The Picture Post Challenge

In June 1953 David Berg las received a call krom Frank Dowljng, the editor of Picture Post magazine, Britain's most prestigious weekly news journal. I le wanted to put David's magical skills to the challenge. Did he think he could come up with a stunt worthy of inclusion in Picture Posts pages? It was an offer no magician could refuse.

It wasn't the first time that David had dealt with the Picture Post team. In 1952 they had photographed him at the British Ring Convention in Hastings. Over 400 photographs were taken of David as he walked around town performing tricks for bystanders, producing guinea pigs out of policemen's helmets, making money and cigarettes appear and disappear. It would have been his first piece of national publicity but for the fact that the magician-amazes-Hastings feature was sidelined when two trains collided and the rail disaster story took precedence. But the Picture Post team never forgot their day with David and now they were presenting him with another opportunity for publicity.

In some respects David was an unlikely candidate for the Picture Post story. He wasn't a professional magician and magic was only one of a number of hobbies that occupied his time. He had no shows to publicise and no immediate benefits could be gained from having his name spread across the magazine's pages. It would be some time before the value of the stunt became apparent. For now the enterprise was treated as an interesting challenge but nothing more.

There was a potential sting in the tail. If David succeeded in baffling the Picture Post staff he was guaranteed unrivalled publicity but if they could work out how the stunt was done, they would publish the method in full. Was that okay? David said it was but then throughout his life he has made a practise of saying ves to every challenge. If they had asked him to walk on water he would have said yes and very probably would have done it.

This was long before experience had taught him how to transform minor tricks into major miracles. At the time of the Picture Post phone call he had no idea what he would do. Producing guinea pigs and cigarettes wasn't the kind of stunt they were talking about. It would have to be something seemingly impossible and something so diabolically clever that it would fool the country's foremost journalists. So David did what any other magician would do. He

David Berglas with the committee supervising the Picture Post challenge, just before his attempt began.

David Berglas

David Berglas with the committee supervising the Picture Post challenge, just before his attempt began.

took a bunch of dealer catalogues off his shelf and began to flick through them, looking for impossible things at affordable prices.

He drew up a list of the most common publicity stunts: the blindfold drive, delivering a sealed message and locating a hidden object and pitched them to Picture Post. They loved them all. Why not combine them all? "Why not?" said David still not knowing quite how he was going to make this all work.

Picture Post had a very clear idea of what they needed to make this a sensational story. They would hide an object somewhere in London and David, blindfolded, would find it. It was a simple concept but the conditions thev imposed on the stunt made it impossible to achieve by any of the usual magician's techniques. For a start the object would be chosen and hidden by a trusted member of the editorial staff. He would disclose neither the identity nor location of the object until David had already set out to find it. There would be no writing things down on paper so beloved of mentalists. No opportunity to use clipboards or glimpses or any of the usual ruses. David would also have no contact with the subject, thereby ruling out muscle reading, a technique he had been using for several years when entertaining at private parties.

Secondly, not only did he have to find the location of the object he would also have to discover a secretly selected starting point for this peculiar treasure hunt and the starting point would only be chosen once the search had begun. Thirdly, with David already looking for the object, a committee would choose a route between the starting point and the destination. He would have to try and work that out too. David showed no concern when he heard the conditions and simply agreed to every one. He made only one stipulation of his own and that was that the object should not be hidden on or over water.

On the day of the challenge David had no idea as to whether or not he would succeed. He had made extensive plans but he couldn't cover every contingency and there was much that could go wrong. Nevertheless he tried not to let his apprehension show as he entered the Picture Post offices. The job of hiding the object had been allocated to assistant editor Gordon Watkins. Only he knew what the object was and that morning he had left home especially early in order to hide it. Gordon had obviously watched a lot of spy movies and was fearful, almost paranoid, of being followed. Perhaps he thought David was going to stake out his house in the hope of discovering the object's hiding place. He first drove his car to a London underground station. There he caught a train that took him across town. Then he took a cab. When he was sure no one was following him, he stopped, hid the object and then drove back to his office. He told no one of his morning activities.

