The comedian and magician who used to tear his name off publicity photos

Mystery man of comedy Ray Presto on stage at Up The Arts

“The first time I met Ray was in 2004 at a Linda Trayers gig in Kilburn where Russell Brand headlined and only three people turned up,” Paul Ricketts told me yesterday.

“The gig was pulled but, Russell Brand still demanded his money (£100), leaving Linda Trayers in tears. Straightaway, Ray saw his opportunity to console Linda whilst at the same time continually asking for a gig.

“If he fancied and wanted to impress any lady or promoter he would do his ‘£5 of my own money’ trick which did have overtone of bribery when he paid over his ‘Bank Of Presto’ note with his own face printed on it.”

As well as being an excellent comedian, Paul Ricketts runs the Up The Arts comedy club in London (with Verity Welch) and booked Ray Presto regularly. I asked Paul about Ray Presto because, when he died aged 74 last week, Ray was said in an obituary to be a “stalwart of the London open mic circuit” and “a regular at clubs including Pear Shaped and, most notably, the Comedy Store‘s King Gong show, where he would receive decidedly mixed reactions from audiences… He returned time after time to the show – until 2009, when he was asked to stop, after a new booker took over.”

This intrigued me, because I had never seen his act and the phrasehe would receive decidedly mixed reactions from audiences” sounded interesting. Especially when Fix comedy entrepreneur Harry Deansway wrote in the obituary: “Famed for his strange but smart appearance, unique delivery of out-of-date jokes and magic tricks, Ray Presto often left audiences baffled. Was this a well thought-out character act, or a delusional Seventies throwback? Was he in on the joke? ”

Paul Ricketts told me:

“Ray was the last of the line of strange acts that I saw during the mid to late naughties – which included Phil Zimmerman, Joel Elnaugh, Linda Trayers, Persephone Lewin and Bry Nylon. Some of these acts were knowingly playing with the conventions of stand-up, while others could be seen as deluded in their ambitions.”

“Ray,” Paul told me, “stood apart because he did take himself very seriously. Because of his previous incarnation as a magician he felt he had the experience and stagecraft to make it as a comic. Right from the start he aggressively sold himself as a comedy performer.

“He became a monthly fixture at the Comedy Store Gong Show, cleverly realising that his Happy Days Are Here Again intro music took up at least one minute of the five minutes he needed to survive. His material was made up of inoffensive old jokes – the sort you’d find in Christmas crackers – delivered at a pace that would make Stewart Lee sound like fast-talking Adam Bloom. It was this slow, deliberate delivery which made him distinctive and generated much of the laughter.

“But his self-belief meant that he didn’t like to take advice from anyone. Don Ward of the Comedy Store liked Ray, gave him several 10 minutes spots and wanted him to develop his act from old jokes mixed with magic tricks to include more observations about his life and age. Ray, however, was wary of moving in this direction as he didn’t want to reveal too much about himself. Instead he tried to add more ‘racy’ material – notably a joke about underage sex – which led to him being immediately ‘gonged off’ at the Comedy Store.”

Anthony Miller of Pear Shaped remembers that Ray “became so successful at the Comedy Store that they had to ban him from the gong as he was undermining the object of the Gong Show – to be cold, intimidating and unwelcoming. He told me he didn’t understand why they stopped him doing the gong and seemed a bit put out by it and so I suggested to him that probably someone like him making it ‘human’ was undermining it a bit and that he shouldn’t let that undermine any relationship he had built up with them if they still gave him gigs. To which he replied That is very deep.”

Paul Ricketts tells me Ray was very ambitious, but would hand out publicity photos of himself with the corner torn off, presumably because they were old photographs and had his real name printed on them.

“He was as impatient as any younger comic about his progression in stand-up,” Paul says, “He would badger people for gigs and hand out leaflets and photos to any and everyone. Once he’d been on or turned up at a gig hoping to get on, Ray would heckle some acts by falling asleep in the front two rows. Not only would this disconcert those on stage, it would disconcert the audience who would be scared to wake him up as they weren’t sure if Ray was dead or alive. In any event ‘falling asleep’ would ensure that Ray became the centre of attention.

“Despite me asking Ray many times,” Paul told me, “he wasn’t forthcoming about his past – all he ever said was that he was a magician from Hull.”

Harry Deansway reveals that Ray moved from Hull to London in 2002 “with the aim of getting more work as a writer, but struggled to get published. Off stage, he was a committed atheist and hedonist, having published a book in 1972 called Choose Your Pleasurea collection of essays on the pros and cons of hedonism and self-indulgence. Off the back of this he got regular writing work as a columnist in Penthouse magazine, which he contributed to under his real name David Shaw… Although he will be remembered by many on the circuit, it will not be for what he wanted to be remembered for – as a serious writer.”

Paul Ricketts adds: “I had some political conversations with him and he was a libertarian in the way that he instinctively distrusted Government, especially the tax authorities. This could explain the occasion when he asked to perform his magic act at a children’s centre but changed his mind when he was asked to give his bank account details and undergo a Criminal Records Bureau check.

“On another occasion, he asked me how he could open a bank account under his stage name so he could avoid paying tax.

“All I really knew about Ray was that he had an eye for the ladies, he was ambitious to do well in stand-up and he seemed to have enough money to annually spend the winter months in Thailand and showed me pictures of himself strolling through Thai food markets wearing Bermuda shorts.”

3 Comments

Filed under Comedy, Eccentrics, Magic

3 responses to “The comedian and magician who used to tear his name off publicity photos

  1. your articticle put me in mind of FAy Presto who I used to bump into a linda Trayers club in Kilburn way before 2004…this was probably in the early 90’s when I was doing Viv “you can hear a pindrop” Stevens.

  2. Really interesting piece; I saw Ray many times at Pear Shaped and once, in response to Ray’s line “Boys and girls, do you know what I do first thing every morning?” I heckled back “Do you take the Sex Offenders Register?”. He just kept on going…he’ll be missed.

  3. I dont know as Ray was intending to heckle anyone by falling asleep – he just often used to fall asleep …particularly in the 2nd half as he was an old man and very tired. I often had to wake him up to put the next act on. It was very sad the last time he came down because, well, he was on a lot of painkillers and kept forgetting punchlines or mis-timing them because the pain he was concealing was too distracting but he braved all this and still did well… as he said (he’d been to have a kidney scan earlier in the day when they confirmed it cancer) “I’d better take the gig – I may not have many more”. The doctors told him he could have had treatment but the surgery would be invasive and the chemotherapy unpleasant and they thought it put a lot of strain on his body and probably kill him anyway … and I think by this time it had spread. So he took their advice to just take painkillers and put his feet up. It was quite sad talking to him near the end of his life because he couldn’t enjoy the things he really enjoyed anymore like gigging and dining out and just wanted it to be over quickly which thankfully it was – hopefully without too much pain. As a promoter you do see death (and not just on stage) quite often. For instance Norby West used to pop down for serveral years after his retirement to tell us “I’m not quite dead yet”. Then one day he walked up the stairs and never came down again and I while later I heard he had died. ….Still, we’ve all got to die sometime. Imagine how annoying it’d be to live forever. He’d had a good life and a reasonably good death (time to say goodbye and not too much pain). I think his only regret was that he hadn’t started earlier. If there is an afterlife Ray will be asking Jesus “if you would like to see a little close up magic”.

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