Paul Daniels notched up fifteen consecutive Christmas Specials on the BBC between 1979 and 1993, a staggering feat which no other performer has come close to matching (unless I’ve missed someone blindingly obvious). Daniels’ sometimes abrasive performing style (forged in the white heat of the Northern Working Mens Clubs) and his outspoken opinions on numerous subjects always ensured that he seemed to be as loathed as he was loved, but there’s no denying the influence he had on modern magic.
Following his death, most of the great and good of the magic world queued up to pay tribute – although it’s also fair to say that many were equally as fulsome when he was alive. This clip from Penn and Teller: Fool Us never fails to bring a smile to my lips, not least for the obvious respect that both Penn and Teller – but especially the ebullient Penn – had for Paul.
Rewinding back to 1980, this was Daniels’ second BBC Christmas Special and the first to be transmitted on Christmas day itself (surprisingly he’d only manage this feat a further three times – in 1981, 1982 and 1985). It’s the early days of the series, so the lovely Debbie McGee has yet to appear on the scene. Daniels’ assistants here are equally as attractive – and sport some remarkable costumes – but are never allowed to speak. Paul’s wig is still very much in evidence (as is, in the opening few minutes, a remarkable red velvet suit).
Another feature of these early series was “the jury” – a group of handpicked members of the studio audience who were allowed to get up close and personal (their job was to try and work out exactly how the tricks worked). But it was also useful in another respect, as it meant that Paul didn’t have to trudge out to the wider studio audience in order to find his next hapless victim.
The first trick – involving Peter and his watch – is typical Daniels. He borrows Peter’s watch in order to do a clever trick which inevitably goes wrong. All appears lost and Peter seems resigned to losing his precious timepiece, until Paul miraculously pulls it out of the middle of a Christmas cracker (well this is a festive show). Although Paul gives his victim a slightly hard time, you know that everything will work itself out in the end, so the joshing never seems particularly cruel or unkind.
I like the mentalism trick which he performs with a rather attractive young woman from the jury. It’s another neat piece of close-up magic and doesn’t outstay it’s welcome. Paul’s next turn – in the Christmas Bunco Booth – is possibly the most memorable part of the show. Not because it’s a decent trick (in fact, there’s no trick at all) but simply because it demonstrates how some things never seem to change …..
Paul opens by bemoaning the fact that since the economy is going through something of a rough patch, plenty of people are feeling the pinch (which plays equally as well in 2017 as it did in 1980). But then he tells us his solution – separate Scotland from England and give the Scots their own currency. Eerily prescient stuff. As I said, there’s no trick here – just a clever piece of number juggling which allows him at the end to turn to camera and tell Mrs Thatcher and Geoffrey Howe that’s how they should be running the country!
Guest-wise, Lilly Yokoi’s bicycle act is very impressive (a pity it wasn’t a little longer). Whereas during Michael McGiveney’s quick change act I did wish it was a little shorter. There’s no denying the ability of McGiveney (acting out a scene from Olivier Twist, playing all the characters) but after you’ve seen one quick change you’ve seen them all (and it’s fair to say that McGiveney’s a better quick change artist than he is an actor). Compagnie Philippe Genty offer diverting, but not riveting, puppet fun.
Paul never seemed threatened by other magicians, as the appearance here of Harry Blackstone suggests. Blackstone performs the sawing a woman in half trick – although by using a circular saw it creates a heightened sense of anticipation. It’s the one major illusion in the show, which makes it all the more surprising that Paul didn’t perform it – but he was obviously happy doing the smaller stuff. Other illusionists might have been tempted to throw in blood and screams, but Blackstone – possibly mindful of the Christmas Day audience – keeps it clean. The camera’s close enough to see the saw apparently slicing through flesh though, so it’s still slightly disquieting.
Paul ends the show by pulling out a bewilderingly large number of Christmas presents from a very small box. It’s a cute ending (although I’m not sure that they’d get away with using live animals today) and although there’s no staggering illusions in this 1980 Special it’s still a very convivial way to spend fifty minutes.