Interview with Magician Harry Robson

August 2008

harry-robson2Harry Robson was best man at a wedding I went to in Scotland in April this year. I had known of Harry for many years, since he hails from just north of Manchester (the city where I live), but this was the first occasion where I had been able really to talk to him. He vastly over-delivered as best man by also entertaining the guests at the reception with his fantastic magic. I was impressed by how easily he got on with everybody and what great reactions he got.

What Harry does, as he frequently says himself, is not technically advanced magic. He doesn’t go in for complicated moves. That’s not to say he isn’t extremely competent at his art because of course he is; the point is that with Harry the main punch is in the delivery. His laid-back attitude and his engaging personality draw people in. Even people who thought they didn’t like magic soon come round.

I interviewed Harry for WeLoveMagic at a café in Manchester one Friday afternoon. The following week, Harry starred in a two-volume DVD with the slightly confusing title of Corporate Close-Up 2 (Martin Sanderson starred in the first one of the series). If you’re a magician and hoping to do more corporate work, Harry’s DVDs will help you. Click on the link to read more about Corporate Close-Up 2, volume 1 and to see a video introducing it.

Georgie:  Thank you for fitting in this interview before you get involved in filming, Harry. Now, please tell us a bit about yourself and how you got started in magic.

Harry:  My background is in commercial casinos. I was the youngest general manager in the country at the age of 28 and I used to run casinos all over the world but particularly in Holland and Iran.

Georgie:  Casinos in Iran? That’s unexpected.

Harry:  Yeah, when the Shah was in power. Then the Ayatollah came down the steps of the aeroplane and kissed the ground and the soldiers came into the casinos with bayonets and ripped all the gaming cloths and two hours later we were back on a plane to the UK.

I sat there on the plane thinking, “What am I going to do? I know, I’ll be a professional magician”. So that was really how it started.

Georgie:  So you didn’t become a magician until you were grown up?

Harry:  That’s right, I was very, very old in terms of people getting started in magic.

Georgie:  I’m pleased to hear it! I always like it when successful magicians began as adults, it’s encouraging for those of us who are hoping to do the same.

Harry:  Yes, you usually hear about people getting magic sets when they were 7 or 8 years old. I always had an interest in magic but the opportunities weren’t there in those days in the way they are now. There were two books in the local library on magic but I’d never heard of magic societies or anything like that.

So, yes, when I came back from Iran I set up a company called Casino Promotions, which was fun casinos, and it grew very quickly. This was fantastic for me because every single time we did a job, it put me in front of people. I’d definitely recommend this to anyone who wants to become a magician: whenever you can, whether it’s with your family, at the pub, at the office, at the bus stop… put yourself in front of people. You don’t even have to be performing magic, you can just be talking to them, it’s just that people thing.

Something else I used to do – and I know this sounds pathetic – was, as I was driving along in the car, I used to read the names on the backs of lorries, number plates, signposts. I used to read them out loud and try to make them sound interesting. It made me more articulate when I was actually working with people and it helped me to remember things more easily.

Georgie:  So you practised memorising number plates, for example, to help you to remember things like the names of people who come up to assist you with magic?

Harry:  Yes, that’s right, and I practised saying things out loud in a way that, if anyone was sat there listening, they’d be able to understand what I was saying.

It built my confidence over the years and now if there’s one thing I think I’m particularly good at it’s being able to approach anyone, in any environment. And 99% of the time, people respond in a positive way.

Georgie:  I can see that your casino jobs would have been especially useful experience for someone who was going to become a magician.

You’ve mentioned your lifelong interest in magic but it’s still a bit of a leap from casino manager to magician. What prompted you, on the aeroplane back from Iran, to decide to work towards becoming a professional magician?

Harry:  Well, there was an Italian waiter in Iran, called Aldo, who was also an amateur magician and we shared secrets. Aldo was very suave and elegant and I found him very inspiring. I remember he’d found some furniture-stuffing foam and he carved a chicken out of it. Then he carried it round in the restaurant – hidden, you know – waiting for someone to order chicken so he could produce it.

Georgie:  And how did the people take it?

Harry:  Oh, very well. It was a magic show and they loved it. I saw him on many occasions ask to borrow a 500 rial note and then he’d make it disappear – and I never, ever saw anybody ask for it back. And I thought, “That’s all right. I wouldn’t mind doing that”.

Georgie:  That’s a good trick, isn’t it? How much was 500 rials worth? About 5 pounds?

Harry:  No, no, the equivalent of probably about 50 pounds. You’ve got to understand we were in a very wealthy water-ski resort. The Shah’s sisters used to come to ski there. But the end of the story is – and it’s sad – that Aldo eventually got executed for tax evasion.

Georgie:  Oh, how horrible.

Harry:  Absolutely. But thank you, Aldo, for inspiring me.

So, yes, I came back and I set up my fun-casino company. I made sure that at every casino event that we did I would be there doing magic as well. After a while, people started requesting just me, without the casino; they just wanted me doing magic.

Georgie:  Which is what you were aiming at all along?

