His first series brought in an average of 1.7 million viewers – this, on a non-Freeview channel that would consider anything over 100,000 a success. What is the appeal? He leans back and thinks. He doesn’t look all that ordinary when you study him – he has weirdly blue eyes, and although small and narrow, he looks nimble and fleeting, as if he could fly off at any second. “In this day and age, you walk down the street and you’ve got everything shoved in your face. We’re in a consumer market where we’re constantly force-fed, we consume what’s given to us. But people like what they don’t understand. They like mystery.” When he walked on water, “I didn’t tell anybody I was going to do it, I didn’t advertise it. It was about that moment, and anybody who happened to be there got to witness a spectacle that will never happen again. It’s always about keeping that sense of wonder. I get to create little moments of astonishment.”
But times aren’t so great for other television magicians. Last week, both the BBC and ITV cancelled their Saturday night magic shows, The Magicians and Penn & Teller: Fool Us. “I believe that part of it was that the style of the shows was still that cliched magician,” he says.
“Shiny-floor shows in general, studio-based shows, have kind of been done to the hilt. There’s so much competition out there, and I think they weren’t doing anything that was different enough to keep people interested. But the magic on the shows was amazing – Penn and Teller are geniuses. I hope I’m as successful as them in years to come.” The mainstream channels must be casting a greedy eye over him. He sinks back into the sofa. “I guess so, but I’m happy with Watch at the moment. Everyone has knocked us back over the years.”
So what’s next? Does he feel he has to keep going bigger and better?
The new series features one illusion where he walks down the side of the LA Times building. “I don’t really like to put a scale on what I do. I treat walking on the Thames with the same approach as I treat a pack of cards. It’s more about how amazing the magic is. I like doing magic with nothing, like just my hands.” He bends his little finger as if it were clay – the same trick he once showed a horrified Prince Charles, who had invited him to a party at Clarence House. He takes a pack of cards on the table in front of us, shuffles them, hands as fast as dragonflies, and makes one of the cards disappear in his hand, then reappear. I feel myself do a cartoonish, wide-eyed gasp. He smiles. He never gets tired of people’s reactions, he says.
Dynamo grew up moving around some of Bradford’s most deprived housing estates. He has three half-siblings, but they are much younger, so he spent a good deal of his childhood as an only child. Or a “lonely child” as he puts it. His mum was just 16 when she became pregnant, and his father was around until he was “about three or four”, but then he was in and out of prison and not a part of Dynamo’s life. “My mum had boyfriends, but I was at the age where I was old enough to know that this person wasn’t my father, but too young to really fully understand the situation. It’s not like I missed my dad. I didn’t know, because I never had it.” He didn’t visit him in prison. “I spoke to him when I was about 18. He had just got out of prison and called my grandma to have a chat. I met up with him for a bit, but then it was kind of like, I don’t really see myself as having a father any more. I’ve got past that age. I’ve had to raise myself, be the man in my own life. My grandpa helped out a lot.”
He moved in with his grandparents (actually, his great-grandparents) when he was 16. “They protected me and looked after me, and more than anything, they encouraged me. There were so many people who were telling me to get a proper job. My grandpa was the one person who always told me to pursue magic. He got me into it, and without his belief in me, I wouldn’t have been able to get where I’ve got.”
until now, Dynamo – real name Steven Frayne – has never spoken about the life-or-death health struggle that led him to pursue his magic dream.
The 29-year-old – nicknamed Magician Impossible – was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease as a teenager, leaving him facing an impossible choice: months of debilitating dialysis or a life-threatening operation.
His brave decision changed the course of his life and would end up making magic cool again.
‘All the kids at school had gone through puberty and were 10 times bigger than me,’Dynamo tells Now’s Dan Wootton.
‘I had loads of tests over the course of a year and eventually I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease.
‘My body has to fight it every day. It’s physically painful to digest food.
‘It’s a bit like having an open wound inside your tummy.
‘Every time you eat it’s like rubbing dirt into that wound. It never heals.
‘It was so uncomfortable when I was going out on dates and I had to spend 30 minutes in the toilet.
‘I was on 25 tablets a day and partly because of that I developed an abscess in my stomach when I was 19.
‘That put me in hospital for four months for more tests.
‘The doctors came to me with two options.
‘I could stay in hospital on dialysis for another six months and be too weak to do anything.
