As magicians celebrate the 100th anniversary of the famous ‘sawing people in half’ trick, Michael Alexander discovers that magic is alive and well in Tayside and Fife with a few tricks left up its sleeve yet.
One hundred years ago last month, English magician Percy Thomas Tibbles literally and laboriously “sawed” through a sealed wooden box that contained a woman.
It was a sensation that has since become one of the world’s best known illusions, performed with all manner of tools and varying degrees of “blood”.
Fife-raised scientist turned magician Kevin Quantum, who made it to the semi-finals of Britain’s Got Talent in 2020, has never tried to emulate it himself.
However, it’s a take on this legendary trick that helped him win fame on reality TV show Faking It in 2005 and later helped him grow closer to his Russian girlfriend – now wife – Svetlana, when she agreed to let him “rip a ring from her stomach” during nightly shows in Edinburgh a few years later.
“I’ve never done the sawing the woman in half trick in the classic traditional manner,” explains Kevin, 40, in an interview with The Courier from Moscow.
“But one of the tricks legendary magicians Penn and Teller taught me is this wonderful funny routine based on retrieving a swallowed ring from the stomach of a spectator who had ‘accidentally swallowed’ it.
“You had to lie them on a table, ‘cut them open’ and pull the ring from their stomach – ‘blood’ pouring everywhere – then hand the ring back to the person you borrowed it from.
“It’s the trick I performed in the final of Faking It.
“Some years later I had been booked to do a run at the Steeple Tent in Princes Street gardens in Edinburgh, and I wanted to do this trick which would have involved people from the audience getting covered in ‘blood’. But you can’t really do that without one or two lawsuits!
“So I wanted to have someone in the audience I would ‘randomly choose’ and have them covered in blood.
“I’d just started dating this Russian girl called Svetlana. I said: ‘You up for doing this? You’ll get covered in blood every night, get your stomach cut open and a ring taken out?’ She said ‘Sure!’. That level of commitment is special. We are now married with two kids and staying at her mum’s house in Moscow.
“It’s not sawing someone in half, but it’s the fun and modern day rock n roll equivalent that got us together!”
Paul Daniels magic set
Growing up in Rosyth as Kevin McMahon, the former pupil of St John’s Primary and St Columba’s High School, Dunfermline, loved magic as a child.
He had a Paul Daniels magic set which he’d use to do shows for his brother and sisters.
He never saw magic as a potential career – going on to study his other love physics on a scholarship to Edinburgh University before embarking upon a PhD at Heriot Watt University.
His life changed in 2005, however, when, whilst laid up with torn ligaments sustained during a five a side football match in Edinburgh, he responded to an advert for reality TV show Faking It.
The premise was to train someone in a job laterally opposite to the one they already did.
In his case, they took a quiet, mild mannered scientist and trained him to be a magician “from zero to hero” over four intense weeks.
He was coached by experts including Penn and Teller and “kept on the straight and narrow” by the late no nonsense Dundee magician Pat Page who’d “moved to London and never lost his Dundee mannerisms”.
After various deliberate “humiliations” along the way to boost his confidence and underline his low starting point, it culminated in a 90-minute Easter Day 2005 TV special, watched by seven million UK viewers, when he had to go on stage and fool Paul Daniels into believing he was a genuine magician.
Britain’s Got Talent
He’s never looked back – now priding himself on combining his love of magic with his love of science to “do good” for the art and produce some of the most memorable tricks around, including appearances at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe where, aptly, he first met his now wife at a ‘Magic to get girls by’ show.
That fusion of science and magic was further demonstrated in the 2020 series of Britain’s Got Talent when in the first round he combined physics, daring and danger with a device based on a 150 year old desk toy invented by Ernst Mach.
Instead of small pendulums rhythmically clicking together on a desk, he upscaled it to comprise large burning cannon balls swinging on four metre tethers then blindfolded himself – the act requiring him to find the “sweet spot” to walk through the balls without being hit.
The judges loved it with Simon Cowell “blown away” and David Walliams describing him as “like a sexy Dr Who!”.
Kevin describes having the 2500 strong audience applauding on their feet as “one of the best moments” of his career. But he’s particularly pleased that act was essentially a “glorified science experiment”.
“It was the famous science fiction author Asimov who said ‘Advanced technology is undistinguishable from magic’, and for me, the greatest satisfaction I’ve had from magic is the fusion of science and magic I’ve put together,” he says, adding that his magic science lessons were recently commissioned for BBC Bitesize during lockdown.
“When you think about those as two areas of interest there’s very little overlap. But at the same time there’s loads of overlap. The overlap I find the strongest was in the world of quantum physics. Stuff that happens at a tiny level.
“When you look at scientific papers, because scientists don’t understand it they have to use the language of magic to explain things that happen.
“‘This transformed from this to this, then it teleported, then it disappeared – wait a minute you are talking about magic here!’
“You realise they don’t have a clue about what’s happening in quantum physics, which was the point I decided to take on the surname Quantum – to reflect that deep level of mystery that exists at a tiny level. You’ll find that most engineers and people in the sciences have a fascination for magic.”
Dunfermline-based magician Mick Magic (real name Mark Fisken) also took an unorthodox route into the profession.
As a child, the Dundee-born 51-year-old loved watching Paul Daniels on the BBC every Saturday night, never dreaming that one day he would become a professional magician and a member of the Magic Circle.
Growing up south of Edinburgh where his mum was curator of Rosslyn Chapel, his grandfather taught him his first card trick when he was five and he used the Paul Daniels magic set he got one Christmas to try out tricks on family and friends.
