Debbie McGee tells Simon Hattenstone about life with and without Paul Daniels
Last year it was voted TV’s greatest comedy putdown: in 1995, the spoof TV host Mrs Merton asked Debbie McGee: “What first, Debbie, attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?” Daniels was 56 at the time, a successful magician and not much of looker; McGee was 36, his glamorous assistant. It was a brilliantly witty question, delivered by Caroline Aherne – but it doesn’t take long in McGee’s company to realise it was an unfair one.
It’s now two and a half years since Daniels died, aged 77, during which time his widow has suffered something of an existential crisis: after all, she lost not only her husband but her professional partner of four decades. “I worried that the phone might stop ringing. I got offered a few things, but they were all linked to losing him. They weren’t jobs that were going to sustain me.”
But the phone did ring, and over the past year she has proved herself a successful entertainer in her own right, notably on the last season of Strictly Come Dancing, in which she reached the final with Giovanni Pernice. “Even now, people keep coming up and saying how inspiring I’ve been,” she says. “To think people want to join a gym or a dance class because of you! That gave me a lift. Dame Julie Walters said that, for Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, the cast got their inspiration from me. It feels amazing.”
We meet at her home in Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire. The garden is grand and gorgeous – a lawn sweeping down to the river, swans gliding regally past. (McGee points out that it’s not nearly as grand as the previous house she shared with Daniels, which was set in 14 acres.) Inside, you can’t move for mementoes: a chest of drawers covered in playing cards; a surprisingly macho topless photo of Daniels; the rabbits they used in their stage act (now pets, rather than professionals). “One is called Hopper Seven because she was born the same week as the Beckham baby Harper Seven. Paul adored the rabbits. He used to sit with the little one on his shoulder while he was on the computer.”
McGee shows me around the house. At 60, she is a petite, platinum blond in sparkly sandals and a Prosecco T-shirt. In one room, there is a lifesize painting of her in a wedding dress, which was used in a trick they performed on TV. “It was called the Artist’s Dream – the painting came alive and I stepped out of it.”
One of the criticisms of The Paul Daniels Magic Show – which at its peak had 15 million Saturday-night viewers, and was transmitted in 43 countries – was that McGee was largely mute. That wasn’t Daniels’ idea, she says. “That was because the directors at the BBC thought I should be kept in the background.” Still, it is astonishing how much of her time on TV was spent being abused or disappeared by Daniels; if he was not cremating her, he was manacling her, stabbing her, locking her in fish tanks and rubbish bins. In one trick he caged her, but for the big reveal she was free – with Daniels himself behind bars. In a rare moment when McGee took the lead, she told the audience: “No, I won’t let him out. See you next week!”
Daniels was a Marmite magician. Many loved him for his skill, his stories, his showmanship, his catchphrases (“You’ll like this... not a lot, but you’ll like it”). His detractors found him annoying – defensive, unfunny, boastful, with a hint of small-man syndrome. If he wasn’t counting his acres, he’d be totting up his Ferraris and Bentleys. But McGee insists this was all bravado; that the real man was nothing like that. “I think he was totally misunderstood. Paul was from Middlesbrough and people from the north-east are quite abrupt and say what they think. Journalists made him out to be this very hard, conceited person, but he was a real people person. There was no side to him, no snobbery. He was a really kind person.” She looks on the verge of tears.
When the film of the Debbie McGee/Paul Daniels love story is finally made, it will open against the backdrop of Iran’s Islamic Revolution. If it hadn’t been for Ayatollah Khomeini, the couple would almost certainly never have got together.
McGee was a talented young dancer, who attended the Royal Ballet school and got a teaching diploma. She was ambitious, adventurous and wanted to make money. “I said, ‘If I don’t make it in showbusiness, I’ll go and do something else – I’m not going to be poor.’ I loved watching all the Hollywood movies, so I always dreamed of living in a big house.” At 18, she discovered she could make a fortune dancing for the Iranian National Ballet. “I did a bit of research and found out they had loads of money. They were hiring top choreographers from around the world, like Alvin Ailey from New York.” At 19, she set off for Tehran, planning to stay three years. She was paid £550 a week, much more than the £120 she had been earning in Britain. Life was wonderful – until the revolution intervened.
McGee says she very nearly didn’t get out. “Have you seen the movie Argo with Ben Affleck? That’s exactly what I went through. I had to pay 10 times what a plane ticket should cost to get home. They were closing the airport that day. When I finally got to the airport, they threw me in an office and said I couldn’t get on the plane. After about an hour, this guy stamped my passport and said: ‘Run’.” →
‘Have you seen Argo with Ben Affleck? That’s what I went through, getting out of Tehran after the revolution’
Having spent all her savings on getting home, she needed a job urgently. The ballet companies were full, so she auditioned for a summer cabaret season. “I went to a massive audition with about 1,000 girls, and they chose around 50 of us. Eight were put with Des O’Connor, eight were with Little and Large, and eight were with Paul Daniels. I’d never heard of him. I came home and said, ‘I’ve got this contract for four and a half months with this guy called Paul Daniels, what does he do?’ My parents said, ‘Oh, he’s a magician.’ Well, I didn’t like magic because I’d only seen bad magic.”
