Monday, May 29, 2006

Barry and Stuart: Was Jesus A Huckster With Charisma, Or Were The Miracles Really Miraculous?


Somewhere in the middle of their magic and comedy show at the Hen and Chickens theatre pub in Islington, London, Barry Jones and Stuart MacLeod take a few moments to invoke Bishop Michael Reid, founder of the Christian Congress for Traditional Values. After their last television show, The Magic of Jesus, the bishop was quoted in the Sun: “Maybe these two fraudsters could try being crucified to see if they can rise three days later,” he reportedly said. “The big difference between a couple of tricksters performing illusions and Our Lord’s miracles is that Jesus actually healed people, raised the dead and forgave sins.”
On paper, it’s not hard to locate the reasons for the Bishop’s discomfiture. The Magic of Jesus was broadcast at Christmas, and included sketches in which a football crowd was fed with five loaves and two fishes. Another sketch involved three wise men following a star, who turned out to be Richard E Grant.
“We walked on water,” says Barry.
“Our feet got very wet,” says Stuart.
“We made a virgin pregnant,” says Barry. “We raised the dead.”
This irreligious fervour continues in a stage show which includes a sketch about water being turned into wine.
Barry and Stuart’s interest in magic was sparked in childhood; both received books on the subject for Christmas when growing up in Aberdeenshire. Stuart lived in Peterhead and studied philosophy and psychology at Aberdeen University, while Barry grew up in Old Portlethen, before moving to London to study multimedia computing. They first met at a magic circle event (not the Magic Circle) when they were 14. “All the magicians were really old, 60 or 70,” says Stuart. “We were the only young ones there. So we thought we’d team up, although initially we hated each other.”
Their initial rivalry was expressed at the Scottish Young Magician of the Year competition, which Stuart won in 1995 and 1996. In 1997, Barry won it. “We decided to join forces in Aberdeen because we’d been rivals for too long,” Barry explains. “Whilst I was down in London at Uni, we were speaking a lot on the phone. Because we were no longer in the same city we were no longer rivals. We started sharing a lot of ideas that we were reluctant to share before.”
They started making videos, acting out scenes in character, and filming the results on the streets. The videos were edited on Stuart’s PC, and eventually reached a television production company. The show Magick, which was nominated as Best Comedy Series at the international television awards in Lucerne in 2004, was, says Barry, “quite dark”, and was followed in 2005 by appearances in Dirty Tricks and When Magic Tricks Go Wrong.
“We really split the magic community with our first TV show,” says Barry, “and we continue to split them into smaller and smaller pieces. Dirty Tricks was on at 10.30 on a Friday night, and I remember hearing from a lot of magicians: ‘this show’s terrible, there’s swearing in it.’”
“People think because it’s a magic show it will be Paul Daniels,” says Stuart. “They think it will be a family show - forgetting that we’re in the same slot as Bo Selecta.”
For all the controversy, Barry and Stuart’s act is good-natured and oddly gentle. The magic is framed in comic sketches, with both of them playing characters, such as the conjuring vicars (with their love of improbable religious metaphor) and the boy whose tongue is possessed; an affliction which causes Barry to swallow razor blades. He also slashes his wrists at one point, which is a grim illusion, but an effective one.
Their new show, Tricks From The Bible, takes its inspiration from the Old Testament. A demon – actually Bez from the Happy Mondays – is cast out of Stuart’s belly, and a modern day Samson (a weightlifter from a gym) loses his strength as his hair is shaved off. “The more hair we shave off, the weaker he becomes,” says Barry, “until he can’t lift anything, and this big muscle-bound guy can’t even win a tug-of war against weedy little Stuart.”
There is some method to Barry and Stuart’s approach. Their use of character adds to the confusion about how the tricks are being performed, but it also allows the duo to perform without setting themselves up as being cleverer than the audience.
“We don’t set up a challenge situation where we’re so unlikeable that the audience feel they have to deride all the tricks,” says Stuart. “It’s our aim to almost deprecate the tricks, so that if something magical does happen, it’s not always a positive thing.”
Barry adds that this approach is a way of removing the magician’s ego from the act.
“We motivate everything, so it doesn’t feel like we’re demonstrating a magic trick. Why would anyone put a razor blade in their mouth, you might ask. So we try to think of a story that allows you to put razor blades in your mouth, which would end up tied onto a piece of dental floss.”
“If you write about a character that’s tragic, you are taking the ego out of performing the trick,” says Stuart. “We tend to write about things that are sad or depressing. It’s maybe coming from Aberdeen, and seeing all that granite.”
Less explicable is their fascination for the Bible. They are not religious, and nor do they seem particularly interested in debunking Christianity. In the new show, they persuade two girls to join them in a restaurant.
“They think they’re joining us for dinner,” says Stuart. “They’re not. They’re joining us to have the 10 plagues cast upon them. That involves magically making flies and locusts and blood appear as part of the main course.”
“And frogs,” says Barry. “And then we cast them into darkness by turning off the lights, so they were trapped in a cage with all these things flapping. We didn’t kill their first born though.”
Alastair McKay: Sunday Times
Tricks From The Bible, Channel 4, 10.30pm, 2 June,
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