The Insider | John Archer

By Damian Jennings - Monday, December 24, 2018

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This week’s episode of The Insider stars BAFTA award-winning comedy magician, John Archer. He chats with us about Christmas, Fool Us, Tim Vine, material selection and Collared 2.0.

Transcript of the podcast

John Archer: Yeah, I've got my smiley **John Archer comedy face on now. I've put my showbiz face on. Yeah, I read ... you know, that thing where, when you talk on the phone you should always smile, because it makes you sound happy. Yeah, that's what I'm doing now. It's really hard to speak.

The Insider: Welcome to this week's episode of The Insider. Brought to you, as ever, by Vanishing Inc. We're lucky enough to have on the line today BAFTA award winning comedy/magician and star of a Dutch milk advert, Mr. John Archer. How are you John?

John Archer: I'm very, very well. Thank you. Are we allowed to say it's Merry Christmas, or is this going to go out in June?

The Insider: No, it'll go out before. Yeah, we're good.

John Archer: All right, are we good? Good. Yeah, no, I'm good. I'm all ready for Christmas.

The Insider: Good. So am I, nearly.

John Archer: Oh yeah?

The Insider: No, I've got lots of things to do tomorrow.

John Archer: I've never been so ready. I've got everything, presents bought. I need only to buy my wife's. She buys everything else. Wrapped, all the Christmas booze in, decorations up. All the little jobs around the house done, that have to be done before Christmas. I'm just like ... I'm just-

The Insider: Twiddling your thumbs now?

John Archer: ... I'm twiddling my thumbs, talking to you. When you should really be getting ready for Christmas.

The Insider: I should be, I should be. But Josh and Andi are hard task masters.

John Archer: They are, I know. I've worked with them many, many times.

The Insider: So, is the milk advert thing true? Or, did somebody just edit you Wikipedia page for a laugh?

John Archer: Do you know what? It is true, and I wish I could find a copy of it. Because, it's me playing a part of a magician. And it's very much in the style of the old Carlsberg adverts.

The Insider: Right.

John Archer: No, actually not the Carlsberg adverts. I can't remember the name of the advert, but especially you drink the milk and all of a sudden everything works. So, I was a magician where everything was going wrong and I had this glamorous assistant. And then, we sit down and I have a glass of milk, and you know-

The Insider: And everything's fine again.

John Archer: ... little magical bits happen. Yeah, it was one of the first things I did after I went full term. Me manager got me this advert, it was great. It paid a fortune and just spent the day faffing out.

The Insider: An ideal gig.

John Archer: Yeah it is. But I've tried to find it, I thought, "Maybe it's on YouTube." I've searched and everything I could think of, but nothing. I should have had a copy of it just somewhere. I should really ... I've had a look a few times, can't find it. But yeah-

The Insider: The world needs to see it.

John Archer: Yeah. Well if I find it, I will put it out there for the world to giggle at.

The Insider: Beautiful. So, music, magic, writing, comedy, renaissance man. Which is your favorite?

John Archer: Performing I think. Just yeah, doing gigs is my favorite thing to do. But then, doing gigs involves magic and it involves a bit of music now with the uke. So it follows those things. Writing it a bit of a reluctant thing. I sort of do it if I think it's going to be a fun thing to do.

The Insider: Right.

John Archer: So I don't write a lot. I have written for a few people and a few things, but it tends to just be Tim Vine that I write for now. He's my best buddy and we get on, and I like working with him.

The Insider: What's it like touring with him?

John Archer: Oh touring's great. It's probably the best gig I have. It's the most fun thing I do in my life, really. Because it's so easy, and it's so nice. We have a tour manager ... There's three of us, there's me, Tim, and a guy called Jobbins, who is our tour manager. We travel around in a little half-van, half-minibus type thing. Six seats with a van being at the back.

John Archer: We stay in lovely hotels. We perform in lovely, sold out theaters, because Tim sells it out, no me. So I don't have to worry about any of that, I'm on a guarantee. I do half an hour every night, it's just great.

John Archer: And because I've been doing it for so long, I've been supporting him for about 14 years I think.

The Insider: Crikey.

