Blackpool - Craig Mitchell reports:
Wednesday, February 27, 2008
Craig Mitchell, from the College of Magic in South Africa, attended the recent Blackpool Magic Convention (the world's biggest magic convention!) This three day event with 110 dealers and over 2000 magicians is both famous and infamous. Craig's report tells you why:
I'm sitting here overlooking the Irish sea after day one of the Blackpool convention.
For those who have never visited Blackpool - its a throwback to the early 1900's - caught in a time warp - depressed and drab - its a town whose heyday has long since passed. The harsh British winter sees sub-zero temperatures outside as I type.
Herewith is a low down of events from the world's largest convention.
Registration - Unfortunately the excitement of receiving a delegates bag filled with magic goodies was not to be. Registration consisted of a Derek Lever souvenir booklet and a convention programme along with lanyard. Name badges were not pre-printed as with every other event I've attended and each delegate hand writes their own badge - an interesting decision.
Venue - The Winter Gardens is a sprawling complex filled with various venues and performance areas. Again - caught in a timewarp the venue is drab and shows its age. Everything appears old and is. We have yet to see the main opera house - but the venues used for close-up and the lectures are not conducive. With all-flat seating - no tiered seating ... sightlines are problematic.
Dealers - The day kicked off with the opening of the Dealers Room. BLackpool excels with its dealers -an enormous Ballroom filled with over 100 from across the globe - it's a cavernous market of wheeling and dealing - a true sight to behold and the biggest of any magic event ever.
DAVID SOUSA LECTURE: The day kicked off proper with a "Lecture" by David Sousa ... a horrible disaster of an affair and abymsal start to the convention. Events of Blackpool's magnitude need to start with a bang - not a poor attempt at what could never be described as a lecture. I question whether the organisers had ever previewed this session. David Sousa is an amazing performer - but is wholly unexperienced in delivering a lecture ... and did undeniable damage to his reputation as a performer of calibre. I can only assume that presenting one was part and parcel of the performance contract and was forced to come up with one in order to perform on the gala show. It was sad to watch. The "lecture" consisted of an agonising 30 minutes of describing the importance of performance angles complete with chart after chart depicting 30 degree angles / 45 degree angles / 140 degrees ... the audience exodus continued throughout the lecture. The most horrifying part was the "dealer" demo which saw David Sousa attempt to perform and SELL the traditional dice bomb ( which first didn't work as he had not set it up ) and then prefaced it by "this is an old effect - but I had lots of stock so thought I'd sell it" ... it was an embarassment that a performer of his ability had been reduced to this. Perhaps language played a role - but he missed the boat completely.
VALERIE LECTURE: Following the poor lecture by David Sousa - French quick change performer, Valerie, presented a dazzling display of amazing quick-changes and unbelievable knowhow on the subject. Her lecture was filled with tips, pointers and secrets of the art ... displaying an obvious passion for her art. With husband translating , they made a delightful team with plenty of humour and enjoyment. It was 60 minutes jam-packed with everything you could want to know and more ! A wonderful highlight from the day.
CHRIS PRIEST: Chris Priest lecture was next on the agenda - but a dinner break was much needed !
EUROPEAN MAGICAL CLOSE-UP CHAMPIONSHIPS - The Close-up contest featured featured Steve Dela, Keisuke Izumi, Chris Stephenson, Jupiter, Alex Cahill, James Piper, Charming Choi, Darren McDonald & Olmac. The venue was split into three with the performers moving from the one performance venue to the next repeating their acts. Only the main venue had the luxury of video projection - the other 2 sorely needed it - and again something which an event of Blackpool's size need to provide. Flat seating is awful for close-up - but having no video projection is criminal.
Overall the standard of performance was generally low and as a self-ordained European championships the standard as a whole needs to dramatically improve. The contestants are "invited" to perform which makes the inclusion of some of the weaker acts even the more strange.
The winner was Olmac from France with an endearing personality that won the audience over. His slick card act featured multiple ambitious cards, and spectacular visual color changes that had many a magician doing a double-take. A worthy winner indeed.
With the time approaching 10:30 - two lectures remained - David Stone & Lennart Green which unfortunately I was not able to attend.
Tomorrow holds the promise of the Childrens Entertainer World Championships, International Close-up Show and the much anticipated Stage Show titled "UK vs Rest of the World."
We'll work in reverse for today's report starting off with the marathon 4 hour 15 minute ( inluding interval ) Stage Show from which we have just returned.