Harry:  Which is what I was aiming at all along. I did it in a really roundabout way but I think the message is that if you want to achieve something, you can do it in the end.

I’d also recommend to anyone getting started in magic to take anything at all. I had a gig in a pub, 7 till 11 on Friday evenings, and that took a lot of material. But I also did free events for people I knew and stuff like that. It’s a question of getting yourself about as much as possible. I reckon for anybody starting out, it’s going to be at least two or three years before you’re getting good-quality events on a regular basis. That’s two or three years from when you decide to make your living from magic, when you already know how to perform your tricks well.

Georgie:  Yes, partly because, however fantastic you are as a magician, people have got to know about you; there’s all the marketing to do.

Harry:  I know lots and lots of professional magicians who are far, far better executors of the magic than I am but don’t get anything like as much work as I do, because I’ve got at least a semi business background.

And another thing I want to get across to any budding magicians is that real-world magic, working for real people in the real world, is totally different from anything you’ve seen at a convention or at your magic society. The material you should be using is different and the approach should be different.

Georgie:  The approach I can understand but I’m surprised the material is different.

Harry:  I need to be careful what I say here but, when you go to see a magic lecture, 9 times out of 10 the lecturer is trying to sell you things. Let me put it this way: about four years ago, I went to a gig and I forgot my close-up case. I’d never done that before and I’ve never done it since but there I was. All I had with me was my wallet, a marker pen and a deck of cards.

Georgie:  A magic wallet?

Harry:  Yes, but that’s all. I basically just used a deck of cards for this gig and the client raved about it, etc, etc. So if you’re doing a lecture and at the end all you’re selling is decks of cards…

Not all of the material, I’m just saying part of the material in lectures isn’t suitable for real-world magic. But, of course, different styles of props suit different magicians and you certainly need more than a deck of cards to do cabaret magic. When I do gigs, people sometimes ask me to do a 15-minute spot of parlour magic (as I prefer to call it) as well as the close-up, and it all needs to be that bit bigger and more visual.

Georgie:  Do you prefer to do your spot before or after the close-up? I know that some magicians like to do it first, on the principle that when you approach people for the close-up they already know who you are and why you’re there.

Harry:  I’d never thought about it that way round. I always do the close-up first, so that I can get to know people a bit and set up a good reaction for later. For example, I often say silly things like, “I’m booked to do a 15, 20 minute spot afterwards. If you clap and cheer, I’ll do 10 or 15 minutes. If you don’t, I’ll do 45!” If you set the tone like this in advance for your spot, you’re almost guaranteed a good reception.

I always get someone to introduce me as well, I never introduce myself. Let’s say his name’s Michael. I say to him, “Michael, you’re very loud, very noisy; I feel very close to you and I’d like you to introduce me. Please tell everyone that they’re very lucky to have me because next week I’m in New York.”

Michael gets up and announces, “Ladies and Gentlemen, you’ve already been entertained by Harry Robson. You’re very fortunate because next week he’s in New York -”. And I shout from the side, “No, Michael, near York”.

Georgie:  Ah yes, a lot to be said for a bit of comedy. So how many gigs a week do you do?

Harry:  I tend to work it out on an annual basis and I average between 180 and 200 gigs a year.

Georgie:  Wow! So that would be an average of, what, 3 or 4 a week. That’s a busy old schedule! Now, let me ask you about hostile audiences. I guess in 200-odd gigs a year you encounter one or two people who are rude, hate magic and just don’t want to know. How do you deal with them?

Harry:  Well, where I’ve mainly experienced hostile audiences is on table-hopping and it would normally be one person and not the whole table. Hmm, how do I deal with it? First of all, I would never be hostile back.

If I introduce myself – and this has happened – and I say, “I’m going to show you some magic” and they say, “We’re not interested” or “We hate magic. Go away”, I just say, “Enjoy the rest of the evening. Thank you very much”. Then I move to the next table and make sure I get the best reactions I’ve ever had in my life. Then I go to another table and the same thing, then another one. In every single case, the people from the table that said they’d not wanted magic have come to me at some point during the night and said, “Harry, we’re sorry about earlier on. Could you please come and entertain our table?”. And I might do or I might not do, depending how rude they were and how many other tables there are.

The main point is, I never take them on. But another thing to bear in mind is that, just because we love what we do as performers, it doesn’t necessarily mean that everybody does. I don’t get offended or upset if somebody says, “I don’t like magic”. I might try and convert them by performing good magic but I don’t take it personally.

Sometimes things happen that you couldn’t possibly predict. I was doing a gig in South Wales once, where I had a gentleman sign a card and I asked him to put his credit card details underneath – a standard gag, as you know. The whole table went quiet; in fact, the whole room went quiet. “We’ve never had credit”, “We don’t believe in credit”, “We’ve enjoyed your magic but we’d like you to leave now”.

Georgie:  How embarrassing! That’s terrible.

Harry: These things happen. The more you work, the more of these things have happened to you, the more you learn how to deal with them. Also, sometimes you have to make mistakes to realise how to avoid them next time.

You can find out more about Harry on his website: