Blackpool Magicians' Club 50th Convention
An overview by Matthew Blackwell
Photos by John Derris
Blackpool: It's really a kind of magical orgy isn't it.
For me at least, the convention started at about 10am on the Friday morning chatting to magical folk waiting at Euston station. Once into the journey it became apparent that there were an awful of a lot of magicians travelling up - I counted ten in my half of the carriage alone. Probably the most intensely magician-populated train you could hope to encounter. However, I slept most of the way - it seems a good few of us had spent too long packing the night before.
Arriving at Blackpool, I shared a taxi to the Winter Gardens with some other conventioneers and made my way (via hotel) to get my registration pack. The standard procedure seemed to be to purchase an expensive cup of tea from the café and to sit down and explore your goody bag. During this brief - maybe fifteen minute - interlude I met two old magical friends and made one new one (from Sweden). This - to me at least - is totally what the convention was about. Not just fantastic entertainment and an opportunity to learn from the best - but a time to meet new people and make new magical friends, share ideas and relax with people with a shared interest.
Food: All of the eateries near the Winter Gardens were almost constantly bustling with conjurers. To the general public this must seem most peculiar. Returned a little later to browse the 'Dealers' Mart'. Happily, I was not tempted to buy. Yet.
At 8.00pm the Close-Up Championships: I made my way to the theatre at 7.50 and sat down near the front so as to get a good view. Due to a slight administrative bodge on my part this turned out not to be the close-up at all - I was actually just early for the Simon Lovell lecture. I didn't realise my error until too late - but this got me used to the idea that I was going have to miss a few things sooner or later. It's really quite impossible to see everything at Blackpool. Well, without going stark raving bonkers anyway.
The Lovell lecture was actually far better than I had hoped. Having read some of his contributions to an internet magic forum over the years (the Electronic Grymoire) I was not convinced I would enjoy his style. Actually the lecture was good - not by any means the star of the convention - but certainly very adequate.
By now I'd met some of my friends from the Kent Magicians Guild and we made our way to the upstairs bar. Almost by accident I discovered the Spanish Hall adjacent to the bar; where the next lectures were scheduled to take place. This is one thing that could be significantly improved at the Winter Gardens: signage. I'm sure there's only one signpost in the place and in my magical daze I didn't notice the map in my brochure until Sunday afternoon.
We saw Lennart Green first. As my neighbour at this lecture sensibly advised, 'just enjoy it.' The chances of actually learning very much from this lecture were almost nil. But to see the man doing his stuff was incredible.
Next up: Juan Tamariz. I had decided some years ago, having seen him do Kornwinder Car on TV, that he got on my nerves - quite substantially. However - so many people told me 'no, he's really very good etc etc' that I thought I'd best give him another chance. He showed three effects, followed by the three explanations. I watched his performance of the first effect and went to the bar for the remaining two. I returned for the explanation of effect one (which was a very nice jumbo three card monte) and then went back to my hotel (it being a quarter to midnight in any case) while he showed those with a higher shriek-tolerance the other two.
And so Friday was gone…boo
Saturday - 9am. The dealers open. The proper dealers. Lots of them. I get there for about 9.30. Conditions probably best likened to a tube in rush hour. A tube with lots of people selling magic tricks. Well, some magic tricks… and some ties… and a few balloons, some little tables, a few top hats and little electronic gadgets that go 'diddleydee' every time you do a 'magical' bit in your ring and rope routine… anyway; you get the idea.
The UK Children's Entertainer of the Year Competition is at 10am. I miss this. I'm shopping. So, it seems, are a lot of other people.
11am: Bob Sheets from the USA - another lecture but I'm still shopping. There really were an awful were a lot of stalls. It gets to 11.45am. It's time for another lecture: Jay Sankey. I decide to stop shopping (though I haven't actually bought anything yet).
Now this lecture was excellent. I'm pretty sure I hadn't even heard of Sankey before this lecture - but how that can be the case I just don't know. Very funny. Not really very difficult; and so very very polished. Clearly this material has been honed over so many performances that it's near impossible to fault. The thinking behind every single action - the smallest gesture - is crystal clear. Everything has a reason. Everything is logical. Wonderful. Brilliant. Joy. Hurrah etc.
