The conjuror shows his hand

Drug addiction? Aids? The magician Wayne Dobson could not make the rumours disappear. Then he decided to reveal his secret. By Jim White
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The Independent Online
Every Monday night, in a curry house on London's Edgware Road, members of the Magic Circle, the conjurors' masonic lodge, get together. Between onion bhajis they discuss new tricks, over a chicken dansak they practise shuffling decks of cards and, if you are lucky and happen to be sitting next to them in the restaurant, they might make the rather over-ambitious meat vindaloo you are panting your way through disappear altogether. Also, according to Wayne Dobson, former Magic Circle stalwart, veteran of Las Vegas, and the man who once made a helicopter disappear from an air base before a huge and open-mouthed television audience, the gathered magicians are wont to exchange gossip.

Until a fortnight ago, much of the gossip would have centred on Dobson himself. Rumours had been growing steadily for a couple of years, occasioned by the fragility of Dobson's appearance. He was looking uneasy on his feet, clearly had muscular problems in his face, his speech slurred when he was tired, and off-stage he leant ever more heavily on an elaborately handled walking cane.

There were two principal pieces of tittle-tattle doing the rounds among magicians: one was that he had a cocaine habit so substantial it made the private life of Colombian footballers look unblemished; and the other was that he had Aids.

Wayne Dobson had achieved acceptance by his peers in 1974, when, aged 16, he became the youngest ever member of the Magic Circle. He was conjuring in his spare time, and working days in a yarn factory in Leicester colour- matching pairs of socks ("shows how good I was at deception, it was a year before they discovered I was colour blind"). He went professional in his twenties and soon came to prominence on television as a purveyor of big illusions, including a variation on the old cutting-in-half trick involving a buzz-saw and, improbably, no covers or boxes to conceal how it was done. He was subsequently taken up by Las Vegas, the magicians' equivalent of winning the Lottery, but with the pounds 30,000 a week pay cheques there came a degree of professional jealousy.

Conjuring is as bitchy a branch of show business as any. Ever since Houdini's day, the major rubbishers of a magician's work have been his peers. The problem lies in the fact there are only really six tricks to perform. It is a narrow playing field; the skill of the artist, therefore, is to re-define those six in his or her own way. Any fresh re-definitions are the subject of intense inspection by fellow professionals.

"I remember going to see Siegfried and Roy, America's top magicians, in Vegas about 10 years ago," says Dobson. "Coming out of the show afterwards Karen [his wife] asked me how they did a particular trick and I had to admit I hadn't a clue. I went away and studied it and eventually worked it out, but it completely blew my mind at the time."

Accusations of theft of those re-definitions are frequent. And that is where the Magic Circle comes in, as it has the power to act as arbiter in disputes.

The Magic Circle is, in essence, a self-elected social club for conjurors. Once deemed proficient, a magician can seek membership and if elected can turn up at the society's headquarters for a drink with prominent members - headquarters being an unassuming building near Marble Arch with a bizarre mosaic of a pentangle on the floor of the entrance lobby.

The Circle has rules: foremost among them is an absolute adherence to trick secrecy. A committee of senior members, the Inner Circle, has the power to revoke membership for serious breaches of etiquette. Being ejected from the Circle need not be the end of a magician's working life, but with word of mouth recommendation important, particularly for less established professionals, it can be, as it were, tricky.

Unfortunately for Dobson, he and the Magic Circle just never got on. "Soon after I'd done Vegas, a prominent member of the Circle told the media that my sawing-in-half routine was a steal from David Copperfield," he recalls. "It was true that Copperfield and I had been in discussion, but it was amicable and he had been convinced that my method was very different from his. But the stories suggested a big fight. Then another member accused me of stealing something from him. And then I discovered someone using one of my routines on television. I'd only used it once and was going to do so again for the ITV Telethon, but now of course, I couldn't."

So, Dobson says, he took taped evidence of the alleged steal to the Magic Circle disciplinary council. "I lodged a complaint and showed them a video of my act and a video of his act," he says. "They agreed there was a lift - it was word for word, actually - but all they did was censure him. The fact he was a member of the committee made life difficult for them. But remember they had expelled a guy called John Lenahan for revealing how to do the three-card trick. He was quite right to do it, too. It was on a television news programme about those con-artists down Oxford Street. The thing was, I bet you nobody watching that show would have been able to do a convincing three-card trick afterwards."

And then there was Fay Presto, expelled for undergoing a sex change (the ultimate disappearing trick), since women are denied, as it were, membership of the Circle.

