Date of Birth: 6 April 1938, Middlesbrough, North Yorkshire, UK
Birth Name: Newton Edward Daniels
Nicknames: Paul Daniels
Paul Daniels, was the most famous British magician of the past half-century, a skilful magician with a strong line in witty chat whose determination to succeed took him to the top of British show business.
From an extremely modest background he rose by professional brilliance and sheer force of personality to become one of television’s leading figures in the 1980s. A small man of indefatigable cheeriness, he was a straightforward but astonishingly skilful performer who also displayed a highly developed flair for comedy; the combination of magic and witty chat took him to the pinnacle of showbusiness and earned him a fortune.
The producer of BBC1’s The Paul Daniels Magic Show in the 1980s, John Fisher, said: “Having worked with him on close to a hundred shows, I never ceased to be amazed at his capacity for mastering new and often technically complex material week after week, a challenge non-existent in the lives of the old masters of magic on the halls. Moreover, he displayed an instinctive ability to entertain in a way few of the great hocus-pocus giants have matched.”
He was born Newton Edward Daniels in South Bank, a small industrial town between Middlesbrough and Redcar in North Yorkshire, and for most of his early life was called Ted by family and friends. His mother was Nancy (née Lloyd) and his father Handel Newton Daniels, known as Hughie, who was a cinema projectionist.
Daniels often described a poor but warm childhood, filled with laughter, in a little terraced house with a lavatory in the back yard. “The one big thing I remember about Christmases then is that it was the only time of the year that we ate a chicken,” he wrote in his autobiography, Under No Illusion (2000).
When he was 11 he won a scholarship to the Sir William Turner grammar school in Redcar, and it was around this time that he started to become interested in magical tricks after finding an old book at a friend’s house. Daniels had discovered the perfect way to distract bullies and gain social acceptance. “This new art was an attractive antidote to my shyness,” he wrote, “and the insecure part of me had found a bridge to enable me to communicate with people in a way that I would not have found possible by any other means”.
As a teenager he saw the famous Australian conjuror The Great Levante at a local theatre, and he made his own first appearance as a magician before a smaller audience at a Normanby Road Methodist Chapel Youth Club show when he was 14. He wanted to be a professional from childhood, but this seemed a remote possibility, so when he left school he went to work for Eston Urban borough council as a junior clerk, while helping his father as a trainee projectionist in the evenings.
Called up for national service in the army when he was 18, he served in Hong Kong and, on the journey there, was entranced by a gulli-gulli man, an eastern magician, who came aboard at Suez. This encounter provided more material for the shows he put on for his fellow soldiers. After returning to his job at the council offices in 1959, he developed his magic skills at local clubs. Capitalising on the quick-witted ability to make people laugh while he amazed them, he also formed a comedy act with his brother Trevor. It was in this period that he came up with the catchphrase for which he later became famous, used initially to quell a drunken heckler: “You’ll like this ... not a lot, but you’ll like it.”
Daniels left the council and ran his own grocery business, for a time from a mobile van, while in the evenings touring his magic act with his wife Jacqueline (née Skipworth), whom he married in 1960, as The Eldanis. His professional breakthrough came in 1969, when he was offered a summer season at Newquay. He made his first television appearance on ITV’s Opportunity Knocks in 1970 and, after extensive stage touring, was given a regular slot on Granada’s The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club, hosted by Colin Crompton and Bernard Manning, in 1974. The following year he was on The David Nixon Show, on Thames TV, prompting Clive James to comment in The Observer: “One of [the] guests was a very droll ‘unusualist’ called Paul Daniels, of whom one hopes to see more.”
And we did, of course. ITV gave him his own series, Paul Daniels’ Blackpool Bonanza, in 1978 and he made his first series for the BBC, For My Next Trick, the same year. This led to The Paul Daniels Magic Show, which ran on BBC1 from 1979 to 1994 and made him a household name.
Some of the tricks he performed were astounding, recreating the stunts of Houdini, for example, or making a television camera in a crate disappear while transmitting what the camera is seeing in real time. In all these performances he employed old-fashioned conjuring techniques, never resorting to using television technology to cheat or enhance illusions. He had a strict moral code on such matters and had strong feelings about the new generation of TV wonder-workers, much of whose impact is achieved by preparations carried out by researchers ahead of the recording.
By now divorced from Jacqueline, with whom he had three sons, Daniels was the professional and personal partner of a former ballet dancer, Debbie McGee, always introduced as “the lovely Debbie McGee”, whose role as his assistant became a major feature of the act. The couple had been together for nearly 10 years when they married in 1988.
Daniels starred in It’s Magic at the Prince of Wales theatre from 1980 to 1982, London’s longest-running such show. In this newspaper Michael Billington wrote: “What makes him different from other magicians is his ceaseless sleight-of-tongue.”
He hosted several non-magic television series in the 1980s and 90s, including three BBC1 quizzes: Odd One Out, Every Second Counts and Wipeout. When the new breed of slick and toned TV magicians creating fantastical spectaculars, or at the opposite end of the spectrum televised street conjurors emerged in the mid-1990s, the rumpled and bewigged Daniels’s cosy banter seemed old-fashioned, and he went back to touring live shows with his wife while also working behind the scenes designing illusions for West End shows such as Phantom of the Opera, Cats, English National Ballet’s The Nutcracker and the film Return to Oz. He and Debbie did appear on Channel 5’s The Farm (2004), however, and ITV’s The X Factor: Battle of the Stars (2006) and Wife Swap (2007).
In late 2015, shortly before being diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour, Daniels seemed content with his reduced status: “I’ve got so much going at the moment. We took this little tour out ... it all fits into the back of my estate car and that includes bits of scenery and props.”
He had travelled some distance from his glory days in the 1980s, but the admiring comment of the best-loved comedy magician of them all, Tommy Cooper, made when Daniels first burst on to the scene in the 1970s, still held true: “Paul Daniels is to magic what Muhammad Ali is to boxing.”