The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
by Michael Yates
I’m going to give my secrets away today. All of them. Why not? What good are they to me now? What good is living? I ask you!
It’s all gone wrong. I used to think: One day I’ll be on telly. I did the clubs for years and then I was offered this part in a panto in Leeds. Abanazer, the evil magician in Aladdin. Right up my street. I mean, I’m no great actor but you don’t need to be Kenneth Branagh in a show like that. I just played the part for what it was worth, then it was start of the second act and we were standing in front of the curtains and Aladdin had to say: “You’re supposed to be a wizard. Let’s see some of your tricks!”
And then the curtains would open and the kiddies would gasp in astonishment because the stage hands had brought on all my magic stuff – the vanishing cabinet, the box for Sawing the Lady in Half and the top hat that the pigeons came out of. And then Aladdin would exit, back to the ladies’ dressing room, and Lorna, my assistant, would enter stage left, with her bright blonde head, her fishnet stockings and sparkly leotard, and we’d get on with things. I could do it all then. I would shout: “Oh yes I can!” and the children would shout: “Oh no, you can’t!” But I could. And I did.
These days, I’m sick of children. That’s all I seem to be doing. Kiddies’ birthday parties, seventy quid a time, which isn’t much when you consider the travel and the wear-and-tear on the props. And there’s no Lorna now. She was only my assistant and I used to say it’s easy enough to get another girl because they’re all keen to do it, because they’re all in love with showbiz and sometimes they’re in love with me too, after a while. But I guess it’s a new generation. They’d all rather be on Love Island or Big Brother or whatever. There’s no respect for tradition, no respect for artistry.
So now it’s the kiddies’ parties and that’s meant going it alone and cutting down on my repertoire. It’s a no-go area for vanishing cabinets anyway, because you’re there in somebody’s living room, surrounded by the little buggers, with no trap doors or secret openings at the back or any other way to make people disappear. And you can’t do Sawing the Lady in Half for the same reasons, also because I’ve been told it’s considered sexist these days and encourages domestic violence.
So now I do Snow White’s Laundry. You get a plastic bowl, you show the kids it’s empty, then you show them a giant family packet of soap flakes and you pour the flakes into the bowl. And you say to the kids: “This is how Snow White did the washing for the Seven Dwarves.” Though most of them today have never heard of Snow White. And you put your hands in and you pull out all these tiny clothes from nowhere, so it looks endless. And the kids love it.
How you do it is: You make the clothes out of little bits you cut from your own clothes when they’re falling apart anyway. You can load them into the bowl under cover of all those soap flakes because you’ve cut the bottom out of the packet and made a false bottom and stuck it in with Sellotape. And then you’ve got a smaller packet taped inside the big packet and that’s where the clothes come from. Easy-peasy.
Leeds was where Lorna met Ian Hubbard. He was playing Widow Twanky. So I didn’t worry. I mean, a bloke like that. Mother Hubbard, I used to call him. And he’d got receding hair too.
Another trick I do for the birthday parties is: The Young Reporter.
I tell them I used to be a reporter when I was younger, and I tell them
how the editor cut one of my stories right down to fit the page. And
I’ve got this clipping from the newspaper and I’ve got a pair of scissors
and I keep on cutting it into smaller and smaller pieces and then the
editor changes his mind and suddenly – kapow! – I open out the cutting
and the whole thing is back again as if it had never been cut. That really
How you do it is: You start with a strip about two foot long and you
crease it in the middle and you apply a bit of glue. And then, before
it’s dry, you put some talcum powder on the glue and you fold it up so
it’s only about a foot. Then, when you get to the end of the trick – it’s
what us magicians call the prestige – the talc makes it unfold again so
it’s much longer than it looked.
One word of warning – if you’re using a glue which gives off inflammable
vapours, never do it near a naked flame. Got that? OK.
Well, I wasn’t having any of this Ian Hubbard stuff. I told her straight: “It’s me or him.” And she said: “Right, then it’s him.” And I said: “How d’you think you’re going to live? You’ve got no education, no training, you’re just a bit of skirt with good legs as long as you keep on shaving them.” And she said: “Well, I’ve been with you two years now and I’ve seen how you do your tricks and I’ve made notes in an exercise book. Ian can do those tricks just as good as you. He’s not just Widow Twanky, you know. He’s done Buttons as well.”
