IT would be hard to conjure up a greater contrast than the two career paths “Steel” Johnson has chosen in his extraordinary life.

The first was heroically serving his country, initially as an Army infantryman, then as a Royal Marine Commando, witnessing horrors in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Today, at 34, he’s sitting in the comfort of the Scotch Corner Hotel, talking about his new life: touring the country, and rubbing shoulders with A-list celebrities, as a professional magician.

“It’s surreal but here I am,” says Steel – real name James – as he rummages through his box of tricks.

With piercing eyes and a long, dark beard, he has a mystical look that perfectly fits being a magician. And yet, it’s not hard to imagine him intimidating the enemy.

Born in York, James moved to Northumberland as a child, and joined the Army at 18 in 2002. Two years later, he was on a tour of Iraq.

He left the Army after that, spending a year travelling, but he’d always admired the Marines and, despite fearing he wasn’t good enough, he couldn’t resist the temptation to apply. Having made it through the tough selection process, he was soon fighting the Taliban in Helmand Province and a comrade in front of him lost a leg when he stepped on an explosive during a night patrol.

Then, on New Year’s Eve, James was on a daytime patrol on a quiet, sunny day when a deafening blast shattered the peace.

“There was mud and debris suddenly raining down and a lad screaming and shouting,” he recalls.

James ran down the line, jumped over a ditch, and saw that his friend, Johnny, had been hit by shrapnel. Despite being under enemy fire, James applied a tourniquet and carried him to safety. He then went straight back into battle and brought back the body of a Corporal, known as Elmsy, on an improvised stretcher.

It was James’s fortitude under fire that earned him the nickname Steel. Yet, despite everything he’d seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was the death of his father from cancer in 2013 that left the deepest scars.

“He’d just retired at 60 and bought a camper van with his pension lump-sum, with the aim of travelling round the country with my mum and enjoying himself, but cancer denied him that,” he says, his voice softening.

Despite grieving badly, Steel was selected that year to become a medic for the elite Special Boat Service, where he was expected to administer care in the most hostile conditions.

However, the premature death of his father continued to prey on his mind and, eventually, it proved to be the catalyst for changing to the life he now leads. Steel left the forces at the end of 2016, converted a van into a camper, fitted it with a home-made four-poster bed, and found solace in yoga, surfing…and magic.

He’d loved dabbling in magic as a kid but didn’t think it was cool when he got to secondary school, so he put his pack of cards away.

That changed when he first joined the Marines and he watched a muscle-bound soldier doing card tricks. Suddenly, it was cool again. The Marine gave him lessons and a book on magic, and Steel spent every spare moment honing his skills until, eventually, his sleight of hand was perfected.

One night, he performed for “the lads” down the pub and an impressed onlooker asked if he’d do a show at a beer festival, with as much as he could drink and eat as payment.

The tight-knit military network continued to produce bookings, including officers’ charity dinners and Christmas parties. By the time he joined Civvy Street, word of mouth had spread. He embarked on a resettlement course in property maintenance, but the magic bookings kept coming.

“I bought a suit and found myself yo-yoing all over the place, doing dinners and weddings,” he says. “The business had created itself without me realising.”

With the ready-made stage name of Steel – alias The Magic Marine ¬– he’s now in big demand nationwide. Recent performances have included the National Rugby Awards at Twickenham, and a charity event in front of Princess Anne at St James’s Palace.

Even his old Commando knife is part of his act, cutting open a piece of fruit to reveal a signed playing card or borrowed bank note.

Despite having a house that he rents out in Darlington, he spends most of his time in his beloved van, although there’s always the haven of his mum’s house in the Yorkshire Dales.

Meanwhile, the combination of his distinctive looks, flair for magic, and forces connections have given his career a new dimension – as a “featured extra” in movies. He’s just finished playing a mercenary in “Angel Has Fallen” starring Gerard Butler, and he’s chatted with Angelina Jolie during a break from being a crossbow soldier in Disney’s Maleficent 2. He’s also been one of Thor’s guards in The Avengers, in scenes filmed at Durham Cathedral, and has met Orlando Bloom and Tom Hardy.

One of the most surreal moments of his life was being invited back to Gerard Butler’s trailer to show him a trick which involves making a lollipop appear from a flaming cigarette paper.

“Sometimes, I have to pinch myself because none of this makes sense – what’s happened to me is just incredible,” he says, smiling through his trademark beard.

It’s more than incredible – it’s magic.

  • To find Steel Johnson, search for @themagicmarine on Facebook or Instagram