Everything changed, however, when after more than 20 years working in research for the civil service, the opportunity came to take redundancy and he went into magic full time.
Since then he’s utilised his theatrical background to become an accomplished magician, recognised nationally with a reputation for professionalism and an ability to put on a great show.
Today, the father of two, who also works in pupil support at a Dunfermline high school, entertains both children and adults throughout Scotland including Edinburgh, the Lothians, Perth, Dundee, Falkirk, Aberdeen, Glasgow, Stirling and beyond.
He served as president of the Edinburgh Magic Circle for three as well as being the last president of Dundee Magic Circle and the first of the new Dundee Society of Magicians.
He’s particularly honoured though that he was nominated by the late Ali Bongo and Dundee’s Pat Page for membership of the prestigious Magic Circle in London.
As the founder and co-producer of ‘The Palace of Magic’ and the ‘Castle of Magic’ – held in recent years at Falkland Palace and Stirling Castle and confirmed as the largest national magic festivals in the UK – he’s equally at home doing colourful non-technical magic for children as Kramus the Wizard as he is doing card magic, mental magic and close-up magic for adults.
Of course, the Covid pandemic means he hasn’t performed live since March 16 last year.
However, he has decided not to do any more online shows having tried it and missed the face-to-face connection with his audience.
For example, it’s difficult to do an “arm chopping” illusion on Zoom – and the “sawing in half” trick he used to do three or four times a year with Glasgow magician Ali Proctor just wouldn’t be the same!
“The sawing in half trick is an old illusion using a bow saw,” he explains.
“Basically the effect is you get someone from the audience and ‘cut them in half’.
“Instead of cutting someone in half like you see on TV, though, the person realises the blade is ‘behind’ them now! They then say ‘how on earth did that happen?’
“I’ve also done arm chopping illusions on stage.
“One guy was once egged on to volunteer and he was really nervous. It turned out he was a classical guitarist about to perform at the festival in Edinburgh. He was worried he was about to lose his arm! He had nothing to worry about of course!”
History of Dundee Magic Circle
Colin S Robb, who was president of Dundee Magic Circle before Mark, explained that the history of magic in Dundee dates back 110 years to when local shopkeeper David Smith of well-known Dundee retailers Smith and Horner founded the Dundee Society of Magicians in 1911.
Mr Smith was Harry Houdini’s aide when the great man visited the city on his tour of Scotland some years earlier.
The club ran until 1937 when it finally folded. One year later two local magicians Harry Carnegie and John Scourgie started the Dundee Magic Circle and they held their first meeting in the Atholl hotel in the Nethergate on February 18, 1938.
After restricted meetings in the war years, the circle became active again and many visiting magicians were invited along including Ken Brooke, Eddie Dexter and Oscar Oswald.
In 1949, Johnny Geddes became president. He became a well-known magician famous for comedy magic.
He toured the world, wrote many books and articles for magic magazines and had his own television show in the 1970’s before a rift caused Johnny to break away from the Dundee circle to found the Scottish Magic Circle.
The two Dundee based magic clubs ran alongside one another for many years.
“I have always enjoyed magic having been in many “kids clubs” whilst on holiday as a child,” says Colin.
“I became interested in magic as an adult after performing at my daughter Kirsty’s birthday party as “Cowboy Dan” as per the film parenthood starring Steve Martin.
“I enjoyed the buzz and decided to pursue it further and several years later auditioned for the Dundee Magic Circle and within a year became Vice-President largely due to fact that the 60th anniversary was on the horizon and I was the only one with a home computer and was therefore programme editor.
“I was also the librarian and the club had an impressive collection of magic books catalogued by myself some of which were over 100 years old.”
Colin said the club produced many professional magicians including secretary Harry Mudie AKA Harry Mudini who is an award winning children’s entertainer and stage illusionist based in Dundee and the late John Fox from Carnoustie.
The junior members of the club had success as well with Tom Davidson winning the young magician of the year award in 1984 and Harry’s daughter Cheryl Mudie winning in 1997.
The club also went international with one of its members Jay Scott Berry being a well-known Las Vegas magician who often attended meetings.
The Scottish circle produced Johnny Geddes and Dundee’s “Mr Rainbow” AKA Albert Lawson.
“In 1998 on September 6 the Dundee Magic Circle held its 60th anniversary in the Marryat hall Dundee which saw guest star Ali Bongo bring the house down with a finale of magically producing a Scotland flag and marching around the room to rapturous applause,” he recalls.
“Another link in the magical chain was Dundee born Magician Pat Page a former pupil of St John’s High School.
“He became a professional stage magician at the age of 26 and worked at Davenport’s magic shop in London for 15 years.
“He appeared on The Paul Daniels Magic Show and was an uncredited consultant to the Bond film Casino Royale. It was his hands you see in close up manipulating the cards.
“He worked as an advisor to Derren Brown and contributed to the children’s magic show Wizbit.
“I had the privilege of introducing Pat when he returned to his home town and lectured to the DMC. Pat died on February 11 2010(2010-02-11), aged 80.”
When the Dundee and Scottish magic circles decided to merge, Colin said debates raged as to the name of the newly merged club with some insisting that Dundee magic circle should remain.
It was finally agreed that they should return to their humble beginnings and in April 2004 the new club became the Dundee Society of Magicians once again with Mark Fisken as president and official positions filled by members of both previous clubs.
“Harry Mudie was secretary of the DMC for over 20 years and is still secretary of DSM to this day,” adds Colin.
“The club has an annual dinner every year and produces a stage show in the Logie Club in Lochee where it has its HQ.
“So magic is alive and well in the City of Discovery. It has been for 110 years and has come full circle!”