Obituary: Paul Daniels
- 17 March 2016
- From the section Entertainment & Arts
Paul Daniels brought a new dimension to the art of the stage magician, mixing complex tricks with jokes and non-stop patter.
An older generation of practitioners had traditionally relied on a long-established formula, performing illusions that were often mysterious but lacking in spontaneity and humour.
Daniels brought a chirpy, cheeky persona to his act - albeit one which was not to everyone's taste - which seemed to thrive on close contact with his audience.
Modern technology allowed TV cameras to home in on the close magic at which he excelled, yet on a larger scale, his illusions - most of which he devised himself - broke new ground in terms of complexity and sophistication.
He was born Newton Edward Daniels in the South Bank area of Middlesbrough on 6 April 1938. His father worked as a projectionist at the local Hippodrome Theatre.
His interest in magic was sparked when he read a book entitled How to Entertain at Parties and he began practising tricks for his family and friends before performing in local youth clubs.
There was an added bonus in that, as a small and shy child, he finally had a skill that would boost his confidence and make people take notice of him.
"From that moment," he later said, "I can safely say that all I ever wanted to do in life was to become a professional magician."
After leaving grammar school, the young Daniels found a job as a junior clerk in the treasury department of the local council.
He did his national service with the Green Howards, a regiment with close connections to the north-east of England. He found himself posted to Hong Kong, where he continued to hone his skills as a magician by giving impromptu performances to fellow soldiers.
After he was demobbed, he began training as an accountant before joining his parents in a small grocery business. Eventually he set up his own mobile shop.
But magic remained his abiding interest and his evenings were spent performing in local variety clubs. After marrying Jacqueline Skipworth in 1960, the couple often performed together as The Eldanis, an anagram of his surname.
Northern club audiences had a reputation for being somewhat unforgiving and prone to heckle performers who, in their opinion, did not come up to the mark.
According to Daniels, it was abuse from one heckler in Bradford that made him come up with the retort: "You'll like this - not a lot, but you'll like it," which would become his catchphrase.
He developed his style of patter as a way of keeping the audience entertained and as a useful diversion when he had to perform a particularly tricky sleight of hand.
His breakthrough came in 1969 when he was offered a summer season in Newquay. He sold his grocery shop and became a full-time entertainer.
After an appearance on the talent show Opportunity Knocks, Daniels caught the eye of Johnny Hamp, a senior executive with Granada Television who gave him a regular slot on The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club, a variety show compered by Bernard Manning and set in a fictional working men's club.
In 1978, ITV gave him his own Sunday night television show and, the following year, he moved to the BBC with the Paul Daniels Magic Show, which ran for 15 years.
As well as performing his own tricks, Daniels had a segment of the show known as the Bunco Booth, in which he exposed the underhand methods used by street confidence tricksters. A 1985 Easter edition of his show won the prestigious Golden Rose of Montreux.
By this time, he was in both a professional and personal relationship with the woman who became his on-stage assistant, the former ballerina Debbie McGee. The couple, who had first worked together during a 1979 summer season in Great Yarmouth, married in 1988.
At the peak of his fame, he also hosted a number of other television series including the quiz shows Odd One Out, Every Second Counts and Wipeout, and the children's television programme Wizbit.
There was controversy in 1987 when Daniels performed, on live TV, a recreation of a Harry Houdini trick in which he was chained inside a replica of a medieval iron maiden, an instrument of torture. He had to escape before the door swung fully shut to avoid being impaled on spikes.
When Daniels failed to appear, the screen cut to black, giving the impression the trick had gone badly wrong. The BBC's phone lines were jammed with calls from viewers, whose concern turned to complaints when it was all revealed to be a hoax. Daniels hadn't even warned family members who had been watching.
He was bitter when the BBC failed to renew his contract but continued to work in the theatre. There was a six-week run in The Magic Man in London's West End in 1994 and he created and staged special effects for hit shows such as Phantom of the Opera.
He often seemed more relaxed on the stage, where he saw himself as an actor, performing what seemed to be the impossible. He preferred to describe himself as a conjuror than a magician.
Daniels and his wife took part in a programme in the series When Louis Met... in which documentary maker Louis Theroux delved into the lives of celebrities with a mocking wit.
He was also mercilessly lampooned on the satirical puppet show Spitting Image, in which his wig would rise up from his head and spin around on its own.
McGee herself became a target of comedian Caroline Aherne's Mrs Merton character, who memorably asked her: "What first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?". It became one of television's most popular one-liners.
Daniels was outspoken in his political views and took a strong line on law and order, once publicly offering to help Ian Huntley, convicted of the Soham schoolgirl murders, to end his own life.
Three years ago at the height of the Jimmy Savile revelations he recalled being routinely offered sex earlier in his career and admitted he couldn't be sure all the women he'd slept with were over 16.
He also had little truck with younger illusionists such as David Blaine, saying: "If people were better educated in the world of magic, he would have greater difficulty than he's having. He's not very original."
If public tastes in TV magicians had changed from Daniels' heyday in the 70s and 80s, he did not let it affect his profile on British TV.
In 2004, he and McGee appeared in the Channel 5 reality TV show The Farm and, two years later, they appeared in the X Factor: Battle of the Stars.
They were the first act voted off the show, after singing Let Me Entertain You by Robbie Williams.
In 2010, Daniels also appeared on the eighth series of BBC One's Strictly Come Dancing, where he was paired with Ola Jordan.
He was the second celebrity voted off, following DJ and actor Goldie.
Of his experience on the show, he told the Daily Mirror: "It got rid of my inhibitions. That's a good thing that came out of Strictly.
"Debbie and I renewed our vows the other week and, for the first time in 22 and a half years, I danced properly with her."