Edinburgh Festival celebrates Harry Houdini’s legacy

Paul Zenon recreates a Harry Houdini shot. Picture: Jon Savage
Paul Zenon recreates a Harry Houdini shot. Picture: Jon Savage
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HARRY Houdini would be perfectly at home in the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe – at the new circus venue on the Meadows, say, or suspended in chains from some Spiegeltent roof.

Ninety years after his death, the master magician features in at least three Fringe shows. Impossible, at the Pleasance Dome, stars Alan Cox as Houdini and Phil Jupitus as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, duelling over Doyle’s belief in spiritualism and mediums. In The Titanic Orchestra, also at the Pleasance, there’s a Houdini-like figure played by John Hannah.

Both have had mixed reviews. But in the more intimate setting of Le Monde Venue, in George Street, magician Paul Zenon uses his own 40-year fascination with the legendary escapologist to fashion a sweetly nostalgic one-man show, Linking Rings, mixing memories with magic.

Houdini made his last known visit to Edinburgh in 1920, and displayed a gift for self-publicising showmanship that would endear him to any Fringe PR. He handed out 300 pairs of shoes to the barefoot children of the capital, creating such a rush that he led a crowd of them to a local cobblers shop with an order for more.

On about 100 visits to Scotland, half of them to Edinburgh, he loved to comb bookshops, though his spelling was atrocious. But between performances at the Empire Palace, now the Festival Theatre, in 1920 Houdini was also working on a film. It was eventually titled Haldane of the Secret Service, with the hero himself on the trail of a gang of counterfeiters. He shot scenes in Glasgow, Hull, Edinburgh, Paris and New York, always careful to feature local landmarks.

The Edinburgh footage ended up on the cutting room floor, but by magical coincidence Paul Zenon was in the city last August when some surviving stills from the film shoot came up at auction. He bid and bought one of the pictures, of Houdini on the railings at Waverley station. Others feature Houdini on the first level of the Scott Monument, with Princes Street as the backdrop.

“It appears that the plot line was that he’d spotted the gang of counterfeiters, and they came up here,” Zenon says, as he sets about recreating the photo shoot for The Scotsman. His collection of Houdini ephemera already includes a pair of handcuffs; he won’t say what he paid for the picture: “Anything to do with Houdini sells for ridiculous prices.”

Zenon is particularly thrilled that this coming weekend the Edinburgh Filmhouse will host an early screening of a different, rediscovered Houdini film, The Grim Game. It was finally released this year after an American juggler, a Houdini obsessive, held on to it for decades; the remastered 1919 feature stars Houdini as a reporter framed in prison, forced into a series of epic escapes. There are scenes of Houdini flying a light plane; Zenon’s research has included trying to trace the fate of the aircraft he took to Australia, where in 1910 he claimed to have made that country’s very first flight. (Sober aviation historians say an earlier flyer beat him by four months.)

Houdini turned to film after the First World War, with his stage career flagging after the conflict. But they were not the commercial success he expected, and he ended by returning to vaudeville and variety tours to pay the bills. “Houdini thought he was going to be remembered as a movie star, rather than an escape artist or magician, but he lost a lot of money on his films,” Zenon says.

There’s a moment in Linking Rings when Zenon lists the tricks and jokes sold by the late-night magic shop where he worked in Blackpool from the age of 12. They’re the sort of things advertised on back pages of the Beano: marked cards, exploding cigarettes, fart powder, disappearing ink, wind-up buzzers to hide in the palm for startling handshakes.

What is it about boys, and magic, and of all the magicians, Harry Houdini? The dream of an invitation to Hogwarts, of having secret powers. Zenon calls Houdini the first superhero. By virtue of his extraordinary muscles, his near-fantastical powers, he escaped chains and padlocks and handcuffs in perilous situations. His real life story always ends in his tragic death, by the student who slammed him in the stomach, before he had braced himself for the blow.

As a magician Zenon has worked everything from street magic to comedy clubs and corporate gigs to guesting on Countdown and hosting children’s TV. Linking Rings is a departure, and quite a personal one. It grew out of his interest in Houdini, and in particular his quest for the character of the master’s elusive but all important technician, Jim Collins.

Collins was a “master mechanic, locksmith and designer” in Zenon’s words; he made Houdini’s equipment, and furnished the lock picks and tools that made the escapes possible. He would help to plant them in the build-up to acts, posing as a reporter or witness.

Collins made Houdini’s magic possible; he was mastermind and foil, and effectively in charge of safety. He briefly worked as a magician himself after Houdini’s death, but carried his master’s secrets to the grave, having sworn an oath of silence when the joined Houdini’s team in Manchester. Zenon has identified the few photographs where he features with Houdini. “It was his job to be invisible,” he says. Collins designed the Chinese water torture cell that became one of the signature escapes. Houdini was lowered head down into a narrow tank of water, with his feet in heavy stocks. It is still unclear exactly how he escaped.

Zenon researched Collins’s character over about five years. It appears he left his British wife and daughter to run off with Houdini’s touring group; Collins was a drinker, Houdini was not. The original plan was to write a play from Collins’s perspective, to be called Trunk No 8, after the case which held the top-secret equipment that only Collins and Houdini had access to.

But as he struggled to write the piece, Zenon realised he was part of the story. Linking Rings became the interweaving tales of Collins and Zenon’s own journey into magic. He tells the gently bittersweet story of how, as a schoolboy, he got a job in a Blackpool shop, whose owner inspired his career in magic.

He venerates the man to this day, as mentor and friend to Zenon and other boy disciples. “For anyone who has seen my stuff before, it’s a lot gentler,” he says. “There was a little moment when I sat there and thought, I’m not really writing this, I’m living this.”

The show is named for the old linked rings trick, played with number of rings that the magician joins and separates at will. Everyone has seen it, and a few of us have tried it. It’s a metaphor for interlinking stories, parallel lives.

“It’s the first proper trick that I bought, a specific bit of magician’s equipment, that was generally used by professionals rather than amateurs. It’s also these days a bit of a metaphor for hack,” says Zenon. “If someone is doing the linking rings, it’s pretty old school, and it’s been exposed many times. It’s the opposite of street magic, and as I’m known as a street magician, I thought it would be nice to turn the tables, and do something that’s based around a trick that started the arc.

“I used the linking rings pretty much for every show from being 12 years old until my mid-20s. It’s still a classic trick, there’s something gloriously pointless about it as well. The rings aren’t any use to man nor beast. What are they? They are rings especially made to do magic with; there’s something beautifully surreal about that.”

• Linking Rings is at Le Monde, 3pm, until 31 August. The Grim Game is at the Filmhouse, 22-23 August.