Magicians fight to make each other vanish

The sitting president of the Magic Circle is facing an unprecedented challenge from a fellow prestidigitator. Tim Hulse asks the upstart what new tricks he has up his sleeve
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The Independent Online
TOMORROW EVENING, at the annual general meeting of the Magic Circle, Michael Bailey, a 58-year-old professional magician, will discover if he has pulled the ultimate rabbit out of the hat and become the society's new president.

Tradition has always dictated that the current president's position is rubber-stamped for another year. But this time it is different. Behind the doors of the circle, a feud has been simmering, setting magician against magician over the future of their organisation.

"History is being made," said Mr Bailey, currently the vice-president, who is the first member of the Magic Circle ever to challenge a sitting president.

The feud appears to boil down to a clash of personalities and approach between Mr Bailey and the current president, David Berglas, 72. Famed as a "mentalist" for his memory feats and mind-reading, Mr Berglas was elected in 1989 on the death of his predecessor, who had held the post for 31 years.

Politicial in-fighting rarely excites the passions of the Magic Circle's 1,350 members who range all over the world from enthusiastic amateurs to superstar professionals such as David Copperfield and Paul Daniels.

But the interest in this election has meant a high turnout of voters prior to Friday's closing date for the poll.

All concerned agree that the result is likely to be close, and not even the mind-reading skills of Mr Berglas can predict the outcome. He says that whatever the result, he'll be glad when it's all over.

"This is not what we're about normally," he sighs. "The Magic Circle are a wonderful bunch. Their passion, day and night, is magic. They sleep it and eat it and talk it. It's very unusual for us to be talking politics."

The radical break with tradition was to some extent triggered by Mr Berglas himself, who announced at last year's AGM that he would be stepping down this year. However, after being "inundated" with petitions and letters asking him to stay on, he subsequently decided to stand again. Mr Bailey waited until the day before the closing date for nominations in June before tossing his top hat into the ring, thereby giving members their first ever opportunity to topple a president.

Relations between the two became strained over the society's new building, the Centre of Magic Arts near London's Euston station, which was opened three months ago. The Centre doubles as both a museum of magic and a performance venue - the top two floors house a 162-seat theatre. It also provides a headquarters for the Magic Circle, the first time the society has had a permanent home in its 93-year history.

Mr Bailey, a former managing director of the Lonsdale advertising agency, was head of the fundraising operation which raised pounds 1.8m towards the building's cost and was part of the team responsible for bringing the whole project to fruition. However, his working methods have created a certain amount of resentment.

"We believe that Michael Bailey has been possibly a little too autocratic," said Ali Bongo, a Berglas supporter who sits on the Circle's ruling council and who is standing for the vice-presidency vacated by Mr Bailey.

"We feel that he worked with his own cronies and they did things their way and didn't let the members have too much say. He has taken a lot of things unto himself, as it were, which I think is undemocratic; making decisions without reference to the council... I have to be careful on this, it's a very touchy subject," adds Mr Bongo, who is renowned for his floating ball trick.

"Oh, very funny," said Mr Bailey, laughing heartily when the allegation of autocratic behaviour is raised. "No, I really don't think so. Autocratic is quite the wrong description. Quite the reverse. We, the team, were trying to produce a pretty expensive and complex project to the best of the team's ability, with the authority of the Magic Circle council, who had in fact elected that team so to do. Some of the council may feel that they would have liked to have been more deeply involved, but the only way for that to happen is for the whole council to run the project. From a business point of view, that is totally impossible. I'm sure in hindsight things could have been done differently but we did the best we could at that particular time and the results are there for everyone to see."

Mr Berglas believes his own record over the past nine years speaks for itself and prefers not to comment on his rival. "I don't want to be controversial," he said. "All my supporters have been saying I'm the only one who's kept his dignity throughout all this and I don't want to spoil that now."

For his part, Mr Bailey will only speak obliquely about "the old guard" who need to be replaced because they don't have the expertise to make the new Centre a success. "A lot of money has been spent on this building," he said.

"For the sake of the members and for the sake of magic we've got to have it busy and exciting and bring it alive, and the only way you can do that is to actually market the building properly. A tremendous amount of work has got to be done and I just feel I have the business expertise, the magical expertise and hopefully the leadership and motivation to make it work."