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Obituary: The Revd Peter Liddelow

29 September 2023

A correspondent writes:

PETER LIDDELOW never got dressed without secreting a silk handkerchief, a pack of cards, or a false thumb around his clothes. No wedding reception, baptism, or pastoral visit went by without a pound coin appearing from behind someone’s ear or a watch being smashed and then reassembled. At a funeral for a fellow magician, he once opened a Bible, which spontaneously burst into flames as he told the captivated mourners that Jesus was the Light of the World. Peter loved to entertain, and he loved an audience; but his conjuring was always a vehicle for talking about his Christian faith.

The defining moment in his life was when he dedicated his life to Christ at the age of 15. It was at about the same age that he joined the magic club at University College School, Hampstead, learning tricks (and jokes) that he was still performing 75 years later.

He was a member of the Magic Circle for 65 years. He served as the society’s much-loved Chaplain for 15 years, and, for eight years, he was its welfare officer. He would encourage young magicians in their careers; those who were sick would get a phone call, a letter, or a basket of fruit. Often, he took funerals for Magic Circle members. This commitment to the Magic Circle was recognised when he was was invited to become a member of the Inner Magic Circle. He was awarded the silver wand in 2013 — a rare honour, which he shares with the King. He was also an enthusiastic member of the Fellowship of Christian Magicians.

After National Service in the RAF, he offered himself for ordination in the Church of England and was accepted, but decided that his vocation was to work with children; so, instead, he trained as a religious-education teacher. He said that he regarded his classes as an audience. He loved children. He loved to entertain them, and he loved to share his Christian faith with them. After five years in the classroom, he became an adviser to the Scripture Union, an organisation to which he remained attached throughout his life.

In the mid-’60s, Peter pulled off the biggest trick of all, when he met and married a primary-school teacher, Sylvia Lark. They had two boys, Paul and David, of whom they were immensely proud. After the Scripture Union, Peter went back to the classroom, rising to become a head teacher in Ealing. In the 1980s, he was recruited by Lord Longford to advise the government on the effects of video violence on young people.

But, while he was committed to teaching, he was always pulling another rabbit out of the hat — so many that you wondered where they were all coming from. He sat as a magistrate for 29 years, and received a civic award from the Borough of Barnet for outstanding service to the community. By the time you have a defendant in front of you and a junior magistrate on either side of you, that amounts to an audience, and Peter was known to perform table magic on the magistrates’ bench.

He was passionate about cricket, and, as a member of the MCC, he used to enjoy going to Lord’s. When his hero Brian Lara made a century, Peter wanted to congratulate the great man in person. When the security guard at the dressing-room door said no, Peter showed him a couple of magic tricks, and eventually he was allowed in.

Peter gave talks and performances to countless summer camps, youth clubs, Rotary Clubs, and dinners, performing magic, making jokes, and speaking simply and winsomely about Christian faith. He would get up at ridiculous hours of the morning, preparing visual aids, practising tricks, or writing letters. For a time, he was a regular guest on David Frost’s Sunday-morning TV programme, and contributed to Radio 4’s Thought for the Day. In retirement, he started to travel more widely, organising what he called Journeys of a Lifetime, coach trips on which literally thousands of friends and family from church and elsewhere travelled round the world with him.

He had been a Reader in the Church for many years, and was ordained deacon in 1983, to serve as an NSM. He served for more than 30 years, much of it as an honorary curate at Christ Church, Barnet. Many are the sermons that were livened up with a bit of magic. But he was always careful to say: “This is illusion; this is conjuring. But Jesus is the real thing.”

I can’t help feel that when he got to the gates of heaven, he might just have pulled a pack of cards out of his pocket and said “Before I go in, let me show you this.”

The Revd Peter Liddelow died on 22 August, aged 90.

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