When David arrived at the Picture Post offices Gordon Watkins was already there. So too were reporter Trevor Philpott and photographer John Chillingworth. Also there was a panel of celebrities and other witnesses w ho would later testify to the conditions under which the challenge took place. One of them was Mr H. J. Griffiths, the chief engineer from the British School of Motoring. He would play a special part in the proceedings.

The first task of the committee was to blindfold David. Large cotton wool pads were placed over his eyes. A strip of cloth, tied around his head formed a blindfold and held the pads in place. All the materials had been examined and there was no way that he could see through them. Finally, an opaque black cloth sack, which had also been examined, was placed over his head. When the committee was satisfied that David was well and truly blindfolded, he was led out of the offices, downstairs and into a waiting car. He looked like a hostage.

Mr Griffiths, the driving instructor, took the wheel. David sat blindfolded in the passenger seat and Philpott, the reporter, and Chillingworth, the photographer, sat in the back ready for the most bizarre car journey of their lives. Griffiths asked for instructions. "Forward," said David. And forward they went.

David gave directions and Griffiths drove the car. It must have been a peculiar sight. Britain's leading driving instructor taking instructions from a blindfolded magician. They drove across London several times, David somehow managing to sense when they should turn left or right or stop. But as time passed the reporters began to get despondent. A light rain had begun to fall and this added to the gloom that now pervaded the car. Did David really know what he was doing? They seemed to be driving aimlessly for over an hour. When the car reached Berkeley Square David said that he thought this might be the chosen starting point of the journey. Philpott dutifully noted it down. Chillingworth snapped some photographs to further document the decision. Now the pace began to pick up and David's directions seemed more purposeful.

The car, en route, being directed by David.

The blindfolding.

With renewed vigour he directed them down Curzon Street, past Hyde Park Corner, across to Grosvenor Place, around Sloane Square and all the way up to Battersea Bridge, which crossed the River Thames. At this point the reporters began to protest remembering Davids stipulation that the object should not be hidden over water. Surely they shouldn't cross the Thames? David insisted, saying that he wanted them to drive forward and that he felt the object, whatever it was, lay ahead of them. Reluctantly Griffiths drove over the bridge fearing once again that David was not going to succeed. Those fears were quickly dispelled when the car reached the other side of the bridge and they saw a band of photographers ahead of them waiting outside Battersea Park. They were almost there.

David told Griffiths to stop the car. lie opened the door and stepped out into the drizzling rain, Philpott and Chillingworth followed suit. Startled onlookers watched as a man with a cloth sack over his head stumbled blindly into the park followed by a pack of excited reporters and photographers.

In 1953 Battersea Park was a popular tourist spot. It had been the site of the Festival of Britain celebrations and was still peppered with hot dog stands and carnival rides, any one of which could provide a hiding place for the hidden object. David walked past them all, arms outstretched, shuffling carefully to avoid bumping into anything. He walked towards the boating pond and was about to step into the water when Griffiths grabbed him by the arm and dragged him back. David pointed ahead insisting that he had to go in that direction. There was an island in the middle of the pond but the team was temporarily stumped how to get there. Two small pleasure boats were quickly requisitioned from a nearby boat hire and the quest resumed.

David got into a boat with Griffiths who proved to be as good a driver on water as he was on the road. Philpott and Chillingworth followed in a second boat. When the island was

David Chillingworth

reached they all climbed out and followed David who took them to a large flagpole set at its centre. David knelt down and reached into a hole below. He pulled out a sizeable chunk of wood, held it briefly and then cast it aside. He reached into the hole again. This time he pulled out a small canvas bag. He opened it carefully and took out a lady's Chinese slipper. "Gentlemen," he said, "I think this is the object." The search was over. David had accomplished the impossible.

There was much applause and jubilation as they removed his blindfold. Photographers snapped the last of the hundreds of photographs that had been taken that day. David, Griffiths, Philpott and Chillingworth returned to the Picture Post office in triumph where an astonished committee awaited them. As a coda to the stunt, David presented the slipper to one of the ladies, saying, "I think this is yours." Needless to say he was right once again.

The Picture Post stunt was a watershed in David's career. It not only gained him tremendous publicity, it also gave him a taste for producing truly incredible effects. The Picture Post team had demanded the impossible and David had delivered. He would continue producing extraordinary magic for the rest of his career establishing himself as a man of mystery able to accomplish unique and hitherto undreamed of feats which neither magicians nor public were able to fathom.

