You know how it is when you meet a national institution. Possibly. You're nervous as hell. Then you can't find said celeb anywhere. He finally emerges with a Borders bag in his hand from somewhere near McDonald's. Penny Broadhurst meets Paul Daniels.

I know what you're going to say. I wanted to dislike the man. However, unlike fellow Louis Theroux "target", Jimmy Saville, the tiny magician is a consummate entertainer offstage as well as on. Relentless, in fact. Anecdote after anecdote, pun after pun, more self-aggrandisement than Chris Eubank on his birthday. "An audience - I'm away!" He does a card trick or two. He signs an autograph for a small girl who runs over with a request from her mother: "I love you madly" and sings her songs, tells her jokes. Two hours in Starbucks, and I still can't make up my mind what I think of the man who can make a wheelchair-bound pensioner's day just by winking mischievously at her from a table by the window, and in the next breath come out with some right wing nonsense about the aristocracy.

LOUIS

My initial curiosity was sparked when I wondered why Paul wanted to take part in the programme When Louis Met Paul and Debbie, which involved the journalist living with the couple for a week. He had watched the Jimmy Saville programme, he wasn't ignorant - he knew Louis would be out to stitch him up, or at least take the piss a little. To quote Mark Lawson from The Guardian: "Unless Theroux is a systematic blackmailer who carries round a suitcase of pictures of famous people doing it with sheep, it's hard to see why people agree to be profiled by him. Theroux seems drawn to slightly naff northern entertainers who hint at an inner weirdness or bleakness behind frenetic stage patter."

It seems that Paul saw it as an opportunity to advertise his latest venture, backing his lovely spouse Debbie McGee's dream of her own ballet company, Ballet Imaginaire. "It was a publicity exercise. I had a plan for Louis. It worked. We got over 800 emails about Ballet Imaginaire within three days of the programme being broadcast. I wasn't frightened. It was like dealing with an amateur."

HOAXES

Having described Theroux as an amateur and given the impression that he won the battle of intentions in the programme - to be fair, he held his own better than many profiled in the Weird Weekends series for example - Daniels goes on to sound much more bitter about the media in general. "I don't really understand why journalism has to be so nasty, so sarcastic and intrusive." But then he's been stung a fair few times. The "made up!" story about Daniels and other British entertainers threatening to leave the country being only a mild example.

I asked him about the infamous Karla the Elephant incident. Before Chris Morris became the most notorious non-criminal so-called "evil" man in the country with the Brass Eye Special, Paul was hoaxed in the first episode of Brass Eye, Animals. Paul made this impassioned appeal for the fictional animal in distress:

PD: "I can't understand the mentality or the physical make-up, mental make-up, of anybody who lets an elephant get into that condition."

Chris Morris: "Paul Daniel's contribution moved all that saw it - to horrible tears."

PD: "Karla the elephant is currently curled up in a kind of a grey ball. Her trunk is actually stuck up her anus, and they're not trying to help her, so we must. (I'll give you another one that you can cut in later, I'll just say that, and you can cut it in later, yeah, well go to the elephant, go to somewhere else alright, and, still rolling? ... ) Come on - help us get that trunk out."

Paul saw the hoax as "A sad thing to do. Celebrities are an easy hit. In our office we once made a record of every charitable request we had for a year. It worked out at twenty seven a day. I try to help as many as I can, and obviously causes like cruelty to animals and children are high priorities. This Brass Eye case slipped through the net. It may well put celebrities off supporting genuine charities now."

Paul was happy to appear on Da Ali G Show and be asked questions about Debbie letting him into her Magic Circle. The episode was deemed unsuitable for television and was only seen on video and DVD. He stunned viewers by dressing up as Sacha Baron-Cohen's comic creation and getting into the spirit of the occasion. More or less embarrasingly than Richard Madeley? He also enjoyed Rowan Atkinson's Cana sketch where he turns out to be the Messiah - "His name shall be Paul...Paul Daniels" - to the extent where he bought copies of the record on which it appeared for all his friends and relatives that Christmas. "Richard Curtis wrote it. Now HE is a comic genius. Chris Morris is just nasty. I don't think much to modern impressionists either. Forget Alistair McGowan. There's been no-one good since Mike Yarwood."

