Interview with James Phelan

"I want to create a show that takes the audience into a magical world, where I seemingly can do anything, and the word Brexit doesn’t exist."

Interview with James Phelan

Could you first introduce yourself to the reader? 

My name’s James Phelan. I’m a magician, and present the BBC’s flagship radio magic show Trickster: Live. I also happen to be the nephew of the wonderful Paul Daniels.

How would you describe your show? 

My show is fundamentally a magic show, it’s been described by some as ‘jaw-dropping and laugh out loud funny’, and it’s a show filled with trickery, mind blowing magic, wonder and hilarity. 

Why do you want to perform at Edinburgh Festival Fringe? 

I’ve always wanted to come and perform in Edinburgh, as someone who loves entertainment of all sorts, for the last few years I’ve really felt like I’m missing out when I’ve been elsewhere. I feel excited and honoured to be able to rub shoulders with so many amazing acts and I can’t wait to be a part of it. 

What first motivated you to enter the industry? Who were your inspirations? 

I’ve known magic my whole life. When I was growing up Paul and Debbie (my Auntie and Uncle) used to live in a house in Buckinghamshire that, funnily enough, they bought off Roger Moore. Even at the age of two or three I used to love swimming, the excitement of a ride on lawn mower, and more worryingly, eating the gravel from the driveway – but this meant that growing up I spent as much time as I could at their house. I would often spend days and weeks at a time with them looking after me. 

This meant from that age I was surrounded by magic. I have vivid memories going to see my Uncle’s stage shows, or seeing them in panto, or being stuck in traffic and looking out the car window to see huge billboards of them. Plus, a giant articulated lorry with ‘The Paul Daniels Magic Show’ printed on the side stuck down their little private road. It was the sparkle, the excitement, the sense of occasion and the impossibility that meant I got totally bitten by the bug. 

I’m not joking when I say I really wasn’t aware other magicians existed until I was about 14. I had my baptism and schooling in magic almost entirely through the Paul Daniels magic show. I learned magic almost entirely by sitting and watching it on repeat on old VHS tapes my nan had used to record them off the telly. 

Growing up around the stage shows really gave me a vocabulary for talking to an audience, how to emphasis parts of routines. And whether us magic nerds believe it or not, the tricks really don’t matter and the presentation is everything. 

My Uncle is not only the reason I fell in love with magic, theatre, showbiz, comedy but wholeheartedly the reason I’m doing it for a living now – and not being able to discuss ideas and shows with him is hard. I miss him.

I got invited to the press night of Derren Brown’s Enigma when I was 16, this is when I first discovered Derren, and Nyman both of whom I now have huge respect for a take a lot of inspiration from when it comes to layering and structuring routines. 

Then, a little later I fell head-over-heals in love with Penn & Teller. As we all know, Teller is a genius and I went through a phase of gorging on everything they’ve ever created. They, undoubtedly and unashamedly, are my favourites in the world right now. I have a fabulous story about me having to race around London helping them with a meeting with Prince Charles – but I’ll save that for another day. 

For those of us that know our history though, I have a great old Pat Page idea in one of my routines, plus as close as I could get to a Max Malini classic. 100 years later it’s still as amazing.

The thing my Uncle impressed on me more than anything else though is two things: 1. Just be you, you’re the only one of you there is and you’ll only ever be the second best if you’re trying to be like someone else. 2. In terms of material, ‘why are you even looking at what everyone else is doing?’ 

So, whilst I take huge inspiration from these people, and honestly, I stand on the shoulder of giants, people will come to the show and feel like they watching Paul, or Penn, or David (either of them), but they’ll see me and my personality. So, wish me luck! 

If you didn’t have your current job, what would you probably be doing? 

Most likely, I’d probably still be in Ad-land, wrapped up in the marketing world. Which, while I did it, I loved it. I’d like to think though, that if it wasn’t magic I was pursuing, I’d be making Louis Theroux / Stacey Dooley-esque documentaries. I’m a bit obsessed with this kind of thing. 

If you could have any job in the world, what would it be? 

The job I do now is exactly what I’ve wanted to do since I was 2 years old. I’m lucky, I guess! 

What is your earliest childhood art memory? 

I mentioned a few above, but I also remember the excitement of going backstage, I remember meeting a few of the members of Gladiators, Frank Bruno, Henry Winkler and Cliff Richard at one show which blew me away at the time (although more now looking back). However, the thing that got me the most growing up was going with Debbie to a recording of Live & Kicking she was on one Saturday morning, and getting to meet S Club 7 and Hear’say – and it’s weird to look back because Suzanne Shaw is now a good friend of mine after interviewing her a few times for different projects! 

Do you ever feel any pressure to be a social commentator, or constantly update material to respond to events?
My show purposely doesn’t. I had a pseudo-political, almost mock Brexit routine in my show which I made the decision to take out. My show now is an escape from all that. I want to create a show that takes the audience into a magical world, where I seemingly can do anything, and the word Brexit doesn’t exist. 

Equally, do you think there has been a shift in public sentiment that has affected your work?
I don’t think you’d be able to get away with having a sparsely clad female assistant today, it feels a bit too misogynist for me. Equally, there’s certainly now laws in place that prevent you from making elephants appear and disappear these days – but on the whole, magic has been consistently popular since probably the 1800’s and whilst styles have changed, the bulk of it remains the same. My Uncle once said to me that magic is ‘truly the most international and timeless art form and therefore it always will be’. It has the amazing ability to cut through taste, age, language, and that I guess is why I love it. 

Describe the last year in 5 words or less? 

Hard work but loving it 

If you could work with anybody, from any point in history, who would you pick and why?
I’ve recently found myself totally obsessed with Morecambe and Wise, Norman Wisdom and even early Brucey. Those early days of Sunday Night at the London Palladium is a world I’d have love to have been a part of. Failing that, the sense of occasion is something I’d love to recreate. 

Why would a performer opt to do either a ticketed event or participate in the free fringe? What are the benefits and limitations of both?
A friend of mine is a hypnotist who has opted for a Free Fringe show because for him, he needs at least a few hundred people in the audience to make the show work, so the free fringe means two things, you not only get to perform in front of more people, but audiences get to discover things they wouldn’t have otherwise. 

I’ve opted for a paid show at The Gilded Balloon, this means we can put more budget into the show production so that when people come, they’re really part of something special, it’s a real sense of occasion and we create something they won’t be able to see elsewhere or forget in a hurry! 

What advice would you give to someone who wants to take a show up to the fringe? 

It’s my first time at the Fringe so I’m sure I’m the best placed to give advice. What I’ve learned from experience though is have the show ready well in advance. I’ve been working on my show for nearly two years now and it’s taken so much of the panic out of the planning. 

When and where can people see your show? 

I’m at the Gilded Balloon Teviot, Dining Room at 6:45pm all of August. 

And where can people find, follow and like you online? 

If you search Trickster: Live, my BBC show is available on BBC Sounds. I’m on all of the socials too at @phelanmagician. 

Header Image Credit: Steve Ullathorne


Tom Inniss

Tom Inniss Voice Team

Tom is the Editor of Voice. He is a politics graduate and holds a masters in journalism, with particular interest in youth political engagement and technology. He is also a mentor to our Voice Contributors, and champions our festivals programme, including the reporter team at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe..

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