Magical inspirations

In a previous blog post I wrote about my magical history. During this time I had a number of magical inspirations. Mainly magicians I’d seen live or on TV. In recent years magic has seen an explosion of interest with many new performers appearing. Whilst I was growing up, TV magic was very rare. What was shown was usually of a much higher calibre than what we see today. With a bit of clever editing and CGI a mediocre magician can be made to look like a miracle worker. I could rant about this but instead I want to focus on some of my heroes in magic when I was a teenager…


David Copperfield

There’s a reason why he is one of the highest earning entertainers of all time. My first exposure to DC was his 15 year anniversary TV show. He would take an illusion, supercharge it, add multiple layers of deception and perform it with flawless elegance. In that one hour TV special there were so many jaw dropping illusions: Flying, Buzz saw, Metamorphosis, Walking through the Great wall of China. Watching DC is like watching the Matrix film for the first time. Nothing is real and anything can happen. And it is all done with panache.


Penn & Teller

Channel 4 was the perfect channel to create a gloriously irreverent magic show that didn’t conform to the clichés and cheese of conventional magic. Penn & Teller were the perfect performers. Provocative, profound and bloody good. As a teenager this combination had a huge appeal and influence. From dropping rabbits into wood chippers to set pieces involving an array of animal traps, the magic bore no resemblance to a traditional show. Which was no bad thing. It helped shape my view of what was possible – not in terms of magic but in terms of performance. If I had to choose a favourite effect it would be Teller’s Shadows illusion.


Paul Zenon

When David Blaine first appeared on TV with his Street Magic he created a sensation. The magic wasn’t anything new, the performance was dire and yet what made the show was the focus on the audience’s reactions. There was the entertainment. There was captured on the screen moments of astonishment and wonder. Minds racing to try and figure out what an earth their eyes had just seen.

How could the format be improved? Simple. Swap bland Blaine for the extremely funny British magician Paul Zenon and have him perform tricks and pranks on the public. My favourite trick was a variation on ‘Ring flight’ where a spectator’s ring is vanished in the magician’s hands and appears in an impossible location. Paul appeared to mess the trick up spectacularly – he dropped the spectator’s ring down a storm drain. The reactions of the spectator were priceless. And then Paul reveals the ring has indeed appeared safely in an impossible location.


Kevin James

I first saw Kevin James at the Blackpool Magic Convention. It was late on Friday night and the audience’s attention was dropping. Out comes Kevin. He’s funny. He performs some super visual and original pieces of magic. Suddenly the audience was wide awake. My favourite from that night was when he visibly caused a playing card to melt inside an inflated balloon. Every magician in the room gasped. The next night during the gala show he presented a piece of magic he is famous for. Starting with a small napkin, he shreds it and drops it into a glass of water. Picking up the tissue in his hand it’s now a slushy mess. And then the magic happens. Dry confetti appears from his hand, flying high into the air, covering the stage. It looks like a snowstorm. Then the theatre erupts, it’s now snowing inside the auditorium. The audience in the stalls are getting covered in snow. Magic.


Lance Burton

If you only ever watch one manipulation act, Lance Burton’s dove act is the one to watch. Candles, silks, doves and cards appear in his hands effortlessly. All superbly choreographed and set to classical music. A lifetime of work went into 3 mins of pure magic.


Stuff the White Rabbit

If I had to choose my favourite TV magic programme it would be Stuff the White Rabbit. The idea was simple: get the world’s funniest and talented close up magicians, put them in front of an audience and film the results. The programme introduced the UK to David Williamson, Rene Lavand, Tom Mullica and The Amazing Jonathan. And gave a showcase to John Lenahan and Jerry Sadowitz. The quality of the magic was exceptional. Sadly the BBC have never released the series for wider viewing.



My magical journey

At the age of ten I used my pocket money to buy a few magic sets and books from local toyshops. I showed my friends the tricks. They weren’t that good. They weren’t that impressed. Standard story for a lot of fledgling magicians. My interest lay dormant for a few years and was rekindled when I was 14 and I became obsessed with Harry Houdini and escapology. Not many teenagers get a Strait Jacket for Christmas!

Escapology is a mix of knowledge of how locks work, skill in picking them, physical strength and deception. Most escapologists are also accomplished magicians.

