Tuesday, 16 October 2018

He’s picked a pocket or two. Are you next?

JAMES FREEDMAN is talking about how he first became a pickpocket.

JAMES FREEDMAN is talking about how he first became a pickpocket.

It turns out that the showman and stealth-crime expert — whose stage name is “the Man of Steal” — owes something of a debt to the Artful Dodger and Oliver Twist.

And to a group of rather nasty-sounding teenage bullies he encountered at a tender age.

Hailed a genius in his field by Derren Brown, Freedman is the only man to have picked the pockets of the Mayor of London, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Governor of the Bank of England.

He is in great demand by businesses and police forces as an adviser, speaker and educator — and was recently appointed the UK’s first fraud prevention ambassador by the City of London Police.

A member of the Magic Circle, he also works as a magical advisor — inventing tricks and illusions for feature films, television dramas, theatre and stadium productions.

His one-man theatre show James Freedman: Man of Steal garnered five-star reviews at the Edinburgh Festival in 2014 and 2015 before enjoying a sell-out run at the Menier Chocolate Factory theatre in Southwark and transferring to the West End for a limited run.

Now he is taking the show on a 12-date tour that will bring him to the Kenton Theatre on Thursday, June 9.

Superman, aka Clark Kent, aka the Man of Steel, had a secret origin story. So what is the Man of Steal’s?

“Three things happened when I was really quite young that aligned to turn me into this odd thing, which is an honest pickpocket.

“The first was that when I was about five I got beaten up pretty badly by some 13- or 14-year-olds. They cracked my rib and damaged my cheekbone — it was a real nightmare.

“But what I remember most about it is not that I got beaten up but that they took my pocket money first and then beat me up afterwards.

“Even at that really young age it was like, ‘Well, you had the money...’ It didn’t make any sense.”

Freedman says that despite the formative nature of that experience — “it created in me a very keen sense of what was fair and what was just and what was right” — he had kept the story quiet for most of his life, only adding it to his stage show last year.

The second childhood incident — a few years on from the first — was a happier one.

“”I just became aware that there was such a thing as a pickpocket. I think it might have been Lionel Bart’s great Oliver! — the film — which I remember we went to see on a wet summer holiday somewhere on the south coast.

“And suddenly — oh! — there was this thing called a pickpocket, and that means children — because of course Oliver Twist and the Artful Dodger and co are kids — small people can get their things back from bigger people.

“So it was never with an interest in stealing things — it was always just a way to right a wrong.”

Intrigued, the young Freedman started reading up on his new interest.

“I would go to a library in whatever town we happened to be in and I would say ‘Have you got anything about pickpockets?’ And sometimes it’s only a writer’s device to advance a plot — there’ll be a little bit about a pickpocket in lots of books, but in some of them, such as Oliver Twist, there’s actually quite a lot about picking pockets and the psychology of pickpockets.”

All of which meant that by the time the third incident took place, Freedman was able to spot what was happening.

“My father had his pocket picked when I was about 12, I think, in Paris. And I had read and seen enough about it by then to know exactly what was going to happen, that it was going to happen — the guy that did it was the other side of a busy road, shouting, and my mum’s sort of holding my hand saying ‘What’s he on about?’ And we crossed the road and I said ‘They’ve stolen your wallet.’ And he said ‘No they haven’t.’ And he pats his pockets and they had.”

A classic case of stage magician-style misdirection? “Exactly,” says Freedman, who admits his keen sense of justice is not the only thing that fuels his ongoing fascination with the pickpocket’s art.

“As with any subject, the more you read the more you can appreciate, sometimes, the beauty in something — even though I’m the first to say that pickpockets on the street are breaking the law and thieves and scumbags.

“Their methods have a certain elegance and a simplicity about them — and I think that’s why in literature the Artful Dodger or Raffles have a sort of begrudging respect from the reader, who just thinks ‘Wow, I’d love to be able to do that...’ ”

Fast-forward to 2016 and the sheer cunning of some of the scams currently in operation — not just by traditional pickpockets — is almost breathtaking.

“This is something I’ve focused on on Police 5, the Channel 5 show,” says Freedman. “We did a series of scams. Someone rings purporting to be from your bank and says ‘Look, for security ring the number on the back of your card.’ The more advanced version of that scam now plays a fake dial tone down the phone so that the person’s fairly sure they’re ringing a new call.

“It answers with a recorded message and ‘for security’ asks the person to enter characters from their passcode or their PIN number. All electronically. They’re called DTMF [dual-tone multi-frequency signalling] but basically the multi-tone beeps you get when you press a digital phone, they can be decoded at the other end, and suddenly a complete stranger’s got your PIN number.

“The answer is, if your bank ever rings and asks for information, just hang up. If they really want to get hold of you, they’ll get hold of you by writing to you. That’s my advice.”

He is equally straightforward in what he says about our use of smartphones, computers and social media in an age when our personal data is among our most valuable possessions.

“If people are prepared to go online and share this sort of information, they’ve just got to realise that they’re sharing it with everybody. There’s no such thing as a secure computer. Every computer in the world can be hacked. So if you want to keep something a secret a computer’s probably the last place you should be putting that information.

“What my show seeks to do is explain the psychology of the fraudster, because I really believe that if you understand how these guys think you’ll never be a victim yourself.”

James Freedman: Man of Steal is at the Kenton Theatre on Thursday, June 9. Tickets are £16 with concessions available. To book, call (01491) 575698 or visit www.kentontheatre.co.uk

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