Magician and ventriloquist Ian Saville performed his first solo show, Brecht on Magic over 300 times throughout the U. K. This was followed by Getting Nowhere – Again with William Morris. At the time of this interview he was busy rehearsing a new show, Left Luggage
IAN: In 1978 I joined a theatre group called Broadside Mobile Workers Theatre which was an offshoot of Red Ladder. But we were more left. Red Ladder had gone up north to Leeds and taken the name. We had the ladder, we had the ideology. We kept very strictly to the principle of workers in struggle and we went into occupations and picket lines and all those sort of things. That's a very interesting performance situation, performing to a group of workers who are occupying a factory, where they have taken over this place they have worked in and now see it in a completely different way. The group saw my magic tricks as a good asset, for getting people laughing to begin with and for getting the atmosphere nice and jolly before we went in with the heavy political stuff
DAVID: And what was the reaction to the heavy political stuff?
IAN: It seemed generally to work OK, but there were all sorts of other problems within the group in terms of internal politics and structures and criticising ourselves. I mean we operated labyrinthine process of criticism and self–criticism and quarterly assessments and individual self–assessments – and then people coming in and criticising you for what you missed out while criticising yourself – all that sort of thing. I was judged not to come up to standards of the group eventually. I was reorganized out of it.
DAVID: Did this have anything to do with the magic tricks?
IAN: Partly. There was a feeling that I hadn't devoted enough attention to making my magic tricks as radical as they should be. I argued at that time it was actually impossible to make magic tricks more didactic and explanatory about the world because in the process of doing a magic trick you hide the way things work – so there's no correspondence between what is actually happening there and the theoretical idea that you're trying to put forward. But that was a rather weak excuse. Eventually after I left the group I developed the magic tricks more, trying to incorporate the socialist ideas into them. That was when Rock Against Racism and The Anti–Nazi League were starting up and I started doing magic at some of their gigs.
DAVID: Can you give me an example of that?
IAN: The classic example is the trick with the 3 pieces of rope which are different lengths. I developed it to be an illustration of the 3 different classes in society. They change and become the same length – and the audience applauds at that point. But I stop them – because there are still classes. The process has to continue until eventually I get one piece of rope which is a classless society. That developed quite early on. And it was always slightly tongue–in–cheek. It was playing about with ideas, which I think was the appeal of it, but in a way that wasn't hostile to the ideas.
DAVID: It's interesting that these very traditional theatre forms suddenly start to become very fashionable again
IAN: I am always looking for ways of incorporating old things in what I do. In the latest show I have quite a lot of very unconventional ventriloquist's dummies, they're not the normal sort of thing that you associate with ventriloquists. That came partly from looking at ventriloquism in the 19th century. This thing of having a single ventriloquist with one small dummy comes from the late music hall era. The cheeky chappie crosstalk act developed quite late. It's been the dominant thing in this century – but before that ventriloquists generally had lots of large dummies on the stage and they would act out a scene running between all these people rather than just having a crosstalk act with one.
DAVID: So it's more like a puppet show?
IAN: I think the question of lips moving or not was less important. Although actually it's never been all that important in ventriloquism. The most successful ventriloquists have been the ones who've been on the radio; Edgar Bergen in the States and Peter Brough and Archie Andrews in Britain.
DAVID: Did television distort that by making it more of a technical exercise, rather than entertainment?
IAN: Yes, although it was exploited then by people like Arthur Worsley who did this act where he didn't speak at all and the dummy kept challenging him to say things. That's where the bottle beer phrase comes in because the dummy keeps shouting at Worsley and insults him the whole time saying: I bet you can't say: A bottle of beer, you can't say: A bottle of beer, can you? A bottle of beer, a bottle of beer, a bottle of beer! And it builds up into a crescendo as you realise that this is the dummy saying -a bottle of beer while Worsley's sitting there, deadpan face, taking all this, not coming back at him. It's a beautiful position that the audience is put in.
I started developing ventriloquism because I thought that was a good way of introducing Bertolt Brecht into my act and that's when I devised the longer show, moving on from the cabaret act and making it more of a theatrical show with a plot. The basic plot was that I was a socialist magician and I was going to tell the audience how I'd become a socialist magician. And that was by introducing this Bertolt Brecht dummy.
DAVID: Could you perhaps explain briefly the theory of socialist conjuring? The way I remember it is that capitalist conjuring is about tricking people, about cons, it's about deception. But socialist conjuring, gives you the deception but also the explanation.
IAN: Yes, it's using mystification to demystify people about the world. I start off by showing people the difference between a socialist conjuror and a bourgeois conjuror by showing the––bourgeois conjuror doing a trick in which a red handkerchief turns blue. And I decide to do the dialectically opposite method of subverting this trick – and in the process I make the blue handkerchief turn red and go through the motions of showing the audience how it's done. But in fact they don't see how it's done. So there's a bit of playing with the audience about the nature of the fact that they're being fooled on one level, but on another level I'm telling them real things that I believe are true about the world. So they're not being fooled.