It didn’t take me too long to figure out that for an escape to be effective the audience needs to be convinced that the performer is thoroughly restrained. Escapes are rather dull which is why they’re often presented with added peril and drama. Escape before you drown. Escape before a heavy weight drops on your head. Escape before you’re burnt alive. Escape before… Again for an escape to be effective the audience has to be convinced the peril is real. Unless the performer has a death wish, the danger is carefully managed. Faked usually.  It might sound strange for a magician to say this but the lack of authenticity and the 1-dimensional melodrama caused me to lose interest in escapology. Magic has many more dimensions and is much more honest about being dishonest.

I loved the thinking behind magic; particularly those tricks with a clever mathematical method (card tricks are great for this). I loved learning about magical theory and the psychology that makes the tricks effective. I loved the rich history of magic and learning about past masters. I loved making props with mini arts and crafts sessions. And I enjoyed the challenge of learning sleight of hand and improving my dexterity.

For a shy teenager, close up magic is an excellent hobby to have. You can carry around with you a pack of cards and a few small magic props. Then perform impromptu tricks in school corridors and at family gatherings. A great confidence booster and an introduction to communication.

I spent more time during my A-levels doing magic than studying. At university magic started opening doors to events. I was asked to perform at balls and parties. At first for a free ticket and then for money. My very first paid gig got me £15. I was ecstatic. Towards the end of my time at university I joined an improv comedy group and started performing magic at cabaret events. This led onto writing and performing solo fringe theatre shows. A fusion of magic, multimedia and comedy. I wanted to be a professional comedian but I wasn’t funny enough. (see this article I wrote about my experience)

For the last 7 years I’ve been mainly working in schools presenting science magic shows with the aim to use magic to grab the pupils’ attention and use it to teach the wonder of science. And once in awhile I also do a card trick.

Magic forcing grid – Maths Magic

What’s the effect?

A 4×4 square grid is created on a piece of paper with numbers from 1-16 (see top left hand picture). Spectators choose 4 numbers at random from the grid and the total always equals 34.

What you need?

  • Pen and paper

What’s the method?

There was one crucial detail left out from the description of the effect. When the first number is chosen and circled, the remaining numbers on that row and column are crossed out (see the top right picture). grid16a

There is now only a choice of 9 numbers for the second spectator to choose from. Again the choice is circled and the row and column is crossed out. For the third choice there are only 4 numbers remaining. The final choice isn’t a choice at all as there’s only one number that hasn’t been circled or crossed out. The total of the 4 chosen numbers is 34. Every time! (see the bottom right picture for one possible example)This can be repeated with different choices to show that it always totals 34.

Classroom investigations

There are a number of extensions that can be made for classroom investigations.

The obvious extension is working out what the total T would be for different grid sizes (nxn). The table below gives the first six results.gridtable

There is a general formula that can be set as a task for students to find. The total T is the grid size n multiplied by the central number of the grid. The central number is obvious when odd numbered grid sizes are constructed. However it’s easy to calculate by adding the first and last numbers (n^2) and dividing by two. Hence the term in the brackets of the general equation.gridequation

A further investigation could explore the links between this trick and Latin Squares.

Dice Towers (advanced version) – Maths Magic

What’s the effect?

The magician turns his back whilst the spectator stacks the dice up into a tower. The magician turns to face the audience and the spectator points to any of the dice in the stack (except for the top one because this is too easy). The magician then names the number on the top face of that dice even though it is hidden.

What you need?

  • Dice

What’s the method?

When you look at a die the maximum number of faces that you can see is 3. In this trick you are only going to be able to see 2 faces and from that information deduce what all the other faces are.


Dice have their faces arranged so that opposing sides always add up to 7 (i.e. 1&6; 2&5; 3&4).  The Simple version of Dice towers makes use of this property. There are two possible arrangements of the numbers on a die that have this property (see the cube nets diagram). What I shall call left- and right-handed. They are mirror images of each other.

For what follows I’m using a left handed arrangement which in my experience is more common (the trick can be adapted for right handed dice by flipping all the rules below).

dice123I’ve come up with a method to calculate the remaining faces. It’s took a number of iterations to get it to a level where the method is fast and relatively easy to use. I’d love to know if you’ve got a better method or if I can describe it better.dice456

There are two cycles you need to be familiar with and these are illustrated in the two diagrams. Taking the 123 cycle as an example… If you see 1 on the left and 2 on the right, you know that 3 must be on top. Equally if you see 3 on the left and 1 on the right, then 2 is on top. This is just a simple rotation of the dice around the common corner. The same principle holds for the 456 cycle.

If you see the left and right numbers in reverse order (for example 2 on the left and 1 on the right) then the dice is upside down and 3 will now be on the bottom face. The top number is now 4 because it is on the opposite face.

