"My style's not my uncle and it's not Dynamo. It's somewhere in the middle."
James Phelan is a magician taking his first show Troublemaker to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe but being the nephew of legendary magician Paul Daniels, was it always inevitable that this is where he'd end up? I caught up with him to find out as he talks at great length about the influence his uncle has had on his career.
We also discuss his never-aired Britain's Got Talent audition and the real reasons why despite getting through, audiences never got the chance to see him on screen.
Why have you decided to make your debut this year?
I've never been before despite my auntie and uncle always trying to persuade me to go up there. Not to see them but just to experience it all and I was desperate to come last year but I was piloting a telly thing and a few other things came up which meant I wasn't able to go. And that's wasn't to perform, that was just to go up and enjoy it.
So I spent the whole of August feeling like I was missing out so this year I decided to just go for it really and jump in with two feet.
The show itself is a new show but I've been touring a version of it so there's some familiar stuff in there and by the time we get to August I will have been working on it for two years so it felt like the right time.
Did having Paul Daniels as your uncle mean you were always destined to become a magician?
I think it probably did to be honest.
I remember when I was four and my teacher asked me "What do you want to be when you grow up?" and I said "I want to be a magician" to which she said "You'll never make any money doing that" so I said "Well my uncle has!" and she said "Who's your uncle?" and I said "Paul Daniels" and this was when he was still on telly and she got so embarrassed that she called up my parents to apologise!
I learnt magic by sitting and watching The Paul Daniels Magic Show on repeat and then I'd work out how to do it. Two years later at just 6 I remember getting up in front of the whole school and doing a trick I'd seen my uncle did. And a few years ago I actually found out that my technique was right!
I've never really wanted to do anything else. I gave up magic to do my GCSEs and A-Levels so that I could get my head down and then I went to university, gave up to then pick magic back up again.
When I was 13/14 I was putting on stage shows after emailing lots of amdram groups going "Can I come and your warm up your production?" so if I look at every aspect of my life it's always been there and what I wanted to do.
How much did Paul teach you?
He taught me a lot but didn't teach me tricks until I was older. I learnt indirectly by just watching him and once I had an idea of how something was done I'd ask him and he'd tell me.
I taught myself a one-handed cut one time and I showed him and he told me to put a pack in my other hand, ignore that hand, look at the hand you can do and the other hand will do itself. So little stuff like that was quite nice. He taught me the vocabulary for speaking to people on stage.
Everything I learnt came from watching him, I didn't watch any other magician for a long long time. Probably not until I was 18.
Did you realise how big Paul Daniels was?
Not at all! When you're younger, you don't really understand it. I just thought that was his job in the same way some people are firefighters. I had no concept of what it meant at all.
When I was in Year 4 I went to my teacher and said "My uncle is going to come and do a show for us this Christmas" and she said "Who's your uncle?" so I told her and then when I went home and asked him, he told me he was doing panto in Windsor but took time off to come and do it.
How would you describe your style of magic?
Very light hearted. My style's not my uncle and it's not Dynamo. It's somewhere in the middle. We just have fun for an hour to be completely honest. It's basically an hour of escapism and magic is what makes it all happen.
Is there a lot of audience participation?
Yeah, 100%! There are some things I do with the whole audience which they don't really know about until right at the end.
I usually have a couple of people who are on stage for a large part of the show so we get to know them really well. It's worth saying that they only come up if they want to come up.
Why have you decided to call the show Troublemaker?
The last show, which I didn't take up to Edinburgh was called Trickster and the show was built not to do magic for magic's sake but to pull people legs and have a laugh together so Trickster is actually an ideal title.
But then I put together this pilot for TV which was called Celebrity Troublemaking and it was me, Biggins, Suzanne Shaw, Joe McFadden and a few other people and it's where a lot of the stuff that's in the show was born. So whilst Troublemaker doesn't shout magic that loudly, it does say what the show is which is a tongue-and-cheek hour where I play some pranks.
Magic has had a bit of a resurgence lately thanks to Britain's Got Talent, a show which you auditioned for but didn't make it to air. What happened?
My audition went really well, and it was recorded in January, before Paul fell ill and the audition was due to go out in April or May, just a few weeks after he had passed away. But the tone of it was completely wrong and that's why the decision was made to cut it from the show.
For me, I loved the experience. There was no real pressure on me at that point so I just had the best time. It gave me a huge confidence boost and despite it never airing on TV, I could never have hoped for the amount of press coverage that came off the back of it. It gave me a real leg up for when I started touring.
I know the show can get a bit of a bashing but I just think it's brilliant to have variety back on television.
Would you go back and audition again?
It's something I toyed with for a long time, but the reason I didn't do it last year was because I was busy with the TV pilot and the radio show but I'm still in two minds about whether to go back or not.
Ben Hart is fantastic, John Archer is fantastic and I'd love to be rubbing shoulders with those guys but then again if my uncle was alive he would have told me to steer well clear. I'm playing with the idea at the moment but I probably will find myself back there again.
What are you most looking forward to about Edinburgh this year?
I'm just so excited to be up there. I'm looking forward to seeing as much as I possibly can. I have a couple of friends who are up there which will be nice and I'm just looking forward to performing every day and performing as much as I can every day.
You do Edinburgh because you love it I guess so the ability to be able to perform non-stop is definitely what I'm looking forward to.
Finally, how would you sum up this year's show in just five words?
Nothing like you've seen before.
James Phelan: Troublemaker runs from 31st July - 26th August (not 14th) at 6.45pm at the Gilded Balloon Teviot (Dining Room). Book tickets here.