Three zombie Nazis walk into a 1940s magic shop…
This might sound like the set-up to a late-night pub joke, but it’s a scene from the second series of the Michael Sheen/David Tennant fantasy TV show Good Omens. Viewers who admire contemporary magic may have had a pleasant surprise: the shop’s ill-fated proprietor, Pat, is played by Pete Firman, one of the scene’s brightest stars. Speaking to Northern Soul, Firman still seems quite taken aback. “I was surprised to get that gig,” he admits.
In truth, there was no better choice. In recent years, Middlesbrough-born Firman has become magic’s poster boy. Familiar from a long string of TV appearances, he’s embraced the possibilities of social media, performing quick tricks on video and sharing them far and wide. To some degree, this has impacted on the audiences for Firman’s sell-out live shows, as reflected by the title of his current tour, TrikTok.
“As a man pushing his mid-40s, I just thought referring to a social media platform wasn’t a bad thing,” he says. “In the last couple of years I’ve really jumped on this social media thing. I really have enjoyed it, it’s gone well – the numbers and the views, all the analytics, for want of a better description. I’ve had all of that online material in my head as I’ve been creating the live show, because it is a different thing. Much to my chagrin, you really have to capture the audience’s attention in the first three seconds with those kinds of videos. Obviously, it’s a different kettle of fish when you’re doing a live show. You couldn’t do two hours’ worth of those 60-second, bang-bang-bang-bang TikTok videos.”
Sure enough, venturing into the world of social media has won Firman many new fans.
“I’ve always had quite a broad audience, a good cross section, but I’m definitely noticing more younger people. I wouldn’t say I’ve toned the show down or anything, but we always had a 14+ age restriction in previous years, because there was the odd swear word or whatever. Well, I’ve been a bit more mindful of that and we’ve knocked it down to 11+. The show’s never been filthy, but certainly in terms of writing it this year, I’ve been like ‘OK, maybe that’s maybe one too many F-bombs, Pete. You don’t need to do that in a card trick’.”
In essence, though, TrikTok sees Firman doing what he’s always done, albeit to a steadily growing audience. “I would say the live show’s half stand-up, half magic. It’s hopefully as funny as it is amazing, and if you’re a magic fan, I try and tick as many boxes as I can – sleight of hand magic, there’s some mind reading…and someone may float in the air in this show. If people leave having had a really good time, laughed a lot and with slack jaws because they’ve seen some amazing things, then I feel like I’ve done my job.”
In some ways, Firman is trying to bring the ancient art of magic into the 21st century, which can be, well, tricky.
“The internet has been a wonderful thing because suddenly the world’s a smaller place and you’re interacting with people from all corners of the world. But from a magician’s point of view, in terms of keeping secrets, 200 years ago these mysteries would be in these books, or they would be handed down from master to student. Now you just go on Google or YouTube and type in ‘card trick’. But it doesn’t really bother me too much, because I think anyone with a bit of appreciation would understand, ‘okay, maybe I do know how that’s done, maybe I figured that out. But I couldn’t do it’. I know how a guitar player plays the guitar. I know you put your fingers on the frets and you press the strings, but it’s bloody marvellous to see it done well.”
Middlesbrough might not be a place that springs to mind as a hotbed of magic but, in the 80s, when Firman was growing up there, the UK’s most famous magician proved to be an inspiration.
“Paul Daniels was the big boy on telly at the time, and actually he’s a son of Middlesbrough. People ask me if I’m a member of the Magic Circle, and I’m not because the Magic Circle is very London-centric, but I’m a proud honorary member of the Middlesbrough Circle of Magicians. I got involved with those guys when I was quite young, like 12 or 13. They had a junior section and they were enthusiasts and semi-pros and professionals. They were very helpful and encouraging. They would lend you books and stuff like that. That was a really important part of learning the trade.”
Mixing magic and comedy is something that Firman has always done.
“I cut my teeth in comedy clubs,” he says. “When I first started doing magic on stage, I needed to find somewhere that I could go and learn my trade. There’s no magic circuit, so if you wanted to go and jump up on stage and do five or ten minutes, the comedy circuit, open mics or new material nights, were the only real option. Luckily, there were half a dozen pretty close to where I was as living at the time in North London, so I went down and I gave it a go. I did that thing, which I’ve subsequently spoken to stand-ups about, when you do your very first gig and it goes well, and you think ‘I’m a natural here, this is gonna be a doddle’ – and then you do the second, third, fourth and you die on your arse. I quickly realised that no one had gone to a comedy club to see a magic act, so it wasn’t going to be enough to just turn up with a pack of cards and do the trick and think that would serve the purpose. I realised I was going to have to work on jokes, on making the magic things funny.”
Now, it’s become all about the equilibrium between the two elements.
“I think that the comedy is as important as the magic. I really want people to have laughed a lot and be amazed. I am genuinely trying to deliver on the magic side of things as much as the comedy.”
A good omen
It’s been a pretty long journey from the junior wing of the Middlesbrough Circle of Magicians to Firman’s aforementioned appearance in Good Omens. Though the show is masterminded by Neil Gaiman, the scene in question was written by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, both devoted magic fans who know Firman – not that any party was aware when he trying for the part.
“It was written by Andy and Jeremy, but completely unbeknownst to me,” he says. “A casting call went out saying they were looking for an actor that could potentially do a little bit of magic. My agent called the casting director and said ‘I’ve got a magician that can do a little bit of acting, do you want to see him?'”
Having got the part, Firman was impressed with the degree of magic knowledge displayed in the script and duly made the connection to Dyson and Nyman. “There was lots of these little references peppered through, and I know that Neil Gaiman is a magic fan as well, so I thought ‘maybe Neil is more into it than I know’. Then when I found out it was Andy and Jeremy it made more sense, because the references were really kind of niche.”
He found the experience of filming the role a remarkable one. “It’s all a little bit overwhelming, because you’re on this set, and Good Omens is big TV show. It’s American money, it’s Amazon. I mean, I’ve had like very limited experience, but it felt like being on a feature film. Then you’re doing the scene with Michael Sheen and David Tennant, and that’s a little bit intimidating.”
Not only that, but Firman had his brains eaten by The League of Gentlemen – that’s to say, two of those marauding zombie Nazis were played by Steve Pemberton and Mark Gatiss, and his character comes to a grisly end.
“All of The League of Gentlemen were involved in that episode, from Jeremy [Dyson] co-writing it and, obviously, Steve and Mark are in the scene that I’m in. But Reese [Shearsmith] is in the episode as well, so as a massive League of Gentlemen fan, that was a huge thrill too. The whole thing was like a dream job and the response has been great.”
Could it be the gateway to other things?
“It would definitely be something I’d like to do more of,” Firman says. “Hopefully someone in Hollywood is going to see that episode and say ‘you know what, we need an actor who can do a little bit of magic who’s got a Middlesbrough twang, we’ll put him in this new Marvel film’.”
All photos by Karla Gowlett, including the main image of Pete Firman
Pete Firman’s TrikTok is on tour until early 2024, with dates including Halifax, Chorley, Sale, Hull, Sunderland and Barnsley. For more information, click here.