Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Abracadabra Magazine, the last incantation.

Davenports, the owners of Abracadabra magazine.

Abracadabra, 2nd February 1946 to 28th March 2009.

This week sees the publication of the last ever issue of the longest running British national magic magazine, independent of any magic club or magic society, Abracadabra; it was hailed as the only magical weekly in the world, its contributors were diverse in character ranging from Ali Bongo to Jerry Sadowitz, and its readers fondly nicknamed it Abra. After 63 years and 3,296 issues the weekly magazine came to an abrupt end with little warning to its loyal readers. In the previous week’s issue it was announced that the magazine was being bought by entrepreneur Stephen Martin. Then there was gossip on internet discussion boards that the business deal collapsed on the evening of Sunday 22nd March, one day after the announcement of a buy-out. They were all asking would Abra cease publication and in a last minute change to the magazine’s editorial, this week’s issue contained the sad announcement that it would indeed be the last one. Word quickly spread on discussion boards on the internet; the reaction is one of disappointment and has been described by one magician as “a tragic loss to the magical community.”

The magazine was the creation of Charles Goodliffe Neale and the first issue went on sale on February 2nd, 1946. He successfully maintained the weekly magazine until his death in 1980, after which the famous magic dealers of London, Davenports, bought the business from the Goodliffe family. Established in 1898, Davenports is a family business that has had four generations of magicians and dealers of magic apparatus and books. Their shop once had a prestigious location opposite the British Museum. It is now located in the Charing Cross Underground Arcade.

Magic is about secrets and it is unfortunate that one secret that Daveneports kept in the past number of years was that Abra was in trouble. When magician and Magic Circle member Walt Lees was made editor, he was given a year and then a second year to change the fortunes of the magazine. In this week’s final issue Walt wrote in his editorial that the publishers had “placed their trust in me and I did my best. Sadly my best wasn’t good enough.” Noble as it is for Walt Lees to take some responsibility for the magazine’s demise, the truth is that no blame should be put his way. An editor of magic magazines with nearly thirty years experience, he ensured that Abra maintained a high standard of style and content whilst meeting the needs of the readers, who often let him know what that was and being a good editor he listened.

Richard Kaufman, magician and publisher of the American magic magazine The Genii, has expressed the opinion that the internet contributed to Abra’s reduction in sales, citing Duncan Trillo’s website MagicWeek as a competitor for weekly news of magic in Britain. Others have expressed the opinion that Abra is another periodical which has become victim to the recession.

So what happened? Was it the recession? Was it the internet? Well, personally, I think not; for once, it was not entirely those bugbears. The Goodliffe website, property of Davenports, consisted of three pages, none of which was particularly informative about Abra. It was also very out of date; it still named Donald Bevan as editor, even though he had handed over the reins of Abra to Walt Lees some time before. The only weblink on the site for inquiries about Abra was to the Davenports website. If that link was followed it led to Davenports main page, where a less than noticeable link (now removed) could be found regarding subscriptions to Abra.

Neither website followed the standard advertising and sales methods used by other publishers of magic magazines such as The Genii, Magic Magazine or Magicseen. There was no description of the magazine, no details of the latest issue and its contents, no sample articles or photos, nothing that would entice new readers to subscribe. A free copy of Abra could be sent on request for perusal but such a sales technique is never cost effective and very behind the times in comparison with the online methods used by the above named rivals of Abra. Could it be that Davenports were relying on Abra’s reputation to bring sales? If so, it is a sales approach that has brought many a good product to an end. Every week brings a new generation of readers for periodicals and they tend to make their choices of what to buy based on what is advertised and advertised well.

Last year I met mentalist Chris Cox at one of his shows and said I was submitting a review to Abra, which was later published; subsequently, in an exchange of emails with me, he asked how to get a copy. It speaks volumes in regard to Davenports' advertising of Abra that a successful performer from a new generation of magicians, who has won awards, performed on radio and television, who has undoubtedly researched magic in building an act, has heard of the name but does not know the details of a magic magazine in its sixty second year of publication or where to buy a copy.

