Magic is one of the world’s oldest art forms. For centuries, people have been fascinated by the performance of it. The mystery, the smoke and the excitement that appears in the pit of your stomach when you just can’t work out how the man stood in front of you has defied the laws of physics. There is something strangely romantic about the art form. It evokes a primal feeling in us all that means we revert to being children, fascinated by what’s stood in front of us, in awe of it all.
Photographer Sophie Mayanne captures magician Ben Hart, one of the most notorious magicians around. He is mysterious, charismatic and altogether just a little bit charming. It appears Ben was born with this passion. This desire to thrill and entertain, show his teachers just what he’s made of and how far he’s come. With grooming from Oscar Alexander and styling from Josh Tuckley, Ben tells us all about his first ever magic tricks and how childhood pranks carried him all the way to the West End in Impossible.
How did you first get into magic?
I can’t remember the exact moment, I’ve been doing it since I was so small. My earliest memory that involves magic was at a kid’s birthday party, so I must have been 5 or 6 or something like that. This clown invited me on stage and all of the kids said don’t invite Ben, he’s already a magician. Then when I was 8 I visited a magic shop and I think that was a defining moment. It was like real life Harry Potter, because this shop was underground and dark and dingy and this little old lady with thick glasses served me. It was a totally bizarre experience, but I got the bug really badly.
When did you realise you wanted to be a magician?
When I found school boring I used to just practice magic tricks. I think the reason why I can do some of the difficult things I do in my shows is because I had 6 hours a day to practice them at school; I knew I wasn’t going to be anything but a performer.
Have you always loved magic?
I have a love-hate relationship with magic. I think most artists in any field have this with what they do. I’m more interested in the final result than I am in the process. Magic is unique, because it only works with an audience. With a play, you could stage it without an audience and the play still works and it still happens; but with magic it doesn’t happen without an audience. You can’t rehearse without live people. The thing that has always really interested me is that everyone experiences things differently when they watch a magic show. Sometimes it fools people, sometimes people aren’t fooled. I hate the cheesy magic thing with fans on the stage, billowing shirts and girls in fishnets. I absolutely hate that. My challenge in all of my work is to never get anywhere near that image.
What was the first trick you ever learnt?
It’s not really a trick, but I remember a prank I would play on my friends where you get a cold coin, put it on their forehead, hold it there and say it’s going to stick to their forehead through magnetism. Then you take it away secretly, but, because it’s cold, there’s still the sensation of a coin being stuck on their forehead. So they think it’s still there. You then tell them that even if they slap the back of their head the coin won’t fall off. So now they’re slapping the back of their head and there’s nothing there! My uncle taught me that. The first actual trick I learnt was when I turned a pack of cards all into the same card and then turned them back again. It’s just a mechanical trick with a special pack of cards, and it involves no skill whatsoever, but it’s still a great trick.
How are you finding Impossible?
Impossible is great. It’s every performers’ dream to play the West End, and there hasn’t been a magic show there in decades so it’s amazing! It’s tiring and exhausting, and sometimes when I come off stage I’m grumpy, because I’m tired and I’ve done two shows that day, but every now and again it kicks in and you go ‘crap I’m playing the West End! This is awesome!’ I’m loving it. It’s also a real luxury for me as a magician to be in the same theatre every single night. Normally you travel, so it’s great to be in the same big theatre with a thousand seats. We’re all learning a lot about ourselves as performers doing it. It’s funny because as a performer you’re trying to tick boxes that qualify you, and playing the West End is the ultimate qualification. I can now go and play any theatre without feeling nerves or anything because I learnt in the best place.
How did you find being a part of Killer Magic?
Killer Magic was really interesting. They threw five magicians together and we all went to live in Scotland film the show. Basically it was like being in Big Brother or something living with these five other magicians. Like Big Brother, but with nobody watching! We were five completely different characters. We’d be walking down the street and you could see people wondering why the hell we were in each other’s company. It was great. Magic on TV is totally fascinating and a completely different process to doing it live. You learn so much about story-telling when you do television, because to tell a story on television you have to do it in such a short space of time. You have to tell it in a few minutes, whereas if you’re on stage and you’re doing a show, you can express your personality over the whole duration. To try and reduce it down to such a short amount of time is interesting. It was good and I had a lot of fun, but it was weird as well; the whole process of being on television and walking down the street with people wanting to talk to you is totally, totally bizarre. I did a trick in my underwear, and I had old ladies come up to me saying ‘I’ve seen you in your pants’.