Famously, Paul once created a hoax of his own. He had an idea for a live Hallowe'en special in 1987, with an illusion called The Iron Maiden Escape. The special was shot inside a gothic-style mansion. Paul was chained into a cabinet covered in spikes inside and out. When the door swung shut, propelled by a special mechanism huge metal spikes would swing right into Paul unless he got out in time. Until the afternoon of the recording of the show, only close members of the production team knew that he wouldn't be coming out. He told the cameramen so as not to disturb the recording with their over-reaction.

On the night of the show, the metal door swung shut. Silence. Then the screen cut to black, still in silence apart from the voice of the floor manager asking to cut to the next programme. The credits rolled and the phones went mad with first calls of concern and then complaints as they were told that the whole thing was a hoax. Paul didn't even tell his family straight away, so they were in shock too.

"All kids deserve a good nightmare. It was like Orson Welles and War of the Worlds. People really believed it. Anne Robinson was asked to leave the room, not knowing if it was for real or not, and banned her from telling the press. She's hated me ever since, but then she's a nasty piece of work. A real bitch. So is Cilla Black. The police hammered on my mam's door within ten minutes of the programme ending. She just said 'He's always doing things like that!' The BBC tried doing that Ghostwatch thing a few years later, but that was poorly executed. Real kids stuff."

OTHER MAGICIANS

"The magicians who give away tricks are destroying the art form. Most of the tricks they "reveal" are old tricks. They're generally crap magicians and that's why they do it to get attention. It's sad. Magic is all about the illusion, it's the creation of a dream. It's very boring anyway. When I go to the theatre, I know the actors aren't real but I want to be able to believe in them without them telling me how they do it. Where's the skill in that? I go to see opera, operetta, classical, classical dance as well as light entertainment. I know what good entertainment is."

I asked Paul about newer magicians like David Blaine, who are making magic "cool" again.

"I don't think they're very good. Jerry Sadowitz has great skill but none in his head - he's too nasty. David Blaine and his ilk I have seen on satellite TV. The camera work is crap. You can't see the whole trick. Magic on television isn't just about quickly impressing someone. It's about preparation, timing. Taking care to make sure the audience see the whole trick rather than something that is heavily edited. How can they believe in the magic if it's all camera trickery and editing? It should be about the skill of the magician.

"It's good that magic is being perceived as for adults again. There's so few forms of entertainment that you can do for children but magic is one of them - and done well it intermeshes music, theatre, the speciality acts of variety...the magician is an actor and he uses all these elements. Sadly this suitability for children means magic is so often seen as only an entertainment for children."

POLITICS

I asked Paul who he votes for, after he told me that "I'll leave the country if Blair gets in" was a made-up quotation.

"I look at the political scene of the time, rather than voting out of blind loyalty without thinking. Tony Blair abused his position to convert Labour to Tory and make secret constitutional reforms. Peter Mandelson started foot in mouth disease. He should bring out his own range of sausages, called Porkies! I hope he keeps getting sacked so he has to take any job the DSS offer him.

"I like a real democracy. I like the fact that the Queen has to sign something for a law to become law. It means nothing really extreme could ever get through. She's never not passed anything, but the safety mechanism is there. The House of Lords is the ultimate insurance and Blair's going to get rid of it. The hereditary peers, the real Lords, have the genetic knowledge so they know what to pass and what not to let through.

"I believe the gene carries more than physical characteristics. It's more than just education that makes the Lords better at making these kind of decisions than leaving it with the Commons. It's like an animal instinct. The aristocracy may act foolish, but in times of war and riots they have the knowledge and a belief and strength of leadership and instinct that coal miners just haven't got - and I love coal miners.

"My manifesto would be common sense. I agree with the Common Market, as a common marketplace rather than an excuse for bureaucrats to interfere and decide the size and shape and colour of things. We should move a lot faster towards a common money, but not just a European currency. I'd have a mega campaign for WORLD money, to stop those people for whom selling money is their business. Money shouldn't be made out of having different currencies. We should all have one money and then you can decide where to get what you want to buy and everything will be cheaper. I would also ban religious schools, children should be allowed to make up their own minds."