John Archer: There's a little bit of the audience knowing who I am. So, I don't really have that opening act thing that some chaps have. Where they go, "Oh no, who's this?"

The Insider: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.

John Archer: You get the feeling that at least think, "Oh, that's John Archer. That's his mate." Because they've seen me on TV bits with him. They know that I write for him and-

The Insider: Obviously on the tour before. So does that mean that you have to bring in new material?

John Archer: Yeah, every time he does a new hour, I have to, basically, come up with a new half hour. Now for the first few years that was easy, because I just picked and chose stuff from my existing thing. But the stuff that was suitable, that ran out a few years ago. So quite a few routines have been honed through touring with Tim. Saying, "Right, I'm going to do this, this, and this." And then, you have an 80 date tour where you just do it every night.

John Archer: So the Laurel Book Store thing, that I've lectured in a few places was honed on too. The envelope trick that Penn & Teller, Blank Night trick, was honed when I was on tour with Tim. I came up with it for that tour.

John Archer: And then on the current tour that I've just done this year, I think we do about 10 more dates next year. I'm doing a version of ... What's the name? Billy McComb-

The Insider: McCombical?

John Archer: McCombical. It's like the comical deck-type prediction thing, but using drinks and a bottle in a bag. And then, a prediction basically, which is a lottery prediction. But, it's not really a prediction of the lottery, it's a twist on it.

John Archer: So those two things are what I've been working on. I benefit a lot from Tim and Jobbins, watching them every night and saying, "Why don't you try that? And, "Why don't you try that?" And then me trying different things.

John Archer: And then, people come to see me. Noel Britton's been to see the show twice. He's given me a lot of notes, which were really useful. So yeah, all of that helps when you're working on new material, rather just yourself trying to sort it out.

The Insider: Yeah, yeah, yeah, of course. You mentioned through all this ... and I'm sure you've had enough talking about it. But there was one bit this morning, before I was interviewing you, there was one question I had.

The Insider: There's one point when you close Tariq down from talking, and you're quite harsh. And you do, "I don't remember seeing your name in the script so much," bit.

John Archer: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

The Insider: Why did you choose to shut him up that way? Because of the time that's on the TV, and you have to be 100% sure he'd shut up? Because, it was quite-

John Archer: Yeah, yeah, it was. It was purely because I was aware that ... I mean, I'd got quite a long time on that. I think it's about eight minutes in total, from start to finish, the whole bit. I knew I had a lot to get through, it was just like, shut him down quick.

The Insider: No, it was interesting, it was just like this jab out of nowhere.

John Archer: Normally, in a live performance, that wouldn't happen. Because normally in a live performance, I'd love it, just to chat a little bit more and go on.

The Insider: Play with him.

John Archer: But yeah, with that routine you can't speak to anybody for too long. Because it's a reasonably long process of it having four envelopes chosen, so you don't want each one to go on too long. But yeah, it was just a matter of ... he was the first guy and he started chatting. It was like, "We'll shut him down and the rest will get the message," basically.

The Insider: It certainly did, it certainly did. Did you know you were going to release the trick before you went on the show?

John Archer: I'd already released the trick privately, myself, just as a PDF. So I released it about a year before and sold a few. Not many, probably sold about ... I don't know ... maybe 20 or 30 PDFs to various people. And I've given a few to a few people. So it was a little bit worrying. I'd given one to Banachek, who I know works with Penn & Teller. So I just thought, you know, it's just a slim chance he might have mentioned it. It's highly unlikely, but I didn't go on there thinking, "I'll go on Fool Us and then release the thing."

John Archer: Because nobody knew what Fool Us was then. It was their very first show. I could have gone on there and had the whole trick disassembled and explained to the audience. We didn't know if that was going to happen. We were promised it wouldn't. Now you know, having seen so many series of it. You know they're very respectful and they're trying their best not to give anything away, really, that will ruin the act for the person.

John Archer: But that very first special, nobody knew what the show was. Nobody thought they could fool them, it was all just up in the air. It certainly wasn't, "Right, I'll do this trick as a showcase to release it." It was the only thing I had that I knew they might not know the method, because it was a new method. So, that was the only thing I had. They did try and talk me into doing other tricks that were punchier and funnier. I mean, that's funny, but I do have stronger effects comedy-wise.

