how to be a socialist magician

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Before readers become too excited at the prospect of a change of career, a warning is in order. There is no great demand for socialist magicians. Hordes of hopefuls do not wave their wands outside Labour Party HQ in Walworth Road. Only one man keeps the red flag flying and the red hankie in the top hat. At 42, Ian Saville has made a career of demystifying the works of Karl Marx while mystifying an audience with bits of rope and torn-up newspapers.

In the Eighties, the new model Labour Party once cancelled him after he played a gig for Militant. But, in general, Saville has managed to avoid the sectarian splits within the Left, slowly becoming a fixture on the London cabaret circuit and the Edinburgh Fringe, while plying much of his trade at union conferences. Politicians might marvel at his longevity. Mrs Thatcher lasted a mere 11 years at the top of her profession. Saville has spent 15 as Britain's leading socialist magician.

Capitalist conjurors who wish to emulate Saville, may be surprised to learn that his long march began not in Moscow or Peking but at Butlin's. There, in 1971, he contested the semi-finals of the national talent competition next to comrades Bobby Crush and Mike Reid. "Crush and I went out at the same level, I can't remember what happened to Reid. The finalists went to the Palladium. I think we were at Bognor."

Soon he joined Broadside, a theatre group which performed on picket lines and in occupied factories. "I started doing magic curtain-raisers. The group was quite Maoist influenced. We'd have sessions where everyone made criticisms of some member. I was always criticised for not being political enough, so I devised a strategy based on the theory of dialectic. If I criticised myself hard, I thought, people would be less harsh. I did it a couple of times successfully. Then one day I criticised myself very hard, and everyone agreed. So I had to leave."

At the end of the Eighties, Saville reaped the benefits. Not financial benefits but gigs for Rock Against Racism, where the idea of a specifically socialist act arrived just in time for the birth of so-called alternative comedy. His influences are self-evident. In his first full-length show, Brecht on Magic (1987), the playwright appears as a ventriloquist's dummy. Marx, a Cockney-accented cardboard cut-out, reveals that he always wanted his theories performed as magic tricks. Cue, stunts like The Class Struggle Rope Trick, in which three red cords explain the class-relations before a revolution. A set about William Morris followed, then last November Left Luggage tackled the state of the Left today - though the Left has already changed so much, that he's now stopped doing the show.

At the 1986 party conference, Neil Kinnock joked that he wanted Saville in his Cabinet. Since then, though, the Labour revolution has been discomforting, and not just because he has to keep changing his material. This is a man who has the Internationale on a poster in his hall. "I've got this line: 'When I started out, people said a magic act was the last place they'd expect to find socialism. Now they say I was right. It was the last place.' People ask me: 'What will you do when Labour gets in?' But it seems to me my act's going to be even more necessary. There'll be even more need to attack the policies Blair espouses.

So, there it is, the three-step guide to socialist magicianship: visit Butlin's, join an earnest theatre group, stay out of party politics. Oh, and embrace poverty: "If Paul Daniels wants to do what I do, he'll have to get used to a lower salary." Finally, if offered TV stardom, should you engage with the capitalist media? Saville smiles: "I'd welcome the chance to explore the dialectic of that contradiction."


Ian Saville is appearing at the Sidmouth Folk Festival, 9 August.