Fisher Price toys got a lot of us through our childhoods, but for Pete Firman they ultimately gave him a career.
He received one of their magic sets as a birthday present as a youngster, and he fell in love with it – learning all the tricks inside out.
Fast forward 30 years and Pete is now a well-known face on TV, plying his blend of comedy and magic – he was part of the line-up for BBC1’s prime-time Saturday night show The Magicians, as well as other high profile shows including Dirty Tricks and Derren Brown’s 3D Magic Spectacular on Channel 4 and The Secret World of Magic on Sky One.
‘When I was a kid,’ recalls Pete, ‘about five, I got this magic set, probably because I saw a magician on TV, and my mum and dad thought it would be a good idea.
‘Through my childhood and teens, I was tinkering with the magic set and as I got older I was learning about sleight of hand and I would do a lot of card tricks and things like that.’
And as he got older, he was able to use this talent to help him through his degree at the University of Hull.
‘Through university and college I made a bit of extra cash by working in pubs and restaurants in the north east where I grew up. I would wander around and show people tricks at their table, or mingling with them at the bar.
‘I was actually studying for a theatre degree. I knew I wanted to perform – that was in me, that was my thing.
‘Before university, I wanted to be an actor. The plan was to do a post-grad acting diploma, but this opportunity came up to audition for a production company making a new show for Channel 5 called Monkey Magic.’ (pictured below right)
‘The magic had always been there on the backburner, but this was the chance to do something a bit more full-on, so I thought what the heck and went for it.
‘I got the gig and I moved to London when I was 22 to make this TV show and that was my first proper job. It was all a bit fortuitous actually and that’s been kind of the way really. One thing has led to another and I’ve been quite lucky in that regard.’
The Middlesbrough native soon realised he preferred working in a theatre to the more trendy street magic side of his trade.
He explains: ‘I’m definitely more into magic in the theatre, versus the magic in the street camp. When I was at uni, aside from the pubs and restaurants, this was sort of how I got into comedy.’
Pete felt that he was interrupting and imposing on people when performing street magic.
He continues: ‘At least when you’re in a theatre, people are there for you and people understand that dynamic – they’re sitting there, the lights come up on stage and the show begins and I prefer that.
‘I was looking for somewhere to do my magic on stage, but there’s no magic circuit or anything like that, so I just used a bit of initiative, because I was aware of magicians doing comedy clubs, guys who were a bit older than I was – but I couldn’t see anyone of my generation doing that, so I thought: “Why don’t I give it a try?” And that’s when I started dropping into comedy clubs in London and built up the act incrementally.
‘I quickly realised that no-one was visiting a comedy club to see a magician so I was going to have to make it as funny as possible to compete with the other comics on the bill.’
In 2012 he joined the cast of The Magicians, which saw the eponymous magic men team up with celebrities and compete to win the audience’s vote.
‘You’ve got the fact that it’s BBC1 on Saturday night,’ says Pete, ‘so you’re playing to millions and millions of folk while they’re having their dinner, and it’s live, so it’s terrifying for anyone. If you’re on Strictly Come Dancing and you get a step wrong or you fudge something, it’s a little bit embarrassing. But if you fall foul as a magician you’re left literally with your trousers round your ankles.
‘If the audience sees how it’s done, it’s game over.
‘Thankfully nothing disastrous happened.
‘Before any show I get nervous, but they’re not nerves I can’t control, they’re nerves that keep me on my toes and make sure I get it right. I’m only nervous because I don’t want to disappoint.’
He’s also a veteran of eight Edinburgh Fringe Festivals – this year he performed his new show Trickster, the show he is now taking on a UK tour, and brings to the Ashcroft Arts Centre in Fareham tonight.
‘Most people when they’re there the first time, they want to put in everything they’ve ever done. That show can be five or six years’ work, and once you’ve done that, you think: “I can’t do that again,” but you do manage, and then suddenly you’re on to year three.
‘I try and ring the changes, keep it fresh try and keep it interesting. I’m obviously not going to reinvent the wheel.
‘I’m not going to change my persona, or where I’m coming from as a performer – it’s about the material, and trying not to repeat myself.’
And talking about Trickster, he says: ‘It’s all new material but it’s still sort of sticking to my tried and true formula – a mixture of jokes and tricks, so it’s part magic show and part stand up show. The audience can expect impossible feats, lots of laughs, but to tell you specifically would spoil the surprises that I want to keep for the people who come along to see the show.
‘In broad terms, I’m defying scientific law – that kind of thing,’ he modestly claims with a chuckle.
Pete Firman brings his Trickster show to the Ashcroft Arts Centre in Fareham tonight. Doors open 7.30pm, and tickets cost £15, £13 for concessions. Call 01329 223100 or go to hants.gov.uk/ashcroft