The life of a modern magician: Razor blades, ballet shoes and bumping into the Obamas

What does it take to be a modern-day magician? Emma Hughes finds out. Main photograph by Richard Cannon.

It starts off with performing a trick at Christmas; it could grow into a jet-setting career which could see you to putting on shows for kings, queens and presidents. And once you’re at the top, you might even make it into the Magic Circle – an organisation so secretive that it makes Hogwarts look positively accessible.

In an age of technological wonders, the magic show remains hugely popular – but what is life like for today’s magicians? We met three to find out.

The magician to the stars: ‘I always keep a packet of cards with me. You never know when you’re going to bump into Barack and Michelle Obama’

‘When I tell my parents’ friends I’m a magician, I can see them thinking “What went wrong?”,’ admits Archie Manners. The joke is, however, on them. By any standards, the 23 year old has pulled a rabbit out of the proverbial hat – he travels the world and has already performed for members of the Royal Family and every living Prime Minister. As jobs go, it certainly beats a graduate scheme.

Mr Manners is part of a new generation of magicians swapping polyester waistcoats and ‘Hey presto!’ for a slicker schtick. Although their acts vary hugely, one thing they all seem to have in common is starting young. ‘I was given a magic set by a godmother when I was about four, one of the ones you get at Harrods or Hamleys,’ he remembers.

Archie Manning photographed by Richard Cannon for Country Life

Recommended videos for you

‘There was something about knowing things that grown-ups didn’t that appealed to me. I used to charge family friends who’d come round for lunch 50p to watch tricks, which doubled my pocket money. I suspect most of them had a fair idea of what was happening, but they were very supportive.’

He performed his first show aged 12 at school, where he caught the eye of someone who knows a thing or two about stagecraft: Andrew Lloyd Webber. He continued to perform when he went to school and was able to fund his gap year that way – ‘much better than working in a bar’. Three days after completing a politics degree at Bristol University, he started filming a hypnotism-based show for E4, Look Into My Eyes.

For now, he’s averaging about two performances a week, ‘although there are times when I’ll be doing three in a day’. He’s off to Florence soon for a Premiership footballer’s wedding, which will be followed by a fundraiser for Great Ormond Street and a private party in Oxford. A lot of his clients are repeat bookings, which means he spends three or four hours every day practising new material.

‘My rule is if you can do it 100 times correctly in front of a camera, you can perform it for an audience. It’s pretty unforgivable to get something wrong – it would be a bit like a doctor diagnosing you with the wrong illness.’

What about when he’s off duty? ‘Some of my friends are very good guinea pigs, but I don’t whip tricks out in the pub – there’s nothing more annoying than someone constantly doing magic,’ admits Mr Manners.

‘But I always keep a packet of cards with me. You never know when you’re going to bump into Barack and Michelle Obama on Oxford Street.’

The dancing magician: ‘When you get a good audience, you feed off that energy and it’s amazing’

24-year-old Megan Knowles-Bacon, who made headlines when she became the Circle’s first elected female officer in 2014. The daughter of two London horticulturalists, by day, she works at the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (she has a degree in wildlife conservation). By night, she turns into the Black Swan, performing a dazzling act on pointe that culminates in a snowstorm.

‘When I got into stage magic, I decided to do my act to music because I got a bit nervous when I was speaking. I thought if I took that part out of the equation, I could focus on building my confidence,’ she explains. ‘Then, I found I really loved it.’

Miss Knowles-Bacon got her first magic set when she was five, but it was the magician who performed at her eighth-birthday party that really grabbed her attention. For two years, she spent every spare minute practising, before being encouraged by her parents to join The Young Magicians Club, the junior wing of The Magic Circle.

‘I was being taught by some of the best in the business,’ she remembers. ‘I don’t think I’d still be doing this otherwise. I’d have got bored of the children’s sets eventually – my parents certainly would have. I think Mum made me join mostly so she wouldn’t have to keep watching me doing the same old tricks.’

At 16, she came second in the Young Magician of the Year competition and it was magic that determined her choice of university. ‘I was running the University of Kent’s magic society before I was actually there and, in my final year, we did about 40 performances.’ However, since starting work, she’s had to cut back.

‘I don’t get to do an awful lot of shows at the moment because my act is quite labour-intensive. It’s not easy to pop somewhere and do it after work – it takes an hour just to do my hair and make-up,’ she reveals.

‘But when you get a good audience, you feed off that energy and it’s amazing. The more they clap, the more you push yourself. I did a run of 16 shows last Christmas and I had to really hold back – if I’d have let go as much as I wanted to, my feet would have given out.’

The magician-turned-curator: ‘There’s a video of me swallowing razor blades – my attempts to suggest directorial gravitas were undermined before I’d even walked through the door’

Once a magician, always a magician – just ask Xa Sturgis. Today, he’s the director of the Ashmolean Museum, but, in a past life, he was The Great Xa, a magician who toured London pubs and clubs as part of a four-person act (one of the other players was Emma Freud).

‘There’s a video of me swallowing razor blades on The Word that everyone had already seen when I arrived here,’ he laughs. ‘My attempts to suggest directorial gravitas were undermined before I’d even walked through the door.’

[WARNING: The video below contains magic, lots of fake blood and perhaps most disturbingly of all a brief glimpse of Edwina Currie. Please watch at your own discretion!]

As a boy, Dr Sturgis learned a few tricks from a magician friend of his eldest brother – ‘There was one I particularly remember in which you stretch three different ropes to the same length’ – and when he arrived at The Hall in Hampstead, he joined the school’s magic club. ‘There was a definite moment as a teenager when I decided this would be a good thing to be able to do,’ he recalls.

And so it proved. After placing third in the Young Magician of the Year competition, Dr Sturgis supported himself through degrees at Oxford and the Courtauld Institute by performing. ‘I wanted it to be funny and enjoyable – playful, perhaps slightly mad. I set a rule for myself that I could only use household objects. We’re not talking grand illusions here.’

During his first job, in the education department at the National Gallery, he brought paintings to life using magic for children at Christmas.

Although the museum world has taken an upper hand, he still has a few regular gigs. ‘The staff party, that sort of thing. And when I was in Bath [working as director of the Holburne Museum], I performed at Glastonbury,’ divulges Dr Sturgis. ‘I was literally bottom of the bill, on the smallest stage at the least hospitable time. It went down fine – but there weren’t many people there.’

He enjoys being on the other side of the curtain, too. ‘I still love that sensation of being fooled, of seeing something that’s seemingly impossible. Perhaps it was something of the same excitement that drew me to art. Fundamentally, I think it’s just a thrilling thing.’