Wayne Dobson – A Kind of Magic


This job entails chasing down a succession of white rabbits, awake for weeks and pacing a garage whose wall is covered in lines of red string, linking each horrible performance to another atrocious sitcom or wretched performer, and after Wayne Dobson’s showing on Barrymore’s Saturday Night Out, how could I not sample the full series? A Kind of Magic ran for three years on ITV between 1990 and 1992, and Dobson himself boasts ratings of 11m, back in the days when televised magic could still be earnest top hats and swirly hand movements, and not just people being accosted outside Greggs by a man in a hoodie mumbling “watch this.”

I’m enduring the first series, which began on May 12th 1990. Our star emerges in guyliner and with that classic 1990 young light entertainer haircut; bleached and spiked on top, in a way sitcom jokers and game show hosts would refer to as “hedgehog head!” The set resembles a pervert’s bedroom; reflective floor and a pair of giant monitors, from the tech-era where such a thing consisted of loads of tellies stacked in a big square. Massive hands in a ‘ta-da!’ pose frame the stage, and act as chairs for volunteers — “have a hand… er, seat!


Dobson pitched himself a magician/comedian, as practised at sleight of hand as he is one-liners, and technically, this is true, in the same way I’m as good at ballet as I am piloting an aircraft. I mean, picture it — you’ve won over the bigwigs with some well-received performances at Royal Varieties and The Joe Longthorne Show and been given your own series. Saturday night, prime time; but what to open with? You can only make a first impression once, so choose that opening routine carefully; something to stop those viewers with their finger on the remote from flicking across to Opportunity Knocks; to make them think “Hey, I like this kid!” And after careful consideration, can you guess what he goes with? Can you? HAVE A FUCKING LOOK.


He cuts it up and then it’s all in one piece again, then there’s two more minutes of knots and cutting and God, all I can think about is slinging that rope over a beam and never having to see one of these ‘illusions’ again. Glamorous assistant for the run is Linda Lusardi, with an Elaine Benes wall of hair, and we’re straight into a classic magic cabinet, with dads in the audience hoping she won’t be put back together so they can get into a bidding war for the tit section. If you like magic cabinets, but missed the first ten minutes because of diarrhea, you probably needn’t worry.

The show’s got a very set format, each episode structured around recurring bits, like Sam Spade parody Sam Shovel. The 1920’s noir detective perhaps even surpasses 50’s American diners as the most overused setting of the era’s sketch shows, and Dobson throws himself into it, in an incel’s mac and hat, under his own bored-sounding voiceover (in regular British accent) about dames walking into the office and whatnot. Each week in these, he’ll pretend to push a cigarette in and out of his nose and eye; a skill so difficult, we all did it at school with our 2HBs. There’s decent production design, with rain sliding down the windows of a proper detective office, and various thinly-drawn episodes taking us to docks, warehouses, and even a mad scientist’s lab. Lusardi plays femme fatales with names like Legs Diamond — “the broad had something to get off her chest, I was only too pleased to help” — and in the first episode, has her henchman hang him from the ceiling in a sack, which is empty when it hits the floor. Impressive, and had there been more of that, this would’ve been a better series. But there’s not. And it isn’t.


A Kind of Magic has an exhausting rhythm, with weak one-liners followed by the “huhuhu” laughter of an audience doing their job. Joke, laugh, joke, laugh. Were you laughing along too, it’d be fine, but it’s like being trapped next to a co-worker who clears their throat every thirty seconds. I find myself watching with the same shoulder-knotting anticipation I get when it’s time for the downstairs neighbour to go out, waiting for their front door to slam like they’re trying to kill it. To prove this isn’t performative criticism, fully aware that it helps for everything I’m watching to be absolute toilet, then please enjoy this selection of Wayne Dobson gags.

     “He said ‘look, stupid.’ He always calls me ‘look’.

     “I once brought a sawn-off blowpipe from a pygmy with asthma.

     “Why is abbreviation such a long word?

     “I’ve been called to investigate a dreadful spell of thefts. T-H-U-R-F-E-T-S. Now that’s what I call a dreadful spell of thefts.”

     “Damaged doorbell — something here just doesn’t ring true!

Including Dobson, the series’ team of writers has provided me with half the material for my Patreon, consisting of Charlie Adams (Davro, And There’s More, Five Alive, The Les Dennis Laughter Show and Noel’s House Party), plus a pair of writers who also worked on Davro and Five Alive, plus The Piglet Files, The Russ Abbot Show, May to December, and… The Little and Large Show. These are less CVs than they are charge sheets. Free Charlie Bronson to make room for this lot.


