In Memoriam: Ricky Jay (1948-2018)

Master magician, actor, magic consultant/historian and martial arts aficionado Ricky Jay has passed away at the age of 70.

Although Jay’s fame was due to his extensive accomplishments as a scholar and performer, his long-term involvement with the martial arts dated back to the 1970s, when he took up karate.  He later admitted that, as a professional sleight-of-hand artist, the danger of hand injuries from intensive martial arts training had been a foolish risk.

After karate came aikido – a style that shares more than a few principles with the art of legerdemain.  His aikido sensei was Fred Neumann, who would recall challenging Jay to repeat a particularly confounding sleight of hand trick while Jay was showering after a training session.  Without missing a beat, and with no evident means of preparation, Jay casually performed the feat again, stunning his sensei.

Ricky Jay’s 1977 book Cards as Weapons quickly became an underground cryptohoplological classic, purporting (with a fairly straight face) to teach a unique method of self-defence via card-scaling; the venerable magician’s feat of hurling playing cards with great accuracy and force.  The book combined absurdist humour, quirky historical scholarship and practical instruction, also featuring “guest appearances” by some of Jay’s acquaintances, including singer Emmylou Harris and scientist Carl Sagan.

Twenty years later, when he was cast as a villain in the James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies, Jay was asked to exert his card-throwing prowess in a scene with Pierce Brosnan as Bond:

At one point, they wanted me to throw cards as weapons to attack Bond, but the first time they asked me to do it in rehearsal, I was an enormously long distance away from Pierce Brosnan, and I warned them that the cards went very, very hard and fast, and they said no no, they had someone in front of it to block the shot, and I again said, “I don’t think you should do that,” they said, “No, no, it’ll be okay.” And Pierce seemed to be fine with it.

So I whaled a card, I don’t know how far, 50 or 75 feet away, and they said, “Just throw it at his face,” and I hit him right above the eye, and realized that I almost ruined the most lucrative franchise in the history of film. Suddenly that scene was no longer in the movie. [Laughs.] So in a way that was horribly disappointing, but the rest of it was fun.

Here’s the master himself, performing a number of his “cards as weapons” stunts:

In 2002, Jay playfully scaled cards at action movie star Jackie Chan during a mutual appearance on a talk show hosted by Conan O’Brien.

Throughout his career, the magician frequently drew parallels between the disciplines of close-up magic and martial arts, and likened the mentor/mentee relationships of traditional magic apprenticeship to those of a sensei and his students.  Although he “retired” into more sedate and academic pursuits later in life, Jay’s involvement in the martial arts continued via his close friendship with playwright, screenwriter and jiujutsuka David Mamet.  Mamet cast Jay as an unscupulous fight promoter in his peculiar, cerebral martial arts movie Redbelt (2008):

And finally, here’s Jay reciting a poem written for (and about) him by the late Shel Silverstein, encapsulating the arcane dangers of a life lived in the service of deception:

Rest in peace, Ricky Jay – man of mystery, scholar of the obscure and sworn enemy of the mundane.

Bartitsu Mini-Documentary on the “Celebrity Antiques Road Trip”

A six-minute item on the gentlemanly mixed martial art of Bartitsu, as featured on a recent episode of BBC2’s Celebrity Antiques Road Trip and including demonstrations by the Manley Academy of Historical Swordsmanship:

For the sake of strict historical accuracy, there’s no evidence that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle actually studied Bartitsu (in fact, the evidence suggests that he wasn’t even especially familiar with it). That said, it’s great to see another precis treatment of the art and its intriguing history in the mainstream media, and media doesn’t get much more mainstream than the Celebrity Antiques Road Trip.

Also worthy of note is that the show benefits the BBC’s charity Children in Need, which funds a wide range of projects helping children and disadvantaged young people throughout the UK.

Bartitsu to Feature on BBC2’s “Celebrity Antiques Road Trip” on Friday Nov. 16th

Viewers with access to BBC2 should keep an eye out for this upcoming episode of the popular Celebrity Antiques Road Trip series, in which comedians Al Murray and Paul Chowdhry hunt for antiques whose auction sales will benefit the BBC’s Children in Need charity. A tangent will also see Paul Chowdhry investigating Bartitsu, in collaboration with the Manley Academy of Historical Swordsmanship.

“Baritsu” Displays at Sherlockon 2018 (Poland)

Members of the Polish savate and Bartitsu club L’Extreme Est demonstrate aspects of Edwardian-era martial arts, including fisticuffs, kicking, cane fighting, jujitsu and foil fencing, for the audience at the recent Sherlockon 2018 fan convention in Warsaw.

Bartitsu Featured on Japanese TV

This six-minute Bartitsu featurette recently screened on the Japanese television show Sekai Kurabete Mitara  (“See the World in Comparison”). 

Bartitsu on Film

Some absolutely mental bits from Bartitsu Lab on Japanese TV

Geplaatst door The Bartitsu Lab op Donderdag 30 augustus 2018

Playing to the pop-culture notion of the “gentlemanly martial art” via the Sherlock Holmes and Kingsman movies, the segment still manages to communicate some of the essential details such as Edward Barton-Wright’s travels in Japan and the eclectic boxing/kicking/jiujitsu/Vigny cane nature of Bartitsu.

Kudos to the Bartitsu Lab of Warwickshire, UK and to their instructor Tommy Joe Moore.

