Tension and magic on Channel 5: Impossible?

Is Philip Escoffey the best thing since Paul Daniels? Tom Cole visits the home of Richard Desmond's business empire to find out

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Weekday mornings, as packed with commute-and-coffee-themed incident as they may be, don’t ordinarily offer up anything significant enough to shatter one’s core beliefs about perception and reality. But such an intellectual meltdown is, oddly enough, what happened to me when I attended the 9:30am launch of Channel 5’s new magic-based game show, Impossible?

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Bereft of expectations as I arrived at C5’s home, the imposing chrome-and-glass Northern & Shell Building, and after a brief glimpse of channel owner Richard Desmond ascending to the heavens in his gleaming private lift, I followed a group of my fellow hacks into a meeting room, taking a seat as the show’s star, renowned illusionist Philip Escoffey, made his entrance.

Wiry, animated and boasting the sort of natural charisma Ed Miliband would dearly love to possess, Escoffey gave us a brief rundown of his act and the premise of the new series.

Impossible? is essentially a fusion of close-up magic and a guessing game. Participants are led down the primrose path by Escoffey as he sets up an illusion, but before the big reveal they’re asked to decide whether the proposed trick is possible and endlessly replicable, or impossible. And there’s a cash incentive for them to guess correctly.

It sounds simple and it is, but the meat of the show lies in Escoffey’s illusions. They are, without wishing to gush, very impressive indeed. Six of the journalists in attendance (including yours truly) were invited to take part in an impromptu re-creation of the programme at the launch, and during this performance it appeared as though minds were read, chance was overcome and the laws of nature momentarily suspended.

In turn we were each subjected to increasingly impressive demonstrations of the man’s craft, and the press room’s gasps as one were proof, if proof were needed, that Escoffey is a man of considerable talent.

As the morning drew to a close I was asked to have a quick look at a picture postcard, paying particular attention to the people riding in an antique motorcar depicted on it before turning the card facedown. With the benefit of hindsight this was clear misdirection from the illusionist, as my erstwhile partner and I were asked to think of three random numbers and decide whether or not they corresponded with the numberplate on the pictured vehicle.

Well, by this point I was willing to believe that nigh-on anything was possible and voiced my faith in a fragrant new-age idea about the subconscious registering everything a person sees, meaning that we’d probably have got the number right.

As it turned out, my incense-scented hippy beliefs were wrong in the extreme (we didn’t guess correctly and the trick turned out to be ‘impossible’), but Escoffey was generous enough to offer a clear and concise rebuke to my overestimation of human memory, in one move consigning to the dustbin an idea I’d believed in since reading philosopher Colin Wilson as a teenager.

With my knowledge of the mind’s workings duly enriched and my enthusiasm for the programme fired, I meandered back to the Tube aggrieved that I would have to wait the better part of a week before I could see any more of Escoffey’s tricks on TV.

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With an engaging host, an ingeniously simple premise, and some dazzling tricks on display, Impossible? is that rarest of rare beasts: a new TV format that genuinely works. And as Paul Daniels was wont to say, that’s magic.