Revelations: The secrets, for there are many, behind the Picture Post story have remained with David for nearly fifty years and are being revealed here for the first time. For this stunt David combined standard magical techniques with bold and daring strategies to create a plan capable of defeating Picture Posts journalistic team. Add to that a dash of youthful brashness and a nothing-to-lose attitude and you have the ingredients for one of the most publicised

Directing the driver.

magic stunts ever carried out in Britain.

The first thing to note is that David had no idea where Gordon Watkins had hidden the object. Nor did he know what it was. What lie did have was a plan to get that information and have it transmitted to him whilst he was in the car with the journalists. But first things first. Let us deal with the blindfolding procedure in the office. Picture Post had already said that if they discovered how the stunt was done they would expose it in their magazine. Bearing that in mind David had anticipated that they might just be curious enough to visit a library and take a look through some magic books. In there they might find out how magician's blindfolds worked. It was unlikely but it was possible.

"fhe blindfolds available from dealers were pretty poorgimmicked affairs that wouldn't withstand even a cursory examination so David decided that the best way to proceed was to use examined props as far as possible. To that end he allowed himself to be genuinely blindfolded with large cotton wool pads which were put over his eyes and held in place by an opaque blindfold tied behind his head. At this stage in the routine he genuinely could not see.

The cloth sack, which the committee examined earlier, was also ungimmicked. It had a small oblong of white tape sewn to the inside and several committee members were invited to initial it as part of the examination procedure. But this sack was not the sack that was placed over David's head. It was switched for a gimmicked sack that allowed him some vision.

The switch was one of the boldest manoeuvres of the entire enterprise. There was no special sleight of hand technique to make it work. David was confident enough to keep the committee distracted while he casually picked up the examined, and by now initialled sack, and placed into his left trouser pocket. At the same time, from under his jacket, he took the gimmicked sack and dropped it on the table. No one noticed the switch and even though

Directing the driver.

Stumbling through Battersea Park.

In the boat to the island.

members of the committee picked up the sack during the session they never examined it again. David had taken the precaution of sewing a duplicate piece of tape on the inside of the gimmicked sack and marking it with a few squiggles that would look like several people had initialled it.

After the blindfold was tied David picked up the gimmicked sack. It matched the regular sack exactly in that it was really two bags, one inside the other, sewn together. He opened the sack and placed it over the head of one of the committee. The double thickness of the bag prevented him seeing through it. But when it came to David's turn to put it on, he opened the bag at the mouth, much like a Changing Bag, so that it now had only one layer of material on one side of the bag and three on the other. With the single side to the front, the material was thin enough to allow him some vision.

The sack had two tapes attached so that a member of the committee could tie it in place. Blindfolded to everyone's satisfaction the committee wished him luck and David was led from the office to the elevator ready to begin his quest. He had not until now made any attempt to sec. It would take only a few moments work to gain some vision but he chose not to do it in the magazine offices where there were lots of people watching him. His performance as a blind man, stepping cautiously out of the office and bumping into people and objects, was therefore incredibly convincing. Outside, waiting for the elevator that would take them to ground level, he was under less guarded supervision. Casually he placed a hand at either side of his head ostensibly to press the bag closer and give it more of a head shape. In fact his fingertips pressed through the bag and located the blindfold at the sides of the temples. By pushing up slightly the blindfold and the cotton pads could be raised away from the eyes. It was vers important not to push the blindfold up too much otherwise it would show beneath

Blindfolded

the hag as a strange bulge on the forehead. On the other hand David knew that he if he moved it too little he would be forced to tilt his head back in order to see beneath the cotton pads and blindfold. Even at its best, vision in this situation is limited. It's like having a visor dropped over your eyes. You're looking at an angle towards the floor and can't see anything at eye-level.

At this point David opened his eyes to check that he had some vision then he closed them again, the better to simulate someone who is blindfolded, and was led out of the elevator and out to the waiting car. When he left the Picture Post offices he had no idea where the object had been located. It remains one of the tensest moments of his professional life and he admits that it was probably only the brashness of youth that made him believe the elaborate plan he had set in motion would work. With such confidence he got into the car and began to give directions to the driver.

