Hey presto! The slick new face of magic

The Young Magician of the Year contest is back, and Jonathan Owen finds that hocus-pocus is on a new high

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The Independent Culture

Heads will roll, jewellery will vanish and large denomination bank notes will get ripped to shreds today – all in the name of entertainment. Britain's finest hocus-pocus merchants will be responsible for the mayhem when they challenge for the title of Young Magician of the Year today. The teenage contestants are at the forefront of a major revival of magic taking hold among a new generation.

Rather than ageing stage magicians in velvet suits uttering words such as "abracadabra" or, worse still, "hey presto", a slew of popular television programmes are helping to drive the interest. The modern face of magic is represented by TV street magicians such as Dynamo, illusionists Penn and Teller and the mind-reading antics of Derren Brown.

The CBBC show Help! My Supply Teacher Is Magic, in which magicians posing as teachers play tricks on unsuspecting pupils, has proved so popular that a second series has been commission and has even spawned a stage version which was performed at London's Southbank Centre earlier this month. Magic has "shaken off its old fashioned image and adopted a more contemporary style", said Katherine Mills, one of the stars of the CBBC show.

Record numbers are joining the youth wing of the Magic Circle, with membership rising from 350 in 2011 to 550 today.

Jack Delvin, president of the Magic Circle, said: "The current trend is you either go down the Dynamo road, which is street magic, or there's the interest in what Derren Brown does, the mind-reading route. And those two people are unquestionably the reason why there is so much interest. Harry Potter still has a huge following but I think we've moved on from that."

The teenagers in today's final at the Magic Circle's London headquarters include Nicholas Lee, 17, from Cambourne, Cambridgeshire, whose speciality includes a comedy routine which ends in someone's head being cut off. Nicknamed Magic Nick at school, he and fellow contestant James Longcake, 15, from Epsom, Surrey (whose routine features a piece of string cut into little pieces reuniting again), are both hoping to conjure up a career in magic.

Sebastian Walton, 17, from Leeds, intends to make someone's ring disappear and end up inside a piece of fruit. He recently left college and starts a contract at the House of Illusion, a magic venue in Salou, Spain, next month. The winner of the biennial contest for 14- to 18-year-olds, which began in 1961, will become a full member of the Magic Circle when they turn 18.

Young magicians

Matthew Woollons, 15, York

"My grandpa made coins appear behind my ear when he gave me my pocket money. I was about three then and I've just fallen in love with it ever since. Last year, I entered York's Young Magician of the Year and won. Today I'm going to shred someone's £20 note and then make it whole again. I'm not sure about asking the judges but I will ask someone to give me a £20. I'm not going to tell you how the trick is done. I've done it a few times before at talent shows at school. I hope to go into magic professionally but I want to get qualifications first, get my A-levels out of the way."

Elizabeth Rogan, 16, Nuneaton

"I remember being about 11 and seeing my uncle perform a card trick. He wouldn't tell me how it was done so I learnt myself and just carried on. I finish with a piece with a balloon on a string: I say a poem and as I say it I break the string into pieces. The basic thing is the restoration of the string, which then bursts into flames and the balloon explodes with a shower of confetti."

Sonny Pennington, aka, 'Magical Sunshine', 17, Much Wenlock

"I got my first magic set when I was 11 and I did my first show a year later at a local village hall. I'm doing a Btec at college but do magic shows most weekends. It's a comedy patter act with a bit of music at the end, and my signature trick is probably a wooden duck, like the one used by Tommy Cooper, which selects a card. Someone selects a card, signs it and then the duck finds it."