John Archer: I think Johnny Thompson saw it and said, "Oh, his Magic Square is very funny. You should get him to do that." But a magic square is not-

The Insider: It's not going to fool them, no.

John Archer: ... fool Penn & Teller. So, I sort of dug my heels in and said, "No, I'd rather do this trick." And there was all this thing, "Well, it's a bit long, you're really going to have to motor through it." So poor old Tariq, he got shut down. Also, I think I was slightly annoyed that he chose the envelop with "Sex." Because normally, when I got the second person I've got the line where I go, "I've got some good news and some bad news. The good news is, sex is still available. The bad news is, I'm going to be giving you it."

John Archer: So normally, I go to a girl the second time. So it sort of scrubbed the whole thing of where I went next. Which is the nature of the routine, you have to dodge and weave, because you never know what's going to be chosen by who, and how they're going to react to what they choose.

The Insider: Yeah. It's almost like your script needs multiple outs.

John Archer: Yeah, it does really. Because there's every possibility, and also the people who choose things, and how they choose things. Sometimes a woman will choose, for example, "Sex" very boldly. Obviously, that's going to be different from a guy who chooses it, and different to a woman who will choose it. But, you can tell she's sort of doing it reluctantly rather than boldly. So there's all sorts of ways that it can go, and you have to react in the right way, otherwise, it can be awkward.

The Insider: Yeah. When you ... obviously, when you release something into the world like that, you've got no real control over what happens with it. What do you feel about people doing a direct copy of it, using your script and your trick? Now I realize you can't be annoyed, because you've released it. But do you wish they wouldn't?

John Archer: No, that's more their issue than my issue. I haven't got a problem, because anybody who sees me do it now tends to know it's my effect, because of the Penn & Teller thing, and the publicity it's had. But also, nobody will do it the same as I do it, because it came from who I am and everything about my character on stage. It suits that character.

John Archer: So anybody else doing it, it's going to be them trying to pretend to be John Archer isn't it? It's never good when you try to pretend to be someone. I didn't actually ever release the patter, as such. You get the effect, you don't get the patter. I've never even written the patter out myself, so you know, there isn't any way of looking at that.

John Archer: But people can obviously go watch it and learn it word-for-word from YouTube. And if they want to do that, I won't get annoyed with them. But they're not doing themselves any favors really. They'd be much better off ... I always find it funny when people say, "Yeah, but that routine suits it so well." And I always think, "Well, there's probably a thousand other ways of putting different words on there, and different jokes." It's just, people see something work well and think, "That's it, it can't be better." I think it probably could be.

The Insider: Yeah.

John Archer: But I was the same. I can remember watching Bob Reed do his Knife Through Coat, which I just loved his Knife Through Coat routine. And I never ever wanted to do Knife Through Coat because I thought, "I don't think I could ever do it better than that."

The Insider: Ah, that's interesting.

John Archer: So I can understand people's thinking I suppose.

The Insider: How do you choose material for the show? Is it funny first, or magic first, or what's the process?

John Archer: The process is, it has to be something I want to do, really.

The Insider: Okay.

John Archer: I have lots of things that knock it off the list. So at the moment, if it's card effect I'm not interested, because I've already got about three or four card effects. I would only ever want to do a maximum of two in a show. If I was doing two 45 minutes, I might do two card tricks.

John Archer: I don't like things that use props that don't look like something other than a magic prop. So, a lot of my stuff tends to look ... I'll use boxes. Playing cards, I haven't got a problem with. But it tends to look like it could have all been bought from Staples or Office World, or whatever.

John Archer: And then, it has to be a trick that interests me as a concept, really.

The Insider: What do you mean, the plot or the method?

John Archer: Yeah. Either the ... The method never ever bothers me really. I never worry about what the method is. It's always about what the effect is, and whether or not it intrigues me if I was an audience member. I think that's an interesting effect, that's an interesting mystery, if you like.

The Insider: Sure.