Angered at what he felt was a lack of support from his professional body and an inconsistency in its rulings, Dobson resigned from the Magic Circle two years ago. But this did not stop the talk about him - about his erratic behaviour and what some people took to be the causes of it.

Such was the intensity of the speculation among his fellow professionals that Dobson decided last month to come clean and reveal that he was indeed hiding something from them: he was suffering from multiple sclerosis.

"I was diagnosed eight years ago," he says, standing in the hallway of his cottage in Hampshire beneath a poster advertising an Edwardian conjuror ("Carter the Great: Do the dead materialise? The Absorbing Question of all time"). "I had a bit of a twinge in my right hand, so I went to the doctor. Then I had problems with my feet and my balance. I was so terrified by the diagnosis that I waited years to get a second opinion. It was finally confirmed four years ago."

The competitive nature of his profession, however, made Dobson nervous about making the diagnosis public. Bookings, he feared, might disappear in front of his eyes and re-appear in another magician's diary. So he used all his powers of deception to hide what he calls his "condition". "I don't like the word illness," he says, supporting himself on the arm proffered by Karen. "It's a condition I live with.

"If there is one thing a magician should be good at, it's conning people. And I became very good at it. There are all sorts of varieties of MS, but the one which seems to be afflicting me caused a gradual debilitation. It wasn't a case of waking up one morning and not being able to do a trick. It is that you become aware that, three years down the line, you aren't as good as you were three years ago. So you adjust accordingly, and customise the show to your abilities. Luckily I'd never been much of physical magician, it wasn't a case of tearing round like Penn and Teller. With me it was always much more a case of a funny line or pulling a face."

There was, presumably, also an element of self-deception about Dobson's act: if he didn't go public about it, the condition might go away. "Oh, yes, no question," he admits. "Throw yourself into your work and you might forget about it. Because when I thought about it, I was absolutely petrified."

There were, though, enormous attendant problems from living a lie, not least a certain reputation that Dobson earned for stubbornness. "On stage, I could direct things myself, but I used to have trouble on set when recording for television," he says. "I'd get a director asking me to, say, walk down a flight of stairs, a perfectly legitimate thing to ask. But of course I knew if I tried, I'd just fall over. So I'd make up a pathetic excuse like I didn't think it was artistically necessary and point-blank refuse to do it.

"I damaged my weak leg badly in a fall last September, tore all the ligaments. At first that gave me a good excuse for immobility, but it became absurd that it was taking so long to heal. But the worst thing was I was generally using up too much adrenaline, not from performing, but from worrying about how I was going to get from A to B on stage, or how I was going to disguise the fact I had a limp."

And so he decided, after considerable heart-searching and long discussions with his wife, to make his condition public. "I've thought quite hard about how to describe what I've done, and I guess the best term is 'come out'," he says. "I feel a weight off my shoulders now I can put this constant need for deception behind me. There is a tremendous feeling of guilt associated with this condition. You always feel it's your fault. Also, lately I've felt people were becoming more aware that I had a problem, people were looking at me in a strange way, which was making me depressed."

The main reason, he felt, that eyes were studying his every sleight of hand, were the fanciful rumours circulating about him. These were rumours whose maliciousness was rooted, he believes, in the history of his troubled relationship with the rest of his profession.

The Magic Circle retains a discreet silence about the Dobson case, as disinclined to reveal its inner workings as it is to explain how to make a ping-pong ball disappear (it's up your sleeves, guys). None the less, Dobson does not expect to see many familiar faces in the audience when he performs in this country for the first time since revealing his condition. If only because he is playing four successive Sundays, and he knows they will be saving themselves for that Monday night curry.

Wayne Dobson is appearing at the Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London on 18, 25 February and 3, 10 March.

Tricks of the trade: the six illusions magicians know

Just as comedy is said to consist of four jokes, and novels tell one of eight or nine archetypal stories, so magicians concede that there are only six kinds of trick, hence the disputes over who has invented what:


Whipping a rabbit from a hat


Making a coin disappear - or, if you are Wayne Dobson, a helicopter


Making your assistant with the long legs and the sparkly leotard apparently move from one side of the stage to the other


Making said assistant, or indeed, in the case of David Copperfield, the entire Earl's Court arena, float


Making a rabbit turn into a tiger, or, if you are Paul Daniels, your long-legged assistant in a sparkly leotard into your wife


Thrusting a sword through the midriff of your assistant, or, if more ambitious, cutting them in half with a buzz saw