Standing centre stage is magician Richard Jones, his musical introduction playing for the third time.

The 10,000-strong audience and celebrity judges watching Britain’s Got Talent: The Champions in Wembley Arena are wondering why the act is silent.

Is there a technical hitch? Could something have gone wrong?

But there is an emotional reason behind the magician’s hesitant start.

Richard says: “My act begins with a video about Fergus Anckorn, a World War Two veteran who survived over three years as a prisoner of war by showing his Japanese guards conjuring tricks. Standing on stage, I was rehearsed, ready to go.

Richard Jones won Britain's Got Talent in 2016

“But after the video played I felt the audience’s love and respect for Fergus, which was overwhelming.

“I’m not usually one to shed a tear in public. But I was fighting tears and unable to speak. They had to play my musical loop three times before I found my voice.”

Viewers will see the emotional scenes on tomorrow’s show. Richard, 28, won BGT 2016 with a moving act that ended with Fergus walking on stage to a standing ovation.

But Fergus died in March last year at age 99. He and Richard had become close friends who met frequently. Richard told the war hero his tales of performing, while Fergus would share his wisdom.

Fergus walked on stage to a standing ovation during the BGT final
Richard became close friends with Fergus Anckorn and the pair met frequently

“Fergus was a very wise man,” says Richard. “And the most positive person I’ve ever met. He taught me not to dwell on things that were sad, to keep going when things went wrong.

“I miss him and think of him every day. Towards the end of his life, Fergus called me. I visited him in hospital and, although he was very ill, he was entertaining the nurses with magic tricks. His son’s call telling me he had died was one of the toughest calls to take.

“But his funeral wasn’t full of people crying, but a true celebration of the life of an extraordinary man I was proud to know.”

Richard, who grew up in Chigwell, Essex, is a serving member of the Household Cavalry. He began entertaining his fellow soldiers with his tricks seven years ago, earning him the nickname Magic Mike – although he insists he has no resemblance to the fictional stripper.

Richard is a serving member of the Household Cavalry

Since his BGT win he is often recognised, even while on duty.

He says: “When I was at the Queen’s birthday parade going down The Mall in front of a huge crowd, some people were shouting my name – it was so nice. The guys in my regiment could really take the mick, but they’re really supportive and loved being on stage with me when I dedicated my Royal Variety show performance to the bomb disposal team.”

The British Army grants Richard leave to perform shows and he’s spent much of that time doing performances for charities such as Scotty’s Little Soldiers, which supports children whose parents have died while serving in the armed forces. Richard often brings audience members on stage, but one volunteer stood out.

Richard takes leave from the Army, which gives him time to perform shows

He says: “Last year, I brought Prince William on stage for one trick. It involved my ceremonial sword. His bodyguards were pretty twitchy. It’s a dangerous trick and nerve-racking for me, knowing that if it went wrong it would be headline news. So there was lots of tension in the air. But Prince William was pretty relaxed. Thankfully, the trick worked and I had the biggest cheers I’d ever heard.”

Richard and Prince Harry were in the same regiment, and he also has something in common with Prince Charles.

He says: “Not a lot of people know this, but Prince Charles is a magician. In the Magic Circle headquarters, there’s a big picture of him when he auditioned.”

Richard, who is single and says he is too busy to find love, admits he felt “a surge of nerves” standing in front of judges Simon Cowell, David Walliams , Alesha Dixon and Amanda Holden for BGT: The Champions, which brings back winners from past series.

Richard will be performing in front of the BGT judges once again

But he is looking forward to a string of new tour dates next year.

He says: “Now that Fergus is gone, I feel something is missing but even more drive to carry on making people smile with magic, just as he did. My life’s changed a lot since I won BGT, so it was emotional to be back for the champions show.

“Fergus’s son and granddaughter were in the audience - that meant everything to me. It is just a shame he wasn’t there to see it.”

Tricks helped Fergus survive a spell in hell

When Fergus Anckorn was given a magic set aged four, it sparked a love of conjuring that would not only change but eventually save his life.

He was the youngest person to join the Magic Circle, at 18, and when he died aged 99 last year he was its oldest and longest-serving member.

At the outbreak of war in 1939, Fergus left home in Sevenoaks, Kent, to enlist as a gunner in the 118th Field Regiment Royal Artillery, spending off-duty time arranging concerts.

He got to Singapore in February, 1942. Just days later he was driving a lorry carrying a live shell that had jammed, he ran into an air raid and it exploded.

Fergus Anckorn left home in 1939 to enlist in the war effort

Fergus was taken to Alexandra Military Hospital with his right hand almost severed – but a surgeon decided not to amputate after discovering he was a conjurer.

On February 14, Japanese troops entered the building and massacred patients and staff. Convinced he was about to die, Fergus pulled a pillow over his head. But the Japanese thought him dead and passed by.

Gangrene

Survivors were taken to Changi Jail, where Fergus saved his crippled leg and right arm by introducing maggots to devour the gangrene.

He was then sent to work on the Burma Railway and, after a guard poured boiling creosote on him, went to hospital at Chungkai camp, Thailand. As he gained strength, he did magic tricks for prisoners. Word reached the commandant, Osato Yoshio, who had a reputation as a sadist but was a devotee of magic.

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Magic tricks exposed

Fergus was soon performing for top brass – and learning to make food “disappear” to supplement their meagre rations. Asked to do an egg trick for a visiting general, he used one and gave 49 to prisoners.

Fergus, who earned the nickname The Conjurer of the River Kwai, spent three and a half years in captivity and was six stone when freed.

He married Lucille Hose, a nurse, and they had a son and daughter. He continued to do magic and worked as a teacher at West Kent College.

Fergus said: “I am probably the luckiest man alive. I’ve been blown up, I’ve been shot. I’ve survived a massacre and I got away with that egg trick. Every day is a wonder.”