Mrs Magic

The Guardian - Weekend - - Front Contents -

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

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