Geoffrey Durham


Geoffrey Durham was born in Surrey in 1949. After twelve years in various independent schools and four years studying Spanish at Leeds University, he used his deep, extensive, erudite education to become a stage-hand at the City Varieties Theatre in Leeds. He stayed there eighteen months, ending up as Head Flyman, and then left to become an actor in Glasgow. Long acting contracts in Liverpool and Leicester followed. And then, at the age of 27, he suddenly threw it all up and became a magician.

So how were the seeds of this passion for magic sown? Was he ever a boy magician?

"Well, for a short time, yes. I got interested in magic when I was 10. I read quite a few books and did odd shows for relatives and school functions. I even did what must have been a truly toe-curling show in the lounge of our holiday hotel one year, for all the other guests! But by 1961, the passion had started to wane, and by the time I was 13, I wasn't a magician any more.

"Fast forward 12 years. I was an actor in Liverpool, and there was a show being rehearsed, and someone had to do some tricks in it, and it ended up being me. So I sent home for my magic books, and devoured them all again. I went to Davenport's, where Patrick Page sold me a Vanishing Cane. He showed me the newspaper vanish of the cane (it's brilliant) and he suggested other tricks: the Rice Bowls (he sold me a truly terrible set of them!) and some bits of mentalism. And I did some of those tricks in the show, and enjoyed them hugely.

"Fast forward six months: I was out of work as an actor, and was reading every magic book I could get my hands on. I discovered the Supreme Magic Company by accident, and read some of their stuff. Through an extraordinary little book called Stranger Than Fiction by Derek Lever, I started to work as a busker on the streets of Liverpool doing a stunt act - fire eating, bed of nails, razor blades, hammering a nail up my nose. I was called Scrappy Lambert when I did that act, and I did quite well, really. I've often thought that I might try it again one day.

"But at the same time, the interest in mentalism continued, and I created another act, which I did in art galleries (true!) of basic mind-reading. I loved it. But not enough to stop being an actor, and when another job came in, I went off and did it. I started work at the Phoenix Theatre in Leicester in the Summer of 1975.

"They'd heard all about my interest in magic, and when they decided to do a Christmas Music Hall show, they asked me to do a conjuring act. Well, I didn't want to do it. I'd done the stunts, and I'd done the mentalism, and conjuring somehow felt like a backward move. But they insisted. So I had to come up with something that would suit me and suit them - a way of doing a conjuring act that would express something about me while displaying the tricks well.

"I remember waking up in the middle of the night, and suddenly having the idea: "you could be Spanish, you could wear spangly suits, you could have a manic laugh, you could have stupid magic words, you could have a twirly moustache, you could wear Cuban heels". And I went back to sleep. I didn't realise that I'd created a career for myself in about 30 seconds."

Geoffrey went on in the show, and had a huge personal success. He did the act twice more in different shows that year. And then he got a big break - he met Ken Brooke.

"Ken has become a bit of a legend in magic circles, and rightly so, but he's quite hard to explain in some ways.

"He was a magic dealer, and a wonderful demonstrator, and he really cared about magic. He was opinionated and funny and skilled. Anybody who phoned him about anything would get a magic lesson of some kind. The first contact I had with him was to ring to ask if he sold a billet knife. "Yes", he said, "but don't buy it, because you'll never use it". He was right.

"The first thing I bought from him was an egg bag. In those days he was selling pink ones, with the gaff in the corner, Max Malini style. I went back a week later to ask if I could buy another one, but a black one this time. "Why, what's the matter with the pink one?" he asked. "Well, I think I could hide the pocket more easily if it was black," I said. "GET OUT!" he shouted.

"He really cared about the magic he sold, and he minded passionately if he thought one of his tricks was being done badly.

"I asked him to teach me the Multiplying Martinis. He agreed, and then proceeded to shout the rhythms of the trick at me for about 25 minutes, all the time telling me why my rhythms were wrong for the trick. I've never forgotten that magic lesson. It was the best I've ever had."

Geoffrey gave in his notice at the theatre in Leicester, and turned professional as a magician. He had an act consisting of seven tricks and a lot of laughing. But slowly, bookers began to take notice, and his act got better. He did a Summer season in Morecambe in 1977, and ended up living there for six years. He played the working-men's clubs in the North of England, and hated every second of it. He came second-to-bottom on a TV talent show, and nearly gave up the magic business for good as a result. But he was nothing if not persistent, and after five years as a magician he was performing a forty-five minute spot in a West End show, Funny Turns.

"That was the big break for me. The West End critics liked me, and the TV producers came to see me. I was asked to appear on Crackerjack, and did seven shows in that series over the next three years. And I did tons of other TV work, too: three Russell Harty Christmas Specials, and endless shows with people like Keith Harris and the Krankies."

There were huge ups and downs, but the Great Soprendo was a success in theatre and TV for about 14 years.

