Interview with Magician John van der Put

October 2008

John-van-der-Put2John van der Put is a versatile magician with unusual and interesting ideas. He won first prize in the close-up competition at this year’s International Brotherhood of Magicians (British Ring) convention with a marvellous mixture of cool magic and wry humour – and I was lucky enough to be his assistant from the audience.

After the convention, I e-mailed John to congratulate him and to ask if he’d like to put his details on the Find/Book a Magician page of this site. Almost immediately, I received a friendly and positive reply, and thus began a fruitful correpondence.

John is multi-talented. As well as being a top magician, he’s got a degree in computer science and is a graduate of the Central School of Speech and Drama. He also appears to have boundless energy. The week before our meeting, for example, he had been performing in The Burial at Thebes at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London and on tour in Liverpool; the previous Friday he had done his acclaimed cabaret at Brown’s in London and two days after our meeting, he was off to Holland to perform and lecture at a magic convention there. He says living like this keeps him from getting bored.

I interviewed John for WeLoveMagic on the afternoon of Hallowe’en, in the very civilised café-bar at the top of Waterstone’s bookshop, Piccadilly, in London.

Georgie:  Thank you for being interviewed, John. I know you’re very busy, as usual, doing different shows. I was really sorry to miss your evening at Brown’s last week. How did it go?

John:  It was really good. Yes, three-course dinner, with magic round the tables, and then a cabaret. Good atmosphere. For me, it’s really important that people come to see me – or, at least, come to see a performance. I’ve been doing magic for about ten years, I think, and I’m really tired of it being a service. You know, like at corporate dinners where they book a caterer, a photographer and a magician.

Georgie:  The waitress goes round with the potatoes and you go round with some card tricks.

John:  Yes and you’re all about as memorable as each other… I mean, you can get people into the mood but it’s much easier if they start that way. So that’s what I’m trying to do at the moment.

Georgie:  More shows, fewer corporate gigs?

John:  Yeah, hopefully. Corporate gigs tend to be where the money is but, the way the market’s going now, it’s a good time to be doing something else. And there aren’t that many magicians who are trying to make a living out of performing, rather than out of ‘serving’.

Georgie:  And do I understand from your website that you’re resident magician at The Criterion [Marco Pierre White’s restaurant on Piccadilly]?

John:  Fay Presto is the resident magician at The Criterion. When she can’t, I pop along and do it but I don’t do that much these days. It doesn’t really suit me and it’s difficult to work against your own grain. That’s an easy mistake to make and a difficult mistake to rectify. You can get trapped in more and more ‘bad’ work, if you’re not careful.

I don’t have the temperament for restaurant or strolling close-up work. I like the on-stage/off-stage thing. When I go to a party, I tend to be the quiet one in the corner but if you’re a close-up magician, you have to be the life and soul; that’s your job.

Georgie:  Yes, indeed. Before we move on from restaurants, though, let me ask you about The Fat Duck [Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant in Bray, Berkshire]. What’s your connection with that place?

John:  Lucy and I – Lucy’s a colleague of mine – went there for dinner and I’ve never had a better meal than that. The Fat Duck is right out there on the cutting edge in terms of what’s possible and trying new stuff and so on, but also it’s very populist, which is quite inspiring. There’s no dress code, they’re very welcoming, very friendly and it’s a three-star Michelin restaurant.

There’s a lot of magic in what goes on there. For example, there’s a dish with an orange jelly and a red jelly and they tell you this is orange and beetroot. You try the orange one first and it tastes funny, then you try the red one and it tastes of orange: they’ve swapped the flavours round. There’s also hot and cold tea in one glass – hot down one side and cold down the other, with no divide.

So they were doing magic already but my company specialises in appropriate magic and I’ve become a consultant for Heston. I develop new ideas and teach the staff how to do the magic. I love it, it’s a very creative environment.

