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Magic on TV

9th January 2011

This week was good for TV magic with the debut of The Magicians on BBC and Penn and Teller: Fool Us on ITV. There could hardly have been more of a contrast.

I’ve never been a great fan of Penn & Teller because of the shock value in their act — I like my magic with more elegant mystery and less fake blood. But they were great on this show.

Never mind the trick where they made some poor girl’s phone disappear and it turned up inside a dead fish in a sealed box — although, that was great. And never mind their gory misdemonstration of sawing a woman in half. What I liked about them this weekend was their good-natured professionalism.

The concept of the show was that working magicians got the chance to fool them with a trick and if they did, they got a trip to Vegas to appear on the P&T show. I won’t spoil the programme for you in case you want to catch it online, but they on the whole found a way to communicate the method when they rumbled it, without exposing too much. One sad truth about magic is that the “secret” is often rather uninteresting compared to the staggering effect. P&T also treated the contenders with a politeness that I didn’t expect — and genuinely seemed to want to be fooled.

Having said that, my absolutely favourite moment was the giant figure of Penn yelling in honest frustration, “We didn’t come here to be fooled by some retired policeman and his five envelopes!”.

Over on the Beeb I caught up with The Magicians. I could almost hear the voices from the production meeting. “But you know, we don’t want it to be boring like Paul Daniels. So let’s put in some celebrities who have to learn magic. Yeah! And we have to have someone booted out like in Big Brother or The Apprentice. So we’ll have a forfeit. Brilliant. Right, shoot it.”

I can’t tell you what the forfeit was. I turned it off after twenty minutes. I just couldn’t be bothered waiting through more dance groups and celebrity profiles. I felt sorry for Lenny Henry — who I rather like — stuck on the front of this tedious show. I switched instead to his stand-up set at the Apollo in London which showed him on top form.

It comes down to production choices. ITV let proven performers do their thing without interruption and added a little glimpse behind the curtain as a tease. The BBC didn’t trust their magicians to carry the show and added the kind of content you can see on any filler show.

Guess which of these programmes is the first of a series, and which is a one-off? :(