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Ali Cook (Magician / Actor)
Ali Cook is an English magician and actor. He is best known for writing and starring in a number of television magic shows for Channel 4, Channel 5, and Sky1. Cook is a headliner on the British stand up comedy circuit. His 2010 Edinburgh show Pieces of Strange featured a Houdini-inspired water tank escape. Darren Rea spoke with him as his UK tour Principles and Deceptions was about to get underway and as his latest movie, Get Lucky was due to open in UK cinemas....
Darren Rea: Can you remember the first illusion that you saw being performed that really blew you away?
Ali Cook: There were two things, actually that really blew me away... In the '90s, on Channel 4, there was a magic show called The Secret Cabaret. It was a great magic show. There was a great performer, called Simon Drake, who dressed like Mad Max, and he performed a theatre show in silence. It was really gothic and very gory and it was late at night - it was like a gothic magic show. They used to have unusual guests, like con men, pickpockets and thieves. Frank Abagnale, the guy who later wrote Catch Me if You Can, was on the show in one of his first English interviews. There was also a great card magician called Ricky Jay, he did a card trick each week and he really blew me away. He did card magic like I'd never seen - he was phenomenal.
Around about the same time, there was a very cheesy magic show on ITV called The Best of Magic and it had a clip from the '60s of a magician called Channing Pollock [pictured]. He was the first guy to do that trick where you make loads of cards appear, one after another, and make a dove appear at the same time. So he'd make a fan of cards appear, then a dove, more cards, then a dove... Channing Pollock went on to have be a moderate film star, he was a very handsome guy. He was sort of the quintessential looking magician.
DR: When did you realise you could make a career out of it?
AC: Everyone kept telling me that there was absolutely no career in it and my mum was really honest with me. She was like: "I know you've got hobbies, but magicians won't reveal secrets to you." She was really trying to put me off [laughs]. I think that's what made me take it seriously. I sort of went: "Oh, well, if I'm going to do this I'm going to have to do it properly."
In the magic world they have all these conferences all over the world and I won the Northern Magic Circle and I was third place in the British Championships, twice for close up sleight of hand magic. I also won a competition called the IBM Magic Competition... and I did all those within a year, when I was 17. That's when I thought I wanted to start doing it for a living. I think a lot of my friends who do stand up comedy have a similar thing - they'll win a few stand up competitions and think: "I'm definitely at a level that I can do this professionally."
DR: Before you started making a living from it, when you were getting on your feet, was it something you told people you were actively doing, or did you play it down for fear that people would say: "Show us a trick then". And these days are you happy to do tricks for your friends and fans or do you only perform when you're on the stage?
AC: That's a good question. That's a real thing with a lot of performers - when are you on and not on?
The big problem with magic is how do you go from practicing in your bedroom to getting on a stage? Where are the markets? When you first get into it you have to perform wherever you can to whoever you can.
When I was 15/16 I'd do parties for Mum and Dad and their friends. I never did childrens magic though. I was never into childrens entertaining, I was also into sleight of hand.
There was a local restaurant in Harrogate called Henry's and it was modelled around Houdini (It was called Henry because after the Queen met Harry Houdini she called him Henry). The guy who owned the restaurant had Houdini memorabilia all around the restaurant. I just went in there and said: "How about I do close up magic?" And they loved it.
I did that when I was about 16 to 19 and that's where I really learned to perform. And then started doing corporate gigs around Leeds and Manchester and once you get to that level, where you're doing four shows a week, you don't have a need to perform for friends. And when you're doing the same tricks 30 times a night, your just happy to just go out with your mates and not do any magic whatsoever [laughs].
DR: How do you react when people recognise you in the street?
AC: It's kind of alright, really. I have one very famous comedian friend who when we go out, he really can't handle it. I've noticed that everyone is very different with it. My whole thing, is that it comes with the territory really, it's as simple as that...
DR: You don't get fed up with store assistants saying: "Was this your card?" as they hand you back your credit card?
AC: [Laughs] That's all ready far too intelligent and quite a good joke. If only you got a joke at that level. You just get: "Can you make my life disappear?" That's all you ever get.
DR: I grew up in the '80s and Paul Daniels was huge - everyone growing up wanted to be a magician. I remember going into toy shops and buying loads of Paul Daniels magic tricks. Do you think it's harder to get kids interested in magic today?
AC: No! Magic has always been a niche, there's no doubt about it, but if anything I wouldn't surprise if in the next three to four years there's going to be a craze on it.
When i was first getting into magic, Paul Daniels had just finished on TV and magic was at its biggest low. He'd been been on TV for 17 years and everyone was sick of it. He did six episodes every year. Who does that? No one does that. Jonathan Ross doesn't even do that. He'd just been over exposed and magic was on an all time low when I first started and it was kind of a very nerdy thing to be into magic.