Meanwhile, in the Picture Post offices, Gordon Watkins was revealing the location of the hidden object. He had concealed it in Battersea Park and its position was now marked with a small flag pinned to a large map of London. The next step was to choose a starting point for the treasure hunt. The committee decided on Berkeley Square in central London and it too was marked on the map. After some deliberation they decided on a route between the two locations. They didn't make it easy, at one point the route doubled back on itself, perhaps in an effort to confuse David. They marked the route with blue pencil on the map and then, their job done, they relaxed and waited. For them the work was over. For David it was just begin ning.

A key part of the plan was to infiltrate the committee and obtain information. David had managed to persuade someone who would be there on the day to take part in this bold adventure and act as informant. This in itself was no mean feat and not easy to arrange. In fact

Locating the hidden slipper.

The bindfold being checked after the challenge.

David located the slipper's owner and returned it to her.

Locating the hidden slipper.

The bindfold being checked after the challenge.

David located the slipper's owner and returned it to her.

his first choice of secret assistant had telephoned him only a day or two before saying that he just couldn't do it. He didn't have the nerve. Fortunately he managed to find a reliable substitute at the last minute and broached the topic of assisting him. The key to all such approaches, says David, is telling the prospective confederate that maybe he would find the role interesting and it would be fun. That he would be doing you a favour but it didn't really matter if he did it or not. Whatever you do you must not tell them that they are the lynchpin around which the whole deception revolves. Do that and you risk not only inflating their ego but frightening them so they cannot operate effectively. Another point is not to burden them with details thcv don't need to know. In this particular stunt David used several assistants but none of them knew how the pieces of the puzzle fitted together or even the identities of the rest of the team.

In the Picture Post office the confederate noted two things: the location of the object and the starting point. When all the choices had been made, and the committee had completed their tasks, he casually left the office and visited the washroom on the next floor. There he wrote the information down on a slip of paper and hid it behind a pipe leading to an overhead cistern in a previously nominated cubical. His job was now over and he could relax.

A second assistant, a small muscular man called Jim Day, had been waiting outside the building. He saw David leave and noted the details of the vehicle. He waited a while before entering the building and making his way to the washroom. There he found the note that the first assistant had left. Jim phoned this information to several other people including his friend Jack Jacoby. Jack was a keen cyclist and it was his role to meet David at a predetermined spot, Cambridge Circus, and lead him on to the next stage of the plan.

David had been leading the Picture Post party on a wild goose chase up until then, buying time for the various elements of the plan to take effect. When enough time had passed he directed Griffiths to Cambridge Circus where Jack, riding his bicycle, was waiting for him. Jack wore a yellow rain cape, which made it easier for David to spot him. Traffic in central London is always slow but the rain made it slower and it was simple enough for Jack to keep ahead of the car. David just watched where Jack went and directed Griffiths accordingly. On one occasion Jack was so embarrassingly close that David could have just lent out the car window anil asked him where the object was, but to Griffiths, Philpott and Chillingworth, Jack may as well have been invisible.

David hadn't left anything to chance though. At a certain point in the journey Jack went his own way anil transferred the responsibility of guiding him around London to yet another member of the team, a London taxi driver called Frank Brooker who later became a successful professional magician under the name of Franklyn. The streets of London are full of taxi drivers, all driving identical looking black cabs. Once again David's secret assistant remained invisible to the team in the car. The taxi driver led David to Berkeley Square. Three flashes of the taxi's lights told him that this was the chosen starting point and he announced it as such to his companions who were relieved that something was happening. Philpott had been noting down the route ever since they started the journey but now his work seemed more relevant. He continued to note the various twists and turns through London not realising that they were being led by a London taxi driver whose black cab was never more than a few cars away.

Bicyclist Jack Jacoby took over the role of leader once more, having stowed his distinctive yellow cape so that he wouldn't be recognised. Further on. the black cab took the lead and led David the rest of the way to Battersea Bridge. When David made his one and only condition, that the object should not be hidden on or over water, he did so simply for effect. There was no real reason for this stipulation other than to give the Picture Past people something to ponder over. Which is just as well because Gordon Watkins, for some unknown reason, decided to break the condition. Was he trying to outfox David? We will never know.