I tend now to be aiming less for, you know, getting people to go out and change the world immediately after the performance than I think I was at one time. It is much more complex than that and I think the process of seeing things happen in front of you, the performance arena in itself, is more important than I had maybe given credit for in terms of thinking about political theatre. There's a danger in thinking about theatre related to political action that you think of the important thing happening after the theatre has finished. But what happens in front of you, what is actually happening there with the audience, is the thing that interests me most, the way in which people enjoy and are stimulated by performance at the time.
DAVID: And is this reinforced by your own experiences as someone in an audience seeing other people?
IAN: Yes, I think it is marginally, yes. What I get out of seeing performances, what I enjoy most about that process is the sense of heightened being that you get from performance, that actually being there in that place and enjoying it and being with other people and sharing their ideas.
DAVID: Have particular magicians inspired you?
IAN: The ultimate comedian magician of course was Tommy Cooper – I saw him live when I was 14 at Bournemouth – he was absolutely amazing and he was in some ways an inspiration to me, the level of humour, the level of playing with an audience, but he did it without any self–analysis or thinking about it, it was just an amazing ability to be here and now and to manipulate an audience without thinking about it. I remember when I was young seeing an American magician called Tony Slydini – I went to sort of club for young magicians at that time – he came over and did some close–up magic. He's sort of acknowledged by magicians as being one of the experts on misdirection and actually doing what is the real magic. That really did impress me a lot. I think what he does is very interesting for actors as well in terms of understanding about how an audience's attention works and how one's own attention works. The central thing in magic is misdirection which is, when you start looking at it, very similar in some ways to some of the things that Stanislavski was talking about, it's looking at him through a different angle. The circle of attention for the actor is similar in some ways to the way in which the magician manipulates the direction of attention of an audience. I think there is a lot to be learnt from the way in which magicians approach an audience. They have to be conscious of the naturalness of movement and reproduce it while doing something else at the same time. It's not a question of – as people think – the quickness of the hand deceiving the eye, it's the naturalness of the movement. It's being able to observe how people do things in real life How would you hold a card in this situation? Because if you do it slightly differently, the audience will know. Even though you have to do something else at the same time. So you have to observe those details very closely – which are important to actors as well.
DAVID: The question of magicians revealing their secrets is an interesting one too. I suspect when people tell you they're revealing the secrets they may not be – it's a different, more refined trick. And in a way this leads on to what I wanted to ask you about your relationship with other magicians. Whether people do go around and see each other's acts and sort of try to adjust their acts and develop them as a result?
IAN: Oh yes. The magic world is strange in a way in that most of the members of the magic circle are not professional magicians. It's a hobby world to quite a large extent and a lot of the people who do magic and get very, very good at it wouldn't dream of ever going on stage and performing – certainly not as a career. So magicians do share ideas and moves and bits of things that you can do with bits of equipment. There's also quite a commercial set up in terms of selling tricks as well to people at quite high prices.
DAVID: So how much does a trick cost?
IAN: Well, people can pay thousands and thousands. A lot of the most effective things I do are very simple, cheap things. The magic trick that I do that attracts most wonder is where I tear up a newspaper and restore it to one piece and that's something that I got from a particular book and I re–make every time. I don't give it away. But it's something that's very cheap and certainly one of the most effective tricks that you can do. The thing that magicians often neglect is the performance aspect. It's very easy to get carried away into making the things more and more elaborate instead of thinking about: What is the plot of what I'm doing? What is the story that's going to interest people? Houdini's skill in doing his escapes was not at the centre of his theatrical gift. It was the fact that he could find new challenges and set up a dynamic with an audience. Not just the audience in the theatre but the public at large – all these elaborate challenges saying: I'm going to challenge the police force in Britain, you can find the most difficult cell for me to get out of in Scotland Yard! Creating that drama was much more unique than the technicalities of how he did it. Generally I'm not all that in favour of giving away how the tricks are done
DAVID: I'm not asking you to.
IAN: I know, I'm just explaining why. Because anybody who really wants to find out can find out. I have a different attitude to people who come up to me after I've performed and say: Oh, I wish I knew how that was done. I won't go into it, but sometimes kids come up to me and say: I'd like to do magic and I'd like to find out how things are done, how can I find out? And then I tell them which books to go and look at and so on.
DAVID: So you feel the extremity of the trick, the kind of force of the illusion for it's own sake, is not something one's terribly interested in.