Then David Blaine came over and then Derren Brown started and we did loads of shows like Monkey Magic and Secret World of Magic and it was really Blaine that made magic interesting again by doing street magic and just being himself rather than wearing a dicky bow. There's this huge thing were lots of magicians sell tricks to other magicians. They'd bring out these DVDs, which always used to be terrible, cheesy things, but now these have suddenly got very cool. There's now a huge following of teenagers learning coin magic and card magic. You know when juggling was suddenly massive, I think something like 1995 for a few years, it wouldn't surprise me if something like that was about to happen to magic.
The other problem with magic was that you always had to search it out. There was no Internet, no YouTube, but now if you want to get into it as a hobby. You can get any esoteric magic book from Amazon and you can watch any performer from history on YouTube.
DR: Do you think the emergence of better technology has resulted in magicians really having to polish their acts? When you used to watch magic shows on TV years ago, if you were lucky you'd have a VHS video recorder that allowed you to replay tricks in slow motion - but with lines all over the screen and a juddery picture. Nowadays with digital, pinsharp slow motion playback do you think magicians are under more pressure?
AC: That is interesting. It depends on the style of the magic you're doing. When you do props free magic, what Derren does, just mind reading magic, there's nothing to see anyway and therefore people aren't aware of camera edits or anything like that. However, when someone does a visual magic trick on TV, you really can burn their hands and rewind and watch it over and over.
But, if you can do the trick you can do the trick, it doesn't matter if you watch it a million times, you are fooled. What quite often happens on a TV show, they can cut wherever they want and then the audience questions whether or not it's really happening. Some of the recent TV magic shows have used some really bad camera tricks - you've just got to be quite wary.
I did a show called The Secret World of Magic, and I made sure that there was never any cuts when I went to do a trick. I really tried to insist on that, but unfortunately you can't always do it because it doesn't always make for good TV just holding a shot for three minutes. It's a bit weird, but I try to do that when I can.
DR: You know you've made it when you're on a casino watch list... are you banned from entering any premises at all?
AC: [Laughs] I've never really been a gambler, I've only ever been into a casino just to party with friends. One of my friends was a professional croupier. And he had to play down the fact that he was also into magic. He had to eliminate any web presence just so none of the punters would go: "Hang on a minute, why are you hiring a card shark to work at your casino?"
DR: Are you banned from anywhere - because you're a magician, not because you urinated in a bar or anything?
AC: [Laughs] No, I'm not, no. I was always interested in pickpocketing, and I really mastered pickpocketing, and I'd know how to do all the card sharking moves, but I veered more to doing one man shows and stage shows.
DR: You've also performed a number of historical illusions like Dedi's ancient Egyptian head and duck head swapping trick and Houdini's water tank illusion...
AC: Dedi's was the one I did on Penn & Teller: Fool Us, where you pull the head of a chicken and the head of a duck and swap them over. That's the oldest recorded trick in magic. Houdini's water tank illusion I've done a couple of times.
DR: Are there many old tricks that are still as impressive as when they were first performed?
AC: Yeah, I think nearly all of them. I think what happens in magic is that things go in and out of fashion.
It's really interesting that just prior to Derren coming out, it was Blaine. In the early '90s David Copperfield did the big illusions show - vanishing anything he could imagine whenever he could. That was the show, and people went to Vegas to watch these grand illusion shows.
Then that fizzled out and seemed to become quite dated quite quickly, and then David Blaine went on TV and did all of the classics of close-up: the ambitious card trick, vanishing rings, tricks with coins and money. Even though that stuff had been around for hundreds of years, no one had seen that stuff on TV for years. They'd only seen vanishing women in sparkly dresses. Then Derren did a street magic show but with mind reading and that hadn't been seen since the '50s. Derren's been running for quite a long time and people have seen that.
I think there's a real emergence now of seeing stage illusions and also what I would call almost surreal magic, pulling the heads of chickens and and ducks, where we all know it's not real. But to see these sort of ridiculous plots being done again I think that's sort of coming back in fashion again.
DR: I remember when Penn & Teller first started to become popular and that whole notion of explaining how illusions were created really made me get interested in magic again. Was there a huge backlash from The Magic Circle at the time, because they were giving away the secrets?
AC: Yeah, well it's interesting to me. I would say that the mode that I perform in is that I'm basically a stand up who's also interested in magic and weird stuff. That was always Penn & Teller's model: we're not wizards, we're just regular guys that have unusual interests. They're like the first new wave magicians - and they still are. They really did reinvent magic. They've always sort of been consistently in the background. They're not really in the magic world, but they are huge with their big Vegas show and they do quite a bit of acting as well. Penn Jillette has written a best selling novel; they did that show Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, which had an episode that was all about fake psychics. They made magic more contemporary and intelligent.