RELIGION

Paul used to be a Methodist lay preacher, but no longer. During this interview, a young man walked in and introduced himself to Paul, saying that he was a fan when he was a kid and he saw him in the window so popped in to say "Hi" on the way back from church. The poor bloke was still there twenty minutes later, listening to Paul telling him why he shouldn't believe in any god. He looked deeply uncomfortable, but was too polite to make his excuses straight away.

"Religion was started by magicians. They used the observation of nature to magical ends. There's no real difference between all religions. Christianity is only the largest because of power. If you look at the Encarta timeline, you can see where the power of the Roman Empire ended and the power of the Christian religion began. It was just another way of controlling people. The basic points every religion shares. Even the son of god business isn't exclusive to Judaism and Christianity. Egyptian Pharaohs were all given that title and Tutankhamun just means son of the sun god. I went and read up on it in the British Library.

"The funniest thing happened when Debbie and I visited Rome. We decided to go to the Vatican. Debbie was wearing a shoulderless top and a guard poked my wife and said 'You no come in!' I said 'But God made shoulders'. He said 'This place is nothing to do with God'. This shocked me, but I laughed and said 'Well, did the Pope say no shoulders? Do shoulders make him horny?' The guard looked angry and said 'Il Papa does not get horny.' I said 'Is the Pope homosexual' 'No, Il Papa is NOT homosexual!' We gave up and left. Someone behind us in the queue muttered 'Motherfucker!' for holding them up. I said, 'Who told you I fucked your mam?'

THE INTERNET AND PORN

Paul is keen on technology, he even spoke of inventing many computer and related devices that never went into production. He also has his own website, and designs and maintains the Ballet Imaginaire site himself.

"The Internet is very useful. I use it to find out about holidays and to do research when I am going to be doing corporate work. It's fast and easy. I use Amazon a lot for books and I surf a lot when I'm bored. Debbie once typed her name into a search engine and we found all these weird pages. Not just those sick fake photographs of her with the dog, I first saw those years ago. More fake pictures and odd pages. We get weird letters at the office for Debbie anyway."

Paul leans over and asks me "What turns you on?" I feel sick and more than slightly scared. I don't answer. "Porn is fine when it's between consenting adults. The stuff with kids is wrong, but between consenting adults it's fine. There's a lot I like, although nothing weird. There's a group of people who are really into looking at pictures of women in guillotines. Not naked or anything. Just in guillotines. They have a page full of pictures of Debbie in guillotines - I have used guillotines in my routines. How strange is that as a fetish?"

AND FINALLY, FOR SOMETHING A BIT LESS DISTURBING

Wizbit! The yellow triangular master of magic and puzzles and kids' TV show that seems to have been written out of all the retrospectives.

"Barry Murray was a record producer I knew who was earning a lot of money. He worked out how much he needed to live on a year, which he decided at the time was ten thousand pounds, then realised he could earn that in a month and do what he wanted for the rest of the year. He went out to Anfield and recorded the sounds of the Kop, the fans, interviewed Bill Shankly and so on. He made an LP from these found sounds. He pressed up ten thousand copies and added a quid to each after costs. Barry sold them to fans in record shops around Liverpool and earned ten grand in three weeks. The next year he went to a medium and recorded a séance where they tried and failed to contact Elvis, and sold loads of copies of that record to Elvis fans.

"Barry decided to do an album of magic tricks. He went through the Magic Circle and ended up at me and asked me if I could make the tricks more interesting on the record. We decided on a magician that came from outer space and whose planet travelled twice as fast as Earth so he spoke very fast. I had done voiceovers before and did the whole record without a script. Then Barry came back to me with the scripts for Wizbit, this alien magician. I would only agree if they had Disney-style production values. It cost a bomb to make - but it wasn't our money! I deliberately made Wizbit's voice more nasal in case they sold it to the States. We had two successful series. I get emails every week about the show and yet nobody's ever done a website for Wizbit and there's only a small disapproving mention on TV Cream with the songs to download."


You can read more about Paul Daniels' magic and sex life in his autobiography, Under No Illusion. Just take a deep breath before you pick it up.


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