We know that you invent, write and perform magic, which do you enjoy the most?
Well you have to enjoy all of them a bit. There’s a base of knowledge that goes across all the different disciplines. If I wasn’t a performer, I don’t think my inventions for other magicians would be as appropriate. By being a performer I can understand and better diagnose the problems. I write for other magicians and for all sorts of performers, but I always write through the eyes of being a performer. Of everything I do, I enjoy the invention of a magic trick the most. It starts as a small, small idea of something impossible. You create an impossible problem and then you try to solve it. It’s a really strange thought process and it can drive you mad, so that you think round and round in circles. Sometimes you have an idea for a trick and it will appear immediately, and sometimes you’ll have an idea that’s based on objects or wider things, and it will take weeks or months or years. Eventually there comes a time when you put it in front of an audience, and that’s a really amazing time, because all of that work will either sink or swim depending on whether the audience is fooled. It’s a really interesting and stressful time, but when it works it’s amazing. You have to be prepared to have a lot of failures before you have a success.
How did it feel to win the magic circle magician of the year?
It was a very weird experience, because at that stage I wasn’t a very experienced performer and I certainly wasn’t very experienced on stage. I was doing close-up magic tricks in front of friends and family and private parties, but I’d never really worked on stage. I eventually decided that I wanted to put on a staged magic act. It was using all original inventions, which is unusual, and it was a catastrophic failure the first few times I did it! However, it just so happened that in the finals of this competition, everything went perfectly! Every other time I’d done it, it had been a disaster. I got really lucky. It was a great positive confirmation that it was what I should be doing as a career. Unfortunately when you’re that age, 16, trying to work out what you should be doing in terms of university or whatever, if you win a big competition, forget it. Any other plans you or your family or your teachers had for you, will go out the window!
Do you like doing magic in London?London is an amazing city that’s incredibly diverse. The only problem with London is that there aren’t a lot of venues to perform in compared to other cities. However, I’ve been all over doing magic and London is probably the most appreciative audience. There’s such a rich history of magic in England compared to other counties. We’ve always had magic on TV. We’re in a bit of a golden age at the moment; magic’s not been this popular in the UK for about 100 years.
What do your friends and family think of you doing magic?
I don’t think they think about it much. I went through these phases when I was a kid wanting to show anyone a magic trick, and now it’s the last thing I talk about really! Most of my friends are performers. I have friends who are strange circus performers who do all sorts of weird and wonderful things, so really in comparison magic tricks are pretty boring. To the general public, magic is maybe the most interesting job in the world, but if you’re a trapeze artist it’s pretty tame! We all have such mundane conversations though which is funny. My family never really had a choice what they thought about.
Who inspires you?
A lot of my inspiration comes from film. The characters and the way the film directors hold themselves and talk in interviews. A film director is as close to a magician as you can get, because they know what they want and then they make it happen. To hear a film director talk about their work is fascinating. I’m really influenced by Alfred Hitchcock talking about surprise and suspense. How you tell a story and give people enough information so that when the surprise comes, it not only surprises them, but also feels logical and like it was expected. It has to make sense in a weird way. I also look at art. Ironically, the last place I look for inspiration is from magic. Fashion influences me because obviously how you look on stage is important. We don’t have a clear image of what a magician looks like, so I like exploring that.
What was it like having your show ‘The Vanishing Boy’ played throughout Edinburgh Fringe Festival to sold-out audiences last August
That was amazing because at the Edinburgh Fringe there are so many performers of different sorts competing for the same audience. So to have a show that sells out is really amazing. That was my fourth year at the fringe. I wrote with another guy on the show and that was brilliant because we put a story into the show and made a strong narrative. It was a dark and interesting show inspired by fairytales.
What’s next for you?
I will be doing more television, and writing a new live show to tour. Possibly more work with Impossible too!
Find out more about Ben here, or catch him in Impossible.