I make my first purchases - Two Sankey videos. I'm an official convert and I gather I'm not the only one.
1.30-3.30 is the Master Class. Six performers - in no particular order. By now I'm thinking I need to do some serious shopping. I do this, but return in time to catch David Williamson's first appearance at the convention and another bit of Sankey - which is good. I intentionally miss the Bob Sheets segment of the Master Class. I think: 'I missed his lecture earlier - If I see him now and like him I'll be annoyed that I went shopping instead of watching his first lecture.' This is the kind of mentality Blackpool forces you to develop: rationalisation to point of stupidity.
So I buy stuff. And this is good.
I freshen up and head back for the British Magical Stage Championships. Four and a half hours(ish) of magic. By arriving early I caught sight of David Williamson in the audience. I went to get his autograph and ended up having a very interesting chat with him. By the time you read this I suspect his 'Guards Across' variant of the Cards Across routine will have passed into legend…
To describe all the acts here would be lunacy. Suffice to say that I was not initially overwhelmed by the high standard of the performances. The opinion amongst delegates generally (at least those that I spoke to) seemed to be that the standard was lower than in some previous years. The acts that did win - fortunately - were mostly very good. James Smith also - I liked. Very pleasant to watch. Kind of like a warm magical bath.
Jeff McBride also featured. While his masks did nothing for me, his performance of the Miser's Dream must rank among the best handling of an audience member I have ever seen. The rapport was amazing. This was something I could watch again and again. Truly magical in the best possible sense of the word. I could almost cope with the peculiar outfit.
Peter Marvey: Amazing; magical; weird. I'm not sure I'd like to be inside his head. Well, not for more than a few minutes.
I crawled into bed at a little after midnight and fell instantly into a deep and fortunately (bearing in mind Marvey's stuff) dreamless sleep.
9.45am - Sunday. I've now been waiting for the David Williamson lecture for three quarters of an hour. This was one lecture I did not plan on missing. Four effects. All cards. All excellent. Suffice to say the video sold out within minutes of the lecture ending and I consider myself very lucky to have a copy. As he said himself: 'In the eight years since I was last at Blackpool I have four new tricks. That said I have performed them all hundreds - thousands of times.' This then is why they were so good. Oh, and at the end of this lecture: probably the funniest moment of the convention…
The large projection screens at the side of the stage show us his hands in extreme close up as he prepares to demonstrate a coin matrix effect. Never before has camery trickery been so inventively or amusingly employed - Williamson's hands on-screen revealing transpositions and changes ever more impossible, while the man himself sits on the stage reading a book, and eventually leaves the stage altogether - the audience by now in near hysteria and massive applause as the disembodied hands perform feats of magical lunacy to a lively soundtrack. I ached. For some time. I didn't dribble fortunately.
Following the lecture, at the Close-Up Sessions we see some frenetic performances. The energy of the performers was incredible. To think that during the day each performer did his act twelve times, and that several of them lectured too, is incredible. And did they visibly flag? No. All credit to them.
I get chatting to a young magician from somewhere near Liverpool and we decide to head off early from the close-up so as to be early for the Michael Ammar lecture.
I had gathered by this stage that his fan base was pretty huge. The applause when he walked on was a significant indication of this guy's standing among the conventioneers. The start was slightly delayed by sound problems. This was unfortunately a reoccurring problem during the weekend - right from the Friday evening. At one point they threatened Ammar with a hand held mike, but eventually the problems were overcome.
He showed some very commercial stuff with business cards, a tidy floating rose and a nicely routined bottle production with coin in bottle. Very nicely done and neatly explained, but I have to wonder how many people will actually use these things. Oh, maybe they will. It might just be me being fussy.
