Michael Lauck is a columnist for iTricks. His work appears on Mondays.


Believe it or not, magic has been presented on the BBC since before World War II.

Magic proved to be popular on the BBC in the early days of television. It truly hit its stride, though, when a young producer started presenting shows from the Magic Circle.

There was a surprising amount of television in the 1930s. Experimental broadcasts began on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1920s and the earliest networks were broadcasting before World War II. Unlike the United States, which had several companies interested in producing sets and programming, television broadcasting in Great Britain was controlled by the British Broadcasting Corporation, which also controlled radio. The BBC started experimenting with television in the late 1920s and regularly scheduled television broadcasts officially started on November 2, 1936.

Television in England was very different than it was in the United States (and would be for many years). In the days before World War II, the BBC only ran two hours of programming a day. The first block ran from 3 to 4 in the afternoon with a second from 9 to 10 in the evening. Instead of having specific programs, like the we do today, the BBC had a “programme” of variety acts, music, newsreel footage and other presentations of 5 to 15 minutes in length which originated from their studio in the Alexandra Palace. The Radio Times included a television insert that would list the scheduled events for the week. The studio at Alexandra Palace also held the single BBC transmitter, so only families around London could hope to receive a signal. According to a history of television on the BBC website, when World War II ended their initial foray into television on September 1, 1939 about 20,000 families in London and the home counties were watching.

Although broadcast TV was suspended for the War, the equipment at Alexandra Palace remained active as it was used to try to confuse enemy navigation signals.

skitched-20130624-121847.jpgThe BBC did not resume television broadcasts immediately after the end of the War. When it did finally resume on June 6, 1946, viewers enjoyed a clearer picture (thanks to wartime technological advances), four transmitters that moved the BBC closer to national coverage and an expanded schedule of three broadcast hours each day. Where the US had several competing networks after the War, though, the BBC remained the only British broadcaster until 1955 when a new law allowed for the creation of the rival ITV network.

In the June 15, 1946 edition of Goodliffe’s Abracadabra, Horace King wrote of the return of television service. In his short piece he remembers that the pre-War days included plenty of magic, mentioning Ed Cardi, Zeanit and Morelle (an early user of the square circle) by name. Although no magic seems to have been included in the first few days after television returned to Britain, it would not be absent from the airwaves for long. The September 7, 1946 issue of Abra reported that the previous Thursday Max Andrews, the founder of Vampire Magic of The Magic Magazine, had been featured on both the afternoon and evening portions of the programme. Not only did he present a few effects, Andrews gave a summary of a recent magic convention and promoted the upcoming National Day of Magic. More magic was planned, too. Francis White (who would go on to serve as the Magic Circle’s president for three decades) was scheduled to three televised talks over the next couple of weeks on Maskelyne, Devant and becoming a magician.

That year would see much more magic on the BBC. The National Day of Magic of 1946 fell on Halloween and a special performance entitled “No Deception Whatever,” featuring Eric Mason, Geoffrey Robinson, Edward Love and Tony Branson, was played on both the afternoon and evening broadcasts. Although there was no regular time slot or show for magicians, they continued to be featured on a regular basis for the next year or two, including a performance by several magicians on Christmas of 1947. Unfortunately, there were complaints that sloppy camerawork had marred the presentation. Another highlight was a magic performance on a teen talent show by Alex McKweon’s twelve year old daughter Maxine in 1949, the youngest performer ever to appear on BBC Television at that time. 1949 saw another milestone for British magicians and television: the first special program from the Magic Circle.

The Magic Circle was not the only magicians’ club in Great Britain, but it was (and is) the most prestigious. It was founded in 1905 and today boasts over 1500 members all over the world. At the time of the first broadcast His Grace the Duke of Somerset was serving as president, which no doubt increased the organization’s reputation as being something more than a more magic club. In fact, Prince Charles is a current member (like all regular members he auditioned, choosing to perform with the cups and balls). A broadcast from the Magic Circle membership promised to be something special and by all accounts, it was. Of course, a great deal of the credit for this went to the performers, which included Francis White who also acted as the program’s host, but the input of producer Barrie Edgar can not be ignored.

Barrie Edgar was the son of a musician who got into radio in the early 1920’s. Catching his father’s enthusiasm for broadcasting, he had attempted to join BBC Television before the War interrupted its service. After his service in the military he re-applied when the service resumed. This time his previous experience as an actor and stagehand was enough to land him a position at Alexandra palace. By 1949 he had been a studio manager and commentator at the 1948 Olympics and was ready to produce this “outside” broadcast (meaning it was not shot at the Alexandra Palace). He was an experienced hand at television and, more importantly, he had been interested in magic since childhood. His knowledge of magic, stagecraft and television combined to give him a keen eye that allowed him to present magical performances in the best possible light.

