Q&A with Ali Cook | Living North

Q&A with Ali Cook

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Ali Cook performs Houdinis Water Tank Escape at the launch of West End Magic Show Impossible © Helen Maybanks
Magician Ali Cook has gone from watching tarot readings in his mum’s Harrogate bookshop to performing for the Crown Prince of Malaysia. Our Arts Editor Sarah Lill caught up with him ahead of his new show, Impossible, opening in the West End

How does a Yorkshire lad get into the cryptic world of magic?
I grew up in Bishop Thornton and my mum used to have a 'new age' type bookshop in Harrogate selling books on palm reading, tarot cards and such. So I’ve always been interested in mysterious things. Many of those publishers also published books on performance magic (which is what I do now) and that's where I became fascinated by it. I came into the shop one day and there was a book called The Expert At The Card Table, which is one of the most famous books in magic. I read it cover to cover and from then I was hooked. I also became very interested in the psychology of the tarot readings that I saw there.

Where did it go from there?
After that I started performing at private parties in and around Harrogate and when I was 17 I won the British Championships for close-up, slight-of-hand magic, or what you might call street magic. Soon after that I moved to London and started performing at parties there too. 

What kind of tricks do you do?
I’m famous in the magic world as a street magician, but when I moved to London I started doing TV shows. To do TV magic you have to be able to do so many tricks that I ended up learning all different types of magic. I did a TV show with Derren Brown doing mind reading and psychological magic and then did did seven different TV series performing street magic and illusions. I now perform every type of magic.

What can we expect to see in Impossible?
In Impossible I will be doing everything from close-up magic to grand illusions. We have three sections in the show dedicated to Houdini because he is, of course, the greatest illusionist the world has ever seen. I am going to be performing a slight-of-hand piece called ‘the trick that fooled Houdini.’ There was a very successful magician called Dai Vernon, who became famous for being the man who fooled Houdini. He fooled him with a very simple card trick – it was very simple in plot but impossible to fathom. I’m going to perform that trick live on stage. It’s a fascinating story actually. Houdini used to like to make bets, the most famous of which was that no one could imprison him. He believed that he could escape from anywhere. But he also once said that he would give $50,000 to anyone who could fool him. He thought he could figure out every trick, but then Dai Vernon came along and showed him a card trick that he couldn’t figure out. I’ll do that card trick, but then I go straight into performing Houdini’s water torture escape (the famous one that almost killed him). I get locked and shackled inside a tank of water and have to escape.

It sounds like it’s going to be very dramatic?
Yes it’s pretty high risk stuff. We have another illusion where a girl gets into a box and gets spiked with flaming spears. There is a lot of danger and spectacle, but these are the kind of tricks that you can do on a West End stage because you’ve got a large auditorium and a large crew. Impossible will be the biggest magic show there has been in Europe since David Copperfield came 20 years ago. We have an appearing helicopter, a vanishing car, in fact, you name it we’ve got it.  I feel sorry for the tech guys back stage, they’re kept very busy. In my first section I do five grand illusions in five minutes, most of which have never been seen in Britain. It’s really big stuff.

Is there a lot of technology involved in the show?
Yes, absolutely. In the first section I make myself and some dancers vanish and reappear. It is the type of magic you’d have seen in a show 100 years ago, but with today’s technology it all happens in the blink of an eye. It’s so quick that it almost looks like trick photography.

So how did you get involved with the show?
The producers sifted through thousands of magicians from around the world to create a team where everyone is doing very different elements. I’m doing grand illusions, some people will be doing close-up magic in the foyer and during the interval, we’ve got a guy firing a crossbow at his girlfriend (I don’t know why, there’s clearly some issues there) and then Luis de Matos, the famous Portuguese magician, is coming over to do some stuff. One of the interesting things about this show is that the magicians are all very different. 

Why do you think they chose you?
I’ve done a lot of TV shows over the years, which is where I built my name. But I’ve also performed in theatres across the country, particularly at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. In particular I did a memorable show at the Fringe in 2010. There are roughly 2,700 shows at the Fringe and my show was ranked the 10th best show out of the entire festival. In fact it was the best reviewed magic show that there has ever been in the Edinburgh Festival. Doing TV magic is more like being a TV presenter, but being able to do a one to two hour show on your own is a big leap as a performer and after Edinburgh I was able to secure a reputation as being a strong live performer too.

