Alex Fice speaks to The Pentacle Club – Cambridge’s most renowned magic group – ahead of its dazzling show at Cambridge Junction this month
The Cambridge Pentacle Club is one of the oldest magic clubs in the UK. Founded in 1919, by and for members of the University, it’s now open to all those in the local area and beyond with a love of the magical arts.
Made up of around 25 to 30 regulars with a wide range of backgrounds and interests, this is a diverse collective. “Our members include a couple of talented under-18s, a chef, an ex-director of Saatchi and Saatchi, a graphic designer, a church administrator, an actor, an ex-postman, a former staff member of Cambridge University Press, plus a few software engineers!” according to the club’s secretary, Hugh Newsam, who is himself an engineering consultant for Siemens and has been a member of The Pentacle Club for 15 years.
The names of a few of its members may also ring a bell: The club’s president is Jeremy Bond – aka JezO – a local entertainer and recent winner of the family entertainer of the year at the Blackpool Magic Convention. In 2022, he played Buttons in the Blackburn Empire Theatre’s panto, and in 2020 he made an appearance on Britain’s Got Talent alongside another notable Cambridge magician: Doctor Bondini – who just happens to be JezO’s father.
A multi-generational group, the heritage of The Pentacle Club can be found throughout Cambridge – and, in some cases, is literally embedded in its bricks and mortar. Clare Hall Library used to be called the ‘Magic Room’, as a tribute to the activities of former owner of the house, Walter William Rouse Ball: a Cambridge mathematician and lawyer, and founder of The Pentacle Club. His legacy lives on in the room’s beautiful stained-glass windows, which incorporate magical words and numbers – puzzles which are yet to be solved.
But what place does magic – an art form that delights in tricking the mind and defying explanation – have in a city renowned for pioneering scientific discoveries, where reason and logic have historically dominated?
“Magic and science go hand in hand,” asserts Hugh. “Magic is the application of science, logic and misdirection to give the impression that we are breaking the laws of nature. Many well-regarded mathematicians and scientists from the University have been club members. One of the most famous magicians in the magic community, Alex Elmsley – a computer scientist – was a club member in the 50s. Another notable example is Sir William Hawthorne, who was club president from 1970 to 1990. He was professor of applied thermodynamics, a fellow of Trinity College and later master of Churchill College, where the club met for a while.
“Techniques used in magic are also of enormous interest to psychologists,” continues Hugh. “In fact, Gustav Kuhn, of Goldsmiths College, London, has written books on the subject and carried out scientific research in areas such as illusory experiences, magical thinking, misdirection and the scientific study of magic.”
That said, you don’t have to be a great mathematician, scientist or psychologist to become a member of The Pentacle Club. The magic ingredients? “A sense of humour and a love of entertainment,” says Hugh. “I guess it’s true that magic is a set of puzzles that we hope people can’t solve; but the truth is, it’s all about creating moments of wonder while making folks laugh and smile.”
The Pentacle Club is currently preparing to do just that at Cambridge Junction on 19 March. In conjunction with University of Cambridge Festival, the group will be performing its new show, The Magic of Cambridge, which promises to take the audience on an enchanting journey through the people, objects, ideas, words and inventions that have made the University of Cambridge famous throughout the world.
“We can’t reveal too much at this stage, but I expect we will be influenced by Douglas Adams, John Maynard Keynes, Lord Byron, Charles Babbage, John Venn (of the famous diagram) and the amazing collections in the University’s museums – even one of the founders of the SAS spent time at the University,” says Hugh. “What we can be sure of is that it’s going to be a spectacular magic tour de force!”
To find out more about the club, visit pentacleclub.com – and get your tickets to see The Magic of Cambridge from junction.co.uk