Magic man Paul is still the best of British

Lynne Mortimer You’ll like this – not a lot – but you’ll like it… then again, you might like it more than that. Lynne Mortimer talks to magician Paul Daniels ahead of a national tour, calling at Lowestoft this Friday.

Lynne Mortimer

Paul Daniels is one of six headline acts on the Best of British Variety Tour that kicks off in August and visits Lowestoft Marina Theatre this Friday.

With such a line-up, it's interesting to see who gets top billing and Paul is second after Cannon and Ball although that might be an alphabetical order, of course.

The rest of the acts are Brotherhood of Man, The Krankies, Jimmy Cricket and Frank Carson and whether you watched them all on telly in the Seventies and Eighties or caught up with them more recently, this is set to be an unmissable night's entertainment. For a start there's the highest concentration of catchphrases ever seen in one show.

One of the most accomplished magicians in the world, Paul Daniels also has a unique comedy style - and he's certainly needed a sense of humour from time to time.

A household name in the UK, he has starred in his own hugely successful West End Show, headlined in Las Vegas and has performed for royalty including princes William and Harry.

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With a hugely successful TV career so far spanning four decades, in addition to hatfuls of magic shows, Paul has also presented popular game shows including Odd One Out, Every Second Counts and Wipe Out.

When we speak through the medium of telephony, Paul Daniels' voice is instantly recognisable even though his greeting is a brief but cheery: “Yo!”

“Is that Paul Daniels?” It's always best to check.

“What's left of him,” replies the legend that has been lauded as the best magician of the 20th century.

From the age of 11 Paul was enthralled by magic.

“I just looked on it as playing with my toys but when there was something to learn, I learnt it because my (late) dad taught me that if somebody's out there doing stuff, he's only got the same number of fingers and thumbs as you - so you can do it. So I've always believed I can do absolutely anything that anybody else can do.

He recalls he was a member of a Methodist youth club where he did his “first standy up on a stage show. I would have been about 14 or 15… (pause for effect)… about seven years ago.”

His determination to master the skills of magicianship are a mark of the man. There are not many challenges Paul doesn't rise to.

“No, I mean the early part of this year I was doing the marines' assault course down on the south coast…”

“Whatever for,” I interject.

“Money,” he says quick as you like and continues: “I remember climbing to the top of this huge rope wall and I've got to roll over the top and down the other side. I remember getting to the top and thinking 'what the hell am I doing up here?' It was a helluva long way to fall.”

For Paul, variety is very much the spice of life. He is talking to me from his riverside home near Henley but it's not always as peaceful as this.

“Last week I was doing a show up in a fireplace show room up in Aberdeen. Fantastic fireplaces. It was bloody hot in that showroom - every one of them lit.

“This week I'm up in Ayr doing a show for Warner Haven. People imagine we have this life of luxury…” (pause for thought while he looks around his home)”… I suppose this is luxurious. I said, 'Well, where am I staying; what's the name of the (hotel)?' and they said 'Oh, no, no, no, no, you're staying in a caravan'.”

“£50,000 worth of caravan,” interrupts his PA, Kirsty.

“Who in their right mind would pay £50,000 for a caravan?” asks Paul.

He doesn't mind at all. Of course there is little of the prima donna performer about him. When I ask if he has a list of backstage demands like spring water, fruit... “Oh, a cup of tea….” “…new toilet seats...”

“…yeah, and a couple of biscuits,” he concludes.

“Go back two years and I distinctly remember a two-night stand on the south coast of England. I was supposed to stay down there but I came home and went back with a load of cleaning gear - you know - Domestos and all that and I cleaned the toilets and everything else because it was so grotty.

“I didn't put a bill in.”

“If I started getting precious, me mum would slap me legs. She's 92 next birthday and she's still grafting. She digs the garden, does all the cooking, cleaning…”

At Paul's house?

“No at her house. She doesn't have time to do mine 'cos once she's done the paper round… Her name's Nancy.” Paul talks about his mum with enormous affection.

