Driffield News

Conjuring up a career and doing tricks for almost 70 years….that’s MAGIC!

Perhaps the only thing more magical than Stephen Wells’ tricks are the stories he has from more than six decades in the entertainment industry.

He was the youngest person ever to join the prestigious Magic Circle met and worked with some of magic’s biggest names, and performed his own show around the world.

He enjoyed a one-to-one audience with one of Britain’s best-loved performers, and appeared on TV talent show New Faces. “It was the 1970s and I was beaten by a woman who played the piano and sang….what was her name?….oh yes, Victoria Wood.”

I was the youngest person ever admitted to the Magic Circle when I was 18, now I am one of the oldest members, but I still contribute regularly to its monthly magazine.

stephen wells

Stephen, who performs under the name Stephen Magus, was also head-hunted to appear on the 21st century equivalent Britain’s Got Talent, but declined the invitation.

And if you thought that was enough claims to fame, he has something else up his sleeve – he was the man who brought karaoke to the UK!

Now 81, he lives in Driffield and is chairman of the town’s U3A organisation, but still performs magic shows regularly and gives talks on his career to groups around Yorkshire.

His love of magic began as a child, and a particular gift which sparked his imagination.

Stephen said: “My father worked at Harrods in Knightsbridge and one Christmas, he brought me a Harrods magic set. It was top of the range. I was about 11 and started doing little shows for local kids.

“There was one trick in it which I still use to this day, but I became more interested in mind reading and mental magic, the stuff Derren Brown and Dynamo do.

“At about 16, I started doing stuff semi-professionally, charging for shows. I lived in Wimbledon and had to go everywhere by train so I had to use everything that would fit into a little suitcase.

“When I was 18 I was proposed for the Magic Circle by the man who was president at the time. You have to be proposed and seconded by existing members, and if they accept you, you become an associate.

“Then you are invited to do a practical performance in their theatre, where you are judged by your peers.

“I joined the Magic Circle in 1960. In those days it was a very different organisation, it was exclusively male, women were not allowed except to occasional ladies’ night.

“Now it has changed absolutely radically and again our current president is a lady.

“When you look at the list of people who have joined the Magic Circle, who are not associated with magic, it is fascinating. Prince Charles, Rudyard Kipling, Harold Macmillan, they were all amateur magicians who did it for fun.

“I was the youngest person ever admitted to the Magic Circle when I was 18, now I am one of the oldest members, but I still contribute regularly to its monthly magazine.”

His path to becoming a full-time entertainer and performer was one taken by many household names, including Des O’Connor, Jimmy Tarbuck, Michael Barrymore and Stephen Mulhern.

“When I was 20, I joined Butlins as a Redcoat,” said Stephen. “We had an entertainment manager called Larry Knight and he was one of the nicest blokes I have met.

“Once a week, the Redcoats did a variety show and Larry said to me ‘your act is very good but quite slow. It wouldn’t suit our variety show because it would slow things down.’

“Instead, he gave me the Butlins Playhouse Theatre, which was the second biggest after the Gaiety Theatre, every Friday night for my own show.

“I put together an hour-long show and it gave me the opportunity to hone what I did in front of a live audience.

“That became the basis of my cabaret show. In the golden days of variety, music halls only wanted top of the bill acts to do 15 minutes, but when cabaret clubs opened, they wanted people who could do an hour.”

In his second year at Butlins, Stephen met a performer who went on to be his magic idol, a man called Maurice Fogel, who branded himself ‘the world’s greatest mind-reader’.

“He did one of the most remarkable performances I have ever seen, it was the most astonishing stuff. He was also one of the warmest and most generous men I’ve met.

“He took me under his wing and I went to his chalet and he showed me his latest ideas.

“He did a trick where he caught a bullet in his teeth and he never missed a chance for publicity. One day he accidentally swallowed one of the bullets and went to hospital but he made sure he got himself a copy of the X-ray so he could send it to the papers.”

Magician Stephen Wells with reporter John Edwards

Even before then, Stephen had a brief one-to-one performance from one of Britain’s best-loved magicians.

He said: “When I joined the Magic Circle, I was living in London and working for an advertising agency. Because of that, I was able to go to the Magic Circle’s Monday night meetings near Euston station.

“One evening, I walked in and there was only one other person there. It was Tommy Cooper and he said ‘sit down, I’ll show you a trick’.”

Having learned from some of the masters, and tailored his own act, Stephen stayed with Butlins for 35 years, working his way up to be entertainment manager for Butlins’ hotel division, based at the Grand Hotel in Scarborough.

It was there he experienced another of his claims to fame – he was the man who brought karaoke to the UK!

“One of Butlins’ directors came to see me and asked had I heard of karaoke. He said it has been a smash hit in Japan and been very popular in America and he wanted to launch it over here.

“At that time, a lot of the discs were American music but we got two albums of UK hits and I took delivery of the country’s first karaoke machine. We installed it in the Bronte Bar but people thought entertainment was something they sat and watched, persuading them to get up and take part was nearly impossible.

“We had to do most of it ourselves. Compare that to now, when you have to wrestle the mic off some people.”

One of Stephen’s other big Butlins success stories was something the company still continues to see huge demand for in 2022 – themed weekends.

“When I arrived in Scarborough, I realised one problem was the average age of our clientele was somewhere between 80 and death. I thought we needed to attract the active over 50s.

“We came up with the idea of doing weekends based around a theme. No-one had done it before but we had a jazz weekend, a rock ‘n’ roll weekend, a country and western weekend, and a swinging 60s weekend.

“I’m a great lover of jazz and knew some of the big names at that time, Kenny Ball and Acker Bilk, and we managed to get them to come, and we had Gerry and the Pacemakers and Freddie and the Dreamers for the swinging 60s weekends.

“I remember saying to the general manager ‘nostalgia for these people is not old time music hall, it’s Elvis and The Beatles, the 50s and 60s.”

As well as his distinguished career at Butlins, Stephen has performed all over the world, working on cruises for P&O, Cunard and Viking – and even had a spell doing magic on the radio – which sounds as though it should not work – but Stephen was a regular guest on Derek Jameson’s Radio Two shows and Radio Four’s ‘Midweek’ with Libby Purves.

Other broadcasting highlights from his CV include appearing as a contestant on Mastermind and winning an episode of TV quiz Fifteen to One.

These days, Stephen regularly gives talks to local groups about his career and he still loves performing.

He was on the bill of the Platinum Jubilee Variety Show in Driffield on Thursday 2nd June.
And all the time, his act is evolving.

“Sometimes you get an idea and it doesn’t work and you just put it back in the drawer. Other times, a trick just really gels.

“Fairly recently, I started doing a trick where I have a flip chart with a simple addition sum at the side of the stage and the words ‘carpe diem’, which means seize the day. I ask somebody to come up and rearrange the numbers in the sum, and no matter how you transpose it, the sum ends up totalling that day’s date.

“I enjoy performing. There are a lot of magicians who have a lot more skill than I do.

“A wise man once said to me ‘if you know 100 different ways of finding a card, but you only have one way of revealing it, that looks like you have one trick. But if you know one way of finding a card and 100 different ways of revealing it, that looks like you have 100 tricks’.

“The biggest skill you need is misdirection, and all the best magic tricks have a surprise to them, like a twist in a storyline.

“People ask if I ever get nervous before going on stage. The short answer is no. The only thing I get nervous over is the things I have no control over, is the microphone going to work?

“The things in my power, I know what I am going to do.”

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