In all the audience interactions, he’s got a trademark bit of throwing his voice to reply ‘as’ contestants, with comically high-pitched male audience members getting an “I’ve got ladies knickers on,” a suggestion that their penis is erect, or that their name is Susan. There’s also weekly bants between Dobbo and a scouse rabbit puppet, which emerges from a top hat like something that reads out birthday cards on CBBC. Ringo Rabbit’s story arc goes from laying on the floor to look up Linda’s skirt to ‘marrying’ her, until his rabbit wife pops out of another hat to berate him. IMDB trivia incorrectly pegs his performer as Bobby Davro, but it’s actually Richard Coombs, who puppeteered (but didn’t voice) Gilbert the Alien. For anyone wanting to replicate the act, Ringo’s manufacturers sell them online to this day, for $549.95, with the optional accessory of a top hat for an extra $179.95 (with a hole) or $149.95 (without). After the first Ringo skit, Dobson takes out the string and sticks, as Paul Daniels did in the Royal Variety which aired two weeks before this, and a curious thing happens.


He even throws a “round the bend” into his poem, though not linking it to Terry Wogan, as Daniels did. Presumably this was taped before the Royal Variety aired, so who was borrowing from who? Or is the patter simply part of magic tradition? Regardless, it’s one of those tricks that’s irritating by how immediately obvious its method is, with him tipping the sticks back every time the strings get shorter.

Another bit is Amazing Tales, which sees Dobson sat behind a spooky gothic desk, surrounded by various occult-lite paraphernalia; a vulture paperweight, one of those ceramic hands marked with the lines of palm-reading; to illustrate a solemnly told and rambling ghost story using a card trick or something, all over a mystical soundtrack of pan pipes. The full title of these is actually Alastair Witchell’s Amazing Tales, but with no explanation of who Witchell is. Is he an Arthur C. Clarke or Charles Fort style archivist of weird shit? A black magician? Though they started well with the Crowley-suggestive Alastair, it’s impossible not to picture a ginger royal expert attempting to summon Paimon into attacking Paul Burrell by milking himself into an ivory pestle.

While Davro isn’t the rabbit, he does make an appearance on the video wall doing his M-M-M-Max Headroom. This dresses up that most basic of cabaret tricks, smashing a volunteer’s watch with a hammer — oh no, it’s really broken! Only joking, I’ve fixed it with magic — while Davro stammers away in his American accent. Unfortunately, big Bob’s Max Headroom consists of just two tics; stuttering and tipping his head back in laughter, which has to be repeated endlessly over a long five minutes, though there’s a surprisingly risqué line, calling Dobson “a real cun-cun-cun-cun-cun-conjurer.” Outside of the show, Davro and Dobson were best friends for thirty years, until — as tabloid interviews told it — Davro had sex with Dobson’s wife in the kitchen, while his pal, now a quadriplegic through MS, lay in bed upstairs.


The biggest trick of the entire series is given away at the end of episode one, making a helicopter disappear, which your boy Millard very smugly figures out, involving dubbed audio, a pair of synchronised takes purporting to be different camera angles, and a cardboard cut-out. Episode two starts as you’d expect; VT of Dobson at the acropolis in Athens — “they let the place go to ruins!” — and more Ringo Rabbit: “have you seen the Greek women? It’s no wonder the men dance sideways!” After a mention of the Japanese, we get an “ah-so!” and soon it’s that illusion where your head get turned all the way round. At this point, it becomes apparent that A Kind of Magic consists almost solely of slight variations of just two tricks.

The first is the old prediction routine, with audience members choosing random things; items, places, names; only for Dobson to reveal at the end that he somehow knew exactly what they would pick. They give it a different theme, for example, basing it around Cluedo to select a killer, weapon, and location (milking laughs from the Ballroom, because it has ‘ball’ in it), but as I’ve noted before, prediction tricks are a real chore, as you know what the ending is, and he returns to it every week. There’s one where the prediction’s on a VHS tape, one with Hurricane Higgins guessing which colour snooker balls have been picked (with laffs from both ‘ball’ and ‘bag’), and even a Blind Date, with a rather unenthused volunteer who Dobson infers has a small william, and potential dates comprised of 90’s style comically ‘big ol’ randy gals’ and Linda Lusardi. The trick is the guy successfully picking Linda from three randomly chosen cards, which even without magical intervention is a 1-in-3, although when the curtain’s pulled back, she’s replaced by Steve Nallon’s Thatcher — “on our luxury weekend for two, you’re going to wish you were never born!


The second of these tricks is the magic cabinet, which with an extraordinary amount of cheek, he does again and again and again, with only the slimmest of variants. There’s the one where Lusardi’s cut into pieces; the one where your limbs get stretched out; the one where the person inside switches places; one where it’s a trunk which is not a cabinet, but still the old ‘drop a sheet and he’s escaped to stand on top of it’. By episode five, with the big finale of lowering himself into a magic cabinet that’s slowly penetrated by ladies with swords, I’m left like that gif of Jessie Pinkman; “he can’t keep getting away with this!” Remarkably — and you won’t believe this — when the swords are pulled back out, he’s revealed to be completely unharmed, arms raised and soaking in applause like Christ on Easter Sunday. Mate, PE teachers called Mr. Magic do that on Britain’s Got Talent these days.