McGee adored Daniels from the off. “We had an instant chemistry. He made me laugh.” Even though he was much older than her? “He had so much more energy than me, anyway, and a joie de vivre. I never really thought of his age.”
But Daniels did. For a number of years, their relationship was on-off. They worked together throughout, but Daniels would regularly suggest they split up. “He’d say that the press would call me a gold-digger and crucify me. He kept me at bay. He said, ‘Go and find someone your own age.’ ” He was right, of course: “Even though we were married far longer than most other people in showbusiness, they continued to say I was a gold-digger.”
Not that McGee holds a grudge against Caroline Aherne, who died three months after Daniels. “I liked her a lot. I used to say, ‘You made me famous, Caroline.’ After Mrs Merton, my profile changed. For years taxi drivers would shout at me from across the road: ‘What attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?’” How did she respond? “I always laughed. When she said it to me, I burst out laughing.” McGee says she didn’t laugh just because it was funny, but because she thought it ironic. “I was thinking, ‘Well, you just married a millionaire’, because Peter Hook [the New Order bassist and Aherne’s husband] was a millionaire. I let her have the joke, but I thought it was hysterical she’d asked me that question.”
Early on, McGee decided to play second fiddle to Daniels. “I was extremely driven, career-wise. But when we got married I looked around, and the people who work apart don’t stay together in our business. I was offered tours of musicals, but I didn’t take them because I didn’t want to be away from Paul for six months. I don’t have any regrets about that.”
Documentary makers and reality television shows were fascinated by their relationship. In 2001, Louis Theroux made a programme about them, When Louis Met Paul And Debbie, spending months in their company. McGee says it took them a while to realise that, while traditional TV likes to show stars at their best, reality shows were set on exposing their flaws. “Afterwards Louis said that, on the final morning, his exec producer told him: ‘Go in heavy, there must be a crack somewhere’, and he said, ‘No, I really like them, and there isn’t.’”
Daniels was eccentric and old-fashioned; in one memorable scene from the Theroux documentary, McGee delivered his breakfast cereals to him on a trolley like a hotel waitress; in another, he literally whistled for her. But above all, what emerged was the love they shared. McGee insists it’s the best PR exercise they ever did.
Not everything they did was as successful. In 2007, McGee and Daniels took part in a celebrity version of Wife Swap with Vanessa Feltz and her partner Ben Ofoedu. This time, Daniels came across as a humourless tyrant, demanding three cooked meals a day and complaining that Feltz didn’t dress for supper as McGee did. “It’s the only programme I’ve ever regretted doing,” McGee says. “I could feel the manipulation.” But she will defend Daniels to the death, and beyond. “Even now, Vanessa says Paul is brilliant and intelligent. They were just very uncomfortable with each other.”
Documentaries often failed to show everything they had in common, she says. Both came from working-class families with a fierce work ethic. (Her father worked in a factory that made wedding rings; her mother had a part-time job in a factory making transmitters.) Both were determined to be successful and to enjoy the fruits of that success. Neither of them wanted children. Daniels already had three boys from his first marriage, and motherhood never appealed to her. “People who wanted children either said they wanted to recreate themselves, they wanted somebody to look after them when they were old, or there was a void in their life that they wanted to fill. And I didn’t have any of those feelings.”
McGee’s mother and sister Donna are staying with her for a few days. Donna, who helps manage McGee’s affairs and is a dead ringer for her, rustles up a plate of smoked salmon sandwiches for us. It seems that magic has now become the family business. Donna’s son James Phelan has become a magician, as has Paul’s son Martin, who works on cruise ships and has incorporated part of Daniels’ routine into his act. Meanwhile Daniels’ grandson Lewis, a student at Liverpool university, has started dabbling. “Paul would just love it,” McGee says.
Is she close to all three of Daniels’ sons? “I’m close to two of them. The third one, Paul, doesn’t talk to me.” Soon after Daniels died, according to →
‘I thought it was hysterical Caroline Aherne asked me that question, because she’d just married the millionaire Peter Hook’
his eldest son, Paul Junior, McGee shut the Paul Daniels Magic Party Shop that Paul and Paul Junior had opened in Wigan in 2007. In October 2016, Paul Junior told the Sun on Sunday: “Debbie McGee is nothing but a false witch who will struggle to survive without my father’s name attached to her.”
By the time she appeared on the Mrs Merton show, she was no longer simply Debbie McGee; she was “the lovely Debbie McGee”. She cites this epithet as an example of Daniels’ genius for branding; from the first show they did together, he introduced her this way. “That’s how his brain worked. He knew that would get me noticed.” (Some years ago, Daniels bought her a 1930s boat, which he renamed The Lovely Debbie McGee. Was that another branding exercise? “No, that was just him being lovely. The boat was called It’ll Do at the time.” Today, it is berthed close to McGee’s house.)