So now we’ve got 2 rules to follow to make our calculation:

Rule A – If both the two numbers you can see on the left and right faces belong to the 123 or 456 cycle AND the faces are in numerical order then the TOP face will be the remaining number of that cycle.

Rule B – If both the two numbers you can see on the left and right faces belong to the 123 or 456 cycle AND the faces are in REVERSE numerical order then the BOTTOM face will be the remaining number of that cycle. The top number can be easily obtained from this information.

The question then arises what happens when the numbers on the left and right faces come from the different cycles (for example 1 and 5). You then need to do a little mental gymnastics. You need to switch in your head one of the numbers for its opposite so that the left and right faces are in reverse numerical order. In our example we have to switch the 1 for a 6 to make them in reverse numerical order. If we switched the 5 for a 2 it would be ascending order. Once we’ve decided which side to switch for its opposite, the final step is easy. As we’ve now got a 5 and 6 from the 456 cycle we know the top face is a 4.

Rule C – If both the two numbers you can see on the left and right faces DON’T belong to the 123 or 456 cycle then switch one of the numbers for it’s opposite so that the cycle is in REVERSE numerical order, then the TOP face is the remaining number in that cycle.

Here’s another example for rule C: Left = 2; Right = 6. The two numbers are from different cycles so we need to switch one number for it’s opposite. We switch 6 for 1 so that it’s in reverse numerical order. And now we’ve got a 1 and 2 from the 123 cycle and we can deduce the top number is a 3.

Dice towers (simple version) – Maths Magic

dicetower  What’s the effect?

A spectator stacks up a tower of dice whilst the magician’s back is turned away. The magician turns around and immediately names a number out loud. This number is the total of all the hidden faces (i.e. the top and bottom faces except for the very top one).

What you need:

  • Dice (I usually use 4 dice). The bigger the dice the better as it makes it very visual.

What’s the method?

The principle behind the magic is that opposite faces of a dice total 7. eg 1&6; 2&5; 3&4.

For a tower you then know the total sum of ALL the top and bottom faces will equal 7 times the number of dice in the tower. So for the example in the photo the total sum is 28.

To calculate the total sum of the hidden faces you need to do a very simple calculation when you turn around to face the audience. First look at the number on the very top and then subtract that from the number you obtained earlier. In the photo example you have to do 28-6=22.

Walking through a postcard – Experiment

What’s the effect?

You cut a hole in an A5 piece of paper large enough for someone to climb through. (This is a good follow on activity from the “Coin through an impossible hole“.)

You will need:

  • A piece of A5 paper
  • Scissors


What’s the method?

Start by folding the A5 piece of paper in half lengthwise (see photo 1).

Now make cuts in the piece of paper starting from the folded edge and stopping 1cm from the opposite edge. You want the cuts to be spaced by about 1cm. The result will look like a paper comb (see photo 2).

Now turn the piece of paper around and make cuts from the opposite side. These cuts are made in between the cuts you’ve previously made. Again stop cutting 1 cm from the edge. You will now have created a zig zag shape as in (photo 3).

The next step (also shown in photo 3) is to carefully cut along the folds you made at the start. However, you want to leave the folds on the left and right edges intact. When you’ve completed these cuts and carefully unfolded your creation it should look like photo 4.

By carefully pulling the paper apart you will have created a large hole in the middle (see photo 5). You can then climb through it or have a volunteer climb through. You need to watch the paper doesn’t catch on clothing or it will tear easily.

This is a good activity when teaching about perimeter and area.

Coin through an impossible hole – Experiment

What’s the effect?

A 2 pence coin is pushed through the hole made by a 1 pence coin.

You will need:

  • A piece of paper
  • 1x 2p coin and 1x 1p coin
  • Scissors
  • Paper/pen


What’s the method?

The series of photos above outlines how to do this. Start by drawing around the 1p coin with the pen or pencil. Then carefully cut out the hole with the scissors (see photo 2).

The challenge is then to push the 2p coin through the 1p coin’s hole. Which would seem impossible as the hole is clearly too small (as can be seen in photo 3).

To achieve the impossible… fold the paper in half, with the fold going directly across the hole’s diameter. Then insert the 2p coin into the paper (see photo 4).

The hole still seems to small but if you pinch the paper and fold the paper in such a way so that the curved hole begins to get straightened out (see photo 5) eventually you’ll reach a point where the 2p drops through the hole.

This is a good way of introducing the idea of circumference and diameter.