British man paid $10,000 a year to be official 'wizard' for New Zealand city

Tim Wyatt
·3-min read
Ian Channell, known as The Wizard, has been a fixture in Christchurch's Cathedral Square for decades's: Getty Images
Ian Channell, known as The Wizard, has been a fixture in Christchurch's Cathedral Square for decades's: Getty Images

A British man has been paid £8,000 a year since 1998 to be the official wizard of the city of Christchurch in New Zealand.

Ian Brackenbury Channell, who goes by the simple name of The Wizard, has been a regular sight in the South Island city for decades since he arrived in the 1970s.

He spends most of his time in the city’s main square in front of the cathedral dressed in long dark robes and a pointed hat, heavily bearded and carrying a staff.

But the resemblance to Gandalf from the Lord of the Rings films, which were shot in New Zealand, is coincidental and Mr Channell insists his role is much more than just amusing tourists.

Since 1998, he has been the city of Christchurch’s official wizard, paid NZ$16,000 a year by the City Council to “provide acts of wizardry and other wizard-like-services as part of promotional work for the city of Christchurch”, according to a spokesman for the council, speaking to CNN.

Each year this involves around 200 hours of work promoting local events, encouraging tourism, and welcoming dignitaries to Christchurch.

Over the years he has become a fixture of Christchurch, even acquiring his own page and rating on TripAdvisor, and often appears at civic events in the town.

He told CNN he saw his role as being a provocateur, satirising the establishment. “Every day the world gets more serious, so fun is the most powerful thing in the world right now,” he said.

Most of his time in Christchurch’s city squares is spent speaking on philosophy and engaging the public in his ideas on everything from climate change to the supposed inequities of New Zealand’s census.

His journey into wizardry began when he was working at a university in Australia in the 1970s, when he began to try and inject more fun and absurdity into his classes. He found a mostly chilly reception from the university authorities and eventually his then-wife, who left him over his increasingly full-time commitment to being a wizard.

But across the sea in New Zealand he found a more receptive atmosphere. Before he was taken onto the council payroll, he was recognised by the country’s Art Gallery Director’s Association as a living work of art in the 1980s.

Mr Channell is paid $10,000 a year, partly to appear at civic events such as this memorial to the victims of the Christchurch mosque shootings (Getty Images)
Mr Channell is paid $10,000 a year, partly to appear at civic events such as this memorial to the victims of the Christchurch mosque shootings (Getty Images)

The city of Auckland’s art gallery has even formally added him to their collection, citing the medium of his art as “artist’s corporeal presence” and its value as “priceless”. In 2009 to mark his place in Christchurch’s civic life he was awarded the Queen’s Service Medal.

Although he has not legally changed his name, Mr Channell has secured both a British passport and a New Zealand driver’s licence, both made out in the name of The Wizard.

His website even features a photograph of a letter he says he received from the Prime Minister of New Zealand in 1990 asking him to become “the Wizard of New Zealand, Antarctica and relevant offshore areas”, adding “no doubt there will be implications in the area of spells, blessings, curses, and other supernatural matters that are beyond the competence of mere Prime Ministers”.

Mr Channell, who is now aged 87, is beginning to wind down his duties as the city’s wizard but for the last six years has taken on an apprentice, Ari Freeman, who hopes to inherit the mantle one day.

Mr Freeman, a 39-year-old musician who leads a psychedelic funk band, is not sure if the council will employ him under the same terms as Mr Channell when he finally hangs up his wizard’s hat and staff.

“I want the wizard phenomenon to continue, and I will totally fulfil that role,” he told CNN. “”It takes someone to do something unusual to poke their head in to create a zeitgeist change. And those people are magicians.”