I was once interviewed for a researcher job on Have I Got News For You. I had been hit by a truck a short time before the interview. I was still concussed. During the interview, I accidentally hit the back of my head on the wall as I sat down. The interview did not go well. I think I may have talked gibberish. I did not get the job. I was, however, a researcher on ITV show Game For a Laugh.
“I worked with your son Martin P.Daniels when he was presenting Game For a Laugh,” I told Paul Daniels this week.
There is a YouTube clip of Martin appearing on Paul’s iconic BBC TV magic show.
“He had to be Martin P.Daniels,” Paul told me, “because there was a very old gay actor who hadn’t worked forever but he still paid his Equity subscription and, as a performer, you weren’t allowed to have the same name as someone else.”
“I notice Martin is now billed as Martin Daniels without the P,” I said. “I presume the old guy died?”
“No,” said Paul. “Equity died. They made some major mistakes. I can remember an actress suing a production company because she had got a job as one of the vestal virgins and, when she turned up to do the play, she was eight months pregnant. The director said I can’t use you and Equity went to court on her behalf. That is when I stopped paying my Equity subs. I thought: You’re just getting union silly now. I remember I once did a show for (the then Prime Minister Jim) Callaghan…”
“For why?” I asked.
“For money,” said Paul. “Why does anybody work in this business? We were in an ante-room and he asked me How’s it going? and I said Well, it’s going better for me than it is for you – It was his ‘Winter of Discontent’ – and he said Well, that’s because my government has given in to every union demand.”
“That was very honest of him,” I said, surprised.
“Very honest,” agreed Paul. “But why didn’t he tell the nation? He told me: We’ve priced ourselves out of the world market. When Maggie Thatcher came along and famously stood up to the miners and unions in general, it was really easy. I admired her at the time. She was a great orator and a great controller of the crowd. She was as good as you get in showbusiness. But I was well aware that she wasn’t being The Iron Lady. We had no money, so you could demand all you liked, but nobody could give you any money because we didn’t have it. That was what broke the unions. The unions broke themselves. It happened in showbusiness with the Musicians Union. They priced themselves out of the market with silly rules. It was insanity.”
“Magic is strange…” I started to say.
“It’s supposed to be,” said Paul.
“But the strange thing,” I said, “is deciding you want to be a magician… because that means deciding you want to con people as a profession. You want to have power over people by having them misunderstand reality.”
“No, no. You don’t,” said Paul. “Magic in its proper sense is the defiance of all natural laws. What we do is not magic; it’s conjuring. We are actors playing the part of fabulous magicians: creatures of fable.”
“What is conjuring, then?” I asked. “Just fake magic?”
“Yeah. Yeah. It’s magic for muggles. Why did I want to do it? Because… Well, first of all I was eleven years old when I started and I was very shy. I was VERY shy until I was 32. I was performing but, offstage I was… What is it?… It’s an awareness that you hold secrets, data that they don’t have and that you can, for moments, take them into a wonderful world where anything is possible.”
“But,” I said, “if you are a very shy 15 or 25 year old, is it also a way of being in control of a world that would otherwise control you?”
“You can do magic on yourself,” said Paul. “Of course you can. But the best fun of magic is when you’re doing it to/for/with someone else. it’s the look on their faces. Magicians’ applause is the moment of silence when the trick’s finished and the audience thinks: Wha-a-a-a-t-t?”
“So comedians,” I said, “get a kick out of audience laughter and magicians get a kick out of silence and astonished faces?”
“Yeah,” said Paul. “It’s a weird thing now. At the Balham Comedy Festival next Tuesday, I’m doing stuff with which I’m not too familiar. Some of it is new; some of it I haven’t done for a very long time and…”
“Before I started recording this chat,” I said, “you said your act in Balham involves sitting on a toilet in some way.”
“There’s an element of that involved,” said Paul.
“You said you were shy until 32?” I asked. “That is a very specific age. What happened?”
“I did a hen party in Essex. A man walked on dressed as a Viking and, after about ten minutes, all he had on were his furry boots and horns on his head and he’s waving his willy around and, like some people become Born Again Christians, I became a Born Again Extrovert. At that moment, I realised no matter how tall, short, fat, thin, bald or whatever I became, I could never look as bloody stupid as he did. And that was it for me. No point in being shy.”
“So you gained your self-confidence overnight?” I asked.
“Yes. I was already good at my job. But that released me. I just went for it after that.”
“Are horns and a willy-warmer going to be part of your act in Balham?” I asked.
“I can do that,” said Paul. “A friend, in fact, gave me a willy-warmer reputedly knitted by his Auntie Maureen and it had no end on it because she couldn’t quite remember how long it was supposed to be.”
“You’ve won many awards,” I said, “including Golden Rose of Montreux and Cock of the North.”
“Cock of the North,” explained Paul, “was my first real award and I think that says it all,”
“What’s the greatest magic trick?” I asked.
“Well,” said Paul, “if I’m in the audience, I like to watch levitation, because it’s artistic, it’s beautiful and we’ve all dreamt about flying. But I don’t think there is one greatest of anything. Magic is like singing. It’s down to the singer. It’s down to the presenting every time. I can give you a violin and say There’s the stick and you pull it across the strings and that’s how it works. But that’s not music. I can show you how a magic trick works, but that’s not magic.”
On YouTube, there is a clip of Paul Daniels taking a leaf out of Edgar Allan Poe’s book and cutting his wife, the lovely Debbie McGee, in half with a pendulum.