Drummond Money-Coutts (affectionately referred to as DMC) is best known as a magician booked by well-heeled and often famous patrons. He is an impressive performer, to be sure, as plentiful film footage and images testify.
What is less well known is his quasi-obsessive quest to expose all practices on the fringe (and often sinister edge) of magic – voodoo, shamanism and the like – and a quiet determination to use his skills and the power of magic ‘for good’. In a grand philanthropic gesture, he once used his TV fees to fulfill the wishes of five less-privileged children, gifting each £1000 to do something they dreamed of. Two years ago, he spent 8 nights sleeping rough in the streets of London to draw attention to the plight of homeless people, in particular the 80 000 or so under the age of 21.
B Beyond’s Theodora Stanton met him at the Lansdowne Club in London’s Mayfair for a conversation accompanied by a short film of magic which is featured on our website, www.bbpublications.org
Is being able to influence peoples reaction and thought process something you have developed over time or did you discover you had it intuitively?
People often say that magic is like music – no one is born with the skills or musical aptitude to play scales and arpeggios and knowing the theory of music but some people are born with the love and commitment that get them through the years of training and practice. I very quickly developed a burning love for magic and for what it can do to people. That drove me through years of practice and training. You need those years of getting it wrong before it becomes intuition.
It’s like zoning. Comedians can sense pockets of the crowd that need lifting and interact accordingly. A soldier can assess a situation and get a feel for danger or threat. When I have cards in my hands I can tune into the people around me: where they’re looking, what they’re doing, what their interests are, where their focus is and how I can manipulate all of that, how I can play with it.
On what basis do you select people that you ask to perform a function? Do they look susceptible or suggestible to influence?
We are all susceptible. We are all psychologically open to magic. You have to pick the right people to make use of and learning that takes a very long time. Some people simply aren’t interested in magic –either because they are not into it, or because the only magicians they have ever seen have been awful. There is so much clichéd magic out there. So many magicians are lacking in subtlety and finesse. It often doesn’t evoke that feeling of awe. About 10% of magicians are very good and 3% are brilliant and you just need to find those in the 3% category.
Who, in your opinion, is the greatest illusionist of all time?
Magic is a very three dimensional thing. It is very hard to quantify or benchmark people beyond a certain level. I grew up watching David Blaine who is a favourite of mine. With Derren Brown, the British mentalist, there is theatre and drama in what he does which is so rare in magic. Magic performances are often so crass.
Derren and David influenced me greatly. There are lots of other magicians who aren’t so commercial – we are hoping to meet them when we make TV series next year. Bebel (a French magician), for example, is a master in everything. In magic the very best are often the underground performers. Most of them are amateurs and have day jobs but they have a great love of magic.
In the film ‘The Illusionist’ there is a series of dramatic scenes during which Eisenheim is ostensibly summoning up ghosts during stage performances. Is this poetic licence or is it possible to make the audience believe they have witnessed the appearance of a ghost? Do you believe in ghosts?
Before doing magic, I read up a lot on ghosts, UFOs, conspiracy theories and ancient Egypt – and all manner of mystical topics. I’ve yet to see any evidence for what could be deemed real magic.
I made a short film last year in India called ‘Why do we believe’ questioning why humans believe in these things in the face of a lack of evidence. It was a very candid look at why we as humans, of any nationality, at any level of development feel the need to believe in ghosts, heaven and hell and other mystical notions. I’ve never seen any true evidence of ghosts – such evidence that does exist has always been anecdotal or questionable. Richard Dawkins says he would love nothing more than to be proven wrong and I feel the same. I have a fascination with and a profound love of magic and would love to see a ghost but looking scientifically at the factual evidence, we’ve nothing irrefutable yet. All ‘evidence’ is circumstantial. Even today with the huge proliferation of cameras and CCTV we’ve yet to find any ghosts. I’m incredibly open to it but their existence has yet to be categorically proven. The jury is open.
What do you think of clairvoyants? Are they clever illusionists or do you think they do have ESP? Do you believe in ESP?
