x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Magic is having a moment

The illusionists Derren Brown and David Blaine are helping usher in a magic renaissance.

David Blaine's illusions and daredevil antics have helped reignite an interest in magic.
David Blaine's illusions and daredevil antics have helped reignite an interest in magic.

As a pastime, magic has not traditionally been the preserve of the cool. Sure, David Copperfield shuffled around a few buildings and briefly won the heart of Claudia Schiffer, but such prowess is rare. More often, magicians have come in the form of Paul Daniels figures - irritating pranksters who make balloon dogs and think that pulling gaudy flowers from a sleeve is the height of sophistication.

But this is changing. Over the past decade, magic has wised up. Enter Derren Brown, 38, and David Blaine, 36. Both are often referred to as illusionists, both have silly goatee beards, both have a penchant for attention-seeking stunts and both are often scoffed at. Their increasingly ambitious magic tricks have attracted millions of followers. Get with the programme please, people; no longer can spinning plates or rabbits and hats impress when we've seen a man stand on a pole for 35 hours (Blaine) or pull a handgun on himself live on television (Brown). The plucky pair are leading a magic renaissance.

Brown in particular has been much discussed in the past few weeks. He is currently starring in a new television series in Britain called Derren Brown: The Events. The first of these trumpeted events came early this month, when Brown seemed to correctly predict the National Lottery numbers. Shouldn't he have nipped out and bought a ticket first? No, it was on live TV shortly before the numbers were drawn. Two days later, he appeared on television again to explain how he did it - supposedly by asking a crowd for their predictions and averaging them out, a slightly dubious-sounding method dubbed the Wisdom of Crowds. But although controversial, it pulled in the biggest audience share that night with more than 4.6 million viewers.

Last Friday's show has been similarly talked about, in which Brown attempted to control viewers by rendering them unable to get out of their chair. "I feel like the bottom of my back is wielded to my sofa," said one viewer who called into the show. "I can't feel my legs," said another. Spooky. In his remaining two shows, he's going to have another countrywide crack at magical hypnotism and finally try to beat a roulette table in How to Take Down a Casino.

Discussion of it all has now gone viral, as they say, with hundreds of internet theorists dribbling about his methods online. Did the lottery trick use a split screen? False wall? Collaboration with the lottery itself? Mentalism? Witch-doctor trickery? Was the chair feat the result of too much takeaway curry across Britain or a genuinely mystical force? No half-baked theory has been left unturned, but it has people excited about magic again.

Doubters have been in full cry. "One thing we can be sure of is that Derren Brown is not magic," wrote the Daily Mail post-lottery triumph. Well, as Brown has pointed out, yes there was a method to his trick. Only the dimmest or most optimistic viewer would assume that a supernatural force guided his choice of numbers, when the chance of him guessing it right was one in 13 million. Equally, Houdini's ability to clamber out of a watery cell was due to technique, and Copperfield didn't actually make buildings disappear. But that's the entertaining thing about magic, it's an illusion.

Brown's American counterpart David Blaine first came to prominence with stunts in the late 1990s, and as with Brown's recent coups, has been subject to similar conjecture. Including the pole trick in 2002, there have been other party tricks such as being entombed in a block of ice for 63 hours, buried in a tank of water for three days and suspended in a box above the Thames in London for 44 days. His most recent television show, What Is Magic?, also aired in the UK last week, showing him criss-crossing through America doing card tricks along the way and performing a "bullet catch" - where he appeared to catch a fired bullet in a small metal cup in his mouth. Is the man mad, an attention seeker or a modern-day Houdini? Does it matter? Either way, together with Brown he has put a contemporary face on magic - perhaps hand in hand with the boy wizard Harry Potter, they're the new guard to the ancient art. There's magic in the air.