Paul Daniels: Hair Today Gone Tomorrow
2011 Edinburgh Fringe show from magician and entertainer
This article is from 2011.
For their first trip to the Fringe since 2003, Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee are happy to give us a bit of old-fashioned magic. Brian Logan talks to the pair about living in their own personal sitcom
The Hamiltons are well-established on the Fringe. Now Edinburgh braces itself to greet Neil and Christine’s rivals for the title of Britain’s Battiest, Tory-est, Publicity-Hungriest Couple. Step northwards, Paul Daniels and ‘the lovely’ (it’s obligatory) Debbie McGee, magician and assistant, husband and wife, old-school entertainer and the woman who struggles to keep his foot away from his mouth. They’ve survived rejection by the BBC, condescension from Louis Theroux and first-round eviction on The X Factor: Battle of the Stars, and now they’re coming back for more. ‘You can’t deny the law of gravity,’ says Daniels. ‘And yet, magicians float.’ Yes, Paul, you surely do.
When we speak, Daniels is fresh from a successful preview of his Edinburgh show on London’s South Bank. ‘He got a standing ovation,’ says McGee, every inch the proud wife. ‘I know what audiences like,’ says Daniels. ‘I work hard at it, and I want them to have a good time.’ Spoken like a true pro. Daniels, now 72, has been in magic since the 1960s, when he plied his sleight-of-hand trade in working men’s clubs in the north of England. Opportunity Knocked, and the rest is TV history: a 16-year primetime run of the Paul Daniels Magic Show, during which he met and married his young, leggy sidekick, McGee. Fast forward to another iconic TV moment, the funniest line ever uttered by Caroline Aherne’s spoof chat-show host Mrs Merton: ‘So, Debbie, what first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?’
‘Taxi drivers still shout that at me,’ says McGee today. ‘But I loved doing that show: it was great fun.’ She wasn’t offended by the quip, McGee insists, although she’s quick to point out that Daniels was broke when they met, whereas she ‘owned properties’. If that sounds self-validating, it’s nothing compared to her other half, whose amour-propre has been mocked by Theroux and a legion of critical hacks. Today, his attempts at modesty are endearingly ham-fisted. ‘Fortunately for me,’ he says, unconvincingly crediting lady luck, ‘what I am seems to appeal to all age groups and colours and creeds. Just give me a gang of people and we’ll have fun. Party time.’
In 2001, the Theroux documentary was the low-water-mark of Daniels’ and McGee’s wilderness years. Fashion had cast out slick old pros like Paul with glamorous assistants in evening wear, like Debbie. He’d threatened to leave Britain if Labour won power, and he might as well have done, for all we saw of him around the turn of the century. But husband and wife aren’t bitter about their fall from grace, mainly, says McGee, because they didn’t notice it. ‘We always stayed very busy. We never went unrecognised. So it never felt like there was a down period.’
Daniels is spikier about the ‘backlash’ years. ‘In my life, I’ve gone through the period of sick comedians, who told jokes that were disgusting. They didn’t last. I’ve come through these alternative comedians who eff and blind all over the place. And in the meantime, you wait, you never stop working, and round it comes again.’ Entertainment today – he cites Michael McIntyre and Peter Kay – is ‘back in the old-fashioned style, isn’t it?’
Daniels is proudly old-fashioned, as you may have noticed from recent furores sparked by his retro attitudes to homosexuality (directing a ‘sausage jibe’ at Strictly Come Dancing judge Craig Revel Horwood) and race (defending the use of the word ‘Paki’ on Twitter). McGee, one senses, is his moderating influence; modernising too, judging by a photo shoot of the pair, semi-naked and posing as David and Victoria Beckham, in a recent issue of a celebrity magazine. Daniels attracted yet more outrage when he posted bikini pictures of McGee online two years ago, calling her ‘better looking than Madonna’.