‘Or I could have an op to remove half of my stomach, which was a new procedure and had never been done on anyone as young as me before.
‘It was life-threatening and I was told that if it didn’t work I would die.
‘They took out part of my small bowel that was inflamed, then stitched it back up.’
When Dynamo woke up he couldn’t feel his legs because they’d cut through nerves in my tummy.
‘I’d basically ended up disabled,’ he recalls.
‘I had to learn to walk again.
‘I had no strength or control – I couldn’t even pick my legs up.
‘I was another six months in hospital.
‘I wanted to be going out to clubs and meeting people.
‘Then afterwards I was embarrassed by my scar.
‘It took me a long time to realise that girls like scars – the S-shape of mine even makes the definition of my abs better!’
Dynamo had been born with Crohn’s disease, the chronic digestive condition, which meant eating was uncomfortable and he was small for his age (he has to follow a strict diet and is in constant pain, “but because I’m so focused on the magic, I don’t really allow myself enough time to relax and let the pain take over”). It made him a target for bullies, whose tormenting escalated to the point where he would be picked up and thrown in wheelie bins in front of crowds who had gathered to watch.
His great-grandfather Ken was a second world war veteran who had learned tricks in the navy. He died earlier this year, but lived long enough to see his great-grandson well on his way to becoming a magic superstar. “The first thing he ever showed me was how to take away the bullies’ strength,” he says. The trick he learned – he still uses it today, once to baffle the heavyweight boxer David Haye – makes him impossible to physically pick up.
Rumours spread around the school that he had super powers. “At the beginning, people thought I was weird, but slowly it got to the point where people wanted to see me do things.” Magic, he says, “gave me the power to bring people to me. It gave me an edge, something to make me unique. The only reason I stood out before was being the smallest kid in school. This made me different, but in a way that was positive.”
Dynamo dropped out of college and his media studies course. He had already decided on a career in magic, and thought going to live in Las Vegas would be the best way to do it. His grandmother lives in America and spent her time traveling to dog shows. “She had 19 award-winning golden retrievers,” he says. “She was doing a tour of America, and invited me to go with her. She was going to places I wanted to go, like Vegas and New Orleans, quite magical. I saw this as a learning experience.”
Back in Bradford, he trained to be a croupier at his local casino and got a gaming license. “I was all set to go out to Vegas, but I took a few trips there and started to realise it was where the big magicians go to towards the end of their careers, where they just want to chill and stay in one theatre and do shows night after night. I wanted to use my magic to travel and see places.”
His friends were into hip-hop and were making DVDs of themselves rapping and break dancing. “I thought, I want to do what they’re doing, but with magic.” Around the same time, a stomach abscess meant he had to spend six months in hospital. “I had a lot of time on my hands. I realised in there that if I had died, what would people remember me for? My magic was the one thing that would leave me a legacy.”
He spent the time thinking about his future, and wrote a business plan to pitch to the Prince’s Trust for a start-up loan to buy a laptop and video camera. Although he says they didn’t really understand what this “magic mixtape” idea was, they were so inspired by his enthusiasm, they approved him on the spot.
A born blagger, he got past doormen and backstage security guards and persuaded numerous celebrities, such as Chris Martin, Ian Brown and Snoop Dogg, to appear on the self-made DVD, Underground Magic, which came out in 2005. “I made the DVD, put it on the website and with no advertising sold 8,000 copies in a month.”
It would have been easy, he says, with his celebrity contacts – Lewis Hamilton is a friend, but there are plenty of others including Ashton Kutcher, Richard Branson, Will Smith, Tinie Tempah, Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney, who are all fans – “to come back with series two, all glitzy and glam, but what we’ve done is allow people who have supported it from the beginning to pick up where we left off and come along for the journey. You see it go from me still being relatively unknown to shutting down Westfield when I went shopping [he tweeted he would be there and thousands of people turned up]. I had to have eight security guards to get me out. You see the transition from being a normal guy to …” He pauses. I can feel eyes on us through the window behind me as time runs out and the people around him start to worry about the next stop on his schedule.
“It’s very weird. I don’t think I’ll ever fully feel this is normal. It’s crazy the way people have taken to me and my show. One thing the first series gave me, the success of it, was the confidence that people like me for who I am. For the first time in years, I feel accepted.”