Submerged in water, with his neck chained to the floor of the 260-gallon tank, Matt Johnson‘s hands were cuffed through holes in its trapdoor roof.
Using a bobby pin, he picked both the handcuffs free and the collar off his neck.
Then came the hard part.
At Johnson’s feet were 31 identical-looking keys. Thirty were useless; one would open the lock holding the door keeping him under water.
His lungs seared, begging for oxygen.
Where was that one key?
Johnson had come halfway around the world, from Abbotsford to Birmingham, to take a crack at fame: an audition on Britain’s Got Talent.
But it was going wrong.
• • • •
His path to this moment started years before.
Johnson was given his first magic kit at age 12, while growing up in Rotherham, northern England, and he was instantly hooked.
Ever since, he has devised, practised and refined a myriad of illusions.
After residency gigs on cruise ships and a Japanese hotel, Johnson moved to B.C. in the late 1990s for love. That relationship didn’t last but the U.K. transplant has been committed to Canada since, playing corporate and public magic gigs as often as possible.
Three years ago, he submitted his first tape to Britain’s Got Talent. The answer: “No.”
The next year, it was the same.
Johnson knew he had to change something about his act to break through. So he changed everything.
Ditching the tuxedos that hid his full-sleeve tattoos, Johnson began performing in jeans and a T-shirt.
He covered his hands in more tattoos: hearts, diamonds, spades, clubs, a padlock and more.
He started developing a full-length theatre show, including the tank escape, inspired by his younger brother, Jonathan.
Jonathan suffers from tuberous sclerosis, a genetic disease that grows benign tumours throughout his organs and causes regular seizures. The seizures rob him of his motor functions and his ability to breathe for minutes on end.
Locking himself into the tank helps Johnson understand what his brother goes through.
“When I am in the water tank, chained up, I am aware of my surroundings but cannot get out. The escape is the struggle and the fight that my brother goes through.
“When I am in there, my lungs burn, my stomach burns and it’s not pleasant; in fact, it’s quite painful. This is just a small scratch on the surface of what Jonathan goes through every day,” Johnson told The News at his Abbotsford apartment, two weeks after that day in Birmingham.
Beginning about a year ago, Johnson began going to the pool at 6 a.m. every day to dunk his head under water and resist the urge to surface for as long as possible.
Along with the tank escape, he developed a nearly two-hour theatre show.
He landed a show at Courtenay’s Sid Williams Theatre. The hard work had paid off.
The performance was videotaped and he sent the tank-escape clip to Britain’s Got Talent. Finally, he was invited to audition.
He spent a week practising the escape twice a day in his Chilliwack studio. Some attempts were successful, others required his assistant to rescue him with bolt cutters.
In mid-January, more than two weeks before his Birmingham audition, Johnson had to pack the tank into a crate and ship it to England.
The next time he was in the tank was during his sole onstage practice run before the audition, which would be in front of bright lights, a screaming crowd and celebrity judges, with TV cameras rolling.
Johnson is able to hold his breath for over four minutes when floating still and face-down in a pool. But he maxes out at less than half that time when crammed into a box, thrashing back and forth as he picks up keys one by one and tries them in the lock over his head.
As the clock ticked past a minute and a half, Johnson began kicking at the side of the tank, as his body’s plea for oxygen became a demand.
When asked by a crew member what his signal was to be rescued, Johnson had said: “When I go limp.”
Johnson’s lungs felt as if they had caught fire, at about the minute and 45 second mark. He began thrashing about, kicking the side of the tank.
After the second kick, he felt the water rushing down past him. He opened his eyes to see the 260 gallons rushing out from a crack in the tank. The water created a small waterfall over the front of the stage and got wiring, cameras and the set wet.
“I just collapsed in the box. I was emotionally, physically … done. It was like all three years flashed in front of my eyes. I just laid there, I couldn’t believe it had happened,” Johnson recalled two weeks later, back home in his Abbotsford apartment. “My soul went out the box, with the water,” he said.
Dejected, with no way to perform his escape and audition, Johnson left the theatre with his brother, parents and wife.
As they were pulling out, their car was cut off by a Bentley. Celebrity judge Simon Cowell emerged from the car to the screams of adoring fans.
Johnson said it was “like a kick in the teeth” to see the life he imagined for himself.
Depressed, he crawled into his hotel bed at 4 p.m. and didn’t emerge for more than a day.
He credits his wife with talking him through the next few days, as he visited family in the U.K. Less than a week after the devastating setback and within hours of landing back in B.C., Johnson was performing for 300 people at a corporate gig at Cascades Casino in Langley.
“I had no time to wallow, I had to go do my show,” he said.
The next night, he was performing in Vancouver.
After returning to Abbotsford, Johnson found out the story of his mishap had leaked to tabloids in Britain, earning the fame he sought for the wrong reasons.
He has already placed a rush order on a new tank – this time with metal-reinforced corners – which will be ready just in time for his next shot at television fame.
(He’s not allowed to disclose the name or location of the next TV show.)
Johnson has also already been extended an invitation to audition for next year’s edition of Britain’s Got Talent.
He has also added one more tattoo to his right hand: “Feb 04 17” – the date of the disastrous rehearsal – “NEVER GIVE UP.”