Edgar must have impressed the members of the Magic Circle early on in the process of preparing their first broadcast. On December 6 ,1949, a couple of weeks before the broadcast, he was extended an Honourary Membership in the Circle which was maintained throughout his life. One of the participants in the broadcast wrote in the Magic Circular (the official magazine of the Magic Circle) that Barrie Edgar had said that he wanted to show the club “as it is– a friendly meeting-place of the magical fraternity– not just a show-place good for a few tricks.” The show was not only shot in the Circle’s clubroom, it featured the swearing in of four new members. Of course, there was plenty of magic, too, with performances by Sid Emons, Graham Adams, Dr. O.H. Bowen, Geoffrey Buckingham, Douglas Craggs, Herbert Milton and Michael Shaw.

skitched-20130624-122336.jpgThe December Magic Circle telecast was so well received that another clubroom broadcast was planned for May 10, 1950. This time the performers were made up of a group that was going to represent the Magic Circle at an upcoming convention in Chicago. Barrie Edgar was again assigned to the show and Francis White returned as host. The group was flying to America on the Sabena Belgian Airlines so the air hostess assigned to their flight, Denise Verbiest, was recruited to act as an assistant. The touring group was being “managed” by Charles Goodliffe Neale (publisher and editor of Abracadabra), who wrote of the experience in his May 20, 1950 issue:

“In the Clubroom itself, the effect was of overpowering heat (induced by dozens of high-powered spotlights concentrated on that section of the room covered by the cameras) and a multitude of trailing cables. With the ventilators shut off because of the noise they make, plus the psychological effect of perspiring shirt-sleeved artists and technicians, it took me only a few minutes to feel as hot as the next man, and after about three hours of rehearsal I think most of those on the spot wanted only to crawl into a corner and die.”

Despite this, Goodliffe (as he was known) had only good words for Edgar who gave the performers a pep talk. This show was not a stiff stage affair. Instead, Sid Emons manned the Circle’s bar. Several of the performers did their effects barside, although Goodliffe performed a modified guillotine on Ms. Verbiest’s leg! Unfortunately, the broadcast was struck a potentially disastrous blow when the second camera, the one set up specifically for close up shots, failed. Edgar was able to direct around this with minimal damage to the overall presentation even though it was heavy with close up magic.

The second successful broadcast from the Magic Circle clubroom led to several more. On January 2 of 1951, the third broadcast was presented and on the following day a special children’s show was presented as well. Again, Barrie Edgar controlled production for the BBC while Francis White acted as the presenter. Another presentation was made (again with Edgar and White) on June 22. Then, however, potential disaster struck. Barrie Edgar was promoted to be the Producer of Outside Broadcasts at the new Midlands Studio. The Magic Circle held a special dinner to honor their favorite television producer. They presented him with a silver wand in appreciation for his contributions to the Circle and it was announced that special arrangements had been made to allow him to return to London for future Magic Circle television presentations.

In January of 1952 Edgar did return to produce another Magic Circle show (which saw not only the return of Francis White but also the special children’s show the following day). The Magic Circular behind the scenes coverage of this special again highlights Edgar’s desire to convey the true feeling of the club, mentioning that he instructed the audience of select members that they were allowed to smoke and even “rib” the performers, but coughs and sneezes should be held until bursts of applause! Unfortunately, the next Magic Circle broadcast was put on without Edgar; Magic Circle member Dennis Monger would step in as producer. Francis White was also absent as he was away at an international magic convention.

Barrie Edgar would go on to have a long and important career with BBC Television. He stuck with the company even after the creation of rival ITV and retired in 1979. He would continue to be active in the Magic Circle, assisting by writing articles and lecturing on performing for television. Edgar advised that performers not think of the millions that may be watching but instead to “think of Dad, sucking his pipe in the corner, with the rest of the family dotted around the room looking at the screen.” Although Barrie Edgar would not present another of the Magic Circle broadcasts, he would continue to be active with magic television through his work with David Nixon. Outside of magic, Edgar would achieve milestones such as the first television broadcast from a submarine and a long stint on Come Dancing, the predecessor of Strictly Come Dancing and Dancing With The Stars (the licensed US version). In his 33 years with the BBC he would produce over 1200
television programs. Barrie Edgar passed away last December. In his obituary his son wrote of his lifetime Magic Circle membership and mentioned that the day before his death he was able to enjoy his grand-daughter perform with her Christmas magic kit.