James Freedman: ‘My mentor was a criminal’
A self-described “honest thief”, James Freedman doesn’t use his nimble fingers for criminal gain. On the contrary, he has performed as a corporate entertainer, educating people about stealth crime and how to combat it. He is currently making his West End debut with his one-man show, Man of Steal.
Did you ever study drama or performance?
Well, because I was interested in sleight of hand, I suppose you could call it magic. How is it possible to get something out of someone’s pocket? It almost has a magical quality. I studied magic and I’ve been sort of recognised for my sleight of hand skills by magic people, but actually it was all with this goal in mind, to learn sleight of hand for perhaps different reasons than a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat.
How did you first become interested in pickpocketing and stealth crime?
When I was a child, I got beaten up by some kids who I suppose were seven years older. They took my pocket money then beat me up. I had a cracked rib, a smashed-up face and a bad eye. And I remember thinking: ‘I wish there was some way to get my stuff back’.
How did that develop into your current career?
A bit later on, I heard about what a pickpocket was. I don’t know if I saw Oliver Twist, but just this idea that you could get things off people without knowing, that was fascinating. So I started to study it and I thought it was all about sleight of hand, like a magician, so I studied magic, thinking that was the route. But actually it’s much more about people watching and social engineering, and knowing, for example, that when someone walks past a sign that says ‘Beware pickpockets’, they are very likely to tap their pockets, showing you where the most valuable thing is. It’s those sort of elegant simplicities that appeal to me.
You were trained by a professional, criminal pickpocket, weren’t you?
Although he was a criminal, he was a nice guy. He became my mentor, and taught me all the things you can’t read in books. To him it was an art form, it was a dance. I remember him saying “let it flow, let it flow”. He just refined it. He used to say: “Don’t walk, dance.”
As a theatrical experience, is entertainment the focus? Or education?
It’s a West End show, it’s not a lecture. The advice is wrapped in entertainment.
Would you say the show was artful?
There’s a narrative to this, and it is a theatrical piece about theft, crime, stealing, cyber fraud and other stealth crimes. Technically a stealth crime is when you don’t know it’s happened to you. A snatch theft is not pickpocketing. There’s no finesse, and I don’t have much time for muggers like that. I have slightly more time for the artists who can get in and out of your cognitive radar and steal stuff without you knowing. There is a beauty to it. A friend saw me practising with a shop mannequin, which is an age-old idea from pickpocket schools, called the Tinkerbell coat. And he said: “That’s beautiful, it’s like a ballet.”