“She's always on to me to say 'You should relax more' and that but the answer's obvious isn't it, I say 'Well, when you start relaxing, I'll start relaxing'.”

So retirement for the 70-year-old prestidigitator is out of the question, then. He's not going to do it, is he?

“What do you think, Kirsty?” He asks his pleasant PA and relays her answer. “She doesn't think I will either.”

Does Paul have any regrets about some more recent TV shows he's been involved in, such as reality shows The Farm and Celebrity Wife Swap?

He walked out on The Farm after less than three days. “It wasn't what they promised me,” he says. “They said we would be living on a farm and we were living on the set of the Waltons. It was just not what was promised.”

“You live and you learn because I try to select shows that I would find interesting or curious - curious even to the extent…”

Suddenly he is distracted as his wife Debbie McGee arrives. He addresses her: “Debbie; I'm talking on the phone… Since you became a radio presenter there's no holding you back.”

He's back with me: “She has to talk for a living… but she doesn't have to practise in my office. Go and practise in your own office,” he teases her and picks up on the previous theme: “…I'm even curious sometimes about why the hell are they making this programme - some television now I really don't watch.”

But the curiosity extends beyond the telly: “Debbie and I will go on jobs, gigs to places and it's not quite right and we'll look at each other and one of us will invariably say: 'Hey ho, another adventure'.”

He's looking forward to the Best of British tour. “I've met up with them (the rest of the acts) and we spent all our time laughing.

“I do Frank Carson,” he says in a fair impression of the Northern Irish comedian.

I presume Paul still uses his catchphrases.

“No, I don't have to. Audiences say them to me. Taxi drivers driving past, shout them out…”

Their fame has spread even further than that with his “like it not a lot” sequence now featured - and credited to Paul - in the Oxford Dictionary of colloquialisms, he tells me.

In interviews he can come over as sounding a bit self-satisfied; smug, if you like, but it seems to be a product of the caution with which he regards the media. Let's face it, interviewers aren't always kind. His responses are careful but he doesn't conceal the real passion he has for live theatre. He wants to see a renaissance in live entertainment, led by professional, experienced theatre managers that can drive enthusiasm for their venues and programmes.

“I think the whole system needs changing. Right now, theatre managers are appointed by councils and bless them, councils are (made up of) individuals who have plumbing businesses and things like that - estate agents - and they don't know anything about show business and they don't realise that the best theatre managers are dyed in the wool who have spent a lifetime in show business.

“You need to have a town trained by the theatre manager to think of the theatre as part of their entertainment. Theatre entertainment is far superior to television - always was - and yet people are unaware of it. I would like people to start thinking what's on the telly; what's on the theatre; what's on the club, all in one breath. And theatre; people say 'Oh, I don't know, it's ruddy expensive' but it's far cheaper than going to a football match, it really is. And a football match is the same plot every week isn't it (he describes a few on field manoeuvres)… excuse me while I go to sleep. With theatre, you never know what you're going to get.”

But, wait a minute, Paul had enormous success on the telly. “I did but it was never as big as my business outside the TV.”

There is also a Best of British tour date in Lowestoft. Paul remembers the seaside town with affection. “I did Scrooge in Lowestoft. I didn't do the musical, I did the play. Ask me how good I was.”

“How good were you, Paul?”

“How good was I? Well, a critic came back and bought tickets.”

So why hasn't he done more theatre?

“I don't know… because I don't hustle for it. My life in terms of work has been extraordinarily easy, people ask me and so I just don't have to chase. I think I should start chasing. Debbie! Get me in the movies. Stop ironing and get me in the movies.

The agents don't chase. People ring up and say 'Can we have Paul Daniels, international sex symbol and body builder'.”

And that's magic!

t The Best of British Tour comes to the Marina Theatre, Lowestoft, on Friday, August 8; Tickets are £25; box office 01502 533200.