The Paul Daniels Christmas Magic Show – 1985

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Right from the start, the 1985 Christmas Special suffers from something of a dance overload.  Paul introduces us to his two assistants (Kate Bellamy and Donald Waugh.  Yes, Hughsey from Grange Hill) who he proceeds to lock into two individual cabinets which have been made to look like chimneys.  So far, so predictable.  But then Paul ambles off the stage as the Brian Rogers dancers move onstage and proceed to leap about in a highly energetic manner.  They add a bit of glamour – albeit on the cheesy side.

As the orchestra grinds out a version of Slade’s Merry Christmas Everybody, the dancers take over the illusion – some of  them start to slice the cabinets up whilst the more attractive lady dancers are content to preen themselves.  This is all very odd, although there is a reasonable payoff when we see Paul – clearly deciding that he should get a little more involved in proceedings – mildly berating them for mixing up the boxes.  This means that the assistant’s clothes are revealed to have been swopped once the boxes are reassembled (a neat extra trick to go with the puzzle of where they disappeared to in the first place).

If Paul largely sits this one out, then it’s fair to say that he doesn’t really contribute a great deal to the remainder of the show.  There’s a few close-up illusions – the three card trick (done with four cards!) and a trick with a fifty pound note – but otherwise he’s fairly inactive until the end of show spectacular.  More on that in a minute.

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The Jazzy Jumpers come from America and are a young, energetic skipping troupe.  Not the most exciting of speciality acts, but undeniably skilful.  Lance Burton (direct from Las Vegas) offers us a reasonably good performance of the substitution trunk (created by Maskelyne, popularised by Houdini) although it’s odd that we never actually see the person inside the trunk who Burton had swopped with. Zhou Shurong offers eye-watering feats of flexibility.

It’s always fun when two great magicians meet – and so it is here as Paul comes face to face with Sooty.  Yes it’s Sooty, making a rare return to the BBC (and mistaking Paul for Terry Wogan – easy to do) whilst causing havoc with a miniature fountain.  This is apparently a scaled down version of an illusion performed by Dante and although it’s only a bit of throwaway fun it’s still appealing.  It was nice to see Sweep as well (oh, and Matthew Corbett).

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We then have a cutesy overload as Paul proceeds to tell a young chap called David all about Snow White. David looks too neat and scrubbed up to have been pulled out of the audience, so presumably he was selected well in advance (not that this really matters, as David’s main function is to react with wonder as the story of Snow White comes to life).

This is the cue for the return of the Brian Rogers dancers and there’s more dancing to come as we meet Snow White – who just happens to be played by Debbie.  It’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the whole closing sequence had been designed in order to show off her dancing talents (you may not be surprised to hear that Snow White gets the chance to do a spot of hoofing).  A few illusions are thrown in but they’re all rather secondary to the showbizzy razzle dazzle (the seven dwarfs are played by children, for that extra awww factor).  It’s nice to see Fenella Fielding as the wicked Queen though.

The showbiz feel is maintained right until the end as each performer returns to the stage in order to take their bows.  As a Christmassy extravaganza this is decent enough fare, but as a magic show it’s something of a disappointment.

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The Paul Daniels Christmas Magic Show – 1984

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The 1984 Christmas Show comes front-loaded with celebrities as Clare Francis, Anneka Rice, Bonnie Langford, Val Doonican and Larry Grayson are brought on for a spot of banter and magic.  All receive a warm reception from the studio audience but it’s Grayson who generates the most whoops and cheers by far.

Both Bonnie and Anneka are very eye-catching (Bonnie sports a silver pair of trousers whilst Anneka has a sparkly top and a  very short skirt).  Paul was never slow in appreciating female beauty, so it’s no surprise that he seems a little smitten with Anneka (“lovely leg, shame about the other one”).  Although I’m not sure whether his mispronunciation of her first name was deliberate or not ….

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This is a nice, relaxed opening to the show – allowing the likes of Larry Grayson to camp it up a little (unsurprisingly).  He’s also selected to wear a bag on his head (in order to check that when Paul puts it on, he can’t see out of it).  Given that Paul’s still wearing the wig, I was slightly concerned they’d be an accident, but everything passes off without a hitch (although it’s noticeable that when Paul removes the bag, he does instinctively check that everything’s still in place).

There are two speciality acts on the show.  Both are perfect for Christmastime viewing (maybe one day somebody might decide that a variety show on Christmas day would be a good idea – stranger things have happened).  First up is Kris Kremo.  I love a juggler, and they really don’t come any better than Kremo – who not only juggles with his hands but also his feet to begin with.  His act climaxes with the juggling of three cigar boxes – a familiar sight, but Kremo’s dexterity is something special.

George Carl has to slowly work the audience – his style of silent clowning proves to be something of a slow burn – but by the end he seems to have won everybody over (at the start, laughter is more sporadic – meaning that it’s possible to pick out several very distinctive hearty laughing types).

Debbie is now a part of the show.  She doesn’t have a great deal to say, but it’s plain that she’s higher up in the pecking order than Paul’s previous assistants (she appears in one of the six picture boxes on the end credits).

When I wrote about the 1980 special, I mentioned that there were no big illusions.  That’s redressed here, as Paul contrives to vanish one million pounds under the watchful eyes of Owen Rout (the general manager of Barclays Bank) and Robert Maxwell.  Maxwell’s later misdeeds gives this whole illusion something of a bleak irony.  It certainly proves hard to take your eyes off him.

When Paul announces that the money is shortly to enter the studio, it’s impossible to miss the way that Maxwell’s eyes light up.  Maxwell also can’t prevent himself from getting involved every step of the way (instinctively reaching for the safe key, constantly wanting to touch the money, etc). And then there’s the moment when Paul refers to Rout and Maxwell as men of integrity ….

As an unashamed television geek, one of the reasons I love this part of the show is that the cameras are allowed to shoot off the edge of the set.  So we get to see the studio cables, monitors and doors as well as the orchestra (who rarely, if ever, appeared on screen).  The money arrives in the studio to the strains of The A Team (no, me neither) and then the long process begins – opening the safe, extracting another safe containing the money, checking that the money is genuine, moving the safe with the money into a clear Perspex container.

This is one of those illusions where you know right from the start what’s going to happen (and also that it’ll only take a few seconds) but in order to have any impact the whole thing has to build very slowly.  Therefore some twenty minutes (the climax of the show) is spent on this trick – a considerable amount of time, but it never feels drawn out.  Luckily, after all the preamble it turns out to be a baffling mystery – no doubt if I searched hard enough I could find the solution, but discovering how tricks work is much less enjoyable than wondering how it was achieved.

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The Paul Daniels Christmas Magic Show – 1980

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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 …..

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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.

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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.

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