Lee Thompson - A Man of Many Talents
Profiled by Alex Kocan
Lee Thompson, magician and professional pickpocket extraordinaire, has
written a book. "A Man of A Thousand Faces" chronicles the distraction
techniques used in pick-pocketing. Let us take a closer look at the man
himself. Lee met with me at Nottingham Train station to talk about his
career. We sat and chatted over a pot of tea for more than an hour.
The West Midlands born lad has been in show business since acting in plays
at the tender age of five years old. "As a result my parents were not
shocked at all that I went into the entertainment industry." Lee groaned
in confusion and brought his hands up to his face. "I really have no idea
what I would have done in life if I hadn't become a performer. My careers
officer at school said there's no future in it and suggested that I join
the army. Thank god he was wrong. I did do bar work and sweep roads before
I became full time, but if you want it bad enough it'll come."
Lee actually stumbled across his pick-pocketing talent by accident. "I was
working in Japan with a friend of mine doing our magic double act, called
Ben and Lee. An entertainment company flew us to Japan for three months
but neither of us spoke the language. So we created a cabaret act that was
like Tommy Coopery meets Lee Evans. We thought it was hilarious but the
Japanese didn't! Anyway on one occasion we got a guy to come up on stage
to check a box to see if it had any hidden compartments and his watch came
off in my hand. So we revealed it at the end of the show. The audience
went wild and I thought okay let's try this." And so a new chapter in
Lee's career opened.
As in magic slight of hand and distraction are essential for pick
pocketing. Lee explains further: "A lot of the distraction in my case
involves themes." Lee's act contains several characters all played by
himself to vary the show and keep the audiences mesmerised. "If I'm
dressed up as Fakin, [a parody on the Oliver Twist character], the
audience know something is going on, it's obvious. But if I was dressed as
my security guard character I can distract them. I may pat them down,
which is a normal thing for a security guard to do. Then they won't notice
if I have loaded their pockets or taken something away."
Lee has a makeup artist that transforms him into these characters using
fake teeth, wigs and "very expensive" latex masks. Lee also prizes himself
on the voices he has developed to accompany his many personas. "I love
doing their voices. Performing the characters allows me to express part of
my personality that wouldn't normally come out. The only problem is
keeping up the voice for the entire performance. I am having voice
coaching to stop myself slipping back into my Brummie accent while doing
Fakin', which is a London accent."
Even the pros' confess that they can't get it right one hundred per cent
of the time. "I did a corporate job for a big computer company once and I
ran into real difficulty because of their uniform, which was jeans and
T-shirts. Jeans pockets are nearly impossible to open unless you slit the
material. All I could do was take their glasses or watches; it was a
really difficult gig." Dipping into someone's pockets can also be
difficult if they are sitting down. But it actually depends on the
individual's personality. At a table I stand someone up in front of their
friends. I don't want to humiliate them but you need to remove them from
their safety zone, so they are more susceptible to your plans."
Lee's talents cannot be contained by the corporate scene as he has
appeared on television many times. However, things don't always go to
plan, especially on The Chris Moyles Show. Chris Moyles, Radio One DJ and
wise guy, set out to humiliate Lee. To get them into the swing of things
he asked Moyles and comedian Dave to have a chat with him before filming
began, but they refused. "I thought that was a bit weird. Why bother
inviting me on if they're going to be like that? He [Moyles] removed
everything from his person except his wallet. "He also sewed up most of
his pockets which made any attempt to remove anything impossible. The
show's producers were pleased with Lee's work and invited him onto Moyles'
Channel 5 show, he politely declined the offer. Fortunately the exposure
gave Lee some free publicity and he also got some more gigs out of it.
In such a tough profession it is fortunate that Lee loves a challenge.
After developing his pick pocketing to perfection he decided to take his
act to the streets, perhaps the toughest streets in the world, New York.
On touchdown at JFK airport Lee headed for South Street Seaport. It is an
old port now popular with tourists. Lee reminisces about his time there:
"I made very good friends with my fellow performers. They helped me
develop my act. They were great guys. The actual act was a disaster, but I
only did it to say I had done it. I went to New York in March which was
definitely the wrong time of year to go. It was freezing cold and there
were not many people around. New Yorkers are wise towards people trying to
rip them off. Pick-pocketing is a real crime and isn't very nice,
targeting a member of the public isn't ideal. Therefore I used a
volunteer, usually a little boy dressed up in old-fashioned school
clothes. I would plant a catapult and sandwiches on him, which I would
then steal. But it made people nervous. So I stuck to the old classic cups
and ball trick. New York was a great experience for me. It may not have
been a financial success but it has toughened me up a little towards
audiences response back at home."
The changing face of magic upsets Lee,
especially the trend of illusionists revealing how their acts are created.
The Masked Magician is perhaps the most famous example of this. "I would
not reveal my secrets for any amount of money. I don't like the whole
aspect of this trend one bit."
While working in Japan Lee performed at the
picturesque destination of the side of a volcano. He also performed to
15,000 people no less. "At another resort in Japan we were staying up in
the mountains. You opened your rice paper curtains in the morning and
could see bears fishing in the valley. It was beautiful."
"If you are interested in magic and want to
make it big you need to get yourself into a magic society and practice
hard. A lot of magicians don't like criticism. Don't be scared of failing.
You've got to fail to succeed".
Mr. Thompson was a very nice guy. He even paid for the tea. At the end of
the interview he jokingly said: "Hooray. Did I pass the test?" You did