After some discussion David persuaded Griffiths to cross the river and then stop the car outside Battersea Park. He stepped out of the car into the rain and proceeded to walk across the park. I le was looking for another helper, his friend and fellow magician Ken Brooke. It was Ken's task to lead him to the area in which the object was hidden. The problem was that David couldn't see Ken anywhere. Fortunately he did see another of his assistants, a girl called Jean, dressed in a white jacket and carrying an umbrella. She started walking backwards towards the boating pond pretending to be a bystander amazed by the goings on. David followed her and saw the pond ahead. Jean opened and closed her umbrella, a prearranged signal, and pointed it towards the island. David realised that once again Picture Post had broken the one condition he had set down and that he would have to cross water to reach the target.

Fortunately the island was small and the flagpole sticking out of its centre was the only landmark. Fie figured that the object must lie beneath the pole and within seconds he found the canvas bag and the slipper it contained. The reporters removed the blindfolds and David took his well-deserved applause, donned dark glasses to save his eyes from the glare of the light (he had been blindfolded for several hours) and then posed for photographs. The feat was almost over. In a short time they were back at the Picture Post offices and David presented the slipper to a lady on the committee, something he admits was a piece of lucky guesswork on his part. The stunt had been a marvellous success.

From knowing nothing when he left the Picture Post offices David divined both the starting point of the journey and the destination. He had never intended to duplicate the route, considering it the least important part of the task, but when it was compared with the selected route it was remarkably similar and considered another victory.

There are two codas to this story. After the stunt was over David rushed over to I larrv Stanley's Unique Magicians Club in Wardour Street where he hoped to find Ken Brooke. When he saw Ken he told him that the stunt had gone very well but asked what happened to him, he was supposed to be at the park. Ken was furious. I Ie couldn't believe that David had not seen him and thought that he was being denied a part in the stunt's success. It led to a falling out and Ken decided that their friendship was at an end. David always regretted this and knew that it was not a price worth paying for any amount of publicity. It was two years before they talked to each other again but eventually they put the incident behind them and remained friends for many years. Ken can be seen in one of the photographs published in Picture Post, a small figure in the distance, standing behind David. Jean and her umbrella, on the other hand, are embarrassingly prominent in the photographs.

In retrospect it seems possible that Picture Post thought they would be able to discover the secret of David's stunt and make a feature of its exposure. The reality was that they were completely baffled. They had no idea as to how he managed to locate the slipper so they threw the challenge open to their readers and offered £5, a considerable sum in those days, to anyone who could work out how the trick was accomplished.

Reader response was fantastic. Theories and solutions poured into the office from hundreds of people all over the country. Suddenly Picture Post had a new dilemma on their hands. Baffled by the stunt themselves, how could they judge which of their readers had found the correct solution? Someone had a bright idea. As David was the only person who really knew how the stunt was achieved perhaps he could pick the winner? And so, bizarre as it seems, they invited him into their offices once again and asked him to pick out the correct solution.

David was presented with the best letters some of which were very imaginative. He

The Picture Post issue which detailed David's challenge, July 4, 1953.

was disappointed though to find a number sent in from magicians who thought it clever to reveal how blindfolds worked. These he surreptitiously slipped into his pocket and spirited away. He has them to this day. Eventually he picked out a creative solution from a young student and pronounced it the winner, saying that although it wasn't correct it was certainly ingenious. Three weeks later Picture Post published another feature, How Berglas found the Slipper? but confessed, "We think the real winner was David Berglas because we still don't know how it was done.''

The Picture Post episode remains one of the most elaborate and well-publicised magical feats ever carried out in Britain. Its secret withstood critical examination by some of Britain's top investigative journalists and it helped propel David to stardom though, as you will learn, it did so in a totally unexpected fashion. In it you can see the roots of his later work epitomised by extensive research and preparation, a desire to extend the boundaries of what is expected of the magician and the elimination of anything that might lead the audience to a solution. The Picture Post stunt was the seed that spawned numerous impossible stunts and helped create the legend of David Berglas as a man who works miracles.

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HOW THEY DID IT BEGINS TODAY

The committee's choice and David's route through London during the Picture Post challenge.

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