Welcome to the sixth instalment of this series of interviews that originally appeared in Rubber Chicken magazine. Editor and publisher Peter Aubery has made them available for the Kids Entertainer Hub audience.
In this series, Peter picks the minds of kids entertainers Charlie Frye, Jimmy Carlo, John Kimmons, Bill Abbott, Michael Diamond, and Sylvester the Jester. In this episode, Peter sits down and chats with magician Paul Daniels and wife Debbie.
We are here with Paul McGee and Debbie Daniels.
Paul: Yes, that’s all I need. A dyslexic interviewer!
Debbie: Good morning! Or morning, good!
Okay. So first question. You’re not known for children’s magic per se, but you have released quite a few books aimed at teaching children. Why?
Paul: For money! Next question.
Yes, it’s for money. But it’s also because I got a bit annoyed very early on. When you got magic sets at my age—you know when you got them as a kid—they were little flimsy bits of paper instructions that didn’t REALLY lay out what magic is about, which is a lot more than how the trick works.
So when I wrote all the magic instructions for the magic sets and the one off-card sets and all that, I tried to make them more adult. If a child buys a trick and it doesn’t work, mentally the child is scarred against magic of all kinds for life. Whereas if he gets a trick and it works, he may not go on to become a professional magician or even a semi-pro, but he’ll have a good memory of a moment. So I think all magic tricks should be given the best instructions you can give them.
What was it like performing with your son on Penn & Teller?
Paul: The producer of that show came to me and they were having a problem because the range of illusions is very limited. Everything went through cycles and at the moment, they were all looking a bit the same in design terms.
The other thing I didn’t like in my formative years was that to do a switch, everybody had to walk behind a box or a screen. So I tried to come up with a method of doing a switch in the middle of the stage. Martin, my son, who still does comedy magic, said, “We’ll never get away with that!” I said “Well we will, if we do it like this.”
So I said to the (Penn & Teller) producer, “I do have some different illusions,” and we decided to go with that particular illusion. We are in show BUSINESS and it helped to promote Martin along the way. I am very pleased to say that it was never designed to fool Penn & Teller because I don’t think you CAN fool Teller, to be honest. I think the man is a true genius and Penn knows a lot of course from the years of being with him. So for me, I just wanted to be part of their show. They’re good friends.
Debbie: The surprise was they really didn’t know that Paul and I were there.
Andy: So you kept that secret?
Debbie: Yes. We hid so they never saw us and we were sitting in the audience.
Andy: So their reactions were real?
Paul: Yes, and it’s a fair show. They DO NOT see the rehearsals. They are not told what’s going to happen.
I remember watching that and when you unmasked yourself, I remember thinking, “Oh, that’s lovely!” I was so pleased you were back on the telly.
Andy: Do you think you could come back to TV?
Paul: I still have some things that I never got around to doing. I wouldn’t mind doing a special, but I don’t want to get back into a whole series thing.
I think a lot of people would like a special. You’re an institution.
Paul: I should be in an institution.
Pete: Oh, sorry. It’s this dyslexia again!
Andy: The thing is you bounce off each other so well. You can tell. It’s the same with me and my wife (Sue). You know what each other’s thinking.
Paul: I’ve never bounced off your wife! (Lots of laughing)
Andy: You can tell there’s an energy, a synergy, with you both.
Paul: I say it in public, I say it everywhere: The best thing I ever did in my life is marry Debbie McGee. I got so lucky. I hit utter jackpot. I really did.
Paul: That’s kind of impossible to answer.
Debbie: What people don’t realise is Paul has done well over 600 TV shows and thousands of live shows where we created Barnum Circus scenes. And one of the things we love doing in a circus situation is an illusion called the Big Wheel. We did it at the Royal Variety Performance and a summer season. We have done so many things that are actually very special that you can’t pick out one thing.
So what’s one of your favourite effects to watch?
Paul: Oh, I love levitations of all kinds.
Peter: (Pointing to Andy) Just to be clear, this isn’t Losander!
Paul: I did that joke yesterday!
Peter: Sorry, I’m catching up.
Paul: But yeah, the best levitation for me, and I have seen Lance and I have seen David and all that.
Who’s your favourite current performer?
Paul: Oh, Mac King. Why? Because the magic’s good but he’s a great entertainer. But for me on levitation, Kalenag. He changed the method three times during the routine and you leave the audience with no possible answer.
Debbie, what about you? What’s one of your favourite acts to watch?
Debbie: I like GOOD magic.
Peter: (Pointing to himself and Sam) Never watch us!
Debbie: Favourite effects—usually it’s something in the theatre because of my magical background. I like some of the big magic shows but there are loads of people. There’s an English actor who lives in Los Angeles called Steve Valentine. He does close-up magic and I love his close-up magic.
Paul: Which is odd. Debbie comes to me at conventions all the time and says, “Why are they revering him? I can see everything he’s doing.”
Debbie: I love watching Penn & Teller.
Right, we have a very hypothetical question for you, Paul. You are trapped on a desert island with a group of children and a magic wardrobe. Inside this magic wardrobe, you can reach in and pull out any magic prop you would like to entertain the kids with. What do you grab?
Paul: I take out all the tricks and shove all the kids in the wardrobe!
Peter: We can publish that, yeah?
Peter: If you were forced to pull one effect out—it can be anything—what would it be?
You can give me any trick to do. John Fisher, my producer, said to me that he didn’t know any other magician in the world where in the afternoon he could say, “We’re a trick short. Do this and give me a trick,” and by that night it was an entertainment piece.
The reason is I have never focused on the effect. It’s got to be good, it’s got to be baffling—that’s it. The trick has nothing to do with me; I am the entertainer. I don’t like it when magicians finish a trick of any kind and they stand there and they gesture towards the box as if it was applause for the box. No, it’s not the box, mate. It’s YOU. So I don’t care what you give me out of the wardrobe.