John Archer: And then I have to think, "How will I make it funny? Where will the funny bits be?" So, it's sort of a combination of all those things really. Would it suit who I am? A lot of what I do is mentalism, I would think 90% of what I do is mentalism. But it doesn't have to be mentalism, it just has to be something that seems natural, interests me if I was an audience member I think, "Would that idea interest me?"

John Archer: I'm not too worried if it's a well known type of effect. I do Tossed Out Deck, which is used by a lot of people, but I've got a routine I like. I do Magic Square, which is used by a lot of people. I have a Book Test now which is The Streets, rather than a standard Book Test, but it is effectively a Book Test. They're not picking a word, they're picking a location.

The Insider: Sure.

John Archer: So I have a lot of standardy-type effects. But, if I think I can make them my own and I think they're interesting to an audience I'll do them.

The Insider: I imagine if you polled people coming out of Tim Vine's show and saying, "Have you ever seen anybody do a Magic Square before?" I think magicians think, "Oh, Magic Square, oh yeah, Confabulation." But it's like, most people haven't seen it before.

John Archer: Well, they haven't seen many magicians, the truth is. The magicians they do see are on television. The magicians on television don't do stage stuff, they don't do the standards. They're doing stuff that's television only type stuff, really, to be honest. A lot of stuff, if it's not television only, it's stuff that's made to work on television.

John Archer: So yeah, they might see one or two magicians live. Chances are, they'll see more close-up than they will see stage magicians. And if they're going on holiday or cruise, sometimes, a lot of times, the magicians they're seeing are doing different stuff anyway. They might be doing illusions. So the chances that they've seen another guy doing what you're doing is slim, and it's only going to be a few people if that.

The Insider: Exactly. Do you prefer doing ... Is there a different pleasure you get out of performing tricks that you've created like The Streets or Blank Night?

John Archer: Yeah. I suppose there is. But I'm quite happy to perform something somebody else has created, I do do that. I do have routines that are just other people's creations. The thing for me is, not necessarily about the actual effect, it's more about the routine, the story to tell.

John Archer: The Laurel Book Store thing was purely ... I like that story, the coincidence with Laurel Book Store. I just wanted to do a trick that included that story. I wanted to tell a story and that was an interesting story to tell. I thought I could probably get some jokes out of telling it as well.

John Archer: Then I had another trick, based on Pat Page's Soldier Card Trick, which is in his book. I realized that was a coincidence effect, and then I brought them both together. But for me, it's that interesting thing of making the trick suit the story and suit the presentation, so they work together. Sometimes you see a trick and the presentation doesn't quite make sense with what's happening. I always want them to feel like there's a synergy.

The Insider: That it's coherent.

John Archer: Yeah, yeah. I don't even know what synergy meant. That's probably the wrong word isn't it?

The Insider: That's your new word of the day.

John Archer: Yeah, exactly. I've got a little list of words on my wall in me office I haven't used for a while.

The Insider: Word of the Day Loo paper? John Archer: Yeah. You'll be getting silverstone very soon.

The Insider: Okay. Is onomatopoeia on the list?

John Archer: No, that's not on the list, no, no.

The Insider: Okay, okay. Now, everybody knows that you used to be a policeman.

John Archer: Yes.

The Insider: And you made the leap to being a full time magician. But I'm sure there's lots of listeners who want to quit their day jobs and start to take up magic full time.

John Archer: Yeah.

The Insider: What was the moment you realized you could take that job?

John Archer: To be honest, it was a job that I was thinking of taking, but it was solved for me, because I got a hearing condition called Meniere's Disease. So I was ... When I realized I might be able to make it full time, I also realized if told them about this hearing condition they might retire me, so that's what I did. I said, "I've got this hearing condition," and I was medically retired.

John Archer: So I was slightly pushed and I slightly jumped. But it did make it a little bit easier for me, because I've been in the police for 10 years. I got a medical pension which was enhanced to 17 years, so I got a 17 year pension. Which isn't a fortune, but at the time it covered my mortgage, which is the main thing that you worry about when you go full retirement is, "Can I pay my mortgage," I suppose.

The Insider: Of course.

John Archer: But yeah, it was not easy the first few years. The first few years I was doing kid's shows, close up stage and everything. And then slowly, as I got more established, the first thing I dropped was doing kid's shows. I dropped that after about two years, I stopped doing any kid's shows. Mainly school shows, I was doing.

