The big interview: Paul Daniels

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paul daniels: If it is not the corny jokes, it’s his forthright political views that draw attention, but Nick Ahad finds himself spellbound all over again by the magic.

Some people have reservations about Paul Daniels, maybe about his show, lack of political correctness or his politics.

Then he spends the last 20 minutes of our interview doing close up magic with me – at his own behest – and I can forgive him anything and everything.

The diminutive magician is in a private members’ bar at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and has just finished his hour-long show. It features what was voted the worst joke on the Fringe this year: “Is there a B&Q in Henley? No, but there’s an H-E-N-L-E-Y)”.

Yes, it’s old fashioned. Like the others it falls firmly into the bracket of terrible to corny and the worst thing is that, during the performance, there seems to be no irony, no self awareness, no idea that imitating a Japanese person’s accent is not really the done thing.

Once we’re in the bar, however, Daniels up close and personal is a very different prospect to the man on stage the previous hour.

I know at some point that I’m going to have to tackle the fact that some consider his show, his style, a little passé. We’re going to have to talk about those views of his that liberal thinkers consider unpalatable.

Except Daniels is a man full of surprises. Almost as soon as his post-show half a shandy has arrived, he jumps in to answer the first accusation regularly levelled against him – his out of date style – without prompting.

“I wrote to one journalist who called me old fashioned and asked what he meant by that,” says Daniels.

“The fact is, pick a card is pick a card. What else can you do with that? The only thing that can change in that routine is the fashion of the clothing. That’s the only thing that has changed in magic in my lifetime.”

This can’t go by unchallenged.

When Daniels was ubiquitous on TV in his heyday, magic was big capes, a bit camp, all smoke and mirrors. Then a few characters came along to shake things up. Penn and Teller. David Blaine and Britain’s own Derren Brown.

Can Daniels really claim that the only difference between himself and David Blaine is that he wears a dinner jacket and Blaine a black T-shirt?

“When I watch Derren Brown, I’m watching Al Koran, Chan Canasta, David Berglas – I’m not seeing anything different. ‘Think of a word, I’ll tell you what it is’ – how do you change that?”

Having met Derren Brown earlier this year and seen the man’s skill first hand, I’m inclined to disagree. What stops me saying so is the fact that Daniels is whip smart and I am not going to take him on.

On stage he plays the fool. He’s not dithering, not, despite being 73, a baffled old man, but he certainly plays the jester well.

Off stage, he’s as sharp as a tack – something about which he is more than happy to remind me. Often.

He used to get nervous – until he was in his 20s. “Never been nervous since,” he insists. Short in stature, he has an abundance of confidence. Throughout our hour, he is slow to remind of his intelligence, the speed of his wit and the fact that “I have knowledge”.

It would be tiresome, were it not for the fact that, there is actually a huge amount of self awareness there, despite evidence to the contrary on stage. There is also the fact that he actually is very knowledgeable and then there’s that last 20 minutes when he demonstrates just how good he is. With such excellence you earn bragging rights – and Daniels takes them with both hands.

With the question of his old fashioned style out of the way, we can maybe leave the politics to one side for now. Except Daniels, once again, jumps in with both feet.

He’s discussing the fact that he doesn’t get nervous any longer when he veers off the point and says: “Obama, Cameron, Clegg, they’re all up there making the wrong decisions.

“When I’m king I’ll sort them all out.”

When he sees the raised eyebrows response to this he smiles and lightens up: “Yes, I am blissfully aware that some of it is corny, but it makes people laugh.

“I’m not interested in the shock value of comedy. Look, I know how I make my lot laugh. It’s my timing, my body language, the speed I think the lines up.”

At this point the woman who one feels contractually obliged to refer to as The Lovely Debbie McGee arrives. She’s as glamorous as ever and Daniels lights up on her arrival. Their on-stage patter seems to flow just as naturally here.

“Has your boyfriend gone home then?” says Daniels, before leaning close to my recorder and saying “start a rumour, start a rumour”.

Carole Ahearne in her inquisitor’s role as Mrs Merton famously took a side swipe at The Lovely Debbie McGee when she asked her: “What first attracted you to millionaire Paul Daniels?”

Seeing them together, the answer is obvious. She may be 20 years his junior, but the pair really do make a good couple. She regularly reels him in when she can feel him going too far and he sings her praises.

The only time it feels like there isn’t a wry smile on his face is when he says: “When Debbie comes on stage, she doesn’t do anything and she gets the biggest cheer – it’s fantastic. She is one of the most loved people, I can feel the love for her from the audience. They don’t care about Paul Daniels, they all want to see Debbie McGee”.

She is certainly charming, but it only takes a short while if Daniels is not be the focus of attention for him to be itching to lead the conversation.

I mention something about politics and Daniels picks up that thread again. “I really don’t mind who you vote for – as long as you’ve thought it through. My big argument is against people who say (adopting a pitch-perfect Yorkshire accent) ‘I vote Labour, my dad voted Labour, my granddad voted Labour’ – that idiocy. And yes, I know it happens with the Conservatives.”

He then goes on a little rant: “Look at recent political history, £380bn in the red,” and concludes, “I remember when we had 27 per cent inflation, but everyone else forgot and brought them back in again. As an ex-accountant, it offends my intelligence.”

He then repeats an earlier line, this time sounding a little more sinister: “When I’m king, it’s all going to change.”

This is all great, Paul, but I’m here to meet the Eighties’ Saturday night television star, funny, little, nation’s favourite magician.

“Oh, I only act daft for a living and I’ve lived long enough to learn some things. If you have half a sense, you have observation.

“My mam says if you tell lies you have to have a damn good memory. Somebody asks me a question – you get what I believe.”

He really is interesting, challenging company. But, like everyone in the audience, I was there for the magic and for the memory of when Daniels was a regular part of my TV-watching life.

Does he have a favourite magic trick? This question transforms Daniels.

He takes my notebook and starts telling a story as he rips a page out of the book and wraps it around a coin.

“Over 100 years ago there was a man called Max Malini. He just did little hotel rooms, stately homes, palaces. He was known worldwide for his skills.

“He would sell tickets for his show by sitting in a bar – ‘there’s old Max, come on show us a trick’. His voice was guttural and he speak like ‘I show you this, but when I show, you buy ticket for my show’.”

Daniels takes the large coin, now wrapped in a page of my notebook and taps it against his now empty glass.

“Solid,” he says. “Say solid.”

“Solid,” I say, understanding exactly how a snake might feel under the spell of a charmer. I am spellbound.

The story continues, I repeat the word “solid” four times, obediently.

The next thing I know is that the page of my notebook has been ripped into tiny pieces and the coin has disappeared.

I have forgotten the cheesy jokes, the dubious comments, the fervent politics and the hubristic chatter.

Now there’s just a man who has held me in the palm of his hand with old fashioned conjuring.

I am eight years old again.

Now that’s magic.

* Paul Daniels, Hair Again, Gone Tomorrow. Doncaster Civic Theatre, September 30, 01268 465465. Scunthorpe, Plowright Theatre, October 1, 01724 277733. Bradford, St George’s Hall, October 6, 01274 432000.