CHILDREN’S MAGIC AND ME
Most of my working life has been spent in the theatre. After university, where I both acted in everything from musicals to Shakespeare and started writing songs and sketches for revues, I became a professional actor and director. I graduated from rep. to West End appearances, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the original disastrous production of Lloyd Webber’s JEEVES, and also lots of bits and pieces in television and one or two major movies like IF... and ACES HIGH.
But magic, and particularly children’s magic, has never been far away. By the time I was eleven I was doing cabaret with a local dance band. A friend and I sang songs then I did some magic. It had all begun a few years earlier with a magic book called THE BOY’S BOOK OF CONJURING, a Christmas present from an aunt. I soon found a few friendly dealers and was subscribing to Abracadabra, and took my hobby very seriously. In my teens I started doing magic at children’s parties. I discovered tricks by Billy Day like HOLD THAT TIGER and LOVEY DUCK (which I still perform today) and found that I was quite good at “working” an audience of children. At Oxford University I joined the Magic Society. I think there were only four of us, but one was John Fisher and another was Michael Symes, both of whom are prominent in the Magic Circle today. When I started writing plays for children in 1967, I found that automatically my interest in magic and also the techniques I had learnt from it, often influenced my writing and quite often magic was introduced into the plot. It has always seemed to me that the use of magic and illusion within a story structure has been undervalued and underexploited. But in THERE WAS AN OLD WOMAN… I created a magician called The Great Boon, who, in the various productions up and down the country, has often been played by a magician. Similarly, in my version of ALADDIN, there is room for not only cabaret-style magic, but major transformation-style illusions. George Kovari helped me when I directed my own adaptation of the MEG AND MOG stories for Unicorn Theatre. We had great fun levitating a witch. In fact we worked on the show half a dozen times for different Christmas seasons and a tour. More recently, Paul Kieve was my magic advisor on my production of THE WITCHES, adapted from the Roald Dahl book. Two boys had to be transformed into mice, a mouse had to walk along a tightrope, and fifteen witches had to disappear into thin air! The success of the magic in THE WITCHES was a huge contribution towards the play’s success in the West End and all over the country. Audiences genuinely didn’t know how the illusions were done. And they were very carefully moulded into the structure and the design of the play, so didn’t stick out like sore magical thumbs. They were integral.
In 1979 I formed a children’s theatre company, which toured my plays to major theatres in the UK. Meanwhile I had become a minor children’s television personality. This all started with JACKANORY, and included a longish stint as a semi-regular on the children’s entertainment programme PLAYAWAY. I didn’t do magic on this programme, but took part in sketches, sang songs and generally enjoyed myself. I began to notice that several of my colleagues on the programme like Brian Cant, Toni Arthur and Derek Griffiths were doing their own one-man children’s shows in theatres, particularly at weekends. I rather fancied doing the same, and when, in the early 80s, the Stables Theatre at Wavendon, the private theatre owned by Johnny Dankworth and Cleo Laine, asked if there was a Whirligig play that could visit for a couple of performances, I suggested that it might be cheaper and easier to take THE DAVID WOOD MAGIC AND MUSIC SHOW instead! Over the next few months I put together a show consisting of many items I had used since my teens, asked a musical colleague, Peter Pontzen, to come and play the piano for me, and embarked on what was to become a very important and enjoyable part of my life. As we approach the millennium, the show is still going strong. It has developed a bit and the running order has changed, but the basic content has obstinately stayed the same. I think all of us agree that once we have found a number of routines that really work and suit our individual styles, it is pointless to stop doing them, simply ringing the changes for novelty’s sake. And so it was that my rather manic version of the MAGIC WASHING LINE recently celebrated its 40th birthday. Peter is still playing the piano for me. We don’t do the show all the time, perhaps no more than 40 or 50 performances a year. But we play some very nice theatres, get reasonably paid and thoroughly enjoy it. The show runs just over one and a half hours, including an interval, has half a dozen lighting cues, and all fits into my estate car, thus avoiding the need to hire or own a van. But it all looks quite showy and not too mini, and has played in quite large theatres, such as the Theatre Royal, Brighton, Richmond Theatre and the Theatre Royal, Windsor.
Thanks to the MAGIC AND MUSIC SHOW, I was offered a BBC children’s series called TRICKY BUSINESS, in which I played Woody (myself, really) the owner of a magic shop. My clever young shop assistant was Paul Zenon, who was very inventive and helpful to me, off screen as well as on. We had quite a few exciting magical guests on the programme, like Mystina, Kay Krystal and Elizabeth Warlock (our producer was something of a feminist!). And Paul Zerdin and Tim Clothier made their first television appearances as young magicians. Happy days.