This awareness about their brand even extended to his famous hairpieces, McGee says. She lets me in on a well-kept secret: Daniels wasn’t actually bald when he started wearing wigs – he was planning for the future. “When I first met him he had loads of hair, even though he wore a wig. He was a realist. He always said his wig was a business plan. He was a bit older, around 30, and he saw younger people coming up, and his hair was very slowly receding, so he thought, ‘If I start wearing a wig now, by the time I’ve gone bald nobody will know that I’ve just plonked a wig on.’” She says he took great pleasure in his wigs. “He used to sneeze at parties and it would go across the room. He’d do anything to make people laugh.”
In 1994 the show was axed after 15 years. Daniels and McGee had fallen out of fashion, making way for a new generation of illusionists such as David Blaine and Derren Brown, less redolent of a bygone era of seaside shows and double entendres. At times, Daniels sounded bitter. In 2014, he complained: “I have not seen anything new on television in about 20 years.” It was 20 years, exactly, since the BBC had pulled the plug. But McGee insists the move away from television gave them a new life. “It freed us up. Paul said he didn’t realise how much pressure he’d been under because, until that point, 12 months a year for all those years, he had always been researching for the TV show. We could start going on holiday. It was liberating.” The live shows and lucrative corporate work allowed McGee to develop her side of the act. Rather than the magician’s assistant, she became more the magician’s partner, joining the Magic Circle and performing tricks in her own right.
They worked until the very end. Daniels was diagnosed with a brain tumour a month before he died, and was weak only for the final five days of his life. “He just slipped away. We were lucky.”
After Daniels died, McGee says it took her a year to sleep normally. “You wake up in the middle of the night, and that’s your grief.” How do you come to terms with it? “I don’t know… You just learn how to live without them. You have to accept that they’re gone. The toughest time for me is in the morning, because we always had breakfast together and sat and talked. Somebody said to me, ‘Change your routine’, and that really helped. So when I’m not working, I get up and go out to the gym, and have my breakfast there.”
It has been a slow, complicated process, she says. “When somebody dies, first you feel somebody’s dropped you in the ocean and you’re treading water and you don’t know which direction to take. There’s no steering wheel. I’d always been focused, knew what I wanted, where I wanted to go, and suddenly all that went.” Does she get any comfort from doing magic? “Since Paul died I can’t face it. I can’t even bear to think of being on the stage.”
It’s time to leave – McGee has to record her Sunday show for Radio Berkshire, where, inevitably, she is trailed as “the lovely Debbie McGee”. She gives me a lift to the railway station in her Range Rover – the biggest thing she has bought since Daniels’ death. As she drives, I mention one thing we’ve not talked about: sex. Daniels was obsessed with the subject, oversharing about everything from his number of conquests to the bedroom games he and McGee would play. Did she get upset by his boasts about having had 300 lovers? “Oh no!” She smiles. Did he talk to you about them? “Well, some of them I knew, obviously. But you don’t talk about 300 of them, that’s for sure.” Could she compete with him for lovers? “Definitely not. Definitely not. People thought he was cocky and conceited, but that’s what was so lovable about Paul – he was who he was. When he said things it wasn’t to show off. He just told the truth.”
In his memoir, Under No Illusion, Daniels wrote of an occasion when he had written a Do Not Disturb sign on his back because he was working. “Eventually I went to bed and Debbie was lying stark naked on the bed – eat your heart out fellas! She was wearing the sort of sleeping blindfold you get on long-haul flights. Printed on it was Do Not Disturb. But further down her body she had a sign that said ‘Disturb!’”
Did she wish he was a tad more discreet? She laughs. “I just accepted that was Paul.” Was it all true? “That bit was. That’s why we were married for so long. We were very unpredictable, we made each other laugh. We were always leaving jokey notes. There’s no way he could have done anything when he saw that note because he was laughing so much.”
We arrive at the station. McGee has spent so long talking about Daniels she’s barely mentioned her own ambitions. She says she’d love a chat show on Radio 2, more reality TV, maybe even a new man at some point. For the first time, she says, she is beginning to see herself as Debbie McGee, rather than the quieter half of a celebrity couple. Over the past year she has become a regular on the small screen, competing in the quiz show Impossible Celebrities, and walking the Camino de Santiago for the BBC reality show Pilgrimage. “The TV work has helped give me more of my individuality. I am beginning to feel like my own person.”
I ask if people treat her differently. She nods. “The public were always lovely to Paul and me. I think it’s because we were approachable. They would come up and say, ‘I used to love watching you when I was a kid.’ But they weren’t affectionate. Now I can walk into a shop and a lady will walk up to me and give me a hug, not saying anything, and just walk away.”
‘We were very unpredictable, that’s what kept us going. We made each other laugh, we were always leaving jokey notes’
Clockwise from left: with Paul Daniels in 1988; on the Mrs Merton show in 1995; performing magic with Daniels in 2013; and training with Strictly Come Dancing partner Giovanni Pernice last year