And the true shame of it all is that Abra was probably the best magic magazine in existence. It contained a minimum of advertising and a maximum of news. On news subjects that internet sites would only give a paragraph, Abra gave pages, sometimes a whole issue. While magic societies have occasional newsletters available only to its members, Abra connected all the magic societies in regards to weekly news and events. There was also up to date, sound advice from experienced performers on the small but nevertheless very relevant topics overlooked by other magazines. If one thing has to be chosen as iconic of Abra it was the debates that were thrashed out in articles and letters that appeared in its pages. Strong opinions, controversy and arguments on all aspects of magic had always been an ingredient of Abra.

Now it is all gone. The secrecy surrounding Abra’s financial health stole any opportunity from its readers of finding a way to save it. I am sure that if a small number of like-minded subscribers banded together and pooled their resources early enough, Abracadabra could have been saved. It was the one time in the history of magic that keeping secrets was a bad idea.

Friday, 20 March 2009

The Paul Daniels Magic Show

My review of Paul Daniels' magic show appeared this week in Abracadabra, issue 3295. Now that I know which photographs of mine have been used, I can show you some of the others here.

Contrary to what newspapers have said in the past year or so about the generation of people who go to see Paul Daniels, the audience did not consist of elderly people. In fact, most of the audience were young people. Read the published review for full details.

After the show, all the cast appeared in the foyer for autographs and photo opportunities. As expected, there was a crowd which blocked my view most of the time but even after that slowly thinned out there was this gargantuan man stood in front of me who would not move. He looked about seven foot tall and three foot wide. Eventually, he moved and I was able to take some pictures.

Back row: vocalist James Ray and dancer Jessica. In front: Paul Daniels and a young lad having his photo taken with the mighty Paul.

Another fan having his picture taken with Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee.

A Wizbit fan, Paul Daniels (who was mucking about and making the little girl smile) and Debbie McGee.

The Magic Couple spent a lot of time signing autograph books, published books, photographs, the theatre programs and show flyers. One woman, the St. John's Ambulance volunteer for the evening, asked Paul Daniels to sign a whole bunch of show flyers. He asked, "Is this for Ebay?" and she replied "Yes." He shrugged his shoulders and signed them all.

These are just four of the photos I took that night, two more appear in Abracadabra and others have been held back for future publication.

Also in Abracadabra this week is the announcement that the Davenport family have decided to relinquish control of the magazine, Stephen Martin will now be the publisher.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Ali Bongo


This week the internet has been inundated with tributes for Ali Bongo, who passed away on Sunday the 8th of March. The above link is a memorial site, created with the co-operation of Ali Bongo's family.

Friday, 13 March 2009

The Dali Universe

Not far from the London Eye is the Dali Universe. The exhibition has a most disappointing start. Two dimly lit corridors are decorated with photographs of Dali and various quotes by him about himself and his art. Most of the second corridor is a chronology of Dali’s life printed on large boards and there’s barely enough light to read them. In seeing these I became concerned as to what the exhibition was going to be. At £14 per adult to get into the exhibition was it going to be an expensive rip-off, consisting of just photos and blurbs? Thankfully, no.

The main room beyond those corridors is where Dali’s art can be found. There are drawings, paintings, and sculptures. They don’t disappoint. Some of it is not as dynamic or engrossing as can be found in other Dali collections. Nevertheless, I felt it was worth seeing. Of particular interest to me was his small paintings based on Dante’s Divine Comedy. They are surrealist interpretations of the engravings by Gustave Doré. It is a shame that prints of Doré’s originals were not on display to allow a comparison. The exhibition does do this with his other pieces when his artwork is inspired from a famous engraving or print.

There is only one large painting. It was commissioned to be used in a dream sequence in the film Spellbound by Alfred Hitchcock. The stairs by the painting lead down a room below where a small number of prints by Picasso are on display.

