Every August in Edinburgh, the phrase "spirit of the Fringe" is bandied about, but seldom defined. Now help is at hand: that spirit – the peculiar quality that makes this carnival of multifarious art and entertainment so unique – has been distilled into one act. It's a man dressed as a dragon, performing magic tricks in partnership with a poker-faced chihuahua called Mr Piffles. Piff the Magic Dragon is simultaneously the gimmicky novelty act that makes Fringe-sceptics groan, and the heart-warming story of a depressed conjuror seeking redemption disguised as a big lizard and – hey presto! – finding a huge global audience.
Now 33, John Van der Put spent the first 10 years of his career performing close-up magic at functions. "I was going into restaurants and interrupting people for a living," he says. He's talking to me at a members' club in central London, with his chihuahua on his lap. Van der Put hated the intrusiveness, and the smugness, of his earlier brand of after-dinner magic. Now he sells-out his own solo shows, at Edinburgh and beyond. He recently toured with the band Mumford and Sons, performing to more than 200,000 people in the process. He staged a nine-night solo season at Sydney Opera House; his appearance on Penn & Teller's ITV show Fool Us has been viewed more than nine million times on YouTube; and he's the Magic Circle's 2013 Stage Magician of the Year.
Oh, and in case that doesn't add up to a cool enough life, he's creating the illusions for the achingly hip theatre company Punchdrunk's new show The Drowned Man. He last worked with Punchdrunk a decade ago, and when he saw the company's director Felix Barrett again, "Felix was just like, 'Who would have thought? Who would ever have imagined?'"
Nobody saw Piff the Magic Dragon's success coming – least of all the his creator. The alter ego emerged when Van der Put went to a fancy- dress party in a costume donated by his sister, only to find that no one else had bothered to dress up. "I spent the whole night getting more and more grumpy. And then my friend said, "you should do this in your act'." Six months later, he did, and "immediately I was like, 'This is what I should do now'."
Even as a close-up magician in restaurants, Van der Put had been successful: he created the culinary magic effects at Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck restaurant, for example ("There was one where [the waiters] snapped their fingers and a sorbet dish would burst into flames"). But it's only in character, as "Jack Dee in a dragon suit", that his career took off.
"I'd never been able to find an angle before," he says, "to get away from, 'I'm cleverer than you ... taa-daa', all the stuff that made me uncomfortable about magicians," he says. "I see all these magicians who are like, "I am the messiah, these are miracles", and I just thought it'd be funny if you did that in a dragon outfit." And so it proved – although the clincher was recruiting a miniature mutt as his sidekick. "I just thought: there's something missing," says Van der Put.
Then, at his first Edinburgh show in 2009, "the girl who ran the venue had a chihuahua. So my PR said: 'why don't you put that in the show?'"
Now, Van der Put's act revolves tightly around Mr Piffles. The dog apparently gets straitjacketed, fired out of a cannon, and gets his paw broken. That last illusion has raised the odd complaint, not least when Van der Put supported Mumford and Sons at Newcastle Arena. Piff was appearing on a second stage, out of sight of most of the audience, who didn't notice him until his show was well under way. By the time they twigged, "all they saw," says Van der Put with a wince, "is a guy in a dragon suit breaking a tiny dog's paw. Right into the microphone, in an arena. And the whole place was like, 'Boo! Fuck you!'"
Audiences usually respond more enthusiastically – not least on the Edinburgh Fringe, where it all began for Piff, and which Van der Put cites as "my favourite thing".
"I didn't start with any money or management behind me," he explains. "I went up there, it was open-access, I did my first Piff act, and it took off from there. It's amazing that there's a place where you can do that. And where you can do 100 gigs a month. I love working, so to be able to do that – I'm just really, really grateful that the Edinburgh Fringe exists."
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