UK VS REST OF THE WORLD - Billed as a friendly competition - this stage show was effectively a gala show - first half with UK performers and second with international acts. The event took place in the mammoth Winter Gardens Opera House - a tacky performance venue which shows its Blackpool age ... worn seats, peeling paint and broken wood panels. Its a true historic throwback to a once golden era.
Having heard so much about the Blackpool stage shows - what on earth would possess anyone to want to produce a show that lasts 4 hours 15 minutes including interval ? Bizarre and at times painful for any audience.
Compered by Stu Francis ( the British equivalent of Jeff Hobson crossed with Liberace ) the show started with "balloon illusionist" Bob Wooding. A lacklustre way of kicking off what should be a high powered show - the producers lost the plot in including a variety act to open the show which saw one balloon sculpture produced after another from behind an enormous screen. Very peculiar. Hit the audience with a 'wow' act from the start ...
Escapologist Danny Hunt was second up. Danny Hunt has an interesting take in locking himself up in his own restraints ( a bizarre metal straightjacket contraption ) - and then producing the key / lock pick from his mouth ahead of time in full view of the audience. What does an audience make of someone who locks himself up and then escapes after using his own key / lock pick ... maybe I'm missing something - but it appears to be a pointless event. Hunt's version of the Water Torture Cell ( picture performer hanging upside down with just his head submerged in a container of water ) saw him dangling upside down for an embarrisngly long time as someone forgot to turn on the power switch backstage to fill the bucket with water. Maybe a technical rehearsal would take care of these little problems
Mentalist Graham Jolley was a slick & charming performer whose quick wit had the audience in stitches.
Brian Sefton presented a traditional act of cards, canes, thimbles and zombie. While technically proficient - how do you possibly put on an appearing cane & zombie in front of 3000 magicians ?
Comedian Jon Archer was the undeniable hit whose act featured an unwitting elderly gentleman - "Eric" - who was totally oblivious to anyone or anything happening on stage. You could not have planned for such a comic event if you tried.
Closing the first half was 'illusionist' Martyn James. Once again magicians most often delude themselves in believing that their box illusions are at all deceptive. Presenting a "wringer" illusion with a base of 30+ cm with a luminous yellow strip outline and expecting an audience to believe that the assistant has indeed vanished is a leap into the incredulous ...
The international acts filled the second half of this marathon show.
Fukai presented an eclectic mix of strange magic with lost humour - while Rafael brought some much needed magic to the show with his fantastic disecting couch illusion in the role of Count Dracula.
Shawn Farquhar suffered the embarrasment of being referred to as "David Farquhar" by the MC. Despite this, his "Shape of my Heart" performance earned him a rapturous applause.
Roxanne followed, along with Topas who presented a unique performance mixing motion with sound effects. The legendary Shimada rounded off the marathon evening with his now famous dove act.
CHILDRENS ENTERTAINER WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS: The morning started with the "Childrens Entertainer World Championships" Highlights included Dave Allen and Andy Clockwise. They placed 2nd and 3rd place consecutively - although deserved 1st & 2nd place -- losing out to John Kimmons who presented more ventriloquism than magic. David Ginn proved to be a terrible embarassment with not only his card effect going horribly wrong but his selection of material showing some strange understanding as to what kids of today find revelant. How can you produce the Georgia state flag & expect it to have ANY revelance whatsoever to a group of children ? ( ignoring of course your audience is made up of Brits )
INTERNATIONAl CLOSE-UP: The sheer variety of close-up artists at Blackpool is amazing. Shawn Farquhar killed with his jawdropping cups & balls act while David Stone had the audience in hysterics with his FISM winning act. The majority of the close-up acts took place in a Horse-shoe shaped venue which saw 8 'mini venues' created separated by partitions. The performers moved from one table to the next with the audience remaining static. While being able to see the performers in a smaller environment was great, the close-up was more akin to a treadmill fitness circuit -- with everything very rushed ... the performers were forced to compete amongst themselves having to try to drown out the applause from the performer appearing right next door behind the mini-partition.
Besides all the above were lectures by David Solomon, JJ Sanvert, JC Wagner, Dave Allen, Lior Manor & Geoffrey Durham.
Tomorrow sees more close-up - further lectures --and wait for it a wonderful session especially for the women in magic - "Ladies Event: A practical demonstration on arranging flowers plus an illustrated talk on plants and flowers which work together" Direct quote from the programme.
Is this 2008 or is flower arranging mutually exclusive to women ?
Numbers are dwindling for the early morning sessions as late nights and magic fatigue start to set in.