I love the way you’ve got those extra senses to play around with – taste and smell are senses magicians don’t usually get to work with. Because it’s all sensory, the effect is personal. You don’t see it from a distance, it happens inside you and just for you.

Georgie:  I feel really inspired to go there now but I know it’s extremely expensive.

John:  Yes, it’s over two hundred pounds for dinner for two, so it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing, really.

Georgie:  But I can imagine it’s an interesting place to work. Food magic is a bit of a niche genre, one might say, but it makes a change from cards. And The Fat Duck is a prestigious place to do it.

John:  There’s a project I’ve been working on for about two years now, which should be ready to show them at the end of November. Heston’s talked about it so I guess it’s OK for me to as well. It’s a bottle of water, which can be still or sparkling, whichever the customer asks for, and then the waiter wraps it up with a napkin and can pour out wine and, at the end, limoncello or whatever they want.

Georgie:  Wow! That sounds fantastic!

John:  Yes, well, it’s been a lot more difficult than I thought it was going to be when I suggested it.

Georgie:  I can imagine it was a challenge. Congratulations on your perseverance and success. It’s so much more than just being a restaurant magician, isn’t it?

John:  Yes, I’m much more interested in what magic is and why we do it. I think being a magician is a very strange job. You say you’re going to lie to people and then you lie to them and everyone just tolerates it.

Georgie:  In fact, they love it.

John:  You find the four of diamonds and everyone goes crazy. Then their phone rings and it’s someone from the other side of the planet and they’re like, “Yeah”. You go to the supermarket and the door opens automatically. You find a deck of cards in your shadow and everyone freaks out. I’m interested in that dynamic.

Especially in mentalism, as that uses more and more technology, I think the magic dies away from it. Because people are so accustomed to what would, in the old days, have seemed like magic, I think mentalism’s going to get itself a bit stuck.

I went to see a show the other day where the magician got someone from the audience to write a word on a pad and then he guessed it. We thought, “You must be able to see what’s on the pad,”. Because the effects are so strong, if the routining doesn’t match it, it just doesn’t quite add up. People generally don’t really believe magicians can read their minds, so they must be using technology.

If you hand somebody a book and ask him to choose any word in it, at least you’ve got some ambiguity in there. People can think maybe you’ve memorised the whole book. That’s what they want to believe and it is sort of believeable.

Georgie:  Absolutely; the danger of the ‘too perfect’ trick.

Did you say you’ve been doing magic for ten years? You started relatively late, then?

John:  I didn’t like it, growing up, at all. I hated it, I thought it was ridiculous.

Georgie:  That’s very unusual for a magician.

John:  I just thought, “Why do I want to watch someone lie to me?”. I don’t think magic works on television. When you’re in a theatre and you see someone fly, that’s when it works. If you’re watching television and you see someone fly, you just think, “Whatever”.

Georgie:  Once they started doing trick photography, it wasn’t the same any more. So what changed your mind about magic?

John:  It was Stuff the White Rabbit. It was on television but it wasn’t performed to the audience at home, it was close-up magic, shot like you’d want it to be shot. That’s what got me interested.

I’d done some juggling and I’d become a clown for a bit… but that was a very bad idea! I was trying to find my voice. You want to engage with people but how do you want to do that? Then Stuff the White Rabbit made me start thinking, what is magic about?

Georgie:  So you started with close-up?

John:  Yes, I was particularly inspired by Guy Hollingworth. I had a couple of goals: one was to create a signature piece and the other was to learn the Reformation. I was 19 or something at the time. Then I, by accident, created this effect where a card changes, a bit at a time, and I learnt the Reformation when Guy published the book. So I got to 21 and thought, “OK, now I’ve done what I wanted to do” and that kind of pulled the rug from under me and I wasn’t sure where to go from there.

[Note:  To see a video on YouTube of Guy Hollingworth performing the Reformation, click here.
To see John performing his signature piece, VDP, click here.]

