‘Beyond Belief’ was already an apt title for famed UK magician Dynamo’s new documentary series, but recent weeks have underscored its prescience. Just weeks before the world premiere of the new show, which documents Dynamo’s lifelong experience of chronic pain (and demonstrates how magic helped him through a particularly dark health crisis in 2017), the 37-year-old performer returned a positive test for COVID-19.
He’s no stranger to self-isolation of course, having lived with Crohn’s Disease and its associated complications since he was 14; he says he has been “in and out of hospitals since I was 17”. However, in a real-life demonstration of the resilience we see play out on screen, it’s now a few weeks since the Coronavirus diagnosis, and Dynamo is doing video interviews for the new show, and is happy to report he feels as though he is over the worst of the symptoms. Rather than dwell on the negative, he’s determined to find ways to use his own experience of invisible illness to inspire others.
Dynamo: Beyond Belief (SBS, from Saturday 18 April and available at SBS On Demand ) blends spectacle with memoir, as the celebrated illusionist uses before-and-after storytelling to demonstrate how his love of magic has sustained him through a period of lengthy setbacks. He shares his personal video diary of a two-year recovery period (sparked by a bout of food poisoning that culminated in debilitating arthritis), inter-cut with more recent scenes of high concept new tricks, all of which were conceived during said recovery period (sometimes with the inspirational aid of heavy medication). They involve souped-up street cars in Tokyo, nightclubs in Moscow, and a certain notorious facade that straddles sections of the U.S. southern border. The stunts need to be seen to be believed, and even after seeing the series, you'll likely be scratching your head about most of them...
Thank you for taking the time to do this, Dynamo. Let's start with the million dollar question: How are you?
Oh, no problem at all, thank you for joining me on chat. I'm doing really well. My show came out here UK over the bank holiday weekend and the response has been amazing, I mean, the energy from the fans has been giving me that boost that I think I needed over the last few weeks.
I'm super excited because a lot of my followers from Australia, they’ve been tweeting and they've been very upset, that they've not been able to watch my show. They've been asking me for links to watch it on YouTube and everything and I've been like, I know the show's coming out soon, but I didn't want to obviously ruin the surprise, but yeah, it's pretty awesome that it's going to be on in Australia, at a similar time as it is here in the UK. It's only a week apart.
Can you talk us through the timeline of the new series?
Yeah. So the story basically starts literally when I was at the height of my fame; I just finished the arena tour. I mean, I've toured Australia, and South Africa, I've done a UK tour, I've headlined three shows at the O2 Arena here in London, and I was the first magician in history to do that. And I was literally flying high and I just got the deal to do a new TV series with the Sky here in the UK. And I was super excited to make it, and I probably would have ended up making Magician Impossible 2.0, it would have probably followed a similar format to my old show. And just when we're about to start filming the food poisoning hit me and like I say, I got rushed to the hospital and I didn't expect that it would take two years to fully recover, get back to a place where I was able to perform again.
But in those two years I had so many ups and downs. When I first got rushed to hospital because of the food poisoning, it was the worst pain I've ever had and I didn't realise it would go on to be the thing that would be a catalyst to a new problem in my life: arthritis.
"I have to use this adversity and turn it into something positive"
Because of the medication that I'm taking now, it's allowed me to get full use of my hands again. But when I lost the use of my hands, and the use of all my joints in my body, it ended up causing me to re-evaluate my whole approach to magic.
Rather than being a defeatist and let it stop me doing magic altogether, it just ended up giving me inspiration to take a new path in a new direction in magic. And it actually gave the show a purpose and it wasn't necessarily even about me anymore. When I first put up that video explaining my condition and what I was going through and I looked very different from how I look now because of the medication I was on.
I was kind of forced to do it because the paparazzi got pictures of me, and my appearance had changed so much. But it was almost impossible to hide because I was always just trying to keep it within the family. I didn't want to burden other people with my problems. I just get on with things as I always have done, but then when I came out and made the video, the response from that video was overwhelming. And it showed me that I wasn't alone in this and it also showed me how many other people out there are going through similar things and to almost need some representation of that to maybe get them to feel comfortable being themselves, living with this invisible illness, living with this condition that people often don't understand.