What’s doesn’t help is, like Ted Rogers’ finger flapping, even from a digitised VHS rip, this more traditional type of magic often exposes itself on modern quality screens, where you can clearly see they’re just stood at the back of the cabinet, well clear of the sword. Consequently, it’s a breath of slightly-problematic fresh air when episode three opens with the classic magical ‘mystic East’ theme, with Dobson in a vague opium den type set, in one of those Bruce Lee dress shirts that buttons right up to the neck, backed by plinky plonky music. Since magic began, Western magicians gave validity to their tricks by claiming its origin as the mysterious East, where magic is REAL, from Chin Ling Soo to Indian rope tricks to James Hydrick‘s bowl cut, for less educated, more racist audiences, it added an air of authenticity. Here, Dobson’s joined by an Asian extra dressed like an old West Chinaman, with a Fu Manchu about a foot long, telling us “I’ve been studying the ancient art of oriental magic, under the guidance here of Master Quang.”


It’s not touched on again until the big closer, where Dobson and some glamorous ladies swing and swish samurai swords, which could’ve done with a longer rehearsal, as every full spin sees them struggle to keep their footing. Using ancient Chinese magic, he fits inside a small box (which sits on a trolley with a base that’s big enough for someone to lay down flat in for some reason) as they, once again, run it through with swords. I do feel like a nob picking apart the work of someone who’s devoted their life to perfecting a craft, but this is birthday party magic, and some of the stuff can literally just be purchased from any magic shop. Occasionally there’s solo card tricks, unspectacular turning and dealing; they were face up but are now face down; the coin under there has moved. But the most basic and repeated use of magic standards robs the audience of that important surprise moment. We know the girl cut in three’s getting put back together; that the envelope containing predictions will be correct. If someone recites the plot of Sixth Sense half a dozen times, nobody’s going to gasp when it gets to the big line again.

In rare moments of creativity, the most visually impressive opens on Brian May’s solo from Bo-Rap, where a cloaked and horned Devil shoots puffs of flames from his sleeves, flickering off the cave walls of a jarringly good and firey Hell set, where half-dressed demon girls writhe and cavort around… another fucking magic cabinet. Inside is Dobson, in chains and doing a dramatic pout. This guy spends so much time in boxes, I think he’s half cat. The cabinet’s closed and hoist into the air, set alight by a big satanic prong — oh no, Wayne Dobson’s dead! Oh, there he is; he’s the Devil; in a really slow, dramatic reveal, which is unnecessary, as we all saw the original Devil vanish out of the shot just before, and anyone who’s seen a magic show — even this magic show — has seen the trick before.


Getting into the back half of the first series, it’s the most ‘more of the same’ since the debut run of Little and Large. Sam Shovel searches for Lori Longlegs in a chamber of horrors, finding her in a magic sarcophagus, with the middle stomach section missing – “I wasn’t gonna be fooled, I could see right through her… this dame had obviously gone to pieces.” In another cabinet, Lusardi’s strapped in, but loses her dress and switches place with Dobson, and when we reach episode six, Lusardi appears inside a locked trunk, in a denouement that’s so obvious I thought it must be a misdirect, but no, this is all cabinets and trunks now. I am writing this from inside a trunk. You are reading it from inside a trunk. I lift and drop a purple satin sheet and we have magically switched places. Both still in trunks, just, the opposite ones. This series too should be put inside a magic cabinet. Well, not a magic one, just a cabinet, one with a sturdy lock on it, which should then be thrown on a bonfire. A Kind of Magic ran for another pair of six-episode series, and though I didn’t watch them, I did a find an extensive segment by segment breakdown. Here’s a sample of the 1991 series:

     Closing illusion: Linda’s locked in a ‘tanning machine’ which has neon lightbulbs pushed through.

     Closing illusion: Linda’s locked inside a cabinet and divided into nine pieces.

     Closing illusion: Wayne cuts Linda into three pieces.

     Closing illusion: Linda’s sawn in half.

And 1992’s:

     Closing illusion: Sawing A Woman In Half — Wayne cuts Annabel Croft in half while she’s standing up.

     Closing illusion: Sawing a woman in half.

     Closing illusion: Wayne cuts Liza Goddard into four pieces, and then mixes them up.

In 2022, Dobson made his live comeback, but now sadly in a wheelchair and paralysed from the neck down, has an onstage assistant to act as his hands. For their sake, I hope they like opening and closing little doors.

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it a month before it landed here. If you’d like to support me for as little as £1 a month, then click here to help provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, early access to my videos, my podcast, and all kinds of other stuff.

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~ by Stuart on May 8, 2023.

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