James Freedman is a disconcerting man with whom to chat. You’ll be passing the time of day, discussing the weather or your shared childhood memories, when suddenly and without warning he’ll be brandishing your wallet, your keys, your mobile phone and anything else of any value you may be carrying on your person.
Don’t believe me? Watch the video above filmed just after our chat, in which he talks about his show Man Of Steal and reveals just what I thought I had in my pockets!
The light-fingered fraudster and security expert is a modern day, real life – if more mature – Artful Dodger. What he lacks in soot-smudged features and child-like innocence, he makes up for in charm, cheek and an encyclopaedic knowledge of how to separate you from all you hold dear.
He even had his own Fagin, a nameless chap he literally bumped into outside Harrods. To clarify, when they bumped Freedman picked the fellow’s pocket, but only to retrieve a purse he’d previously seen pinched from a handbag. When he returned the booty the strapping pickpocket, who’d felt Freedman’s then inexpert fingers doing their wandering, had a few choice words to say. Instead of taking him quietly down a back street and introducing Freedman to his size 10s, the career criminal first tried to recruit him then agreed to mentor him.
“It’s one thing to know how to steal, it’s another thing entirely to understand how to do it,” Freedman explains. “It sounds the same, but it’s the difference between knowing how a carpenter makes something and being able to do it. It’s the difference between the art and the craft.”
Freedman, whose show plays at the Trafalgar Studio 1 this summer following a successful season at the Menier Chocolate Factory, can do both.
I can testify to the fact that he is a perfect practical pickpocket. Again, just check the video to see the proof of what he managed to lift even while I was alert to the fact that he has a tendency to delve into pockets.
But his knowledge is as scary, both in its depth and its use.
If I had a superpower it would be paranoia. Half an hour in Freedman’s company and I’ve reached new heights of suspicion. I’ve learned that apple picking and blackberry picking are not just autumnal country pursuits, that the term sidekick has a rather insalubrious beginning – the side is a jacket pocket, the kick, well, it’s just that – and that the mug’s pocket, that one in the back of your trousers, has that name for a very good reason.
But I’ve also learned that “The easier it is to use, the easier it is to abuse.” That contactless card that you don’t even have to remove from your wallet to use can have all its information scanned with a phone brushed against your leg. The USB socket you’ve just plugged your phone into to replenish the battery; do you know what’s on the other side and what info is being downloaded? That sign warning you of pickpockets; it’s also helping those same guttersnipes discover exactly where you’re carrying your valuables.
It’s a little terrifying, but also hugely fascinating. There’s a glamour, an allure, an art to it.
“I sleep at night. I don’t have moral issues, because what I do is always going to be honest,” Freedman smiles. “The information I got from my mentor, which I couldn’t have got any other way, I now use to work with police forces and security professionals. I think I’ve saved thousands and thousands of people with advice and I tweet tips from @jamesfreedman. I could never be a criminal. I couldn’t do that any more than you can go to Sainsbury’s and put everything in your pockets. It’s your moral code. I was brought up right; I just have a fascination with theft.”
While he spent most of our time taking things from me, having spent a few minutes with Freedman, he’s also given me that same fascination… and a healthier distrust of everyone around me.
James Freedman: Man Of Steal plays at the Traflagar Studio 1 until 4 July. You can book tickets through us here.