Will magic be the new X Factor?
The BBC is hoping a new talent show for illusionists will spell success, writes Joe O'Shea
Published 01/12/2010 | 05:00
Does magic have the X factor for prime-time TV? The BBC says yes and is willing to gamble by bringing magic back to Saturday-night TV for the first time in nearly two decades, hoping to do for illusion what Strictly Come Dancing did for ballroom.
A new generation of illusionists such as Derren Brown and our own Keith Barry have enjoyed mainstream success in recent years with TV specials.
But traditional magic disappeared from prime-time TV when the BBC axed Paul Daniel's long running prime-time show in 1994.
And the BBC has been accused of turning to magic now simply because TV producers have exhausted talent shows involving dancing, singing and cooking.
Shows like Strictly Come Dancing, Britain's Got Talent and MasterChef are popular with the networks because they are far cheaper to produce than original drama and attract huge audiences.
Last year's Strictly final won 12 million viewers and the series generated an estimated €35m for the BBC.
The corporation's new Saturday-night talent search, The Magicians, is being planned at a time when prime-time drama series such as Robin Hood have been axed due to costs.
Lenny Henry is in talks to host the series that will see 'three of the magic world's biggest stars' compete across five Saturday nights in the New Year.
The as-yet unnamed magicians will perform on a specially created set in Pinewood Studios and will have a different 'celebrity partner' each week.
There will be no judges or phone voting. A studio audience will determine which magician is victorious each week and decide on the final winner.
And the audience at home will be able to "learn interactively" via a series of showcased tricks and step-by-step guides to doing specific illusions.
The team behind the new series have been involved in hits like MasterChef and Strictly Come Dancing and promise "bold, big-scale family entertainment".
Veteran magician Paul Daniels was the last big magic name on weekend prime time, drawing in audiences of up to 12 million in the '80s and early '90s.
However, Daniels says his former employers are taking a big risk with the new show he calls 'Strictly Come Magic'.
"Like everyone else I wait with baited breath to see who the three magicians are going to be and who is going to be the presenter," says Daniels.
"Whoever does it, it ain't going to be easy and I wish them the best of luck.
"I do hope that the producers have really done their research into this peculiar form of entertainment and realise that the tricks themselves don't matter at all.
"The most important part of a magic act is the person presenting the magic. Please keep it baffling and entertaining."
Irish magician Jack Wyse regularly performs in venues such as the Laughter Lounges in Dublin, Belfast and Waterford, and says any show that puts his craft on prime-time TV is good news.
"We haven't really seen it on Saturday-night TV since Paul Daniels was on in the '80s so if it brings in a new audience for magic, it'll be great," says Jack.
"I think the audience is there. It will be down to how well the show is produced and whether they get the right formula.
"But we have seen variety come back in a big way on TV with all of the talent shows and it could be magic's turn now to get back into that spotlight."
Nevin Cody is the new president of the Society of Irish Magicians and he says most of his members are working on the recession-hit corporate-entertainment circuit.
"There is work there but it's not like it was three or four years ago," says Nevin.
"But you do have guys like Derren Brown and Keith Barry who have been working hard to make magic sexy and cool again.
"The BBC could bring in a new, family audience and generate interest in people who are too young to remember Paul Daniels."
The producers behind The Magicians will have looked at the big ratings won by the Derren Brown, currently Britain's only big-name illusionist, and drawn their own conclusions.
When Brown apparently "predicted" the UK's National Lottery draw in September last year, the show where he explained how he did it drew four-and-a-half million viewers, a bigger audience than that won by the official National Lottery draw itself.
However, whatever is in store for the new show, it doesn't take a clairvoyant to see that original drama is in for lean times.
With the X Factor juggernaut rolling on and proposals for new celebrity/talent shows such as The Magicians cluttering up the desks of commissioning editors, prime-time TV is destined to remain cheap and cheerful for some time to come.