Debbie: You will probably do a trick with the wardrobe, knowing you.
So that’s now. What are your plans for the rest of your career? Are there any goals you want to achieve?
Paul: Well, I have had affairs with Goldie Hawn and Meg Ryan. Sadly, they have been blissfully unaware of it.
I would quite like to be in a film. I quite like acting and when I finish this convention, I am going back to try and persuade a producer to put me into a two-handed play that I’ve found makes me laugh. We’re going out on tour in the autumn—about a 40-night tour. It will be listed on the website.
Debbie: We are trying to come up with lots of new things for that.
My favourite, favourite show when I was a kid was Wizbit.
Paul: (In Wizbit character) Hi there. My name’s Wizbit and I come from the planet of WOW. I’m only here for one year and one day, and I live with my friend Wooly Rabbit. (Switches to Wooly Rabbit character) Oh hello. I’m Wooly Rabbit.
Sam: I watched an episode about a year ago and well, what was it about?
Paul: Wizbit really did come from the planet of WOW, which is the World of Wizards. He was here for a year and a day because he had been naughty at home and they exiled him. He landed in a place called Puzzleopolis which is a gated castle town and to get into it, you had to answer the riddle of the day.
I have a question for you from a colleague of ours, Dan Wood. He says, “Each year I hold a Christmas magic show at a theatre in York, and I am now looking at setting up a short tour of other theatres as well. As somebody who regularly tours, do you have any advice?”
Paul: Get a booking agent. Don’t try to book theatres yourself because you’ll just be wasting your time.
Debbie: Also to get the theatre managers to ring you back is a nightmare in itself. There are ‘fixers’ who seem to have an ‘in’ with theatres and even our agent books a fixer to book our tours. When I had my ballet company, the first year I tried doing it myself. Even with all my connections—and I know most of the theatre managers from years of touring—the second year I got a fixer to do it.
Debbie, I have a question for you. You’re lecturing here. I came along and saw you yesterday. It was very, very good. I thoroughly enjoyed it. So, how’s it going?
Debbie: Everything’s good! I have my own radio show that we were talking about earlier which I absolutely love—and which is why I am leaving the convention early.
Andy: Which is BBC Radio Berkshire.
Debbie: Which I have been doing for nearly 6 years now. Yeah, life’s good. I’m doing more magic now as well, which I am enjoying. It sounds strange but I haven’t always enjoyed doing magic.
Peter: Do you ever see yourself doing a Debbie McGee show with the lovely assistant Paul Daniels perhaps, swapping the roles?
Debbie: No. I have just recently been thinking about doing some close-up though, going out and doing close-up stuff.
Is there any point in your career where something has gone drastically wrong and you’ve lost the will to be a magician?
Paul: After months at the Prince of Wales Theatre doing eight shows a week—onstage for 2 hours for those shows—and then at the same time doing films for Barclays, Natwest, and on Sundays doing two radio lunchtime slots and two game show series, I was tired out. I was exhausted.
I said to the theatre, “Look, maybe you could close the theatre for a couple of weeks. I have rewritten the whole show and I’ll take a break while you rehang everything.”
They said, “No, we can’t close for two weeks.”
So I said, “Well, I’m outta here.” I’ve had enough. I really had. I was exhausted and I walked away from it. When they offered me a year on Broadway with the same show, I said no. I was offered a 13-year contract in Vegas and again I said no. I really didn’t want an office job. I love the variety that my job gives me, always changing.
I saw you at Edinburgh Fringe a couple of years ago and by a strange quirk, I saw you on two consecutive nights. Even though it was the same show, I was still laughing at the same gags. Obviously there were subtle differences.
Peter: You were on autopilot?
Paul: I’d been shopping and I thought to myself, “Man, that’s an insult to the audience.” I hold audiences in high regard. They work, earn money and pay it to come and see us guys, you know. So from that moment on, I never say the same words in the same order.
Debbie: In Edinburgh, we changed the show about three or four times.
Paul: Well, you kept breaking things!
Debbie: Backstage in Edinburgh, it’s horrendous. There are so many shows going on during the day and bands at night. All our props were covered up, but they managed to break everything, so we had lots of changes in shows and props.
Paul: That’s happened to me before as well. I went into a nightclub one time to do a show and the band had used all my rope to tie the speakers up higher. So on the last night, I wanted to get away early and the band was on first, but none of their equipment worked. (Chuckle)
So the boss said, “Paul, can you go on?” And I said yes. I did my show, packed my stuff away, and as I was leaving out the door, I said, “Oh by the way, lads, if you unscrew all of your plugs, you’ll find every wire has been insulated with clear nail varnish. Don’t EVER mess with my props again.”
From your experience with family shows, have you got any tips for children’s entertainers?
Paul: Yeah. When you’re a children’s entertainer and you walk on, you must take charge straight away. You must not be in the slightest bit negative or frightened of them.
Peter: Oh, they smell it. They know.
Paul: It’s all positive. Drive the herd and maintain the energy and never let a single one cut loose. I have seen children’s entertainers doing different approaches and in fact, I am about to try and sell this concept to someone who has come to me to be a children’s entertainer. I have seen at Disneyland a performer carrying an ornate storybook and they read the story but they are the character.
Paul and Debbie, you have been wonderful. Thank you for your time. You have been very generous.
Andy: I’ve got to say, not having met you before in person, you’re lovely people.
Paul: This means there is no money in this!
Peter: No, there’s no money. We probably should have made that clear at the start.
Sam: And thank you for inspiring us all. Without you, we probably wouldn’t be in magic.
Paul: I’m not taking the blame for that!