It’s not your average day job. “I love it when I go to the bank, and they ask if you’ve got 5 minutes to talk about insurance. Then they ask what you do, and the realisation that they can’t offer you life insurance is hilarious.”
Well, to be fair, it’s no surprise. Roslyn Walker is an escapologist, which means that he escapes from handcuffs and straitjackets to crowds all over the country with his Vaudeville sideshow. He is not a magician, or an illusionist. He really does, genuinely, escape. But sometimes it doesn’t work. He laughs sheepishly, “yeah, I’ve almost drowned in an underwater straitjacket escape, and that wasn’t great. The canvas jacket got way too heavy in the water, I had weights round my ankles, and I just sunk. I also almost suffocated in a stunt with a plastic bag taped to my head, but luckily someone popped a hole in the bag.” You can see the difficulty Lloyds TSB face.
“Its essentially just a really boring strip show”
It all started with the circus. But a 21st Century circus is not a bunch of deformed creatures and freakish acts, it’s now a rather cool, creative gypsy way of life.
“I joined a circus school in Bristol in my teens, having taught myself how to juggle and do card tricks. We learned trapeze, unicycling, handstands and all that rubbish and it just went from there really. I liked magic but I didn’t like the fake-ness of it and the idea of the audience not knowing what I was doing.”
“When I left circus school I didn’t want to be a juggler and I didn’t want to be magician so I hit the streets for a bit as a street performer to figure out what I wanted to do.” Roslyn in fact has a degree in journalism but he’s never really had a proper job, other than a glorified, slimy stint as a burger flipper at Burger King when he was 14.
“I went to Berlin where I was living out of a suitcase, so I couldn’t really take a unicycle round with me. I needed a finale and I needed one that fits in a suitcase so I bought a straitjacket. With no practice, I just took it out onto the street, got strapped in and just had to work out how to get out of it! It was really just a case of needing to pay my rent and feed myself.”
Most people, I point out, would be mildly horrified at the prospect. But Roslyn says he wasn’t scared, “when you’ve been sleeping in a doorway for 2 days you think ‘I need to sort this out’. It was out of necessity and it worked.” We both have a giggle when we realise, that quite literally, Roslyn was escaping the everyday problems of reality. How ironic.
“Then I had to make it entertaining. Essentially, its just a really boring strip show, you just see a guy get put in something, and then you see the same guy take it off. On the street, people leave the house to buy bread, not to watch someone get out of a straitjacket. They just walk off if you’re rubbish, so you get good quick.”
It may not be a monotonous 9-5, but performing on the streets for your livelihood must be a tough thing to do. “Actually, because I started out with the circus, which is full of people for whom that way of life is perfectly normal, I knew it was possible. The difficult thing was finding my show. It sounds all arty, but its got to be from the heart, from inside. Only Derren Brown can predict the lottery because that’s his thing.”
Roslyn’s show is very different from other artists on the scene. He has created a Vaudeville phenomenon of the ‘Original Gentleman Escape Artist’ with Victorian theatrics. He says he wanted it to be “clean juggling rather than razmattaz, where he looked like a kind of clown. I’ve only recently met other escapologists but seeing their shows using shock on the more alternative club scene, made me realise I didn’t want to be associated with the bondage side of restraints.”
I can’t help but agree. To be honest, most people think of escapology as macabre or kinky. But Roslyn’s act is different; it’s clean and family friendly. This all sounds a bit weird. Who is he trying to kid- chains and handcuffs? That’s nothing but kinky shit.
“That’s want I wanted to avoid. I actually do an educational show for primary school children, which teaches about forces, Newton and Galileo. I do a straitjacket escape for 6 year olds. I explain Newton’s 3 laws of motion using a straitjacket, and when I whip it out, the teachers’ faces are horrified, but the kids absolutely love it- they literally love it. My show doesn’t come across as anything that a family audience wouldn’t want to see.”
