It is sad to hear the news that James Randi has passed. It brought back many good memories. I worked with James Randi on a variety of televisions shows, including After Dark, James Randi Psychic Investigator, the 90 minute special that was Secrets of the Psychics, and Weird Thoughts, a discussion programme broadcast from The Odditorium in Blackpool.
I’d known about Randi from his many appearances on television as a sceptic and read his books Flim Flam! and The Truth about Uri Geller I was familiar with his segments on The Secret Cabaret TV show. It was produced by Open Media and although I worked on that show I did not spend much time with the great sceptic. I did spend a lot of time with him in 1991 when we made James Randi: Psychic Investigator, a six-part series for Granada. It was that year, at a meeting with the commissioners of the show, that I saw a completely different side of James Randi. To my surprise he was an amazingly good magician.
Now, I know that sounds strange. After all, he’d built a whole career on mentalism, magic and escapology. But he’d long retired from that work and devoted all of his time to scepticism. Whenever I saw him on TV he’d be debunking a fake psychic and talking about the victims they left in their wake. They were dark stories and it’s hard to do that with a smile. In fact I remember having one conversation with Randi about a man who convinced parents that their blind children could see with their fingertips. You could feel the fury building inside him as he told the story. He’d been there. He’d confronted the charlatan. He couldn’t understand how anyone could be so callous.
However, at that meeting with the Granada executives I saw a completely different man. Randi had an impish sense of humour. As he sat at the table he worked small tricks with napkins and corks and borrowed cigarettes. He was a terrific showman. He fooled you. He made you laugh. You immediately liked him. And we got the show commissioned.
A TRICK THAT FOOLED ME
Randi enjoyed performing magic. He was the first person I saw using Tsunami, the Bob Farmer effect that had been published a few years earlier. But one trick he showed me I had never seen before.
He had five jumbo Zener cards: the cross, plus sign, wavy lines, square and star. Facing away he asked me to mix the cards and choose one, sight unseen. I then wrapped that card in large sheet of aluminium foil, this was a psychic challenge you understand, and slid the foil-wrapped card into an opaque envelope. Randi asked me to make sure the unchosen cards were out of view. Only then did he turn around to face me.
He picked the envelope up in one hand and held the other hand an inch or two above it, moving it along the length of the envelope as if sensing some psychic vibrations. With a flair for the dramatic he announced that the card in the envelope was the wavy lines. I myself had no idea which card I’d chosen. The envelope was opened, the foil unwrapped, the card taken out. It was indeed the wavy lines. And there was nothing in the cards, foil or envelope to reveal how the trick was done. It was a real fooler.
The solution to the puzzle was worthy of something you might read in Nightmare Alley. Before the trick began Randi had secretly sprinkled some iron filings on the seat of one of the office chairs. The filings couldn’t be seen against the dark fabric.
The five jumbo cards had thin magnets embedded inside them. Different numbers of magnets located at different positions in the cards. When Randi turned to face me he took the envelope and casually dropped it onto the seat with the iron filings. All he had to do now was pick the envelope up and look at the filings adhering to the magnets. Their arrangement told him which card was hidden inside. The tell-tale filings were easily brushed away before the trick was concluded. I was glad he explained it otherwise I’m sure it would have remained a mystery.
I’ve never seen anyone else do this trick. The use of iron filings to reveal information goes back a long way. One of the best ideas I’ve seen is described in The Sphinx (August 1939), There you will find Tan Hock Chuan’s The Lock and Keys, a version of Seven Keys to Baldpate. The key that fits the lock is magnetic. Each key is sealed in an envelope but the performer can find the correct one by using the same iron filings principle that Randi used. The trick Randi explained is in print. I found it many years later but don’t have those notes to hand so that mystery will have to remain for now. Still, you have the idea. It’s a trick worth reviving. We have much better and thinner magnetic materials now. Perhaps you’ll remember James Randi when you use it.
We had a great crew working on James Randi:Psychic Investigator. Exec producer was Sebastian Cody, who gave me my start in TV. The producer was Frankie Glass and later we’d develop the Max Maven Something Strange series together. The director was John Birkin who I met on Jeremy Beadle’s Box of Tricks and later was able to help out on the episode of Mr Bean in which Rowan Atkinson assists a magician. And the production manager was the marvellous Pamela Wylde, who I met on The Secret Cabaret. Which reminds me of the time she called for a cab to take James Randi and herself back to the crew hotel.
‘Who’s it for?’ said the cab company.
‘Wylde and Randi,’ she replied.
At which point we all fell about laughing.
Until next time. Which will be very soon.