of the Psychological Stop effect using a Benzais Cop.
Meanwhile, Jeff McBride’s lecture enthused those in the Pavilion Theatre.
The Saturday Gala was emceed by Greg Wilson. Despite being best known for close-up and parlour magic, his personality dominated the massive theatre and kept things moving along, performing small magic to cover any stage waits but not hanging around when the next act was ready.
Jean Garin opened, with a quiet act involving a TV screen and live fish. Strange Comedy, a male and female duo, who followed, was one of the festival highlights with a very funny blend of magic, acrobatics and contortionism. Otto Wessely & Partner, also supplied the comedy in the second half, receiving a standing ovation -one of the only two in all the gala shows.
Gwenaëlle made an unbilled appearance with the butterfly act scheduled for the previous night but not performed then, due to illness. Zaubertrixxer was notable for the sheer number of assistants (13 girls and 4 men), who performed acrobatics as well as magic. Steve Hewlett’s ventriloquism was, as always, a non-magical treat, Xavier Tapias created a mechanical figure and robotic dog from items found in a rubbish bin. Christian Farla assisted by four girls and two men, performed some heavy-duty illusions to close, while Ian Rowland presented a couple of mental items with the occasional humorous touch.
After the show, came Andrew James and Magic Sam’s Beat the Wand competition, which has now established itself as a festival fixture. It is a sort of gong show, where the competitors try to complete their acts before being “wanded off” by a dissatisfied audience. To win, you have to have plenty of attack and the ability to keep up the momentum. This year’s winners were 1st Arran Cummings (Mr Ection), 2nd a stalwart of the contest Paul (PJ) Johnson.
A Master Class started the day, in the Pavilion. Mark James took us through his Chop Cup routine, explaining some of the finesses; Joshua Jay demonstrated a novel card control and outlined several of its many applications; Matthew Johnson had an interesting card through bill and a pen through finger, as well as repeating what he had shown the previous day; Mark Mason had a quick, impromptu bounce-back coin matrix; Jay Sankey taught a Joker Sandwich and Point of Departure with cards, while Paul Wilson repeated and explained a couple of the things he had shown at the previous day’s Speed Dating.
For children’s entertainers, Russ Brown and James Sinclair both lectured in two Kidz R UZ sessions whose timing overlapped the Master Class. While those with VIP registrations could have a session with Dean Lahan and later Michael Weber.
Likewise Shin Lim, Ian Rowland and Alan Rorrison were all lecturing in the various venues.
At 2:00 p.m. the International Stars of Close-up took to the floor in the Pavilion. Jay Sankey had a transposition with a torn corner of a card and the card itself; Joshua Jay worked blindfolded with cards; Dave Bonsall reprised his Ring Flight as part of an entertaining set which he obviously works for real people. There were two standing ovations on this show. The first was for Dean Lahan, who despite having lost nearly all of his fingers to meningitis as a child, is able to manipulate cards with greater expertise than most of his digitally-complete peers. The other was for Shin Lim, for whom there are just not enough superlatives in the English language to describe the impact of the inexplicable effects he creates. Without any overt display of dexterity, he just causes the most impossible things to happen. It is the closest to real magic seen in decades. In fact it probably is real magic, because it is so clean and guileless that there does not seem to be any other plausible explanation.
Paul Wilson was lecturing at the same time in the Spanish Hall. After that came the two final lectures by Matthew Johnson and Mark Mason. While for those who had an extra £80 to spend, there was the chance to have an exclusive three-hour session with Jeff McBride, Eugene Burger and Larry Hass.
The Sunday Night Gala Show was hosted by non-magician John Martin, an old-style comic, whose ready wit and affable manner have made him a popular favourite on his several appearances at this event over the years.
There was an unintentionally interesting structure to the first three acts. Dion opened with his FISM act, of a young man at a restaurant table, which concluded with white billiard balls. The second act was Chris Torrente, who began by manipulating identical balls, but his attempts at smoothness were amusingly rendered in vain by the antics of an invisible dog. Then the third performer, Jidini assisted by three girls, began by producing two dogs.
Donimo gave us a novel silent semi-magical act with the accent on gentle comedy. No side-splitting belly laughs, but quietly entertaining.
Gérald le Guilloux’s dove work was sensational and won him the second of the only two standing ovations in the three gala shows. It is not often that somebody comes along with a completely original take on this kind of magic and performs it in a way that nobody has before – and does it so well.
The interval was followed by the bestowal of the various trophies. The prizes for the two competitions (children’s magic and Beat the Wand) were presented by President David Plant. Then came the special recognition awards. The Murray Award went to Mike Shepherd, who then announced that a second Murray Award was to be presented this year – to David Plant! So the roles were reversed and Mike handed David his statuette. Next the Neville King Trophy was presented to Ken Bowe.
Then irrepressible octogenarian superstar Ken Dodd took to the stage to present this own comedy trophy to Otto Wessely, giving him the excuse to launch into a routine of gags.
The show then continued with Rafeal’s well-known vampire act, which always comes across as fresh, no matter how many times it has been seen. Igor Trifunov followed with numerous bottle productions. The final unexpected appearance of a massive bottle caused a sensation, and for a moment it almost looked like another standing ovation was about to take place. Otto Wessely performed the cane act which won him the British Ring Shield twice in the 1970s, but somehow failed to make the same impact that his comedy did on the previous night.
Jeff McBride closed the show in fine style with his card scaling/spinning, having previously performed his water bowls and Miser’s Dream, as only he can.
The musical director for all the stage events was Dave Windle, stage manager Duncan Jump and stage director Russell Brown.
Derek Lever, in the guise of Executive Chairman, was, as usual, the mastermind and chief co-ordinator of everything, assisted by: Anne Lever (Executive Chairman’s PA and Artistes Services Co-ordinator), Arthur Casson (Executive Registration Officer), June Casson (Registration Support Officer), Jim Lumsden (Executive Registration Officer’s PA), David Plant (Executive Festival Events Co-ordinator), Ann Plant (Executive Festival Events Co-ordibnator’s PA), Michael Shepherd (Executive Treasurer), Christine Shepherd (Executive Treasurer’s PA), Harry Robson (Executive Dealers Officer), Chris Stickland (Assistant Dealers Officer), Russ Lowe (Lecture Note Sales), Dave Wilson (Souvenir Programme), Diane Halliwell (Assistant to Dave Wilson), Alan Horne (Logistics Officer), Les Pybus (Security), John Hardman (Librarian and Welfare Officer) and Dan Eden (Official Photographer).
And so another successful Blackpool ended. The next will be 16th – 19th February 2017, when the European FISM Championships will be prominent among the many events taking place. So some great, innovative magic can be anticipated.
© Walt Lees, February 2016