I think close-up magic is great but I don’t think it’s the be all and end all. It’s the same trouble with street magic, which has become increasingly popular: you can remove the patter and remove the character and the trick still works. For me, that means what they’re doing is quite limited. The last thing you want to do is spend thirty years of your life working on something and then come across a guy who’s bought some tricks last week and you’re on the same level. The risk is to end up, you know, same tricks, different monkey.

In stand-up and stage work, you can’t do that – you can’t go on stage and just perform a trick without any patter or personality – and that has to mean there’s something about being on stage that’s a little more interesting than close-up magic.

Georgie:  And you wanted to be an actor anyway.

John:  Well, I didn’t really want to be an actor, I just wanted to know about performance methods. I do enjoy acting but what I don’t want is to do the same show night after night for months. When I was at drama school, I was in a play that was on at the Edinburgh Fringe for 26 days. It was really successful but I was going stir-crazy by the end of it. Once you’ve got it down, that’s it, really, and I want to move on.

Georgie:  Do you sometimes introduce magic into your acting? I mean when you’re in a play such as the Greek tragedy you recently did at The Globe.

John:  I do a little bit. In that, I made smoke appear from a bowl.

Georgie:  It’s great to be able to add that extra dimension.

John:  Yeah… I like the live perfomance thing and the conversation you have with the audience – and it’s nice when magic can be part of a different sort of show.

Georgie:  I always think it’s nice when magic is presented as being real. We know it’s not – and it’s really important that, deep down, we know it’s not – but, for me, when someone says, “I’m going to show you a trick”, in some ways the effect is already ruined. I want to be encouraged to buy into a sort of alternative reality, where magic really happens. Is that how you see it?

John:  Hmm. Language in magic is an interesting issue. I know someone who always says to me, “Show us one of your jokes”. He calls magic tricks ‘jokes’ – but not in a negative way. I think everyone has a different interpretation of what magic is.

Mind reading is an area that can be dangerous, because there’s a blurring of the boundary between trick and reality. If people really do believe you’ve got supernatural powers, you’re on very dodgy ground.

And sometimes it’s good to have a contrast, like when I do Piff the Magic Dragon. I’m in my dragon suit and I make a thing of saying I’m going to do card tricks, because it sounds mundane and stupid. The magic that I do is really strong and full of wonder, so it off-sets that but if I went out and said, “I’m going to create some magic for you”, it wouldn’t work.

Georgie:  I love the idea of a dragon who does card tricks. How did you come up with this character?

John:  Well, one of my best friends gave a fancy-dress party and I didn’t have anything to wear, so I asked my sister and she said, “I’ve got a dragon costume”. I thought, “What?” but I decided to go as a reindragon (it was a Christmas party). So I wore the dragon suit and I painted my nose red and put on antlers. Then I turned up to the party and no-one else was in fancy dress.

Georgie:  I hate it when that happens!

John:  So I was really fed up. I got a glass of red wine and sat in a corner and people kept coming up and asking, “What are you?”. I said, “Can’t you see I’m a reindragon? I look nice and Christmassy and you’re not even dressed up!”. I developed this kind of grumpy persona and a friend said, “You should do magic like that. You should be Puff the Magic Dragon,”. I thought, “I don’t know if I can do that… but I could be his younger brother, Piff”.

It sat in my cupboard for about a year while I was wondering, “Am I really going to do this?”. Then we were doing a show in south-east London and I decided I had to try it out, so I did and it worked really well. That was about a year and a quarter ago and for about the last nine months, I’ve been doing Piff seriously – if you can dress up as a dragon seriously.

Georgie:  And it’s been really successful.

John:  Yes, well, I’m all right at stand-up but it’s got no flare, you know. The trouble with being a twenty-something guy in a suit is that there are lots of other twenty-something guys in suits who can do magic.

Georgie:  But not that many dressed as dragons.

John:  That’s right, it’s a bit different.

You can find out more about John and his activities on his website,, on his drama company’s website,, and on Piff’s site,