Then I realised that you know what, with my magic and with the reach I've got, and the opportunities that I have, I can't waste this now. I have to use this adversity and turn it into something positive. But it's not about me in some respects. Yes, it's my story, but it's also the story of many other people, millions of people around the world going through similar situations, living with it. Not many people understand it. And now this show hopefully connect them more than ever before. I'm using magic as a connector because magic's always been the thing that's got me through it. But it might inspire them to use the thing that they're passionate about to help them get through their worst times.
What state were you in when you came up with the new ideas?
I started to focus from the hospital bed on how I could bring magic to life in a different way. Maybe by putting the magic into the audience’s hands. Or using my mind rather than just using my body and being able to do magic in a different way completely. And I spent hours and hours awake on highly powerful medication. I was really on a lot of medication on a drip whilst I was in the hospital bed.
So yes, I'm not going to lie, some of the ideas were pretty out there. I used the medication to my benefit and it kept me going. I'd literally fill my notebook full of ideas, and then when I finally got better, I was able to bring these ideas to life and they became Beyond Belief. Now, I think I would have made a TV show irrespective of whether we ended up in hospital. But I think the magic in the new show and the story and the direction of it, wouldn’t be what it is without going through the pain, and I think the show is better for it.
I do see it as a blessing in disguise and I'm super excited to see people watch it, hear their reactions.
The response here in the UK has been phenomenal so far, and I'm hoping it's inspired people in this dark time and at least giving them a bit of escapism and showing that in spite of what's in front of you, whatever comes your way it is possible to go through it and live through it and come out the other side happier. And I think I'm a better person for having had the adversity happen to me and now I’m just super excited to hopefully inspire the next generation.
With the magic, how do you balance the spectacle of the performance, so that you connect with someone seated in the nosebleed section at the arena show, compared to the 1:1 intimacy that we see in this documentary, where the magic happens through a personal encounter with you. How do you manage the spectacle, as a performer?
I personally prefer the intimate stuff. They're my favourite places to perform.
I've never been this guy who really wanted to go on stage. It took me a lot of hard work and a lot of shows to fully feel comfortable walking out on that stage. But it was partly a re-framing of my approach to it, because I used to walk out on stage thinking, ‘Oh my God, there's all these people here to stare at me and they're going to judge me, they're going to expect things’. But then once I got past that initial fear and started to enjoy it and started to realise that these people aren't here to judge me, or to criticise me. We're in this together. When I'm walking out on stage and I'm sharing something in a moment with these people. So when I walk out on that stage, I'm walking out there with 12 000 people, not in front of 12 000 people.
When I think about my performances, I think it makes the performances about the people moreso than about me. And I'm getting to experience it too. And I'm reacting to the same things they're reacting to. And I think that's why I always think magic is like a great connector. And in this series you see, we film in six different countries. In some of the countries I performed some of the magic in the language of the country I'm in. When I'm in Japan or when I'm in Russia, in Mexico, in America and I think I just really wanted to show how magic is a great connector and hopefully it will connect to people through the screens in the way that it does when I'm up close and personal with people on the streets or on the stage.
Speaking of America, this isn’t really a spoiler to allude to it, but there’s a scene that takes place at the infamous USA/Mexico border wall. Can you talk about the planning of that, how long is that in the planning and in the execution? As much as you can tell us…
Sure, the initial idea that came was when I was in my hospital bed and at that time, on the news that's pretty much what was the main topic of conversation. You couldn't really get away from it. You really couldn’t. I think it became an ambition and I've always, throughout my creation of magic, tried to pick up the most amazing things that are really going to captivate people. And when I was making Magician Impossible, obviously I'd done big spectacles: I walked across the River Thames; I'd levitated above The Shard. I did all these crazy big stunts and I knew that people would expect me to come up with something big like that. It just seemed like the perfect thing.
I knew I was coming to America, I knew I was going to go to Mexico. It just made sense. I'm not going to spoil it too much. Because I want you guys to see and enjoy it firsthand. But yeah, it’s one of the riskiest things I've ever done, but I think it's one of the most impressive.
That scene is so obviously specific to the location. What about the others? Are they tailored to the location themselves, and did you take time to embed yourself to get acquainted with the language, in order to set them up?
