How did an unassuming estate kid get to be an international TV star? David Whitehouse hits the streets of Mumbai with Dynamo
Phones ring. They go unanswered. At the Mumbai headquarters of one of India’s biggest television networks, nobody is doing any work. A few hundred people have gathered on the office floor. Even the janitors have put down their brooms. An anchorman speaks to camera: “You’ve seen him walk down walls like Spider-Man. But he is better than Spider-Man. He is Dynamo!”
Flanked by a full marching band, Steven Frayne steps out of a meeting room and moves towards the centre of the crowd, nervously, more like… well, a spider than a Spider-Man. The audience erupt. Twenty-five million Indians watch on live TV as he performs a card trick and a spot of mind-reading.
“Thanks,” he says, almost whispering. In a country that has people in abundance, this unassuming Bradfordian is suddenly the only man in the room. So how did he get here? That’s the thing about magic. When it’s good, you can’t quite tell how it’s done.
Dynamo’s TV show, Magician Impossible, pulls in huge ratings all over the world. Here in India, it is the most watched series on the History Channel, drawing an average of 25-30 million viewers. Elsewhere it is consistently one of the most popular shows on UKTV’s Watch, where it has twice been Bafta nominated. Repeats of the show have been aired on BBC One, where they picked up a fifth of the available audience. He has a social media following in the millions and a parade of A-list champions that reads like a stock take at Madame Tussauds. His face appears on Pepsi cans, alongside Britney Spears, Beyoncé and Michael Jackson.
“Michael Jackson. How weird is that?” says Dynamo, rhetorically. Massively weird, considering his version of anti-showmanship is the very opposite of a moonwalk.
But, just like Jackson, Dynamo is able to forge a connection with his audience, to elicit a real and dramatic response. He won’t ever have thousands of screaming fans camped outside his hotel window, from which he can dangle a baby, but, regardless, the looks he puts on people’s faces – looks of wonder, of astonishment – come as close to quantifying magic as you are likely to get. This still doesn’t answer the question of how. Unsurprisingly, Dynamo isn’t big on ruining the allure.
“In this day and age, with social media and reality shows, nothing is a mystery any more,” he says. “It’s really hard to surprise people and create spectacle. It’s fine for people to see the man behind the magic, but they never see the workings behind the magic. They connect with me, but they never ruin the mystery of the illusion.”
Keen to see behind the magic, I head across Mumbai to meet him again the next day. The streets are chaotically busy. Tuk-tuks jostle on the roads like blood vessels bursting through arteries during a heart attack. Toast-rack rib cages nudge the skin of dogs. We head to Chor Bazaar – the Thieves Market. The plan is for Dynamo to pitch up and perform for a few of the traders, who sell everything from live chickens to a bashed-up Sega Mega Drive that the magician says he’s going back for later.
Because of Dynamo’s celebrity, and the presence of the TV cameras, a crowd immediately forms, bringing the market to a standstill. Indians are great watchers. He performs a card trick, too complicated to explain here, yet astonishingly simple in its immediacy. How can a man put a card somewhere it didn’t appear to go, namely inside another randomly chosen deck of cards in a randomly chosen stallholder’s briefcase? It is an impressive and unfathomable sequence of events, only done justice by the surprised faces of those who are there to see it. It is magic.
Although Dynamo’s prodigious talent for sleight of hand is never in doubt (at one point I pick a card that promptly vanishes and then reappears a second later inside his mouth), it is his larger-scale illusions that have most significantly increased his fame.
In 2011, he ‘walked’ across the River Thames. The following year, he ‘levitated’ in front of Rio de Janeiro’s Christ The Redeemer statue. A day after I leave him in Mumbai he is scheduled to ‘levitate’ a child, and before I arrived he apparently did “something big” in the Ganges, although he’s reluctant to say exactly what.
“If I say I’m gonna make a plane disappear on TV at 8pm, and then people tune in and I do it, then what’s the surprise?” he asks. “When I walked across the Thames, I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t advertise it. I just picked a day, walked down there with my camera guys and went for it. No hype. No bullsh*t. They see it with their own eyes. Then people tell other people, about the magic, about the art.”
In actual fact there are more than a few ‘camera guys’ behind Dynamo’s illusions. There are a whole team of specialists responsible for creating, planning and executing each one – a process I’m purposely kept far away from, understandably, because the ‘magic’ only works if we accept Dynamo, this unlikely Bradfordian, as not just its face, but the sole keeper of its secrets.
And people seem more willing to do that for him than they do for his many copyists precisely because he is unlikely. He’s more like a movie director than anything else. What he does is a form of art combined with technical prowess – the mixture of imagination and expertise to create an image that observers believe to be real. He knows that if a journalist was to reveal how it was done (and I have no idea), it would be like seeing the guy who operates ET’s face.
“I always had ideas for bigger things,” he says. “But the odds were always stacked against me. Small town. Single mum. Pretty poor. My home estate in Bradford had a rival estate called Woodside. Between the two there was a dam. The kids used to throw me in [the water]. I used to really hate it, so I used to wish that I could walk upon the water.”
The Magician Impossible series (which will bow out after this fourth outing), is part magic show, part narrative travelogue. Each episode is an attempt by Dynamo’s team to embed him, and his magic, in the culture of wherever they’re visiting, from the north of England to the Mumbai café where he’s attracted the attention of two fans who tell him they are film stars (the crew’s Indian fixer later identifies them as being low on the fame scale, more Bollyoaks than Bollywood, but they are fans nonetheless).
Dynamo warmly shakes hands with one of the men, who he later informs has a coin now hidden between his watch strap and his wrist. The assembled café clientele give the illusionist a rapturous reception.
There is something vaguely religious about the whole episode. It looks like he’s working miracles. He even apes them – walking on water, levitating. They’re not miracles, they’re brilliantly executed pieces of theatre, or rather, magic, but they look and feel as if they are miracles. And that’s the stuff on which religions are based… a central figurehead with a unique ability to astound. Someone in whom you believe. And therein lies something at the heart of Dynamo’s popularity. He is the humble man doing extraordinary things.
“In the non-English-speaking countries the reaction is bigger, but it’s always the same thing,” he says. “No matter what different cultural beliefs people bring to it, which different understandings of the process. In some countries they don’t even have playing cards. They don’t necessarily have TV. They don’t tweet, they don’t join Facebook. Some of the places I’ve been to see mobile phones as a foreign object.”
It’s what we believe we understand to be true that divides us. Who owns what land. Which God is the one God. Why one race is better than another. But what we don’t understand can unite us, and magic can be the great leveller. Dynamo knows this and has harnessed it, even if his hands can’t yet produce webs. Well, as far as we know, anyway.
Dynamo: Magician Impossible starts 4 September at 9pm on Watch
(Images: Watch/UKTV; Rex)