John Archer: And then probably after about 10 years ... So, I've been doing it 22 year, full time, now. So probably about 10 years into it, I stopped doing close up gigs. I've done very few close up gigs, like I say, for the past 12 years. The only thing I might do is, if I get booked to do some sort of corporate thing, where they go and all the managers love to go and have a drink with you in the bar afterwards. Which sometimes happens, they want to sit and chat to you. I might have a little bit of close up rig in my pocket just in case. But, I normally don't agree to it.

John Archer: My agent ... sounds good to say "my agent."

The Insider: Sounds great.

John Archer: But my agent normally says to them, "Yeah, John doesn't do close up. He may do something afterwards if he's in the mood." He words it much better than that, but he sort of says, "There's no promises," so there's no pressure on me.

The Insider: Along with the performing you've also released your own products. We've talked about one, but there's a new one coming out, kind of new, one coming out in January, Collard.

John Archer: Collard 2.0, that's the way to do it.

The Insider: Collard 2.0, okay.

John Archer: Collard 2.3, because I just think it's nice to have a couple of decimal points.

The Insider: So for those who haven't seen the trick, can you explain the effect?

John Archer: Yeah. It's basically Koran's Medallion with a slight logical comedic twist to it. So basically, you have a little pet stuffed toy, a dog, it can be anything. You say that you need a name for it. I do a lot of comedy about, "I travel and this is going to be my companion, because I'm lonely." And I say, "We're going to come up with a name." And the audience will choose some letters to come up with a random name. I fill in the little birth certificate, and somebody comes up and reads the birth certificate. We have a little naming ceremony. Then I ask them to look at the tag around the dog's neck, on its collar, and it's got the name that the audience has chosen, inscribed on the disc.

John Archer: There was a version 1 of it, which came out many, many years ago. It went out of print, I haven't done it in a long time. That was with Alakazam. It vanished, really, from the scene. But I'd given one to Levent quite a few years ago at a magic convention, I gave him a copy of it. And he said, "I'm going to start doing it," and then he started playing with it. He started chatting with me on Messenger saying, "I've come up with this new idea and this new method." Which was based on Ron ... The Uncanny Scot, what's his name?

The Insider: Oh yeah, Wilson.

John Archer: Yeah, Ron Wilson. It was based on something in his book, some variation. It was just ... We bounced back and forwards ideas about this new method. He'd never done any mentalism in his act before, he started doing it on cruises. It's basically this much simpler, cleaner, stronger method sort of came up. Obviously, the boys at Vanishing Inc., who I love to bits, Josh and Andi and Damian-

The Insider: George is nice too.

John Archer: Yeah, George is lovely. He's best behind the camera. They said, "Look, it's not out anymore and this is fantastic. Why don't we re-release it, the new version with all the bells and whistles." So that's happening. It's taken a long time to get everything right and sort it all out. I'm looking forward to it. I think a lot of people who have already got called will want to change to this method. It sets up much quicker. It's stronger, easier, and cleaner, and it just looks better.

John Archer: I'm using it all the time now, rather than the old method.

The Insider: You still there?

John Archer: Did you hear the beep then?

The Insider: I did get a weird beep then.

John Archer: Was it my beeper or your beeper?

The Insider: It was a beep I'm unfamiliar with.

John Archer: All right, it could have been my beeper.

The Insider: Unless something needs your attention.

John Archer: No, no, it's nothing. I'm not bailing you out or anything, so it was probably you.

The Insider: Probably me.

John Archer: It could have been me actually, who knows?

The Insider: Who knows? So that's coming out in January, by Vanishing Inc. And also in January there's The Session ... oh, segway. You're appearing again this year?

John Archer: I don't know if I'm appearing, I'm there.

The Insider: I mean, you're appearing, you're going to be there.

John Archer: Yeah, I'm appearing.

The Insider: Okay, I screwed up the whole segway didn't I?

John Archer: Yeah.

The Insider: It was so initially good.

John Archer: Nothing people would have noticed. Honestly, if you just carry on.

The Insider: If I carry on.

