Obituary: Paul Daniels
A skilled and accomplished magician, he believed that the real magic lay in making his audiences laugh
Published 20/03/2016 | 02:30
Paul Daniels, who died on Thursday aged 77, was one of the most successful magicians and illusionists of his time. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, he was a permanent fixture on BBC television, where, aided by his assistant (and later wife), "the lovely Debbie McGee", he would intersperse his tricks with pugnacious comedy banter.
Daniels made his television debut in 1970 on the talent show Opportunity Knocks, then produced by Thames Television, and he was soon given a regular spot on Bernard Manning's Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club for Granada. Meanwhile, he toured constantly. Then in 1978, ITV gave him a Sunday night show, Paul Daniels' Blackpool Bonanza, but it was the BBC's Paul Daniels Magic Show, running from 1979 to 1994, that turned the diminutive magician into a star of light entertainment.
Although the show invited guest magicians to perform their own tricks, it was dominated by Daniels and his patter, which could range from corny one-liners to cheeky put-downs. The magic was impressive. He combined sleight-of-hand card tricks with new variants of old illusions and the long-suffering Debbie McGee seemed to spend most of the 1980s confined to a box.
Daniels was not desperate to be liked and his abrasive manner and self-confidence, interpreted by some as arrogance, would often rub people up the wrong way. He was a workaholic and a perfectionist. Described by one critic as "entirely devoid of warmth", he nevertheless maintained a tremendous rapport with audiences, who delighted in his catchphrases (chiefly "you'll like it, not a lot, but you'll like it").
It was hard to fathom with Daniels how much of the self-aggrandisement and smugness were part of the act.
"I know I'm a star," he said, "because the press say I am, my income says I am and the audiences who come to see me say I am."
He was born Newton Edward Daniels, known in his family as Ted, on April 6, 1938 in a two-up, two-down council house at South Bank, "a very polluted area", as he later recalled, of Middlesbrough. A weekly bath was taken in the front room, with buckets of water heated on a boiler in the back room.
His father was a cinema manager and his mother sold the tickets at the box office, so many of his early years were spent in the auditorium.
His interest in magic was first sparked when he was 11 and read a book called How to Entertain at Parties. He had soon mastered card tricks and practised his showmanship with a collapsible dancing cane.
Young Ted attended Sir William Turner's Grammar School, Redcar and would perform small conjuring acts there and at local clubs and parties. At 16, he left school to work as a council audit clerk, after which he spent two years on National Service.
On demobilisation, he joined his parents in a mobile grocery business, eventually starting a grocery shop of his own. Throughout this period, he continued to perform his magic tricks on the club circuit.
At the age of 30, as his first marriage was foundering, Daniels decided to become a full-time magician.
He changed his name to Paul, because, his ex-wife would explain, "he thought it was posher" and got his first summer season at the Cosy Nook theatre in Newquay. By 1980, he was starring in his own show, It's Magic, which ran for 14 months at the Prince of Wales Theatre.
Daniels, as he described it later, brought some much-needed razzmatazz to the world of magic.
"Whereas most magicians at that time," he said, "were doing cards, billiard balls, silk handkerchiefs and so on to waltzy classical music, I hit the stage in Lurex with rock'n'roll music going and lighting and lots of smoke and everything going mad. It took David Copperfield 35 years to catch up with me."
Some of Daniels's finest displays of magic included copies of Houdini's tricks, such as the escape from a glass tank full of water in which he was suspended head downwards. Daniels claimed, unsurprisingly, that while Houdini sometimes took half-an-hour to free himself, he himself could do it in a few seconds. But on one occasion, when he attempted a Houdini escape from three locked boxes, one inside the other, he found that one had warped and he could not get out. Luckily, his assistant at the time noticed he was in trouble and unlocked the boxes.
In 1978, Daniels, then aged 40, first met Debbie McGee, the 20-year-old blonde former soloist in the Iranian National Ballet, who had been given the job of assisting him for a British tour with a summer season show at Great Yarmouth. Despite the age gap, romance blossomed, although they did not marry until 1988.
"When I proposed to Debbie," Daniels recalled 10 years later, "I said, 'Look, I'm not very tall or good-looking and I'm older than you and all that jazz, but the one thing I promise you is it'll never be boring.'" They were aware of, but impervious to, the mockery of their relationship and Debbie McGee was unruffled when Caroline Aherne's parody chat-show host Mrs Merton asked: "What first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?"
Following his move to television, Daniels was rarely seen without "the lovely Debbie McGee" (as she was always introduced) by his side, dressed in a spangly and revealing little outfit. She became his staunchest defender and greatest ally, always willing to laugh at the lamest of jokes.
By 1989, The Paul Daniels Magic Show had been sold to television companies across the world and Daniels was a rich man. He presented three quiz shows in succession for the BBC as well as a children's programme. In 1985, he bought a Ferrari with the personalised number plate MAG1C.
His relationship with the BBC became strained, however, particularly after 1991, when he denounced BBC management as "horrendously bad". In 1995, his contract was terminated after the corporation rejected his plans for "the sort of family show that Andy Williams used to do".
He continued to tour, performing on stage and on cruises and giving after-dinner speeches. He taught seminars for musicians and set up an online magic shop.
He was the author of a number of books including Under No Illusions, a frank autobiography in which he claimed to have slept with more than 300 women before his relationship with Debbie McGee.
In later years Daniels had undergone a renaissance. In 2000 he appeared in a television documentary, Paul Daniels in a Black Hole, in which he agreed to travel to America posing as an unknown magician looking for work.
Calling himself Eldani The Unusualist he rose to the challenge, despite being described by one Hollywood publicist as "too old and not good-looking enough" to work there.
But Daniels's greatest coup was to take part in an episode of When Louis Met... (2001), a television documentary series presented by Louis Theroux; during the course of the programme it became clear that Theroux, far from ridiculing the couple, found them endearing and likeable.
"I don't like everybody I see on television," Daniels once said, "so I don't expect everybody to like me. And I can certainly laugh at myself."
Paul Daniels married Jackie Skipworth in 1960; the marriage was dissolved in 1971. He is survived by three sons from his first marriage (one of whom, Martin, is a magician) and by his second wife, Debbie McGee.