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‘I just think a magician should be able to do it all’: An Interview with Ali Cook

22 May 2017 Laura Garmeson

Ali Cook is a rare breed of magician. With an off-beat performance style that combines comedy and magic, he has become a headline act - touring numerous shows, featuring in films and performing on TV. Ahead of his new show, ‘Principles of Deception’, we chatted to him about new age books, reviving ancient magic tricks, and the time he got trapped in a Houdini-style water tank...

Cook’s route into magic is an unusual one. While most magicians are dyed-in-the-wool sceptics, he started out working in his mum’s new age bookshop in Harrowgate, Yorkshire. "A book came into the bookshop one day called The Expert at the Card Table by S. W. Erdnase. I saw this book and thought: 'this isn’t a new age book. What on earth is this?' I started reading it, and it was all about how to cheat at cards. It’s the most famous book written about how to cheat at poker." After reading Erdnase, he began to see the customers coming in and out of the shop for tarot card readings in a new light. "I started to twig that maybe what was going on was more psychological than psychic."
 
His interest piqued, the teenage Cook entered the British Sleight of Hand Championships when he was only seventeen – and won. "In the magic world they have these competitions, and that’s what really gave me the confidence to think: 'maybe I can actually do this.'" Competing in championships allowed him to gradually hone his act, in the same way comedians submit to the gruelling open mic circuit. "Magicians perform at conferences and get-togethers for years, building up their skills, until they can do it professionally."


 
One of Cook’s trademarks is that his show is not just magic; he artfully weaves in comedy, too, creating an act that straddles both industries. Inspiration came in the form of his next-door neighbour, the comedian-magician Jerry Sadowitz, who became a mentor of sorts to Cook. Their comic styles were chalk and cheese – Sadowitz’s edgy, black humour contrasting with Cook’s gentle surrealism – "but he was the first guy I saw mixing the two together". Cook remained adamant that he wanted to be "a stand-up who happens to do magic, rather than a cheesy showman," and his idiosyncratic act has gone from strength to strength.
 
For his ambitious new show, Principles of Deception, he has decided to go all out. "There was a book written in 1948 called Principles and Deceptions," says Cook, "and it was the first book to categorise every style of deception or magic trick that there is. It was my favourite magic book. So I thought I’d tell people a little bit about the book, and then I’d demonstrate every type and style of deception." Following in the footsteps of the old magicians who had mastered every trick in the book, he adds, "I just think a magician should be able to do it all."
 
Some of these magic tricks have ancient origins. "One of the effects I do is swapping the head on a chicken and a duck, which is the world’s oldest magic trick. It was first performed in ancient Egypt in 3000 BC, and at the moment I’m the only person who currently performs it." Studying and recreating these age-old tricks has become a hobby of sorts. "A lot of magicians just buy tricks from other magicians, whereas I’ve tried to research old myths and then bring them back to life."


 
Cook is usually pretty prepared for a show – "because I practise all day and I don’t have any friends" – but there’s always a risk with certain stunts, and he has on occasion encountered challenging situations. When he first attempted the Houdini water tank escape during a TV recording, he found himself trapped inside. "That’s because our friend built the tank for us out of his old garden shed," Cook explains, "and we certainly learned the lesson that what you need is a real engineer – rather than your mate."
 
Given the title of his new show, does he believe you have to be a good actor – a master of deception – to be a good magician? "Yes," Cook replies, "because you’re basically lying the minute you walk out and say 'good evening, everybody.' You’ve usually got two doves up your sleeves; a rabbit in your back table; a woman hidden in your other table. You’re just lying from the get-go, so you get very good at playing a role." This ease with performing has certainly served Cook well in the acting and film industry, where he has won numerous roles. After magic, he says, acting feels like a breeze: "I’ve died in comedy clubs for years and I’ve done awful shows in the middle of nowhere, so by the time you get to audition for a film it’s less intimidating."
 
Ultimately though, magic is where his heart lies. "The real thrill about magic shows, that they have over any other type of entertainment, is that you will astonish people. You don’t really get that in other forms of entertainment – it’s a rare thing to feel."
 
Ali Cook will be performing Principles of Deception at Southbank’s Underbelly Festival on 27 May at 7.45pm. Tickets start at £15.50.

Watch Ali performing the tricks 'Un Poulet et un Calard' (The Chicken and the Duck) and The Trick that Killed Houdini.

 
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