John Archer: If you carried on, people wouldn't have noticed.

The Insider: So when you're at The Session you will appear at the hotel, and be at The Session in an appearance.

John Archer: Yes. I'm taking a big, flat utility base with me and I'm going to appear at the confession.

The Insider: I think we can safely say you're a friend of the convention. What are some of your memories of it, some of your fonder memories of it?

John Archer: I think, for me, it is just hanging out with everybody there. I couldn't get there last year. For a long time I've always gone. And then last year I was in Pantomime, which was lovely but you get no time off. And my Pantomime finished the day that The Session finished, so unfortunately I couldn't get up there, which was annoying.

John Archer: I'm really looking forward to it this year. But like I say, it was hanging out. The year before I just loved hanging out with Ben Earl, because I hadn't seen Ben in a long time. Obviously, he was on Fool Us with me. We both went to Vegas together as part of the prize. So it was great.

John Archer: Are you drinking coffee?

The Insider: Me? Go ahead.

John Archer: I thought I heard you take a sip of coffee.

The Insider: No, there was no slurp.

John Archer: There wasn't? I heard a slurp.

The Insider: I've got a slight ... I looked down and my water glass is empty. My mouth is slightly dry, but I haven't slurped anything.

John Archer: Oh, you're doing subliminal drinking?

The Insider: Yeah.

John Archer: So yeah, the hanging out thing for me. Also this year, Mac King is going to be there.

The Insider: He is isn't he?

John Archer: He's just great to hang out with. I did a magic convention in Cuba a couple of months ago and Mac was there. We had a great time. So yeah, I'm looking forward to trying to hang out with him, a lot. I think he is going to be besieged by people wanting to hang out with him.

The Insider: But that's one of the things about it. I remember the year that Chris Kenner was there. It was lovely, Ed just sat on the floor in the corner of the bar working on a Three Fly thing with him. I think that's one of the things that's amazing about The Session. Okay, Dynamo and Mac, and when Blaine was there we would have lots of people, but you could still find time to talk to them.

John Archer: Yeah. The thing I like as well, because I said I stopped doing close up 12 years ago, or there abouts. I only stopped doing it professionally as a performance, close up is still my hobby. I say stage magic is my job and what I do, but close up magic is my hobby and what I do for fun. I never really perform it for very many people, because I never think it's good enough.

John Archer: But I go to The Session, and it feels like ... It reminds me of the days when I didn't do this full time. I used to go to conventions and just get excited about all these new things that I was seeing. I get that about The Session, it is just all about close up. They do have stage stuff and parlor stuff going on, but it's heavy on the close up. I love all of that. They just get some of the best names, they've got some great names.

John Archer: And also, the event before, they've just got some fantastic names in mentalism going to be there.

The Insider: So, why do you think anybody listening to this, that has been, what's one reason why they could come, apart from Mac King?

John Archer: I think just the hanging out. I told a few people before to go, a couple of years ago, the last time I went, I told two friends called Jess and Emma to go. They said, "Oh, we don't know, we haven't got the money." This was in January about a week before. I said, "Look, go, you'll love it. You'll really have a great time." And they went, and they just loved the hanging out thing.

John Archer: And also, it is bigger than it was, but it's still not Blackpool, it's still not that size. You're all in one place, you're not trying to find a B&B, where everybody ... You're all in the same place. You're all together. Even though it's bigger than it was, it still feels quite intimate. It still feels like you're hanging out. You can talk to anybody and everybody.

John Archer: I think the reason for that is, the atmosphere and the hanging out. It's the session, eh? Which is probably by it's called The Session.

The Insider: Probably is.

John Archer: But it's that more than ... All the names that are there are just massive bonuses, obviously. If they didn't have anybody and all of those magicians who were there got together and said, "You know, there's no show, no lectures, no nothing. We're just going to spend the day going to grab some food, sitting in the bar, showing each other tricks for the next three days." That would still be the reason to go.

The Insider: John Archer, thank you very much indeed for your time.

John Archer: You're welcome.

The Insider: I look forward to seeing you in January.

John Archer: Oh, you're going? Oh fuck.

The Insider: I am sorry.

John Archer: It's all right.

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