Radio Lab recently produced an episode called Black Box. As always, it is great. I think Radio Lab is the best thing on the radio. And this episode is about black boxes: situations where you know what comes in and you know what goes out, but you don’t know what happens inside to make the change. The second segment is about “The Piddingtons” — a husband and wife mentalism act from Australia that was huge on BBC Radio in the 1950s. The story is told from the perspective of their grandson and his search for how they did their act.
The act was pretty much the same every time — just like every other mentalism act. Mr Piddington was on stage with an audience. He got some random bit of information from the audience. For example, an audience member picked a passage from a book. And then Mrs Piddington, who was some place far away (in one case in an airplane), read her husband’s thoughts and revealed the passage. This sort of act can be done with a code — and codes can be remarkably subtle. But in one of the examples, Mr Piddington hardly speaks — certainly not enough to transmit the the amount of information that Mrs Piddington reveals.
Supposedly, the grandson could not find anyone who could tell him how the trick was done. Well, that’s a magic thing. Magicians have this thing about revealing secrets. But it’s nonsense. The most sensible thing I’ve ever read was Teller writing on an old internet newsgroup. He said that he doesn’t tell people how the tricks are done because they don’t want to know. If they did want to know, all they had to do was go to the library and get a book of magic tricks. That is very true. The Tarbell Course in Magic was published in 1928. In terms of the technique of magic, nothing has changed since that time. There is nothing you will see David Blaine or Criss Angel do that isn’t explained in those books.
The Radio Lab crew went to Teller’s partner, the generally very annoying Penn Jillette. (He’s actually kind of charming here.) They wanted answers. That was probably a smart move. The one really good thing about Penn and Teller is that they aren’t pretentious about magic. Jillette said something interesting about magic secrets: they are always ugly. He said that the reason tricks are hard to figure out is that people are looking for an “Aha!” moment when they should be looking for an “Ugh!” moment. While that is generally true, it isn’t always true. There are quite beautiful tricks like the Elevator Cards that would indeed give a spectator an “Aha!” moment.
I have a better rule of thumb that is totally true of The Piddingtons’ act: the trick is over before the audience knows it started. This is especially true with slight of hand. Once the audience is engaged with the trick, there is too much “heat” on your hands. Despite what you may have heard, the hand is not quicker than the eye. One of my favor tricks to perform for an audience was always Daryl’s Twisted Aces. It was a refinement of an older effect, Twisting the Aces, where the magician works with a packet of four aces. One at the time, the aces are “magically” turned face up. Daryl’s innovation was to cause the final ace to disappear completely from the packet and land face up in the middle of the deck that had been set aside. It blew people’s minds. Needless to say, that ace was stolen out of the packet long before the audience really understood what was happening.
So how did The Piddingtons do the trick? If you want to know, Radio Lab provided an extra bit of audio explaining it, The Ugly Truth — Don’t Click This. Of course, it isn’t news. There is a 1989 Columbo episode that explains one permutation of it in some depth, “Columbo Goes to the Guillotine.” Is it really ugly? I don’t think so. I think that the Radio Lab people are just following from Jillette’s lead. If you want a single word explanation, the trick is a “force.” If you want a whole sentence, “Mrs Piddington is told the phrase ahead of time, and Mr Piddington forces the audience to pick that phrase.” And if you want even more, click on the link, although you really ought to listen to the episode first.
One thing that wasn’t discussed is that because mentalism acts (and to a slightly lesser degree all magic) is incredibly repetitive, performers tend to mix things up. For example, a performer might do a trick using a code early on in the act. That might even heighten the effect of later tricks that don’t use a code. In the end, magic acts are exactly the same as any other kind of performance: the performer must be interesting. Every performer has his own techniques for holding the audience’s attention. Magic is actually very bad in this regard and that’s why so many successful magicians are little more than comedians or storytellers. But The Piddingtons weren’t, nor are David Blaine or Criss Angel — which is why I have no use for the lot of them.
Update (23 October 2014 12:34 am)
I found the Columbo episode. If you want to get the full effect, watch the first act of the video — the first twenty minutes. And then you can skip to the 1:15:00 mark to see Columbo recreate the effect. At 1:22:00 Columbo shows how it is done, including a couple of interesting subtleties. I’ll just add one thing: the blindfold of the volunteer is critical to the effect; it couldn’t be done without it. But the audience is told it is to make sure that the volunteer picks a truly random location so that there can be no collusion blah, blah, blah. That’s another important thing to remember: all magicians are con artists. The whole episode is good. If you like Columbo, you might watch it. It was directed by Leo Penn — the father of Michael and Sean. Although I will warn you: as is true more often than not, the ending is stupid.