Another trick that goes down well with the little ones is called Penny Plentiful. You’ve got two identical plastic cups and you show the boys and girls that they’re empty. Then you go round the audience taking pennies from all over the place – behind an ear or an elbow or out of some mum’s cleavage (the mums love that). You put these pennies in one of the plastic cups, then you pour the pennies into the second cup and back into the first cup, and back and forth, and each time you do it, there’s more and more pennies. The kids are amazed and so are the mums. They don’t know where the pennies are coming from.
How you do it is: When you show the audience the cups are empty, you don’t really show them both cups. You do a bit of sleight of hand, swopping the cups over as you’re doing the spiel, so they think they’ve seen both, but they haven’t really. That’s why the cups have to be identical. One plastic cup is half-filled with pennies to begin with. Then, when you’re pouring the pennies back and forth, you keep your finger over the top of the cup so only some of them pour out at one time. And you increase the number bit by bit. Easy, really.
I got a replacement for Lorna. She was called Doreen but we changed her name to Dawn. But it didn’t last long. I found I was missing monies from my wallet when I left it in the dressing room. And she said: “Well, what can you expect, considering the pittance you pay me?” Anyway, she’d met this fireman who respected her and he was much better looking than me. So that was that then.
And then I started to do without an assistant altogether because I thought: What the hell! I don’t need some woman holding me back. And I started drinking. Well, I’d always drunk a bit – it’s part of the theatrical life. But I guess it got to be a habit. Tommy Cooper was a drinker but he always hedged his bets – if the trick went wrong, he could always pretend it was a joke.
I got this problem with my liver and had to cut back on the booze and go on the dole for a bit. But I soon got fit again. I thought: I’m a new man. It’s a new lease of life. I even worked on a couple of new tricks and laid out the readies for a new top hat and tails.
When I got ill, I’d started watching TV a lot. And it struck me there was a new generation of magicians, but it was still the same old tricks. Like getting somebody to pick a card, then put it back in the pack, then you take the card from out of somebody else’s sleeve and it’s the same card. I could do that in my sleep! But these new magicians didn’t go for the indoors stuff, they went out in the street, stopping people and being filmed by Channel Four. Nice work if you can get it, if you can get Channel Four to lay out the wherewithal for that sort of thing.
Then I started watching Britain’s Got Talent. I thought: Well, a
TV talent show might be my next vehicle. And this magician
came on. And he was called The Great Pretendo. And he did
everything the old-fashioned way: rabbits out of the hat,
vanishing cabinet, the lot. I was impressed. And he’d got
this girl assistant, and when I looked hard at her, I thought:
I know those legs.
And yes, it was Lorna, though she’d let the blonde grow out of
her hair. And that was when I realised Pretendo was Ian Hubbard.
I’d’ve recognised him right away by his receding hair but, of
course, he was wearing a top hat. And most of the tricks were
mine. And most of the patter was mine. I was gobsmacked. I
phoned her mobile number, hoping it was the same, and she
answered, and I had a real go at her. I said: “How could you
do this to me?”
And she said: “You exploited me, you old pervert. I couldn’t live on what you paid me. And anyway, I’m the one helped you invent most of your tricks and I’ve got the exercise book to prove it.”
I was furious but what could I do? It was all lies. But with her legs, she was bound to sway the jury. And I couldn’t afford the lawyers anyway.
I stopped watching BGT there and then. But I read in the Mail a bit later that Pretendo had won his heat. And then after that, that he’d won the series and was booked for the London Palladium.
Life isn’t fair. All I’ve got left is the birthday parties. And even that might not last. My agent tells me there have been complaints about Snow White’s Laundry. He says some of the mums think the act is very insensitive on the subject of modern slavery and the Dwarves should do their own wa
Pics thanks to Boston Public Library, Unsplash
and Omid Armin, Unsplash.