IAN: That's why the magic tricks that I do always carry with them a narrative. There's a sequence of things that happen. Sometimes you can do things where things just vanish or appear which you then have to put into a narrative to make it meaningful. But generally the trick has within it a structure that you then have to find your own meaning for. You know, you get the audience to take a card. The card gets lost and you say you're going to find it. You don't find the right card. It gets lost. Is it here? Is it there? Is it here? Is it there? It's in the least expected place in the end and it's the same card, it's sealed away somewhere. This is almost an archetypal story. Which Freudians might say would have particular significance in terms of development. Is the card really the mother going away? Probably all those ideas are involved with many tricks. But the point is that it gives a structure to what you're doing.
DAVID: And what happens if suddenly in the middle of a performance that structure falls apart and something goes wrong?
IAN: One of the things that I like about doing it is that within the structure you can create the illusion that things have gone wrong. And that's often part of the appeal of the magic trick. For one trick I borrow a ten pound note like many magicians do and set fire to it accidentally and then I'm going to find it in a fruit but it's not there. . . And the whole process of acting a magician who's done it wrong, trying to actually work it so that the audience really does think it's gone wrong, is quite interesting as well. How do you actually do that? I think I do succeed with quite large proportion of the audience.
DAVID: Is part of the attraction of being a magician that of exerting a genuine power over the audience similar to the power which you suggest on stage?
IAN: The power to surprise people.
DAVID: Like a before and after – take one sad person and turn them into a happy person after seeing the show.
IAN: Well, I suppose that's true of any performer isn't it? It's not necessarily a happy but a changed person you want. All the theatre I've been involved in I've wanted people to come out of it happier or changed. At the end of Brecht on Magic I get a note from Brecht, who has left me, saying: I told you at the end of your show people should leave the theatre and change the world. Well you're half way there: they do leave the theatre.
IAN: I think we all aspire to some change, some thought, however fleeting it may be, in the audience.
DAVID: Maybe from the audience's point of view the idea of, the image of the magician provides them with an example of that process which is essentially what they want to happen as well, that is: clear, swift, effortless and irreversible.
IAN: Yes, oh I think so, I think there's a sort of fairy tale sort of appeal about magic as well – and there's the appeal of surprise and the appeal of things happening before your very eyes that you didn't possibly think could happen. I enjoy doing that.
I think the thing about magic is it forces you to do an open sort of style of theatre and even if you're doing ventriloquism as well, speaking to another character, it's still Brechtian in the sense that you are making a performance and it clearly is a performance. You don't get locked into the world that's created by those characters talking to one another. You also know that the audience is also on the look–out beforehand for the technicalities of this, is looking at it as a process rather than as a piece of reality being presented to them on a stage.
DAVID: It's a way as well of extending your own discourse. It works very well in situations where there are things that you want to say or it's not quite the done thing to say or you're not quite allowed–
IAN: Well of course ventriloquists have always been portrayed by films as having these terrible split personalities, the dummy who murders the ventriloquist or whatever. You do see ventriloquist's dummies as a separate identity. I have sometimes been surprised by what the dummy has said to me. Because you're obviously using a different bit of your brain there to–
DAVID: Is it difficult when the dummy starts to become the star of the show? There are only 2 of you there. . .
IAN: I've never experienced any pangs of jealousy about that I must say. No, I don't think so. I think the dummy is almost bound to be the more compelling character. As a ventriloquist you take the pleasure that the audience gets from the dummy as your own and a lot of ventriloquists have always deliberately made the dummy a much stronger character than the ventriloquist.
There have been ventriloquists who have been – I think Edgar Bergen was a bit strange about his dummy, Charlie McCarthy. He had to have the original Charlie McCarthy. There was a time apparently when it got lost or had to be repaired so he had to use the spare and there's a story that somebody told about coming into the dressing room and seeing him looking at him and saying: When the real Charlie McCarthy comes back, you're going to be in trouble, the way you've been performing out there. And his daughter, Candice Bergen, the actress, she talks about having had a very strange upbringing with this dummy.
DAVID: So what sort of life do your dummies have off stage?
IAN: The two big dummies that I have of Bertolt Brecht and William Morris mostly are kept packed away. Occasionally I'll get them out and do a bit of practising with them, play around. I do use them actually because they're quite big and put them so that their back is to the window in our front room.
DAVID: As a burglar deterrent?
IAN: Yes. Anybody who just glancing in thinks there's somebody sitting in there so whenever we go away we don't take them with us.
IAN: Of course they could get stolen.
DAVID: Mm. Are you particular about letting other people touch them?
IAN: Only to the extent that other people do with props. I suppose I do feel like they have characters that I've created vested in them in a way. If other people use them it does seem a bit odd because the voice doesn't come out right. But I don't know, puppeteers are very protective of their puppets as well. It's another form of puppetry isn't it? Mostly my family complains about just the mess of all the stuff that's around, not that I'm talking to them too much. There was one ventriloquist who got a divorce and his wife cited the dummy as co–respondent – in America this was – and the court upheld it. When they had friends round he would get the dummy out and the dummy would say nasty things about the wife. That was deemed mental cruelty. But no, I don't have those problems.