DR: You did a show, Psychic Secrets Revealed, with Derren Brown where you debunked psychics. After your experiences do you think all psychics are fake or do you think that there is life after death and some people can communicate with the dead?
AC: That's really interesting. I'm up in Edinburgh at the moment doing a show, and I just saw Richard Wiseman yesterday, who's the eminent parapsychologist in this country who investigates all of this. He's an atheist and he doesn't think there's any evidence. He's a scientist and a magician and he's been studying these things for a long, long time. He told me a couple of interesting tales yesterday from the Society for Psychical Research and there are certain cases they can't touch until certain dates. So there are a couple of real X-Files stuff out there that they're not allowed to talk about.
I come from a very different background. My mum was a Tarot reader, she used to have a new age book shop, so I come from the complete other end of the spectrum.
I feel as though I'm like a reluctant sceptic. I'm hoping that I can meet someone one day who does something that blows my mind, that I can't understand... but because I do inherently know a lot about how people are fooled I haven't really come across it as yet.
DR: You're also an actor and a writer. Of all the aspects of your career which do you find the most enjoyable?
AC: Well... erm... I think writing stand up, which goes into my live show, is the hardest thing I thing there is; to write good comedy. I don't think anyone who does that finds it easy. I really enjoy screen acting and I find it a similar process, that you're constantly refining a very small aspect, to do it better and better. There's a lot of craft mixed with a lot of instant intuition in the moment at the same time. I find it very much like a magic trick in that, in magic, you rehearse very specific moves over and over so that when you have to do it you can absolutely forget about it and trust it all comes back to you in the moment and then you perform it as though you've never done it before. I find that similar to screen acting - I really enjoy both of them, to be honest.
One of the nice things about acting is that you only have to concentrate on the acting. The problem with being a magician... you turn up at a venue and the technician isn't very good, so you're telling them what to do, you're sorting props and then your checking on sale.
Doing a live performance - there's nothing quite like it - people think that all you have to worry about is the trick, and that's usually the last thing you're worried about. Your nearly always worried about the microphone that just snaps two seconds before you walked on stage than you are to do with anything to do with the actual tricks [laughs].
DR: It must be quite a stressful job. If you're a surgeon and you kill a couple of patients that sort of goes with the job, but if you mess up your act on a TV show you could potential end your career overnight.
AC: [Laughs] The hardest thing is to do the live TV interview, which is normally when you're promoting a tour or a TV show. So you go on a chat show and you have to do the trick while you're sat on the couch talking to the hosts. Shows like Rise or This Morning are hard because normally you have no idea where the cameras are, they've never shot a magic trick so they could shoot from the wrong angle, you're on live TV to the nation and what's really weird is normally most magic tricks take about one and a half minutes to perform but you normally get 20 seconds to do a quick trick, so that is the killer moment really.
There is that pressure, but I don't think it's a career killer to be honest. I think that just depends on you as a performer.
I mean, Uri Geller has got away with failures for 20 years [laughs]. Someone comes on with a spoon made out of kryptonite he'll have a go. I admire that he doesn't give up. He knows he can't bend it - he already knows that - and then he just goes: "Your scepticism is reducing my powers." [laughs]
DR: Have you had a performance where everything's gone wrong?
AC: I rehearse and rehearse and rehearse. I've never actually been in that situation. I'm doing a show today that I've been performing for two years and I will go and rehearse it today for three hours before I do it. I'll just pick four of the tricks and do them over and over and over. So, touch wood it hasn't happened yet; I haven't had that big disaster.
Quite often if you do do a show where something goes wrong, it becomes funny and it becomes the experience that we're all in on and normally it wins people over. The worse show is always the flat show - the one where they're neither really into it or not really against either, they're just a flat audience. And some nights, when you're in a long running venue you think it must be you - that it's your job to get them going. Some nights, and who knows why, it's just a bit of a flat crowd. Sometimes the theatre's a bit hot and everyone's a bit hot and uncomfortable - those are the worst shows.
DR: What are you currently working on?
AC: I'm in Edinburgh for the Magic Festival and I'm running the Principles and Deception show in again because we haven't done it for a while, with a view to starting the regional tour in September.
In between that I've just being filming a science fiction film for Noel Clarke called The Anomaly. I've just wrapped on that - I finished that last Monday. And I'm also filming a low budget crime thriller called Peterman which has got Phil Davis and Alison Steadman. I've got one more day on that when I get back - that's the very next thing that I'm doing.
DR: If a movie were to be made of your life who would play you?
AC: [Laughs] Oh, they'd have to be very good looking... [laughs] God... Someone once said that I reminded them of Michael York in Logan's Run... So... I want the young Michael York, in Logan's Run - which is totally impossible - to play me [laughs]. In a remake of Logan's Run would be ideal [laughs].
Ali' UK tour of Principles and Deceptions starts 31 August. Click here for dates
This interview was conducted on 02 July 2013