Oh yes, whenever I'm going anywhere, I always try and embed myself into the culture as much as I possibly can, from reading books about the place I'm going to visit, and then trying to pick up the languages and just really try and make the magic meaningful for the people there. Because I'm lucky enough to get to travel to these places, I don't want to be that typical Brit abroad, just bringing my Britishness to everywhere I go. I also want to learn about what happens, in Australia or what happens in India or what happens in Japan.
And I really try and take that experience and let it inspire me because most of my magic comes from being inspired by the experiences I go through. This whole show was inspired from the darkest time in my life. The places I go to are big places. You asked me earlier about if I ticked off places from my bucket list and like going to Tokyo, going to Mexico, these are all places that I wanted to go for Magician Impossible, but I just never got the opportunity to do it. And one day I hope to go to Australia to do some magic. I've done live shows, but I've never done one of my spectacles in Australia, so maybe that would be next. Watch this space!
Great. When we can all fly again..
Yes, good point.
At the other end of the spectrum, there’s one scene in the series, in episode 2, that is on a much smaller scale, but it deals with coincidence. You have having people think of someone dear to them, and then that person calls. Part of me just really wants to know how you did that..
..But I bring it up because it’s really very touching. Maybe it’s because of where we are in the world right now, but we were talking about connecting on an intimate level, and to see those reactions, must be pretty special for you, to know you’ve had a profound impact.
Absolutely, I think right now it's so relevant, I mean that's possibly one of the only ways we are able to communicate with people, through our devices right now. I do genuinely think the story will resonate with people on a slightly deeper level because of what everyone's going through. In some ways, in spite of what everyone's going for right now, I think the story hopefully will be a little bit of uplifting in this negative time.
As someone with great experience of self-isolation, you’d have a unique perspective on this time. Have you been using the recovery from Coronavirus to contemplate some even bigger tricks when you can emerge again?
I have been using this time, to generate new ideas and obviously there was a time when I was bedridden and I was going through it and wasn't able to really think straight. But since I've been getting better, I've been using this time wisely and I do recommend that people try and use his time. There is obviously positives to being at home a lot more than normal. Maybe if you've got children and you're used to going out to work every day, you get to spend a bit more time with your kids.
I think using this time and taking something positive away from it, is a tip I'd give to anybody in isolation right now. And that's definitely what I'm trying to do. I've spent a lot of time throughout my life isolated, be it in hospital or be it when I was growing up, when my mum wasn't around, my father was in jail and I had to hideaway in my bedroom, and I had nothing but my imagination and a pack of cards to keep me entertained.
And that's where my initial magic stems from, with help from my grandfather as well. I think right now I'm just using this time to dedicate it to create new magic so that when the world goes back to a bit of normality, I've got something new to share with people. And it can be something that anybody at home listening or reading or watching this, could do themselves. If you are wanting to learn a language, then this is the perfect time. We've got a lot of time on our hands to maybe try that.
Or, I've got friends who are musicians and they are using this time to write new songs. I’ve been speaking on the phone to a good friend of mine, and I know that he's spending time with his children, but he’s creating new music, for when he can eventually go on tour again. So yeah, I think for me, I spent a lot of time in isolation. I feel like I'm almost a perfect candidate to deal with it because I get most of my best ideas when I'm left to my own devices. But I think for everybody else, I just recommend try and learn a new skill in this time, so when you see your friends again, you have something exciting and new to talk about. That you didn't have before we went into this situation.
That's good advice. And are you watching anything while you're in isolation? Are you a big binger of movies and TV?
I've watched a few shows. I don't know how relevant they are to Australia, but... So I have watched this TV series called Bulletproof, which is a Sky One original. It's about these two cops. In some ways a bit like Starsky & Hutch, but a modern day version. The two lead actors (Noel Clarke and Ashley Walters) are both actually friends of mine; we've come up together, in that I've been on TV, at the same time they've been on television. And to see them have this super successful cop drama show is really exciting. I really enjoyed their show. I ended up watching all two series back to back in the space of a few hours. So it was really good and that's what I've been watching. And now everyone keeps telling me, I've got to watch this Tiger show.
…Got to check that out. Tiger King, that's it, yeah. Apparently I've got to watch that.
Remaining episodes of Dynamo: Beyond Belief premiere Saturday 25 April and 2 May at 7.30pm. Catch up with episodes at SBS On Demand after they go to air.
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