© New Zealand Broadcasting School 2024

Ben’s People: 'The Wizard’s World'

Ben Ulisse
The Wiz and Me
It's not often I encounter someone whose hat has a wider brim than mine.  Ben Ulisse

Our official wizard reflects on his unique and unusual life, his run for mayor, and whether there’s any magic left in Christchurch.

The Wizard of New Zealand QSM, also known as The Archwizard of Canterbury, or simply as The Wizard, is one of few folks who can lay claim to being a living work of art.  

We meet at the Arts Centre on an overcast, slightly cool day, outside a café built into the first floor of the old Boys High lecture theatre. Trams pull up behind us every fifteen minutes trucking in throngs of gleeful tourists, and the whole scene is framed by Gothic Revival buildings. For the next hour or so, I feel like I’m part of a pre-quake Christchurch NZ postcard or fridge magnet.  

I find The Wizard speaking to a woman so engrossed in what he’s saying that she is distracted from finishing her sandwich. I sit at a nearby table to wait, but he soon sees me out of the corner of his eye. ‘Ah, there he is!’ he exclaims, grinning at me like the cat from Alice in Wonderland, ‘the young journalist who’s going to write a scathing hit-piece about me!’  
As if freed from some hypnotic trance, the sandwich woman offers me her seat and drifts away, possibly wondering where the time went. I shake The Wizard’s hand and sit down. Bypassing introductions, he picks up his lecture from where his previous captive ear left, which is about his feelings towards the city council taking over management of the ChristChurch Cathedral from the Anglican Church some years ago. Gradually, the monologue evolves into conversation as other topics come up.  

Greeting passengers
The city trams keep The Wizard busy entertaining fans old and new. Ben Ulisse

Nearly everything under the sun is discussed, including the antique psychological theory of the Four Humours personality types (Choleric, Sanguine, Melancholic, Phlegmatic). ‘I prefer the company of other sanguine types like myself,’ he says. We also delve into The Wizard’s own theories, such as one about an inverted universe.  

‘I don’t consider myself a genius or anything,’ he admits, ‘but I’ve led a very interesting life full of weird and wonderful experiences.’ 

Born in South London in 1932 and baptised as Ian Brackenbury Channell on Easter Day the following year, the boy who would become wizard spent his formative years as a wartime evacuee in the English countryside. Moving from school to school, the bright student who devoured every book he could get his hands on often felt at odds with peers and teachers who treated him differently.  
It was in this frustration and distaste for authority at school that he found a knack for public speaking, often centred on the eternal teenage dream of anarchy. ‘During my six years of secondary, I led the real class war in the classroom,’ The Wizard states in his 1998 autobiography My Life as a Miracle. ‘I was not an unhappy, disturbed child; I was a bloody nuisance.’  

But the young wizard prevailed through the gruelling education system, and his intelligence was finally acknowledged when his turn came up for National Service. ‘To my amazement, they considered me officer material!’ Following an interview with the Royal Air Force, The Wizard earned his wings and was sent to Canada for a short spell training with NATO.

Once his compulsory time was up, he worked for a London firm of paper merchants for several years before beginning a teaching career which took him all the way to Tehran. His native England called him back for a short time, then in his early 30s he made the move down-under when the University of Western Australia offered him a tenured role as Community Arts Officer.  

Wiz and the Tram
Another great performance! Ben Ulisse

Due to conflicts of interest with faculty, he shifted to Sydney to begin lecturing on sociology, only to find himself embroiled in the pressure cooker of campus calamity amid anti-Vietnam and civil rights protests. These were breaking out in universities across the world in the mid to late 1960s, and while The Wizard shared the peaceful stance most protestors held, some were employing violence and bullying tactics. ‘Shocked and disgusted at the behaviour of those militant zombies,’ he shifted focus outside the classroom and began a series of counter-protests to the aggressive side of counterculture. At the University of New South Wales, this was the beginning of what he calls ‘The Fun Revolution.’  

With an aim to ridicule and subvert this minority of aggressors, as well as increase funding for struggling arts programmes, he started a student-led movement called the Action for Love and Freedom. Known for their brand of direct action through non-violent nonsense, ALF became known as Alf’s Army, and Channell as their leader was dubbed Grand Alf. A proto-wizard to the one we know today, he trialled a variety of different characters including an Anarchist Hamlet, Tarzan, a dictator; he even tried being a fairy.  
‘I wore a pink tutu and everything, and I skipped around them in happy little circles while they booed and waved their angry signs.’ Before I can ask what happened next, he tells me. ‘I got punched. And the mean bastards broke my wand!’ As he grew his beard and hair out longer and wore loose-fitting robes, inspiration struck. A lifelong fan of Tolkien, his Grand Alf persona soon morphed into Gandalf. ‘There was a popular revival at the time for The Lord of the Rings,’ so it only made sense to ask the University of NSW to appoint him as their Official Wizard.  

wiz and the tram2
"There are too many boring, serious people in the world, we need more clowns and showmen." -T.W Ben Ulisse

When it was time for yet another change of scenery, The Wizard (now in name as well as title) moved across the ditch to the garden city. After some skirmishes with the council and one or two bible-thumping critics, he became the Official Wizard of Christchurch in 1982 and then the Official Wizard of NZ eight years later, his crowning achievement. ‘I’m the first and ONLY wizard to be appointed by any state or institution anywhere on the planet.’  

