A Tribute to Paul Daniels
4 April 2016
In 1970, Paul Daniels got his first shot on TV.
For that spot, he performed three tricks. During the first trick, he mentioned the other two, during the second he mentioned the first, and during the third trick he talked about the previous two. Legendary TV producer Johnnie Hamp took him aside after the filming and told him that he wasn't sure if he was clever or lucky, as he'd made his act impossible to edit, and they'd have to show the whole thing. In Paul's own words: ‘I was shocked…shocked...'
Of course, he knew what he was doing. He'd been brought up in a cinema, so when he started getting TV jobs, he'd already read production manuals, so that he could be sure that he would be one step ahead, and be able to make certain his act would come across on TV exactly how he wanted it to.
By that time he'd already proved himself in the the battlefield of working men’s clubs and summer seasons. In his first two and a half years after turning pro, he only had 18 nights off. He worked hard, paid dues, and got good.
He revolutionised magic on TV. Moving it from the domain of the well-spoken upper class gentleman magician, to the world of the cheeky working class trickster, and in doing so had the longest-running and highest-rated magic or variety show in television history.
The Paul Daniels Magic Show debuted in 1979, and alongside the lovely Debbie McGee, he brought sleight of hand, big illusions and celebrity guests to our TV every Saturday night, to an audience the size and makeup of which every current TV behemoth would sell their children for. He also made room for a couple of guest variety acts in every show – performers he had seen while travelling the world’s live venues from Vegas to Paris and everywhere in between.
Everyone who was anyone in the world of the spesh act wanted to be on the Paul Daniels show, and the young me, sitting on the rug in front of the sofa in my front room, had a lifetime’s inspiration shot into my eyeballs. It was a cavalcade of the acts who would go on to become my heroes. The dryly brilliant Rob Murray, the scintillating Kris Kremo, the hilarious George Carl, and so many others. Every time I watched The Paul Daniels Magic Show, it was made clear to me that if I was good enough, worked hard enough, and if I was lucky enough, this crazy idea for a job that I dreamt about could, perhaps, be a reality. Spend some time with a few variety acts and you'll hear that story again and again. Without Paul, there's no us.
Eventually, although ratings were still strong, he was seen as perhaps a little out of fashion, and his run as king of Saturday night TV came to an end. But that didn't dull the glint in his eyes, and he continued working as hard and as creatively as he always had. He hosted game shows, developed new magic, created new shows and took them to the Edinburgh Fringe, and of course he toured – internationally and unendingly. He worked, just like he always had. And he remained as sharp a live act as you might ever be lucky enough to see.
He holds the record for performing the most original magic tricks in TV history. He was very proud that he never used a camera trick – something that not every TV magician can claim - everything you saw on his TV show, was the same thing the live studio audience saw. That was important to him.
I interviewed him a few years ago as part of my London Varieties project, and asked if, as a little favour, he'd do a quick five=minute spot before the interview. I requested his legendary chop cup routine, because I wanted my audience to see the act that had been honed over 52 years. He said he'd be happy to do five minutes, and of course, went on to do 15. I remember watching my young, savvy audience eye him with suspicion as he walked on stage.
Wondering what this dated stalwart of the light entertainment past might be able to offer them that they hadn't seen before. It took him about six seconds to win them over. He danced around them, landing jabs from all sides, until they cheered for him. It was great.
The last time I worked with Paul, we caught up in the empty auditorium of a West End theatre during an afternoon rehearsal. I got called up onto the stage to run through my hat and cane routine, and when I came back down, he took me aside and told me how much he'd enjoyed it.
‘If I still had a show, I'd book that act,’ he told me. And I had to go into the bathroom for a little happy cry. Few compliments ever meant as much as that. To be told you were good enough to be on the show that inspired you to do this is the first place. I'll never forget it, of course, or him.
‘A magic show,’ Paul used to say, ‘is a play about a man who can do anything.’