… And did I mention it’s free?

One of the big complaints I hear about London is how expensive it is. I think this is highly debatable – I manage to live quite comfortably on very little money. And it’s quite surprising what you can do in this city for no money at all.

Take yesterday. I was supposed to be going to a Christmas party, an annual tradition among my chums, but thanks to the bastard snow this was called off (due to the impossibility of getting to our hosts’ house out in Oxfordshire). Fortunately, Izzi came to the rescue with an invite to a magic show by Penn and Teller hosted by Jonathan Ross. Well, that sounded like just the thing – how much would I owe her? Nothing. By Jove, that’s most generous, but – you mean the tickets cost nothing? By Jove.

Messrs. Penn Gillette and Teller

The catch was that this wasn’t a conventional show. It was actually the filming of a special at the London Studios in Southwark. We were to be a studio audience. There are companies, you see, whose function is basically to procure audiences for studio-based programmes. You go on a mailing list and you get your invite and off you go. Granted, it’s on a first-come first-served basis and so not everyone who wants a ticket can get one (Izzi tells me that QI has a three-year waiting list), but considering that it’s free, it’s a pretty sweet deal.

And so Izzi and I met up at Waterloo and took a stroll over to the London Studios. I’d been here once before – I was interviewed back in 2000 on London Today because I was in a play and it was all terribly exciting. No such VIP treatment this time, sadly, there was quite a bit of waiting around. Most of it inside, though, for which we were grateful.

Once we were actually in and settled in our seats, a warm-up act came on – a stand-up comedian named Stuart Goldsmith whose job was to get us all enthusiastic for the big show. At one point Yr. Humble Chronicler was singled out for having “fabulous hair” and a look that was described as “the Kings of Leon teaching geography.” If I ever do something that merits a poster, that quote’s going on there.

Above: Kings of Leon. Not pictured: geography.

Then the show itself began. Now, I don’t want to give too much away, as I suspect the producers would get upset. Also, it’s a little unfair to make judgments on a show that hasn’t even been edited.

Essentially, Penn and Teller were looking for a new opener for their Las Vegas show. Penn and Teller, if you aren’t familiar with them, are hugely popular magicians in America, also known as skeptics and debunkers. Their show is very comedy-based. Penn is the talky one, Teller is the quiet one (i.e. he literally doesn’t speak). Their act is highly entertaining, and I’d recommend it to all.

Magic is one of those things that’s not very fashionable these days, at least in Britain. I recall when I was a kid it was on TV all the time – Paul Daniels was probably the most well-known, but there were plenty of others. These days, the only regular on our screens would appear to be Derren Brown. However, Izzi is something of an enthusiast, and gave me a brief lowdown on the scene as it stands.

This show is a one-off special called Fool Us, in which Penn and Teller, longstanding veterans of the stage magic scene, search for someone who can show them a trick that they cannot explain. With that in mind, several magicians (who, Izzi informs me, are highly respected in the magic world) showed us their tricks.

I won’t go into any real detail, suffice it to say that the results will surprise you (they certainly seemed to surprise Penn and Teller). What I was impressed by was the sheer range of performance styles – one was quite traditional, another went for a dance-based routine, a third put on a slick-and-cocky persona and a couple played it all for laughs. Every one was different and distinctive. As I say, Jonathan Ross was the Master of Ceremonies for the night. I used to be fairly neutral about him, but now I’ve seen how much he upsets the Daily Mail, I think I quite like him. Penn and Teller did a few tricks themselves, and in the first one (the phone one, if they’ve edited them around) you should be able to see Yr. Humble Chronicler and Izzi in the audience. I’m the one who looks like the Kings of Leon teaching geography.

What this did highlight for me, though, was how few new tricks there really are. If you’re interested in magic, I’d recommend Jim Steinmeyer’s Hiding the Elephant, which is a history of the great tricks and how they’ve evolved over the years. But most of what looks like a new, contemporary trick is almost always a very venerable illusion spruced up for the modern audience. One of the tricks we saw actually dated back to ancient Egypt. That’s not to say they weren’t enjoyable – the way a routine is carried out is often what makes the difference, and it has to be said that not a single one of the acts we saw was less than entertaining.

It has to be said that the magic of television is a little exhausting – we were stuck there for about four hours with retakes, pauses and waiting around, and my hands ached from clapping by the end. But it was totally worth it.

Then today I got another call from Izzi saying they were filming a show with Bill Bailey today and – but that’s another story.

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Filed under Film and TV, Geography, London, Waterloo and Southwark

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