Even if this is clean bondagebegin to wonder how clean bondage can be, until Roslyn makes a sharp and rather sad point. “Shows for 4 year-old children are wacky and colourful, but you can’t show that to a 10 year-old, they’re just not interested. Kids these days have grown up with Facebook and YouTube, and they have access to everything. They are much more intelligent than adults give them credit for and they need intelligent entertainment.”
“Everyone wants to be amazed, it’s a very basic thing inside everybody, that the same kind of stuff amazes us, whether you’re 5 or 105 years old, seeing someone doing something usual or not normal. As long as it’s not gory, or over the top, there’s no reason why it can’t appeal.” He chuckles, at the bizarreness of what he’s about to say, “it’s like extreme family entertainment.”
Now I’m actually starting to pity this nice guy. “I was just fed up with when I say I’m an escapologist, people would make reference to bedroom stuff, but on stage and off stage that just isn’t me. It’s not crass. I’m also very open about what I do.”
Unlike the famous Godfather of Escapology, Harry Houdini, escape artist during the 20’s and 30’s, who used to perform his escapes concealed in a cabinet or behind a curtain, Roslyn prefers transparency. “The interesting but is how you get out, no one wants to watch a curtain for 3 minutes.” In fact his transparency has earned him two World Records. In 2010 in Llandudno, he achieved the most handcuff escapes in a minute and in an hour. The Mirror Cuff Challenge, consisted of an exact replica being made of the cuffs used in Houdini’s famous Mirror cuff challenge in 1923. Usually Roslyn studies his restraints before, but he wasn’t allowed to see these ones, “Not many escapologists accept the challenges, except Houdini, but I wanted to show that it’s real.” People generally don’t seem to be so sceptical, even though they can get on stage and inspect the restraints.
“People know they’re not being tricked, they just want to see if you can do it. I’m not a magician, they watch me for the same reasons they watch someone on a trapeze, pushing what’s physically possible. Also, I’m not scared of failure. I’m quite happy to accept the fact that I wont get out, and sometimes I wont. We’re just here to have a good time.” I start to wonder why on earth you’d want to do another stunt, if you’ve nearly died on the last, but he explains, almost obviously, that it’s the adrenalin. The search for the next big kick takes control, like it would for a racing driver who drives even faster after a crash.
“There are 2 types of escapology”, he explains, “One is for an audience, for them to have a good time, that’s my job. The other side is the stuff just for me. My brother is a scuba diver, and if we both have a day off, he has access to quarries, so we find some stuff to put me in and throw me in and see what happens.”
“I don’t want to know how other artists do their stuff because it wouldn’t be amazing any more. The method is actually quite ugly. If I do reveal a method, the method has to be as beautiful as the trick. A card getting lost in a deck, then a wave of the hand to find it is rather a beautiful concept. You have to present it in a routine which is captivating. A non-performance analogy could be a building the process of building isn’t beautiful, it’s dirty, noisy and sweaty. But the finished product is beautiful.”
“Whether it’s on a conscious or a subconscious level, it’s seeing someone in trouble, and I resemble everything that traps them. Whether you’re a kid at school with an exam, or trying the pay your rent, everyone is physically or metaphorically trapped. Watching my show where I literally free myself shows that no matter how desperate your situation appears on the surface, if you work at it, you will be able to free yourself.”
Indeed, being trapped is a fundamental part of the human struggle, there is a huge sense of liberation and relief in the resolve. There is that sinister curiosty we all have inside us which escapology seems to satiate. Houdini once said ‘people don’t want to see a guy a get killed, but they want to be there when it happens’, which, says Roslyn, “is sort of spot on.”
It seems the likelihood of Roslyn following in his dad’s footsteps though to do something a bit more stable, and be a landscape gardener is slim. He now has set his sights on Vegas, the Mecca of variety performance. “I’m in the process of writing a new school show for children, and there’s a show coming out on MTV in January where I train kids to walk over broken glass”, he says of the future. But actually, what he really wants for Christmas are bigger stunts, like setting myself on fire, hanging from a crane over a river. Can’t say that’s exactly what’s on my Wish List, but as I can now fully appreciate, what makes us all tick, ain’t necessarily the same.