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The BBC goes over to the dark side with magicians who mix a little blood with their new tricks

THEY'VE walked on water, raised the dead and been denounced by the Christian clergy. Now, Barry and Stuart, a magic act from Aberdeen with an impishly mischievous sense of humour, are unleashing their macabre tricks on the Saturday night schedules of BBC One.

The Magicians, hosted by Lenny Henry, stars Barry Jones and Stuart MacLeod alongside United States sleight-of-hand artist, Chris Korn, and Portuguese illusionist, Luis de Mato. Inviting celebrities such as Ade Edmondson, Martin Kemp and BBC Breakfast's Sian Williams to be their assistants, the pair's previous routines have included them sawing at their arms with knives in the style of concerto violinists, Jones crawling through MacLeod's stomach for a 3D television special, and even the staging of a mock suicide. So, are they a safe booking for such a mainstream show?

Certainly, the occult overtones of Jones, 28, and MacLeod, 30, have attracted a cult following already. In addition to provocative Channel 4 series of warped illusions like Dirty Tricks and controversial specials inspired by Bible parables, they've delivered a succession of well-received Edinburgh Fringe shows.

Their most recent, 98% Sance, was the most consistently popular with festivalgoers among thousands of productions, at least according to Twitter-based review service EdTwinge, which collates tweets from ordinary punters. That's presuming, of course, that the spirit world doesn't have social networking, because the duo have been developing a trick to subvert Twitter itself over the last year. In 2009, they were recognised as Best Comedy Illusionists at the World Magic Awards.

Rather than inhibiting them, the duo maintains that The Magicians has unleashed their imaginations. The BBC demanded original material for the series and luckily, MacLeod explains: "Over the years we've collected things we've never been able to do, because the ideas are too big or we've never had the budget.

"Working on this, we've been able to pull them out. In each show, there's something disgusting, weird or gross. But then there are other things that feature simply because they're interesting." He reveals that they'll be employing an infrared camera to explain how a person is made to "appear" in a cabinet.

"There's some blood too though," Jones enthuses. "And a lot of stuff I wouldn't recommend trying at home."

Acknowledging his parents' concern about his "fascination with all things dark" he adds that they never actively discouraged him. Growing up in Aberdeen, "the lack of daylight hours in winter probably had an effect".

Former winners of the UK's Young Magician of the Year title, the pair were initially rivals.

But when Jones left Aberdeen to study multimedia computing in London, they kept in touch and by 2002 were collaborating, shooting short videos of tricks that they dispatched to television production companies. An occasional biblical allusion notwithstanding, they've invariably sought to inject a little grim realism into their tricks, their tongue-in-cheek, razor blade swallowing defining them as "the anti-Paul Daniels"."We always hated the idea of a magician as a Greek god figure with a mullet, leather trousers and an ego that could will anything to happen," MacLeod says. "We like weird, geeky stuff, UFOs, spiritualism and psychics. We're massive fans of horror films and things that freak you out. A lot of magic sanitises its coolest aspects.

"When you see a magician cut someone in half and it's a nice box, there's a clean cut and there's no blood, it feels like they've sucked the life out of it. Essentially, it's about life and death and it's great to see someone mauled in a theatrical context. A shot of blood into the arm of a lifeless corpse."

Channel 4 cut a sequence from their earliest television series, Magick, in which a character played by Jones tries to hang himself, but the scene is easy to find on the internet.

Rather more controversial was their recreation of Christ's miracles for two television specials, The Magic of Jesus and Tricks From The Bible, in which, among other set-pieces, they turned water into wine and restored sight to the blind. This prompted Bishop Michael Reid, founder of TV watchdog The Christian Congress for Traditional Values, to declare: "Maybe these two fraudsters could try being crucified to see if they can rise three days later."

Thus far, they've resisted the challenge. Despite being reputedly the first magicians to walk, as opposed to simply stand, on water, they stress that taking inspiration from scripture is scarcely new. Harry Houdini had planned something similar and MacLeod points to the Bible passage in which the sticks-turned-snakes of two Egyptian magicians are consumed by those of Moses and Aaron.

"We were aware it had the potential to upset people, but we never set about it with that goal," Jones explains. "It wasn't meant to debunk anything or show how a man called Jesus fooled us all. We had people complaining before the show even aired.

"Others really enjoyed seeing the miracles close up. We chose some that weren't well known, like the fisherman finding a coin in a fish, and I think a lot of Christians thought that was educational, an entertaining way of teaching the Bible."

They later received bookings from both the Humanist Society and the Christian-organised Greenbelt Festival.

Another television routine, inspired by the plagues of Egypt, found them terrorising a couple of dinner dates with frogs and locusts. So are women wary around them?

"Yeah, I guess sometimes," MacLeod chuckles. "With our friends, it's difficult to know.But people we meet at gigs can be on the back foot. It's worse on stage in Edinburgh. Everyone we bring up is shitting themselves".

With their partnership eschewing the straightman/funnyman dynamic of comedy and that of the conjuror and glamorous assistant familiar from creaky, end-of-the-pier tradition, they anticipate themselves growing creepily old together, continuing to perform.

"Like Gilbert and George. If they did tricks, they'd be quite cool," laughs MacLeod.

• The Magicians is on BBC 1 on 1 January

 
 
 

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