The remainder of the afternoon was given over to further close-up sessions (there were three in total - each of four performances) and a lecture from Simo Aalto. Robin (who I met at the first close-up session) and I used part of the afternoon chasing David Williamson around the tables at the close-up (I don't know how many times we saw him in the end) and decide to skip Simo Aalto. While his close-up was nicely put together it was not intensely magical. I heard afterwards, from several people, that the lecture was not perhaps as well prepared as it might have been.
Robin and I, feeling a little 'magicked out', decided to kill some time away from the bustle of the Winter Gardens. We find some conventioneers who know the way to JB Magic (one of Blackpool's local magic dealers) and set off on the half hour walk in the windy drizzle. As I said before - this is what the convention was about for me, as much as anything - the opportunity to chat with a like-minded person. Our walk was in vain. JB was shut. So we walked back. It was a break anyway.
A quick squizz around the dealers when we got back and we caught the last show of the close-up in the Horseshoe Bar. I also took a couple of pictures of Ammar's cards on the ceiling - some 35 feet plus in the air.
We spent some time in the restaurant and compared sleights. Until Jerry Sadowitz arrived. At this point we though maybe it was wiser to put the cards away. I left my new acquaintance with some of his friends and head back to the hotel for a quick freshen-up before the International Gala Show.
I return early and head to the bar where I watch former Young Magician of the Year Matthew McGuirk practicing dealing fourths. We have an interesting discussion on the value of sleights - particularly complex sleights and their use on lay people who know no better if you can only do a double lift and a top change.
The gala show begins. We're still there four and a quarter hours later. Really it's a little too long. It's very hot and the nearest drinks are four flights of stairs and a twenty-minute queue away. The magic though - in all fairness - is amazing. When Ken Dodd comes on to do his 'few words' I take the opportunity for a quick snooze before we continue the magic.
The standard of polish of these International Gala Stars was very good, though I did think that perhaps some of the acts could have been shorter, with no appreciable loss to the entertainment.
Juliana Chen - the FISM Grand Prix Champion. She produced cards. And very nicely I might add. Probably some of the finest card productions I've ever seen. But… she did lead to my discovery of a new psychological barrier - the 'Blackwell Card-Production Tolerance Threshold.'
Don't get me wrong. The show was very good. It's just that when you have shows in excess of four hours long - two days running… Maybe I'm a magical lightweight, but I thought I'd been doing quite well until then.
I got back to the hotel. Drank a much needed pint and a half of coke, took two paracetamol and dissected and cross-examined the acts with the other residents of the hotel.
I thought it was all over then. In a way I was glad. But I was also kind of sad.
Monday: It would seem that every delegate had decided to visit JB Magic at the same time as me. Maybe I exaggerate: there weren't three thousand people in the shop. It wouldn't hold that many. There were maybe 2,500. I stayed ten minutes and left. It was lunacy.
Anyway (to skip a few hours - during which I see Sankey and his cronies at the all-you-can-eat buffet in Pizza Hut)… I'm at the station waiting for the train. I've got my walkman on… And suddenly there's this big cheer. You remember Ammar's 35 foot card on ceiling - well, it seems he's just been outdone - by a good 15 feet - on the station roof. The 'normal people' are wondering what the hell is going on. They find out though - once they're on the train. The Blackpool-London Magic Express has just arrived at platform five.
Blackpool: Utter utter lunacy. But very very good.
© Matthew Blackwell March 2002
Photos: John Derris © John Derris 2002
Photos top to bottom:
David Penn & Ian Ogilvy
Etienne Pradier & Ian Ogilvy
"The Great Nardini" & Ian Ogilvy
Ron Popple & Ian Ogilvy
British Magical Grand Prix Champion: David Penn
British Magical Close-up Grand Prix Champion: Etienne Pradier.
British Magical Champion of Illusion: David Penn
British Magical Champion of Comedy: The Great Nardini
British Magical Champion of General Magic: Hezi Dean
United Kingdom Children's Entertainer of the Year: Ron Popple
Organised by Ian Ogilvy and Derek Lever, together with "the team" that included just about every member of the Blackpool Magicians' Club.
© Matthew Blackwell, February 2002