The Wizard’s influence on our local culture has entertained and inspired generations. Everyone has a wizard story, from his double-ended VW Beetle to the times he rowed out to sea to avoid the census survey. He once led a paint war against Telecom (now Spark) over their attempt to repaint classic red phone boxes “corporate blue,” which saw a decisive victory for The Wizard and his army of followers carrying buckets of red paint. More recently, he helped save his cherished Cathedral from demolition through passionate oratory about the importance of preserving history. 

His run for this year’s mayoral race was likely a surprise to anyone not expecting to see “Wizard, The,” appear on the ballot. But this shock factor was all part of his grand scheme as it turns out, and while not wanting to discuss the election at much length, he says his goal was to drum up debate and ‘get the public talking about democracy.’  

He describes himself as ‘the invisible candidate’. But did he really go unseen? Coming in 5th out of 11 candidates with 2,474 votes would suggest quite the opposite, and it’s a reasonable figure considering the voter turnout. 
This wasn’t The Wizard’s first foray into politics however, as he stood three times as an independent in the Australian general elections (once for Sydney Central under the slogan “Pop a Wizard into Parliament!”) then later founded the Imperial British Conservative Party in time for the 1975 New Zealand general election.  

Not getting the news coverage he expected this year, The Wizard was disappointed. ‘I so hoped someone would come up to challenge me, but not one media person did. No one has any balls now, everyone’s too friendly.’ He has no plans to run again.  

Wiz Kids2
The greatest selfie of the century. Ben Ulisse

On his views of the media, he addresses me directly and, judging from the eager look on his face, with possible hope of a debate. ‘Now you as a journalist, you and I are supposed to be mortal enemies, we’re diametrically opposed!’
I chuckle. ‘Ah, come on. We’re both storytellers in a way, aren’t we?’ He seems to agree, but then his wish to engage in heated discussion is soon granted as a passing American tourist stops at our table to say hi. Sensing his benign wisdom, she asks what his motto in life is. 

‘Have fun!’ The Wizard declares, ‘there are too many boring, serious people in the world, we need more clowns and showmen.’ Intrigued, she asks him to name a favourite clown, to which he replies with the surname of their former president. Her nose wrinkles.
‘Jesus, no! I don’t like him at all. He said the worst things!’ A spark animates The Wizard as he springs forward with his Cheshire cat grin. ‘Exactly, that’s why
I like him! He’s one of the world’s best clowns!’ Our guest leaves in a huff and he sits back down, looking elated but slightly baffled. ‘Did you see that, Ben? Some still need to learn how to have fun.’  

But from what I witness, The Wizard isn’t always a rabble-rouser out to stir the pot, as every other public interaction he has that day is positive and outright wholesome. About half a dozen trams come and go throughout the afternoon and each one brings a fresh crop of faces, most with phones already out to snap a pic of the living icon.
He eagerly gets up from his seat to greet them all, as eagerly as anyone could manage at age 90, and I keep a respectful distance with my own camera to document the event. Not letting a captive audience go to waste, The Wizard climbs aboard the old trolley car to deliver one of his trademark performances. 

I notice the more veteran tram conductors will climb down first, freeing up space in the tiny wooden cabin to make entry easier for him. The mutual respect here is clear, and The Wizard is aware of their tight schedule. He either tells a quick story or joke followed by a magical blessing over the delighted passengers, then he’s back down the rickety steps and the well-oiled process continues. 

a timely tradition
A time-honoured tradition between the conductor and The Wizard. Ben Ulisse

If The Wizard has one final message to share, it’s that he is still a part of Christchurch, ‘despite what certain individuals’ would have you believe about him living elsewhere. And that, although he feels betrayed by the Council’s recent decision to sever their contract with him after more than three decades of service, he is still committed to performing free wizardry for the people. And has no plans to stop just yet.  

After we say goodbye, I leave him to entertain one more tramload of fans as I take our empty glasses back to the café. When I return outside, the trams, the people, and my magical friend have all disappeared. Maybe it was all an hallucination?  

‘Cut the strings and set the giant free.’
-The Wizard.