"I started to realise after about 12 of those years that I needed to push my career in a different direction. I was on children's TV a lot, and of course children didn't really realise that The Great Soprendo was as much a joke at magicians' expense than anything else - why should they? And children's TV was changing, and I felt that I might not be employed for much longer. Above all, the Great Soprendo was a novelty act. It wasn't me. And if you want to survive as an entertainer, you simply have to be yourself.

"So I spent two years planning the Great Soprendo's demise. I got lucky, and was offered the role as presenter on a new magic show. I did my last work as the Spaniard in 1989/1990. I presented The Best of Magic as myself, and very, very slowly began to learn how to express my own personality through magic tricks.

"I firmly believe that that is actually all you have to do as a magician: express your personality through doing tricks. But it can take a good while to learn how to do it. And in my case, it's taken a whole lifetime! I found it incredibly hard when I gave up as the Great Soprendo. And for that reason, I find it quite difficult to watch The Best of Magic. Then again, I suppose it was inevitable that it would take me a while to get used to working without a disguise.

"When The Best of Magic came to an end, I wasn't sure what to do. And after about two years of not being sure, I had an idea: maybe it would be worth asking if they'd have me on Countdown, the afternoon game show for boffins… I wrote and suggested it, and eighteen months later, the producer wrote back and said yes!"

Geoffrey has now done 150 Countdowns, always closing Part One of the show with a close-up trick or puzzle. He is regularly voted the most popular celebrity on the show by the viewers, and it has opened up a whole new career for him.

"Two things came out of Countdown for me, other than the golden opportunity of being myself in front of a camera without having to carry the show for half an hour. The first was a little second career as a setter of puzzles for radio shows like Puzzle Panel, which I love, and the second was my one man theatre shows.

"I decided to do the first one man show in 1994 as a fill-in, when a little theatre in Islington needed a Christmas show in a hurry. So I devised One Man's Intrepid Journey Up His Own Sleeve. It filled the bill nicely. When the London run ended, I put it out on tour, and because of the Countdown audience, it did very well. I toured it for seven years in the end, and realised towards the end of that time that if I wanted to go back to the same theatres, I'd need a new show!

So last year, he set to and devised an entirely new evening, Geoffrey Durham's Little Miracles. It took about twelve months to devise, because Geoffrey does both halves himself - no support acts, and no celebrity guests. And he does close-up magic in the interval, so he is "on" in total for about two and a half hours.

"The new show has been a real pleasure to devise. It's such a privilege to be allowed to do your own show in a theatre, and make all the rules yourself, and do your own publicity, without the managements breathing down your neck all the time. I've been on the road for about six months with the new one now, and I've ironed out the glitches, and I'm loving it. I'm performing The Spirit Paintings this time, a trick that means a lot to me, and the new Himber Ring is in the show and going a treat, and about two months ago I put in my new Prediction Box, and that is honestly going down better than I would have ever believed.

"I'm still doing my other work too. I was Magic Director on Jus' Like That! in the West End earlier this year, and I'm still finding time to fit in the odd private party and corporate show. And the dear old Countdowns still come in from time to time!"

 

Top Trick?
"I've almost never done a show of more than thirty minutes duration without performing the Egg Bag in some shape or form, so that has to be up there with my favourites. I've recently started to perform the Gypsy Thread on stage, and I love it. But the Torn and Restored Newspaper was a trick that literally delivered me from poverty to relative affluence in the space of a year (true!) so that has to be the one, I think."

Top Book?
"My first adult magic book was CLASSIC SECRETS OF MAGIC by Bruce Elliott, and I still think it is far and away the best "first book" imaginable. I still read it all the time. But my real favourite has to be MAGIC OF ROBERT HARBIN. It is beautifully written, brilliantly instructive and I find Harbin's magical thinking utterly inspiring. Always."

Top Magician?
"Really difficult, this. I adore the work of Juan Tamariz, and would rather be entertained by him than by any other living magician. I hugely admired David Nixon for his warmth and style. I learned more from studying Robert Harbin than anyone else I've ever seen. And I'm a passionate fan of the work of Roy Benson. But I actually think my top performer has to be Fred Kaps - the greatest all-rounder I have ever seen, a wonderfully skilful magician in every aspect of the art, and, above all, an entertainer of real authority."

Top Magic Quote?
"'If to this delicacy of manipulation is added a suavity of manner accompanied by a never-failing cool daring, then the perfection of a conjuror is attained.' Edwin Sachs, Sleight of Hand."

Top Magic Moment?
"Opening the letter in which I was told that The Magic Circle were awarding me The Maskelyne. I thought it was a joke at first. It took me an hour to realise that they must be serious."

 

www.geoffreydurham.com

 

© MagicWeek 2003

 

Back

 

© www.magicweek.co.uk