Star of Channel 4's new Friday-night magic show, Dirty Tricks, which will be screened this autumn
"The greatest illusion of all? Uri Geller convincing people it was real for a time. But my favourite actual trick is the Invisible or Brainwave Deck, invented by Dai Vernon. Born at the end of the 19th century, Vernon is the father of modern, close-up magic. It's probably fair to say he invented more magic than anyone else. There are a lot of variations to the Invisible Deck but basically someone simply thinks of a card and it turns out to be the only facedown card in the deck whereas normally with mind-readers, someone has to write something down. That instantly makes you suspicious. Vernon lived into his nineties so his influence permeated the 20th century, and his philosophy influences every modern magician. Above all, he championed naturalness; if a magician displays lots of skill, then all he's doing is showing he's cleverer than you, that he's learnt a set of tricks like a juggler. Where's the magic in that?"
America's 'First Woman of Magic', based in Las Vegas
"The Canadian magician Doug Henning had this carefree, sunshiny, happy personality which was almost spiritual. I remember his water levitation, in which a girl is suspended over a fountain. So many magicians have tried to recreate that but none has succeeded. But the most extraordinary trick I've seen was on one of his TV specials. It involved two horses: he was on the black one, a girl was on the white. Galloping at one another they merged. The horses disappeared, and the couple ended up together on a zebra. I've always thought David Copperfield set a new model for the magic industry, but without Henning and his zebra, Copperfield would not have happened."
First person for 85 years to be expelled from the Magic Circle after revealing secrets (he wishes it well on its 100th birthday)
"It's something I never do and never would do, but when somebody makes a dove appear it still blows me away. The greatest trick, though, is one that probably never happened: the Indian rope trick. When Marco Polo went to the court of Kublai, he saw a magician throw in the air a rope with a wooden ball at the end and the rope went went rigid. He cajoled a boy to climb the rope, after which he followed him up, stabbed him in the back and chopped off his arms and legs, collecting them in a wicker basket. When the basket is opened the boy comes out whole. A lot of people think it's a version of a Chinese myth called "Stealing the Peaches", which mirrors our own Jack and the Beanstalk.
"I saw the trick done on a beach on the west coast of India, in the company of the writer Peter Lamont, who has written a fascinating book about the subject. The perfomers didn't chop up the boy, but I still wasn't sure how exactly they did it."
Actor who has directed and co-created stage shows for Derren Brown, the illusionist
"Magic is like pornography. In both fields, there is a huge investment in disappointment. Someone sees an advert and sends off their money, but when the thing arrives they realise they've been lied to. But every now and then they'll find something that delivers. I went to a beautiful old magic shop in Barcelona, where the manager offered to show me a trick. When he took out a matchbox with two little coloured pencils, I thought, 'Oh God, I'm going to have to pretend to be interested'. Essentially, you take one pencil without me looking, close the box making sure the other one is wrapped in tissue paper and I tell you which one you've taken. He did it again and again. The thing that blew me away when I finally bought it was the thinking you'd never believe could be applied in this area. I'm no mathematician but I imagine it's like that when you come across a beautiful equation. I showed it to Derren and he was completely distracted by it. That is what a great trick is all about."
Professional illusion designer and author of the recently published Hunting the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear
"David Devant was the first president of the Magic Circle In his Mascot Moth illusion, a lady stood on stage in a gown with moth wings. As Devant reached across, the audience saw the moth-woman disappear. I never saw the original Mascot Moth - it was performed in New York in 1905 - but I have helped recreate it on stage and I can tell you that the mechanics around it are extraordinary."
The magician formerly known as the Great Soprendo
"I have to pick Robert Harbin's Zig-Zag Girl, which reinvented the old trick of sawing someone in half. A lady gets into a box dividing her into three parts but then her stomach is pushed to one side. When he first performed it on Sunday Night Live at the Palladium, people were talking about it in the pub the next day. Harbin was a gentlemanly performer who presented the audience with puzzles, then got off. Which it's often said is exactly what a magician shouldn't do. But he gave such absent-minded enthusiasm to everything he did. Unfortunately he died in 1977."
Britain's top female magician
Magic is never about the trick by itself. I've seen an American magician fry an audience with a $2 trick you buy in your local magic store: personality, not technical skill, is what's important. The most beautiful thing I've seen was a flying act by Arturo Brachetti, in a show called Y at the Piccadilly Theatre in 1983. I've seen David Copperfield fly, but it always seemed odd. If you could really fly, you wouldn't gently drift off, as soon as you went six feet off the ground, you'd be like, "My God, this is brilliant." What Brachetti did was shoot up towards the proscenium arch before suddenly losing the power of flight. The audience wept at his loss. He didn't require 13,000 technicians. In fact, I'm sure magical "experts" would disapprove at the simplicity of his method. But then, what's an expert? An ex is a has-been. A spurt is a drip under pressure.
President of the Magic Circle
"I first saw Harry Blackstone Junior's Floating Light-bulb trick 10 years ago; 1,500 magical enthusiasts rose for a five-minute standing ovation. You saw his wife, Gay, come on with a lit table lamp. Blackstone would remove the bulb, which would stay alight in his hands. Then he released his fingers, as if he'd burnt them, and the bulb floated around. Harry would say something and the bulb would shoot off the stage, flying along the front row, inches from the audience's faces before returning into his hand. You could not beat the simplicity of the presentation, and there is something particularly touching, given the history of magic, that it was passed down from Harry's father, the great Blackstone, to his son, along with the rest of his show. Sadly, Harry died three years ago but Gay will be a guest at our centenary convention next week. The secret rests with her."
Professor Richard Wiseman
Academic psychologist and magician. With Jeff McBride, he performs The Science of Magic at the Science Museum, in London, on 27-29 July
"It's hard to beat the simple trick in which a magician brings someone on stage, sits them facing the audience, then makes a scrunched-up piece of paper vanish in front of their eyes [by throwing it over their head]. What's great is that the mechanics of what's happening are exposed to everyone in the room except the person on stage. Paul Daniels does a brilliant version. To walk out like him and do a 45-minute show armed with little more than a set of paper napkins is brave. But my favourite trick is when there's no trick, pushing a skewer through an inflated balloon. It works on physics. You simply need to know where to push, but because we don't understand science we see magic where none exists."
Of Marvin's Magic, one of the world's biggest suppliers of magical props
"My father, David, was a former president of the Magic Circle. Yet I remember being blown away the first time I saw Hans Moretti's Cardboard Box Sword act. It was in Lyon, France, in 1976. I was about 16 or 17. Moretti is a big, burly guy, like a circus strongman, with a huge elaborate moustache. He got into this cardboard box so small you could barely close the lid. Then Helga, his late wife, asked audience volunteers to push swords through it wherever they liked. After the first few he would wiggle his hand out. There was hardly enough room in the box to close the lid, yet when they took out the swords he was not only in full clown get-up but holding a chicken and balloons. I make my living selling magic equipment and I can honestly say I still don't know it's done."Reuse content