I’ve seen a few; there is certainly no shortage of them. There is a field of magic called Mentalism which consists of mind reading, psychology and esoteric types of magic. As a magician looking at a clairvoyant, it is very obvious what they’re doing. We have techniques that give the same illusion. I could say to someone, think of a pin number and I’ll tell you what that is, or the first person they ever kissed or a piece of information that there is no way I could know. I will write it on a white board and let them know what it is.
Rather than doing this to entertain people, clairvoyants expect us to believe that they are communicating with a long-dead relative who is imparting the information through them. Many clairvoyants perform in theatres, in fact, as they are a form of entertainment. Others, mainly in America, work in little basements. If these people could genuinely talk to the dead and cross over to the other side, we would be solving some of the greatest mysteries of mankind. If these people could really do what they claim they could do, they would be ruling countries.
Clairvoyants, when they are good, tend to rely on cold reading. The technique consists of looking at a person and picking up all sorts of small details and inferring information from that. It’s Sherlock Homes territory, deductive reasoning. You assess something and then infer something – you throw in a P T Barnum statement. Nostradamus is the classical example. People read it and say 9/11 was totally predicted. If you want to read something specific into the predictions, you would find it. In terms of predictions of the future, clairvoyants will throw out a number of things. You sit with them for 2 hours or so and they would see a million different things. When one thing clicks, we believe. It’s the law of averages.
I’ve spent my life studying the way in which people believe and don’t believe in things and the limits to which we as humans can recreate things. We need to as this is what makes us humans and gives us hope. I too am guilty of having rituals and bizarre suspicions myself; it’s just what we do.
People are always fascinated with things they don’t understand. What do you think about voodoo? Have you any experience of it?
In 2011 I went to Tanzania in East Africa to look at witchcraft. We have this fanciful notion today of men with bones going through their noses, with feathers in their hair. Witchcraft now is a very barbaric, sinister, murderous and mafia type business. There’s nothing magical or spiritual about it. It’s like Arthur Miller’s Salem. Ignorance in certain countries fuels this belief in it because people don’t know better. They don’t understand geography or meteorology or the way crops grow or rains fall. They simply blame whatever they’re told to blame. Voodoo is just a way of garnering power.
A professor who studied this in Africa said it was a combination of fear and ignorance and that effectively, whenever you have this in large numbers of people you’re going to have people exploiting it. If you get people into a fearful state you can spoon feed them propaganda – voodoo is just that. From tiny African villages to the highest level of politicians it permeates every level of society and certainly in Tanzania it is incredibly prevalent, very powerful and very sinister. The crossover it has with magic is that it preys on people’s belief systems. As a foreigner it’s very hard to actually meet with a witch doctor, although I did try.
Do you think the belief in the power of voodoo would disappear entirely even if people were educated?
If you look at the history of any country there is always a chapter in which belief systems and magic and voodoo or shamanism would have been abused by a small number of people in order to usurp power. Arguably the Catholic Church did. Greek oracles used magical techniques. If we look hard enough at any of our own history it’s there. Education is the answer.
Are magicians able to beat casinos? Are you?
I would love to say yes and I know many magicians that will claim they can but the level of technology in casinos is such that it is impossible. Be it CCTV or the protocol, the things they have in place make cheating pretty much impossible. Magic and cheating at casinos are very different things. I qualified as a croupier when I left university so I have looked at both but the magicians that do card tricks and say they can win are living in a fantasy.
Is there any game of chance that you can influence the outcome of?
There are games supposedly of chance with cards and dice that I could very easily win but in a casino setting, you’re going to be watched and re-watched. It wouldn’t stand up to that scrutiny. In a private game it would be the easiest thing in a world to sit down and deal four aces, especially to people that don’t live and breathe poker. The analogy is trying to pick a policeman’s pocket in a police station with everybody watching you versus picking the pockets of a drunken man in a night club. It’s a very different thing. Casinos are pretty much impermeable to cheating.
Can you use the power of the mind to wordlessly influence somebody else’s thought process?
They say that communication is 65% physical, 30% tonal and 5% the actual words that you use. It’s very feasible –look at flirting in a bar or at a car salesman. He is the master of charming you physically and verbally with his mannerisms, gestures and open posture. Flirting is the classic example of it: body posture, eyes, blinking. Uri Geller was investigated by the KGB and CIA who were looking at mind control and the extent to which it exists. He became a prolific exponent of mind control and was the
world’s authority on it.