So thick and fast come Daniels’ and McGee’s odd contributions to the gaiety of the nation, they hardly need to get back onstage. But they’re fans of the Fringe (‘it’s like Rio meets Disney,’ says Daniels), and haven’t visited since their debut stint back in 2003.
The new show combines magic tricks with comic banter, which will be funnier, says Daniels, than you expect. ‘I can’t tell you the number of times people have said to me after a show, “I never knew you were funny”,’ he says. ‘That’s because the BBC used to take gags out of my show when they edited it.’ There will also be unexpected contributions from McGee, whose days as mere eye-candy are behind her. ‘I’m not involved a great deal,’ she says, cheerfully. ‘But I get to talk, which is nice. I come onstage and nag Paul, which gives audiences quite a shock. It’s a bit of a sitcom between us these days.’
The show will also feature Paul’s greatest conjuring hits, including the cup-and-ball routine of which he is the world’s acknowledged master: ‘Last time I was on the Fringe, six American magicians flew over just to see me do that one routine.’ Of course, there’ll be new tricks as well, so don’t go thinking Paul’s creative juices have run dry. ‘If anything, making up new tricks gets easier. My brain hasn’t thought about much else than magic for years.’
But not to throw in the crowd-pleasers would betray everything Daniels has spent a lifetime learning. ‘I was once backstage,’ he recalls, ‘when [the boyband] Bros were talking to Cliff Richard. They were boasting that they were going to play all new stuff. And Cliff whispered some advice to them. He said, “I find it best to sing the stuff people like, and sing it well. Then I bring in new stuff if it feels right.” But the Bros lad said, “Oh no, they’ll take anything we give ‘em”. And then,’ says Daniels, with glee, ‘Bros disappeared!’
Don’t expect Daniels ever to follow suit. ‘Debbie’s got instructions that if I ever become a doddery old so-and-so on the stage, she’s got to shoot me. But until then, I stay with the times, I try to keep breathing and I always have great fun.’
Paul Daniels: Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow, Assembly George Square, 0131 623 3030, 6–28 Aug, 5pm, £14–£15 (£13–£14). Previews 3–5 Aug, £8.
Out of nowhere, Brian Donaldson plucks five more acts with a few tricks up their sleeves
Comedy conjuring at its most splendiferous as we get a real dash of Jiggery Pokery, care of the Middlesbrough magic man who’s not afraid to make his audience squirm.
Pleasance Dome, Bristo Square, 0131 556 6550, 6–28 Aug, 8.30pm, £12–£14 (£10.50–£12.50). Previews 3–5 Aug, £6.
He’s performed magic at private parties for Damien Hirst, Minnie Driver and Basement Jaxx: yes, he really is that good. But can he top last year’s Houdini-style finale?
Gilded Balloon Teviot, Bristo Square, 0131 622 6552, 6–29 Aug (not 10, 17), 9.30pm, £12–£13 (£11–£12). Previews 3–5 Aug, £6.
Uri and Me features clairvoyance, telepathy and stunts as this wag deconstructs the controversial spoon-bender. And it all comes with the Geller seal of approval.
Udderbelly’s Pasture, Bristo Square, 0844 545 8252, 6–29 Aug (not 15), 4.10pm, £9.50–£10.50 (£8.50–£9.50). Previews 3–5 Aug, £6.
Piff The Magic Dragon
This year’s follow-up to Piff-tacular is a true smorgasbord of sly one-liners and slinky sleight-of-hand as we meet the last of the magic dragons.
The Store, Guthrie Street, 0131 556 5375, 6–28 Aug (not 16), 6.40pm, £9–£10 (£8–£9). Previews 4 & 5 Aug, £5.
Barry and Stuart
The Scottish duo give us Show and Tell. Part one has them doing their magical thing, part two lets us in on the secrets.
Udderbelly’s Pasture, Bristo Square, 0844 545 8252, 6–28 Aug, 10.15pm, £12–£14 (£11–£13); midnight, £10–£12 (£9–£11). Previews 3–5 Aug, 10.15pm, £7; midnight, £6.