You’ve worked with some fantastic people in your career. How was that?
Yes that’s true. I worked with Derren Brown a few years ago. It was a really interesting show because it was more like a documentary. I pretended to be a psychic and I’d do readings and then Derren came on afterwards with Richard Wiseman (a leading scholar on self help and psychology) to explain the psychology. I’ve also worked with Penn & Teller. A couple of years ago they had a great idea for a TV show, which was called Penn & Teller: Fool Us, where they invited amateur magicians to perform for them. I opened their first Christmas special. The magic world is actually really small, we all kind of know each other. It’s a nice little family.

I gather you’re now a member of The Magic Circle’s inner circle. That must feel amazing?
Yes that’s right. The Magic Circle have different ranks and I’ve recently been given the highest rank, which is Member of the Inner Circle with a Gold Star. The ‘gold star’ means someone who is a strong performer. As far as I am aware only 200 people have ever been given that award – Houdini, David Devant and people like that. I do so many gigs and performances that it’s nice to get the recognition. One of the nicest things about the West End show is that there is no travelling involved and I can stay at home.

What do you think makes you stand out from other magicians?
In Britain there are a lot of street magicians performing at weddings and private parties and I did that for 10 years, but I wanted to do something different. I wanted to change magic. So I had this idea about mixing stand-up comedy with magic, which is something that I now do all the time. I moved to an agent called Off The Curb, who have people like Michael McIntyre, Sean Lock and Josh Widdicombe, and they started booking me for comedy shows. It was a way of doing magic in a different way.

Who have you performed for?
I’ve done countless premier parties and celebrity parties because they’re all booked through the same event planners. I’ve done magic for Eminem, performed at the Harry Potter premiers, done private parties for JK Rowling, Basement Jaxx, Minnie Driver, and I’ve also done random events like shows for High Court judges, MPs, MPs’ mistresses (that I wasn’t allowed to tell anybody about), you cannot imagine. I’ve even done a show for the Crown Prince of Malaysia. Quite often I wouldn’t know who the person was going to be until I started performing. Magic is a very disarming thing. It can be used to entertain a six-year-old child or the ruler of a country. In that moment they’ll feel like a kid again. I think that’s the nice thing about being a magician.

Do you have any favourite tricks?
I think I go through phases. Magic is also a hobby for me and I really enjoy learning new tricks to perform in front of my friends, but they wouldn’t necessarily be the tricks that I’d put in one of my shows. I really enjoy performing the water torture trick and I’m looking forward to doing the five grand illusions in five minutes in Impossible, because they’ll have to be performed at such high speeds.

Has anything ever gone horribly wrong?
No, not tragically. But the thing is that in magic something is always going wrong. Your job is to steer the ship and it’s a very dangerous game, but so far it’s always been manageable. If you’re a comic then it doesn’t matter how many times you rehearse your jokes, some evenings an audience will enjoy them and some nights they won’t. That’s the uncertainty with being a comedian. But if you’re a magician then there are always so many technical things going on that it is easy for things to go wrong. One night you might step on a table and it cracks for no reason whatsoever or someone’s outfit gets snagged on a few bolts – you’re constantly on your toes. Magic has to be perfect.

Can you divulge any magic secrets?
No I’m afraid I’m bound by the magic circle. But the thing is that when people do find out the secrets they’re really disappointed. What really fools someone is the psychology, not the physical trickery. What goes on in people’s minds is not necessarily what really happened. It is a bit like a movie. It’s about building up an impression in someone’s mind, it’s not about shoving something up your sleeve.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to get into magic?
When I was a young magician I heard David Copperfield say that the trick was to perform whatever you can, wherever you can, for whoever you can. It sounds overly simple, but that really is the only way that someone gets good. Not just practice, but actually performing to an audience. If there is a stage then get on it and do your show. There are some good books that people should read if they want to be a magician too, for example The Royal Road to Card Magic by Jean Hugard and Frederick Braue or Mark Wilson’s Complete Course in Magic (an encyclopedia of almost every magic trick there is in the world).

Impossible
Until 29th August – Noël Coward Theatre, London
www.impossiblelive.com

Published in: August 2015

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