Hot on the heels of their successful Monkey Magic, irreverent conjurors Ali Cook and Pete Firman discuss Paul Daniels, levitating Debbie McGee and how to pull off the trick of winning back TV audiences to the genre
A decade ago it looked like magic in the UK was destined to remain the stuff of corporate entertainment and children’s parties, then along came an illusionist from Brooklyn with a slow drawl and intense attitude and suddenly the art form was cool again.
Although somewhere along the way David Blaine got lost in his own perspex hype, he has spawned a generation of whizz-kids determined to push the boundaries of modern magic onscreen.
Enter Ali Cook and Pete Firman. Having built up a fan base as one half of Five’s Monkey Magic team – along with Pete McCahon and Jonathan Goodwin – the pair return to television this month with The Secret World of Magic.
“It is a magic travel show, where we travel the world and meet magicians who are our heros, while en route we do tricks on the locals and go off to the weird and wonderful places where all these magicians hang out,” explains Cook.
They are understandably smug about landing a gig that allows them to travel as well as practise their profession but stress there is more to its appeal than just turning tricks. “I don’t think the shows just about magic I think its about two mates who have a common interest just having a laugh. I think the show would work just as well if it was with another hobby. You get us in airports, on trains, in hotel rooms there is this whole social aspect,” says Firman.
The route took them to Paris, Madrid, Argentina, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and New York and saw them mingle with magic’s elite, including Spain’s Juan Tamariz, Argentinean card master Henry Evans and author of trade bible The Magic Book, Harry Lorayne. With their enthused banter and sporadic giggling, this could well be a post-gap year conversation had in many a pub across the country, except that Cook and Firman are utterly passionate about what they do.
“It gives you a real feel for the characters and culture of a city from the way people react to the tricks. The standard of magic appreciation in Madrid was very high – from a geek point of view,” Firman concedes. Cook agrees the Spanish capital was a favourite: “The attitude to magic there is different, I think here the over-exposure of [Paul] Daniels left everyone a bit bored and thinking it was a bit cheesy.”
Despite the mild disparagement of perhaps the nation’s best known magician, Firman admits that as a youngster, he may have stirred the interest. He explains: “When I was a kid I saw Daniels on telly and thought it was quite cool. I know it sounds weird now. When I was a student I kept doing magic and would go down to bars and do tricks for beer money. I eventually did a theatre degree and wanted to be an actor but a little while after I graduated I thought I’d give the magic a proper shot.”
Objective Productions – the independent production company behind Derren Brown’s Mind Control and Peep Show for Channel 4 – had been commissioned to make the first series of Monkey Magic by Channel 5 and were looking for the fourth member of the team when Firman sent in his video application. “It all happened very quickly and before I knew it we were making the shows and I ended up living with Ali for two years. He’s a big cheese in the magic world, I’m a nobody,” he adds mischievously.
A little more circumspect, Cook explains his route into TV. He says: “It was actually Jerry Sadowitz’s show on Channel 4 that got me really interested in close-up magic. I started entering and winning lots of competitions and thought maybe I can do this for a living. I started writing tricks for Paul Zenon after meeting him at a couple of gigs and as chance would have it I lived opposite Jerry. He was working on a show for Five and asked me to write some stuff it and I ended up doing quite a lot for it.
“Objective knew me from the my close-up work as well, so when Monkey Magic cropped up it seemed perfect for me. We did two series and I also did a show on my own called Psychic Secrets and then the Secret World of Magic.
The pair are now working on a show for Channel 4 called Dirty Tricks – again made by Objective – set to air later this year in the Friday night slot the broadcaster has failed to fill with any real success since Graham Norton’s defection.
“It’s like a twisted Paul Daniels magic show. Debbie MacGee does feature. We levitate her over a building,” deadpans Firman.
The show will have a core team of four or five and will be interspersed with speciality acts. Cook adds, “Certainly in the magical world there will be a few eyebrows raised. It is an attempt to do magic with a more contemporary or surreal edge. It is as much about the characters and sketches as it is about the magic. In this day and age no one is going to believe you are a wizard.”