Bartitsu to Feature on Japanese TV

The Japanese TBS edutainment show Sekai Kurabete Mitara (“See the World in Comparison”) will be featuring a short documentary on Bartitsu on August 20, 2018.  The theme of the show is to explore various current events and customs from throughout the world, with an emphasis on cultural diversity.

This will be the first Japanese-language broadcast on the art of Bartitsu and we’ll post the segment on this site if it becomes publicly available.

Bartitsu to Feature on “Celebrity Antiques Road Trip”

Members of the The Manley Academy of Historical Swordsmanship (Surrey, England) pose with host Natasha Raskin-Sharp and comedian Paul Chowdhry after a Bartitsu exhibition to be featured in an upcoming episode of Celebrity Antiques Road Trip.  In this popular BBC2 series, an antiques expert and a celebrity team up to locate valuable antiques to be sold at auction, for the benefit of the Children in Need charity.

“Self Defence with Sherlock Holmes” at the Royal Armouries Museum (Leeds, UK)

A recent Bartitsu display at the Royal Armouries Museum.

The Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, UK will be offering hands-on Bartitsu classes for children as part of an upcoming series of workshops in various historical martial arts.  The classes will run daily at 11am, 1pm & 3pm between August 13-17.

See this link for further details.

In Memoriam: William Hobbs (1939-2018)

The late William Hobbs (left) directing Sir Albert Finney.

By Tony Wolf

I’m sad to report the passing of William Hobbs, who was among the most influential and respected fight directors of the 20th century. He died on July 10th, at the age of 79 years.

Bill Hobbs was a true pioneer of the “modern style” of performance combat.  While many of his predecessors in film, TV and stage combat had also been expert fencers, Hobbs broke the mold in crafting fights that were at least as integral to character and story as any other aspect of production design.

It’s about thinking through the character, not through spectacle.  A fight has got to grow out of the situation of the play. Perhaps my advantage is that having been an actor, I’m trying only to do the move I feel is right for the character. You are not doing pyrotechnics for the sake of being pyrotechnic.

  • William Hobbs, quoted in The New York Times (1995)

His fighters were, for the most part, portrayed as fallible human beings. They frequently found themselves scrambling to recover from mistakes, became exhausted or enraged, slipped in the mud, sometimes succeeding (or just surviving) almost in spite of themselves.

All of this was in profound and refreshing contrast to the more purely heroic action scenes of Hobbs’ predecessors in the field, which too often eschewed messy realism and psychological substance for the swashbuckling cliches of textbook “movie fencing”.  Bill Hobbs’ fight choreography always sought to surprise his audience, and took the less-obvious path.

As a co-founder of the Society of British Fight Directors, Hobbs was also a pioneer in the practical research of historical martial arts.  In this, along with his fellow founders Arthur Wise and John Waller, he anticipated the modern HEMA revival movement by several decades.

From the mid-1960s through to the mid-2000s, Bill Hobbs’ acclaimed fight choreography was featured in dozens of major theatrical, film and television productions.  Germane to Bartitsu.org, he staged the dapper John Steed’s umbrella combat scenes for The Avengers (1998):

Career highlights, in terms of acclaim among his peers, include his work on Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974), Ridley Scott’s The Duellists (1977),  Franco Zeffirelli’s Hamlet (1990) and John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love (1998). 

Perhaps his most famous fight, however, was the honour duel between Rob Roy and Archie Cunningham in Michael Caton-Jones’ Rob Roy (1995).

Younger audiences will recognise Bill Hobbs’ signature creativity and commitment to detail in the “water dance” fighting style of Syrio Forel, as featured in season one of the fantasy TV series Game of Thrones. Actor Miltos Yerolemou worked extensively with Hobbs to develop his character’s unique method of swordplay.

On a more personal note, I believe that it was a 1980s TV news item about William Hobbs’ work that first inspired me to take up fight direction as a career.  In fact, his 1967 book Stage Combat: The Action to the Word (with a foreword by Sir Laurence Olivier!) was among the very few resources available to me when I set out on that path.  Because there was literally no-one in my home country of New Zealand who could teach me how to become a fight director/stage combat instructor, Bill Hobbs effectively became my mentor via the written word.

When I travelled to London to attend the first ever international stage combat workshops in 1995, I carried my copy of Hobbs’ book with me. A customs agent asked what I’d be doing in England, and I explained a bit about the conference, at which he smiled broadly and asked “Will you be working with Bill Hobbs? I used to flat with him in the ’60s! Welcome to England, sir!”

The conference itself took place at London’s Roehampton Institute.  It was an amazing workshop of creative combat, with a colourful, eclectic roster of instructors and participants.  I remember that Bill seemed quite nervous as he spoke to us, and I only afterwards learned that he’d been worried that his audience of mostly young, up-and-coming fight directors would think him “old hat”.  Far from it; and I think he was a little overwhelmed by the adulation that he did, in fact, inspire in us.

After his lecture, Bill was gracious enough to sign my dog-eared copy of his book.   Many years later, I was honoured when he agreed to review and write a foreword for my own anthology of historical stage combat essays and anecdotes, A Terrific Combat!!!  Theatrical Duels, Brawls and Battles: 1800-1920 (2009).

Bravo, Maestro, and thank you; now rest in peace.