Is magic art or is it craft?
It is both. There are a handful of performers that bring incredible creativity, beauty, elegance and choreography to what they do which is unquestionably artistic. What is art? Something that might provoke you or stimulate the way you think about something. That for me is what magic is all about. Magic is by and large a series of impossible things. There’s no narrative or structure and there’s no meaning; it’s piecemeal.
Magic is entirely in the eye of the beholder if you see it; if not, it’s entirely what you want it to be. It is real if you make it real. I believe in magic within the framework of my definition. You have to decide what it means to you in order to fulfil it.
You decided to go homeless for a few nights to draw attention to the problem. Did you find the experience liberating?
I went homeless for eight nights two years ago for the charity Centrepoint. It was one of those physical and psychological challenges I’d always wondered about; to see the streets of London from the other side.
It’s a strange paradox because you go in both directions. One realises what one does and doesn’t miss. There are so many unnecessary flamboyances in our lives that hold no importance. You realise that human contact is such a huge thing. When you are deprived of physical contact you go into a very closed off mode and it taught me a lot psychologically about how and why we need the people around us.
You also become aware of the way in which people look at, approach and avoid you. There was one wonderful moment when a rubbish truck went past me at about six in the morning and the man driving looked at me and gave me a thumbs-up and a smile. You would never get that on any other day from someone just going about his business. It was a wonderful moment of humanness. It also goes the other way as you see a lot of drunken people and some of them give you abuse. It was a real week of black and white, great extremes.
In the back of your mind you would have known that you were returning to normality at the end of the experiment. Did you ever try and put yourself into a frame of mind where you couldn’t go back to life as you know it? Did the other homeless people pick this up and know you were a fake?
You know you are 3 or 4 days away from going home but in the short term you realise how alone you are. Obviously you know you will return to normality. It’s incredibly easy to say, ‘I’ve had enough, I can just go back and sleep in my bed.’ It was hard not to. There are moments in life when you’re in a very hard situation but there’s no alternative. When you’re faced with that you put your head down and get on with it.
I did Kilimanjaro last year with my father and we had this horrendous blizzard right at the top of the mountain and that was a huge low point. Physically it was hideous but we had no alternative and in that situation you find strength that you never know you had, whereas with the homelessness what was so difficult was going through it. It was brain versus body. It was a hard thing to do knowing the safety net was so present.
Did people know I was not a real homeless person? Most people ignore you and you become just a piece of the scenery. There is no sense of eye contact. Centrepoint was very good in that they said you need to be somewhere which isn’t too hidden so if you run into trouble you are not far from getting help. I found a church – there were drunks that would come past and literally pee next to me and without a second thought; men in suits and quite smart people. You think that if you were a man in a suit sitting there on a bench it would just never happen. There is a certain blindness to homeless people in London.
You did this to raise awareness of homelessness. Did it work?
Homelessness is an issue that plagues every nation of every age of every chapter of history; you’re always going to have people without a home. Boris [Johnson] declared boldly he was going to rid London of homelessness for the Olympics which was a ludicrous claim. Realistically homelessness will always exist but Centrepoint makes huge leaps in alleviating and lessening the burden of it.
The official statistic is that 80,000 people under the age of 21 experience homelessness in the UK. You wouldn’t ever imagine that younger people are out there experiencing this. As with so many of these problems one should and one does do what one can to alleviate it but it will never disappear entirely. That’s my feeling.
Is there anything in particular that you haven’t done that you would like to do? What is it?
I’d love to go back and look at witchcraft properly and make a proper insightful exposé on that world. I have dreams of making television and programs that have real meaning. For me it’s about making magic which does good.
I donated my fee for making a television special to a competition for five children who had their own dreams; I gave them £1000 each to spend on their dreams and it was the greatest joy and privilege to be in the position to do so. Magic isn’t about the money or bonuses that come with it – it’s really about doing good.
It’s the same thing with musicians or actors who use their position to genuinely make differences – be it raising a little bit of money for or awareness of homelessness or of the horror of witchcraft or some other social, economic or environmental problem. That’s all I can really wish for; to do what I do best for as much good as I can.
Photography by Annick Wolfers