Comparative magic

The glorious first (hopefully, of many) series of ITV’s Penn and Teller: Fool Us finished yesterday. I hear we’re due one more episode at the end of August (still to be scheduled) but now that we’re at a break in the proceedings it seems a good time to sum up why it’s been such a fantastic success – and why the BBC should take note.

It’s been running since the middle of June, preceded by a special in January which, interestingly, coincided very closely with the BBC’s own effort, The Magicians. The premise of Fool Us is that magic acts perform their best effects while the world-famous masters of magic Penn and Teller apply their encyclopaedic knowledge of technique to suss out how it’s done. Those that manage to “fool” them get to do a spot on Penn and Teller’s stage in Vegas.

This is a rare example of television getting it exactly right. It has none of the cruel destructiveness of Saturday night “talent shows” like Britain’s Got Talent; Penn and Teller are uniquely constructive and encouraging even (or indeed on occasion especially) to those magicians who do not fool them. At times, their wonder at the magician’s ability is in fact increased because they know how it’s done – and how difficult it is to accomplish successfully. Their warmth, enthusiasm and enjoyment are tangible throughout; a far cry from the stony derision of Simon Cowell. Even when Cowell says he’s impressed, it doesn’t sound so much an artistic appreciation as it does a business move; you can see the pound signs light up his eyes.

For Penn and Teller, there’s no real commercial bonus to the show, besides getting paid some (which they hardly need) and getting a bit more exposure on this side of the Atlantic (which they thoroughly deserve). It’s born of a love of their art and the boost it gives to lesser-known magicians is phenomenally valuable.

People still seem to see magic as coming in two kinds:

1. Man in posh clothes pulls rabbit out of hat, puts some hoops together and sets a dove flying out of his sleeve. He wants everyone to wonder how. Everyone is in fact wondering why.

2. Man in leather catsuit sets fire to everything with loud music, might do some inappropriate things with a white tiger, and needs a separate dressing room just for his ego.

In fact, Fool Us promotes what is in fact now a very common kind of magic, which deserves recognition and celebration:

3. Talented artist (any clothing style acceptable) combines illusions with witty script and choreography to give an intelligent and memorable performance, often closer to stand-up comedy or Artaudian theatre than just a very good animal handler.

Fool Us overcomes both these initial problems – the focus is very much on “how” – challenging the acts to come out with something original and creative rather than the same old hackneyed tricks in an attempt to produce a genuinely baffling effect. Meanwhile, ego is not the frontrunner here. Even host Jonathan Ross, whose ostensible ego is frequently the punchbag of critics, is effortlessly charming and, though his wit is as sharp as ever, he never once claims the limelight for himself. His deference to Penn and Teller and his jovial yet avuncular attitude to the performers is a perfect through-runner for each show.

Meanwhile, back at the BBC, there are rumours that The Magicians is scheduled to return as a live spectacular, minus Lenny Henry. Oh, to be in that production meeting. Format is everything.

The idea of the Beeb’s show was to take three fabulously talented magic acts as regulars (Luis de Matos, Chris Korn and Barry and Stuart) and, rather than showcase their abilities, force them to shoehorn a second, third, or sometimes fourth person into their routines to sate the public’s baying for minor celebrity thrills.

The reason the celebrity format is so successful with shows like Strictly Come Dancing and, currently, Born To Shine, is the enjoyment of seeing someone having to learn a new skill who is familiar (in theory) for being good (in theory) at something completely different. Often, they fail with gracious good humour. Occasionally, they progress, grow, find a new talent and win the adoration of fans and their happily busy agent alike. Either way, the appeal of the show is about the process of learning.

Not so The Magicians. You can’t show people learning magic; that rather defeats the point and destroys the mystique. In each show, all they could do was show a clip of the celebrity in question looking a bit nervous and saying “I don’t think I’ll be very good” and then wheel the celebrity out, make them do the thing, then say “Well, so-and-so was a great teacher.”

Add to this the excruciating “forfeit” at the end of every show, which was without fail an uncomfortable and miserable moment for all concerned, and you have a final nail in the coffin. Staged as a popularity contest with the studio audience voting, the climax of the show, as with BGT or the X-Factor, was finding out who had lost. And making them pay. That’s a far cry from Teller swinging off the arms of his chair with delight, a common sight in Fool Us.

If The Magicians accomplished one thing, it was to make superstars of the already-popular comedy magicians Barry and Stuart (and yes, I’m a big fan). Their cheeky scripting style, along with their familiarity with not performing solo, meant that they were able to seize on the format and shine despite their agented luggage. Meanwhile, de Matos had to tone down his large-scale showmanship to account for a nervous new partner, and poor Chris Korn’s gently whimsical delivery just got lost in the glitzy celeb-world style. Why, if the producers went all over the world looking for the right acts, did they then simply ignore them?

What is certain is that Samantha Womack (you know, from EastEnders?) will not be remembered for her multiplying rabbits, nor will N-Dubz forever be “the urban hipsters who got sawn in half”. But acts from Fool Us are already becoming legendary – see, for example, Piff the Magic Dragon’s YouTube hits: over 600,000 in less than a week after airing. And of course, Fool Us allows the final quarter of the programme to show us why Penn and Teller art thought kings of their art. The Magicians made no such concession to its performers.

I love and believe in the BBC. I think The Magicians was a perfectly-timed show, picking up on a growing wave of interest in “new magic”. It was even, with the exception of the inexplicably-cast Lenny Henry as host, superbly put together in its key performers; they chose three exceptionally talented and well-contrasting regular acts. It just got so much else wrong.

I’m really delighted that it’s coming back, because as a show it had so much promise, but I really hope they give serious thought to what they want to accomplish with the show and how they can change it. It needs a big overhaul if it’s going to survive past the comeback. And for that, they could do far worse than look to Fool Us for tips.

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One thought on “Comparative magic

  1. As good as the pilot episode of Fool us was back in January I believe the series was a let down as its format became rather boring. BBC The magicians was also let down in this respect. In a way I think we need a modern re vamp of the old Paul Daniels format or Simon Drakes Ch4 Secret Cabaret from the 90’s which is possible with the likes of Barry & Stuart. With those types of series It was something different every week. Magic entertainment by its very nature needs to be about expecting the unexpected. The rigid formats of these comeback shows are choking this so hopefully magicians and producers will get together to find a way that magic can really be set free and be enjoyed as it should be as a thoroughly great and thrilling spectacle.

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