x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A magician who pulled rabbits out of his many hats

Ali Bongo's influence ranged from classic stage performances as the zany Shriek of Araby to television work as an adviser and inspiration to other magicians.

Ali Bongo, as the Shriek of Araby, in 1975.
Ali Bongo, as the Shriek of Araby, in 1975.

Ali Bongo was the great panjandrum in the world of magic. His influence ranged from classic stage performances as the zany Shriek of Araby to television work as an adviser and inspiration to other magicians. He was born William Oliver Wallace in Bangalore, the son of a regimental sergeant major, and grew up speaking Tamil, the language of his ayah. He learnt his first trick at the age of five, from the children's column of The Times of India. Two years later the family returned to live in Kent. His parents hoped he would become a doctor but on leaving school he performed magic at children's shows. After playing the part of a ship's cook-cum-wizard called Ali Bongo, at a youth club pantomime, he assumed the name. He took to the stage as the Shriek of Araby. In a purple turban - from which a flag would seem to hoist itself - and curly-toed golden slippers, he played mind games, produced doves from thin air, turned flames into flowers and sawed women in half.

After national service, he worked for Harry Stanley's Unique Magic Studio and then became the manager of the magic department at the famous Regent Street toy store, Hamley's. In 1970 he began working with a fellow magician on David Nixon's Magic Box, creating most of the illusions and tricks, while also playing Nixon's witless sidekick, Alistair - "about as useless as an ashtray on a motorbike". He briefly had his own show, Ali Bongo's Cartoon Carnival. He later joined Nixon's successor, Paul Daniels, whose television show ran with enormous success for 15 years, contributing many close-up tricks. In 1973 he challenged, with muted success, the psychic powers of the spoon-bending showman Uri Geller using "conventional magic".

He inspired the character Adam Klaus and was an adviser for the series Jonathan Creek (1997-2004). He was passionate about magic and often stayed up all night, reading magic magazines and working on routines. His flat was so full of props that he bought the floor below so he had somewhere to sleep. He was elected president of the Magic Circle in Sept 2008 and was still attending magicians' conventions in his 80th year. It was while speaking at one of these in February that he collapsed.

Born Dec 8, 1929; died March 8, 2009. * The National