In September 2015 I spoke to godfather of magic, Paul Daniels, whilst on tour with his Intimate Magic Show.
He reflected at length on a career which has encompassed comedy, drama, music, cult game shows and of course, illusion. A straight-talker with a cheeky warmth and Yorkshire charm, the world-famous magician radiated an infectious sense of humour in this candid interview.
As a Yorkshire-born lad, are you looking forward to returning up north to perform in the East Riding this October?
I return up north all the time. North, south, east, west. The gag surrounding this show is when people ask when it started. I tell them that it’s been going on for about forty years. I’ve never stopped touring, I just tour all the time. So I’m up north quite a bit and I was up last week. I was very good to Debbie... I took her with me.
The Lovely Debbie McGee joins you in the show. What should audiences expect from The Intimate Magic Tour?
I never know, mostly because of Debbie, as she tends to walk up on stage and interrupt whatever I’m doing. The show is varied and it has a skeleton of stuff that we intend to do, but you arrive at a venue and you have to decide what will and won't fit in the space. The previous year we took out big stuff; vans, stage management and all that jazz. For this particular tour, we decided we really wanted it to be a small one. About ten years ago I put together The Magic of Max Malini, a Jewish illusionist who toured the world out of a briefcase, though he never did theatre, just engagements at stately homes. So I said to Debbie: let’s hit in the middle and call it The Intimate Magic Tour. Debbie does about four or five items and it’s just fun. It’s great.
It sounds like you’re getting intentionally cosy with your audience in this show.
Yes. Well, sometimes the audience will stand up and applaud and that’s alright but it’s when they walk towards you, that’s the worrying moment. With a bit of luck I can shake them off at the station...
Have there been any particular highlights for you and Debbie so far?
Each venue is very different, but also they’re surprising, which is really good. The small venues, for example, provide far better treatment than the bigger theatres. They really look after you and the manager’s wife will turn up with some cakes she’s baked that afternoon, that kind of thing. We just have a much friendlier, happier time.
What first brought you to magic and show business?
My Dad had a cinema, so I was working with movies by the time I was nine. I’m still waiting for the call to be in a movie because, as you know, I am an international sex symbol and body builder. My aunt was in show business as a dancer and she was very glamorous. In fact she was the first person to teach me how to riffle-shuffle playing cards. But she was considered a naughty lady, with eight husbands, none of which were hers, so my parents didn’t want me to follow her into show business. I did find a magic book when I was 11, but despite really wanting to, I didn’t become a full professional until I was 30.
You've done everything from dancing to signing, documentaries, game shows, pantomime. What’s the key to your popularity?
That’s easy, I don’t take myself seriously. I cannot understand how - I guess mostly actors - tend to take themselves seriously, forgetting that we’re getting paid to play with our toys. I think, perhaps of all show business people, perhaps actors have it the easiest in that the lines are written for them, a director tells them where to stand, that kind of thing. But to anybody making a living in show business these days, good luck to them.
You’ve always brought a lot of humour and comedy into your work. You’ve been called a Comedian Magician.
That’s not my fault... I’m trying to be desperately serious on stage and the audience keep on laughing! I don’t know why, but I do “think funny”, however I wasn’t originally as I was very shy but I found a way to be funny. So what happens is a member of the audience will say something and my head wanders off and I say funny stuff.
Some would say your humour feels very Northern.
I think all humour is the same, but the rhythm of the language is different.
The Paul Daniels Magic Show ran on TV from 1979 - 1994. Do you think this was a golden age for television?
What happens with every generation that comes along is they have their own new heroes. I think it was a golden age for television because a lot of the people running it, producing it, directing it, had come from theatre. They had an ear for applause and understood people. Nowadays they go to graduates of media studies, where they are taught by persons who have never entertained anybody. So - and this is from my side of the fence - they think that if you have learnt to shoot drama or football matches, that you can shoot something like magic. But you can’t, because magic is a completely different feeling. The other thing they’ve forgotten, and they’re being taught to not do this, is entertaining people at home. A classic example is The X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent, where they’re working to a theatre audience and four judges, whereas we’re sitting at home and are left out of it. Live at the Apollo has two-and-a-half thousand people sitting in the audience and the comedian never looks at us. I think they have forgotten that we’re sitting twelve feet away waiting for somebody to deliver the goods.
