“I’m not interested in show business per se, in being a performer, but I wanted my own lifestyle. And it’s the only job I’ve done that’s me. Everything else I was faking it.”
As a performer, Keith Charnley is in what must be the most vulnerable of professions. However, against the odds, his pickpocketing act has survived 3 decades, two recessions and the death of the light entertainment industry.
Keith puts this success down to his rarity – he is one of only a of handful of pure stage pickpockets around – but there is rather more to the story than this. Much like the cockney wideboy persona he projects to his audience, Keith is adaptable, intuitive and knows how to live by his wits.
Born in Bermondsey in 1951, Keith “wasted his school years”. Then in his late teens, after watching the Robert Bresson film ‘Pickpocket’ and picking up a book on sleight of hand, he developed a fascination with the criminal mind. Having read virtually nothing up until this point he now joined 5 libraries and devoured everything he could find on deception, visual trickery, criminology, history and psychology.
Using this wealth of information Keith was able to devise his own pickpocketing act, with the aim being to rob his audience exactly as a genuine criminal would.
A perfectionist and a purist, in the early days Keith meticulously reviewed his own performance, both through notes in a reflective journal and via letters to his mentor, experienced stage pickpocket Jack Steele.
As well as honing his act, Keith learnt to respond to his market. For example, to meet the demand for lengthier performances he began to weave comedy into his act, studying comedians such as Jim Davidson, and writing his own gags.
Charnley discovered that performing in the guise of “Keith the Thief” meant that he could push the boundaries with his humour. While he never used “blue or racial” jokes, he was one of the earliest cabaret turns on the circuit to introduce swearing, something the audience would expect and put up with from his dodgy alter ego.
Keith worked semi-professionally for a number of years, and never expected to enter show business full time. Then while working as a telephone engineer in the City in the late 1980s, his perceptions started to shift: “I could see the way my job was going with the invention of the silicon chip. It had come to an end in my head.”
One winter, with just a couple of weeks of cabaret work and a good helping of blind faith to get him through Christmas, Keith jacked in the day job. He and his ex-wife had two children by this point so the move was not without risk. “Logically, to everyone, it was the wrong thing to do,” he explains, “but at the same time it was like I was on a mission. I put myself in a situation.”
When Keith first became pro there were plenty of venues around for an act such as his – clubs, theatres, cruise ships, holiday camps. “When I went into the job you could earn a living just working round the M25, the working men’s clubs,” he explains.
But by the mid 90s the alternative comedy scene was on the rise and its promoters wanted to get rid of the old school. “A lot of people packed up” as a result of this cultural shift.
However, contrary to expectations, Keith the Thief, who went out on stage in a shirt and tie, was actually accepted at edgy venues like the Comedy Store. “I was so old I was new again. I wasn’t formula,” Keith explains.
We suspect also that enduring appeal of Keith’s act is in part down to the sharp persona of the cockney pickpocket he portrays. Through him we glimpse the East End of the 50s and 60s, “where everyone knew someone that was involved in the underworld” and are captivated by its shady charm.
Despite the longevity of his stage act, Keith has wisely sought out varied opportunities over the decades. He has found that his performance style is particularly suitable for corporate entertainment. Unlike a conjurer who may use sleight of hand to create a magical effect, Keith is always happy to demonstrate how he works, thereby “displaying the dexterity” of the pickpocket.
He tells us that business people are particularly intrigued by the art of misdirection – the ways in which he manipulates the minds of his targets to distract them from the work in hand. “They want to know – How I did I do that? How did I not feel that?”
Although the corporate scene does still provide Keith with a good deal of work, it has inevitably been hit by the economic downturn. To make himself more saleable, he has tweaked his approach by offering to work more intensively. At a dinner, for example, he will work the tables during the meal as well as performing at the reception and during coffee. For this he will “charge the same price or a little bit more and people are getting a deal”.
While Keith has honed his approach to business over the years, he has always maintained certain ground rules, for example he won’t work in a public area or rob people unannounced – “that just gives them the hump”. And having spent years working the holiday season with Thomson (May to October, one week away, one week home) he is also very reluctant to work the cruise ships. “It’s as boring as hell, though it sounds glamorous. You don’t see anything.”
To give himself the freedom to turn jobs down, Keith no longer employs a manager, relying instead on agents, events organisers, wedding planners and even caterers for bookings, a workstyle which suits his temperament. “I’m not a good team player,” he tells us. “I operate on my own.”
This independence from a manager means that Keith really can run things as he pleases. Intriguingly, he no longer actively promotes his act and he has never carried a business card. If someone requests one, he will instead ask for theirs, thereby using the power of reverse psychology. “If I take their card I can shoot them an email. Or maybe not. Sometimes it helps to let them do the work.”
Keith’s in-depth understanding of human psychology and criminal methods has also led to a sideline in crime prevention consultancy. This began when he was still semi-pro and looking after the telephones at Bishopsgate Police station. The officers found out about his talents and asked him talk to their pickpocketing squad. Keith went in there intending to “blag it”, but when it transpired he knew a good deal more than the coppers, he end up talking for 2 hours.
Over the years, Keith has lectured to several police forces and delivered numerous crime prevention talks and demos to diverse groups. “All crime is quite related,” he explains. “The pickpocket, the conman, they’re experts on human nature.”
Keith always urges his audiences to pay more attention to the scenes taking place around them. “Joe Public, they’re blinkered. A copper or a thief, he stands and he looks and his eyes are everywhere. If you want to observe stuff, stand still. If you remain static, suddenly everything just comes alive; it’s quite amazing.”
The entertainment industry is unstable enough as it is, so what happens to a performer if they fall ill? Twice during his career Keith has been injured out. The first time he snapped his achilles tendon chasing two lads who were trying to nick his car. The second he stubbed his cigarette out on an unexploded pyrotechnic in an ashtray.
With his hand bandaged up, and in recuperation, Keith contacted insurance companies to discuss cover: “It would have cost a fortune, like a footballer insuring his legs. I just took out pensions and stuff. But it did worry me.” And if you fall long term sick? “Well, you’re knackered.”
Keith has his pension plans in place, and he his other half Ally have been shrewd enough to pay off the mortgage on the home they share with their 4 cats. However, there is still the need to earn a living. “I’m not the greatest businessman and it’s not always about money,” he reflects. “But there’s always that dilemma. You have to make financial decisions.”
Now aged 62, with his job having shifted from the world of show business to the world of corporate entertainment, Keith seems ambivalent about his worklife. “If I’m not working it’s – Why isn’t the phone ringing? When I am working, it’s like – Why do I have to work?”
We ask whether he ever plans to hang up the suit and tie and embrace retirement. “I never know,” he answers, “I never know.” Whatever the future holds for Keith Charnley, one thing’s for sure: through life as Keith the Thief he has realised the enviable dream of creating a career from a passion, and of managing his lifestyle as he sees fit.