The way out of the exhibition is through a shop. If you would like to own a lithograph based on a picture by Dali then it will only set you back a tidy sum. I didn’t look at all the prices. The ones I looked at varied from three figures to four figures; for lithographs … you know … prints, where there’s more than one of each so they’re not unique, by another artist, based on pictures by Dali.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

About the Sketches

A number of people on Youtube have asked me about my sketches of magicians. Two questions keep being asked: 'Why Magicians?' and 'Why are some shown in old age?'

There's one answer to both questions. These sketches are for an exhibition which is to be themed. All the sketches are drawn in ink. All the sketches are of magicians that have appeared on British television. Some of the magicians will have two portraits done of their appearance on a 'past' and 'present' basis. Most of the portraits done so far are 'in the present' portraits; the exception is Wayne Dobson whose portrait is a 'in the past' portrait.

One question, only asked by a few people, is 'are reference photos used?' The answer is yes. However, I don't attempt to replicate one photo. I have a small number of photos showing the facial expressions of the person in question, I choose one for the pose and then incorporate whatever 'character' I can see in the facial expressions of all the photos. For example, in the David Berglas portrait, the photos I used showed that he has a 'lazy' eyelid on one eye. Not a flattering detail but if I 'corrected' it in drawing a portrait it would undermine any attempt of presenting a resemblance of Berglas. These things are the 'distinguishing marks' that make each of us recognizable in even the simplest of cartoon drawings. That's where I had a problem with Wayne Dobson's portrait as a young man. His features were very symmetrical and so I had very little to use to increase the individuality of the sketch to highlight that it is Dobson.

Only one person asked me 'why are the sketches being filmed as they are being drawn?' Partly, it's a sort of video diary of the project progressing. Partly, it's for the tentative plan that under each portrait in the exhibition will be a small screen repeatedly showing the portrait being drawn. (Whether the latter will happen I don't know.) And partly, to publicise the project. Not all the videos will appear on Youtube. One has already been held back.

I hope this has been of help. I'm happy to answer any further questions. Please contact me at john.helvin@googlemail.com and replies will be posted here to the most prevalent questions.

Sketch of David Berglas

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Caught in the (street) Act!

A quiet day out in Jill’s favourite city, Bath Spa, seemed like a good idea. What could possibly happen to interrupt the pleasant, tranquil feeling obtained by strolling through the historic streets, taking in the splendour of the architecture and the beauty of the parks, enjoying lunch by the riverside, and more?

Well, I spotted a street performer in the area in front of the Abbey, over by the Pump Rooms. Jill wasn’t keen; she was worried about being asked to join in. I said it would be okay, it wouldn’t happen, and that we’d enjoy seeing the act. So we went over. It was a comedy juggling act and was just starting.

Jill was chosen as one of the three people to hold flaming torches. The three of them were required, at the right moment, to throw the torches at the juggler; he would catch them, without burning himself, and begin juggling them. Jill was very concerned about being involved. Jill, almost as shy as me, found it uncomfortable being picked out and she was also worried about being responsible for causing a juggler to be burned alive. I reassured her that no one would get hurt and in regards to assisting the act I asked “How bad can it get?”

Minutes later I was picked out along with another man. We were made to put on pink ballet tutus and pose in suitable ballet positions before holding steady a very tall unicycle. The juggler asked us to rip off his trousers; we did so as the juggler threw off his jacket and revealed that underneath he was wearing a pink leotard. Putting on a matching pink crash helmet he leapt up the length of the unicycle onto the seat. The other man was then allowed to take off his tutu and go back into the audience. My ordeal continued for a while longer. I haven’t described the full act here. If you can get there, it’s worth seeing. Just don’t stand in the front row of the audience unless you’re keen to end up as part of the entertainment.

After the show Jill spent a lot of time laughing at what I went through. I didn’t mind. It was fun but I still would have preferred to watch rather then participate.

As summer approaches, more and more street acts will begin to appear in Bath Spa. The most active time will be around the end of May and early June. This will be the annual Bath Fringe Festival. All sorts of acts will be performing on the streets, in pubs, in clubs and theatres. You can found out more nearer the time by going to the Bath Fringe website.

Since first composing this blog I've discovered the name of the street entertainer; it is Jon Duz.