You honed a technique in your shows where you’d address the camera then walk into your studio audience.
Yes, I also tried every year to mix up the show so that it wouldn’t have the same set, for example. So that those who had paid their licence fee would get something different when I was on. I didn’t want to get into the rut of the fete show, when and audience would know I would sit down in a chair and tell a joke.
You’ve written an autobiography, Under No Illusion. How did you find the writing process?
[Laughs] Well, a writer came along and told me he did autobiographies so I dictated and dictated and dictated. After that, I dictated and dictated some more and it went on forever but he wouldn’t send me a copy of it. Eventually, as we were getting very close to deadlines, I told him I had to read it. It turned out that he was a very religious guy and he had my Mum and Dad, setting off to Mablethorpe like Joseph and Mary on their way to Nazareth. I thought, I’ve never said any of this. Fortunately I’m a touch-typist so I sat down and locked myself away for three weeks and using his outline I rewrote the whole book. So in the book that’s my writing though I really don’t enjoy writing. Everybody including my English Masters told me I was very good. I was once offered a job as a journalist for the Evening Gazette in Middlesbrough, and I boast that I apparently write very well, but I don’t like the process of writing. I’m a talker.
That's interesting as Christopher Hitchens, the famous essayist, said good speakers make good writers.
Well, yes and there’s a reason for that. A lot of the writing which can be seen online in blogs are grammatically bad or badly spelt. When you meet the writers they state that’s how they talk, “innit?” You get their writing in their own sound.
The press and satirists have always had an interest in you. Why do you think that is?
Because I’m well known, that’s it. They don’t write about people who aren’t well known. There was once these things called newspapers - you know, those papery things - well they hold polls where you vote for this, that or the other. If you look at those lists you’ll see the best dressed man listed in one, and in another newspaper he’ll be the worst dressed man. People can’t vote for people they don’t know.
What’s the question that most people tend to ask when they meet you?
“How did you get started in magic?” The answer is I got hold of a book.
What do you think the future of magic is in the UK?
It’s the same worldwide and it's the same with singers, comedians and everything. There have always been a few good ones and a hell of a lot of bad ones. Magic is peculiar in that there are a lot of hobbyists who have clubs and meet. Amateur dramatics, operatic societies, they’re still all the same. The future of magic will be the same as it has been for all of time; things will appear and disappear, technology will make it more difficult for the magician but then it always did. We went to see a so-called hologram of Les Dawson on a TV show, but it wasn’t as it was a version of Pepper’s Ghost, which is an old illusion. But there was Les in the middle of the stage playing the piano. So, if you have seen that, how can you trust your eyes when you see a girl walk into a box? The magician has to overcome those possibilities, but they will, because they always have.
Do you have anything lined up after the tour?
Immediately we do pantomime where Debbie is the slave and I’m the Emperor. Debbie also does her radio show every Sunday at 10am for BBC Radio Berkshire. Then I’m doing some motivational speaking because people are asking me now how I travelled from Lower Oxford Street to the country estate I live on now. I’m also going to Belgium and we just came back from Italy doing a big show with two-and-a-half thousand people from all over the world on Friday night and on the Monday night a hundred people in Balham! I love the fact that my life is constantly changing and that every night is a different venue. We just did Port Sunlight (Gladstone Theatre, Merseyside) which was built by the Lever Brothers and it was a beautiful place. It just goes on and on, and it’s just great.
Originally published for Entertainment Focus.
Musings, arguments, reviews and projects within performing arts. Archived reviews from Entertainment-Focus.com. © Samuel Payne 2016