PICKPOCKET HUNG IN BLACKPOOL
He was born Albert Mark Raffles-Taylor in Manchester, into a show business family.
His grandfather had been a comedy star in the music halls of the nineteenth century.
His uncle, Frank Verity St Clair (stage name FV St Clair), was known as ‘The Human Song Machine’ and was known for his singing and his monologues. He had appeared in the very first Royal Variety Command Performance in 1912.
Mark’s mother, Amelia, was a pianist and actress. She played piano in her stepfather’s pub aged just 8 and went on to appear on stage with Charlie Chaplin (then known as Charles Chaplin) in ‘Casey’s Court’ in 1906.
By the 1920s, Amelia owned a theatrical boarding house in Manchester. It was there that Albert grew up.
He was taught magic by his uncle Chris. He entered a talent show when he was 12. Together, they designed a set for the boy which included pulling streamers from a top hat. He came first – and won ten shillings.
His ability to perform magic tricks meant other boys were in awe of him and he was never bullied at school. But he had a terrible stammer, which caused him to avoid speaking in public.
He made his first professional appearance as a magician in 1938, at the Queen’s Park Hippodrome in Manchester. By now he operated under the stage name Ray St. Clair. What was unusual about the act was it was totally silent (due to the stammer).
Then he appeared at the Palace Theatre in Blackpool. He was on the same bill as Billy Cotton and his band.
But the war interrupted his career. He tried to sign on for the military but he was rejected due to his stammer. Instead he worked as a bricklayer, building air raid shelters. He was also an ARP warden in Manchester during the city’s Blitz.
But then he was called up to ENSA (the Department for Entertainment National Service Association). Their job was to entertain the troops. It was at this point he changed his performing name to Mark Raffles – which he kept for the rest of his life.
He performed throughout England, entertaining troops. Once he performed at an RAF base in Lincolnshire. The airmen were about to go on a bombing raid over Germany. He was invited to chalk a message to Hitler on one of the bombs, which he duly did. But he never revealed what he wrote. “It was too rude”, he later admitted.
Mark was sent to France after D-Day, and then to Guernsey after it was liberated (performing for both troops and civilians), and at the end of the war to occupied Germany. It was whilst working for ENSA that he developed his signature ‘Pickpocket’ act.
He was demobbed late in 1945 and received the Veteran’s Medal, of which he was extremely proud.
At Christmas 1945, he returned to the British stage, in Bolton.
It was the pickpocket act that made his name. He was always very dapper, smartly dressed like an old-fashioned British gentleman. He would stand in the foyer before the show, looking like a normal punter. But he was robbing the audience. Once on stage, he would produce all of the valuable items he had taken, to the gasps and surprise of the audience.
His act was billed as ‘Leave Your Valuables at Home’ – but it made no difference.
By 1950, he was topping the bill. He used to say, “From bottom of the bill in Bolton, to Mayfair’s Mystery Man (as he was known), in just 5 years”.
His act was also remarkable for the slick, fast patter – almost unintelligible (the audience didn’t realise it was covering the stutter).
In the meantime, he had met, and married, his wife. He had been performing at the Theatre Royal in Bilston, where he shared the billing with an outrageous drag act. There, he saw the dancer Joan Cleare. “She swayed smilingly down the staircase, sheathed in a fabulous sequined creation”.
Six months later they were married. They lived in Blackpool, a place he had come to love. They were to have four children, Tim, Jacqui, Kate and Wendy. He would go on to teach three of the children the tricks of the trade (not Kate – she wasn’t interested) – and all three became professional magicians.
Mark toured throughout the country. He appeared in the clubs of Liverpool alongside a young, unknown comedian called Jimmy Tarbuck.
He shared the same bill as legends such as Max Miller, Sandy Powell and Ken Dodd.
His favourite co-performer was Tommy Cooper. “I met Tommy on many occasions and he was a lovely man and a natural comedian”. The two men became close friends.
Mark was a member of the Inner Magic Circle, with a gold star.
He was also a lifelong freemason.
Mark had first appeared on television in 1949, becoming a regular on our screens from the 1960s to the 1980s.
He also appeared regularly on the TV show 3-2-1 with Ted Rogers – and Dusty Bin.
As well as television appearances, he filled his year with pantomimes and summer seasons.
Then Joan and Mark formed an on-stage partnership. Their speciality was plucking 12 poodles from absolutely nowhere. They renamed their act as ‘The Wychwoods’.
His mother, Amelia, made her last TV appearance in 1988 aged 100, and died the following year aged 101.
Joan eventually retired but Mark just kept going. He liked to do his signature act whilst the song ‘You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two’, from the musical ‘Oliver’, was playing.
His closest friend was the much younger magician Paul Zenon. Paul met Mark when he was a teenager and an aspiring magician, and said he taught him all the tricks of the trade. He loved to encourage new talent.
Mark also did a double act with the young magician Chris Cross.
Unfortunately, Joan predeceased Mark and he was devastated.
But he was thrilled when the Showtown Museum of Blackpool recognised his contribution to the entertainment history of the town. They commissioned a painting of him from the artist Vanni Pule. He was invited to the unveiling and wrote his own headline as the painting went up on the wall – “Pickpocket Hung in Blackpool”.
He was, for many years, President of the Blackpool Magician’s Club, and also a member of the ‘Invisible Lodge’ in the USA.
Mark wrote three books, including ‘The Pickpocket Secrets of Mark Raffles’ and ‘Diamond Jubilee Memoirs – Magic All The Way’.
His final act was entitled ‘Lord of the Rings’, which involved inter-linking chains and was reputedly hilarious.
Mark was 97 when he retired – the oldest performing magician in the world. He had been performing continuously for 81 years.
He immediately moved to a care home in Llandudno. There, he kept his fan club going, replying to everybody who wrote to him (and there were still many).
His final public appearance was in 2020 at the Blackpool Magician’s Convention, where he entertained his peers with a magic show.
In an interview, Mark said, “Magic led me to serve my country and meet many interesting people.”
He died aged 100. He even wrote the message on his own gravestone. It reads, ‘Mark Raffles – Vanished For The Last Time’.
The painter Vanni Pule said he was, “extremely versatile, charming, funny and always so elegant”.
Paul Zenon said, “Mark understood that magic is not about the secrets, it’s not about the tricks. It’s about the performer, it’s about the character – and what a character he was”.
RIP – Raffles = Irresistible Pickpocket