COLONEL CUSTARD LECTURE - Blackpool Day Three commenced for me with lecture by kids performer Colonel Custard. Hidden away in a room known as the "ice room" - a dismal 'backstage' service area with poor lighting - flat seating ( not nearly enough for the crowds in attendance ) and not a microphone to be seen. Fellow kids performer "Magic Dave" came to the rescue and setup his own mini sound system. Inexcusable that lecturers are treated in this manner and forced to present in sub-par conditions. The lecture consisted of solid advice for children's performers.
SHOOT OGAWA LECTURE - With lectures limited to just 60 minutes, Shoot presented a dazzling display of fantastic skill combined with sublime simpicity. With hundreds in attendance - he was a fantastic highlight presenting enough to whet the appetite of all in the audience to really take their magic further.
INTERNATIONAL CLOSE-UP - Performers seen on this session included Shoot Ogawa presenting his amazing Ninja Rings routine. Lennart Green was an absolute hit - with duct tape over his eyes, head wrapped completely in tin foil and assisted by the best 6 year old volunteer you could imagine - his act was a picture of entertainment perfection. Helder Guimaraes set off with his phenomenal FISM act while Kostya Kimlat included a thought-provoking card routine touching on relgion, politics and more ! Pattrick Przysiecki presented a formulaic "travel themed" performance - almost on auto-pilot and ultimately failing to connect with his audience. The act didn't live up to his awards received at IBM / SAM and with such a strong line-up was out of place.
Other lectures included Kostya Kimlat, Michael Close, Richard Sanders, Geoffrey Durham and more -- along with my personal favourite "LADIES EVENT: Arranging the garden - a practical demonstration on flower arranging" How such narrow minded sexist attitudes continue to exist in magic is amazing ...
INTERNATIONAL GALA SHOW: The International Gala Show was the final event of the convention. The addition of a live orchestra was a nice touch to proceedings with Adrian Walsh acting as MC.
Mahka Tendo opened the show with a traditional card manipulation act. While the performance received a good response from the audience - it is ultimately a magician pleaser. You can only see so many cards being produced before boredom sets in.
Rafael followed with a comedy dove act which featured a very effective "bird to assistant" illusion.
In true convention style, the juggler always steals the show. Antje Pode juggles suitcases with her feet while lying on her back ... different indeed.
Scott & Muriel are an act I've never particularly enjoyed. Their first performance on the show however saw them let down by the technical aspects with Muriel's mic not working during her singing sequence. Again - a technical rehearsal maybe a welcome addition to proceedings. The act closed with a chair-suspension illusion which saw Scott coming crashing down to the floor embarassingly exposing the suspension gimmick on the chair. Not what you expect from 'FISM world champions'
David Sousa lifted the standard with his beautiful FISM card act while Valerie put into practice her many quick-changes.
Topas closed the first half with "appearing speakers" from box. Topas is a good performer but when last did you see red or blue sound speakers ? These multi-coloured speakers just looked fake ...
The second half took a rapid turn for the boring as we entered the "award phase" of the evening. Let's ensure that those handing out awards know which trophy is which !
Ken Dodd followed with a bizarre comedy routine which likely was only funny to those of British persuasion.
The Yamagami Brothers were once the world's youngest illusionists. The act was great when the performers are 5 or 6 - but the kids are fast growing up - and the act has very quickly lost its 'cute' appeal.
Scott & Muriel continued the downward spiral with a banal act of pure stupidity. Three grown adults prancing around on stage on pantomime-style horse costumes is beyond ridiculous. Harry Greenaway dressed up as a cactus while Muriel passed in front of the speakers sparking off awful hissing sound interference from her mic - not once but twice.
Topas re-appeared with his 'childhood memories' act including animated teddy bear. Beautifully presented, the act was very well received.
With Shimada now preparing back of curtain, the MC had run out of material and we had to suffer the thanking of the organisers, tech crew, office bearers, committee members et al for a second time. Thanking the organisers once is fine - but doing it again to fill time is just poor show.
Shimada brought the gala show to a close with his traditional parasol and dragon act.
Overall a show with highs and lows clocking in at a delightfully shorter 3 hours and 20 minutes. The producers are learning - less is more ...
OVERALL THOUGHTS ON THE CONVENTION: Blackpool is a unique experience but unfortunately is resting on its laurels. The event continues to drive forward by the sheer volume of those attending and not by its inherent qualities. The enormous efforts being expended are not living up to its potential to become a premier magic event in the 21st century. With one of the largest budgets available to a convention - the event has an overriding amateur feel in appearance and besides the many artists appearing, there is zero evidence of any additional money being spent. The Blackpool convention lacks the 'special' touches and small things which so often make an event. It is evident that not much innovation has come to Blackpool with things remaining the same for many a year. Whether it can sustain this route without moving forward with the times remains to be seen ...