Dubious Claims To Fame – 7
Paul Daniels cut my head off once. Kind of.
Owing to a number of factors, I was most definitely not cool as a teenager. That was one of the reasons that my main hobby at the time was magic. I was alright, I had some decent sleight-of-hand skills and could manipulate a deck of cards, but I lacked the confidence and personality to actually make myself watchable. The lack of personality doesn’t stop most of the folk you see doing magic, but the lack of confidence was an issue. By way of illustration, I once came fourth in the Scottish Young Magician Of The Year competition. I can gauge this from the fact that there were four entrants, three prizes, and I won none of them.
I soon realised that, much like theatre, I was far more interested in the mechanics and principles than in the performing – I made the transition from being in amateur youth theatre productions to working backstage when I was 13, joined every stage crew I could when I was 16, and eventually did my degree in technical theatre before making something of a career building sets and shifting scenery.
It was perhaps natural that my interest in magic came to rest with the methods, the implementation, the gimmicks or subterfuge that assisted or explained stage illusions. It is still a dormant interest, and I own dozens of books on historical stage illusions and their practitioners. Along with Victorian stage machinery it is something that occasionally fascinates me, and I have lately found Jim Steinmeyer’s biographies to be captivating reading.
In my late teens, I joined the local magic club as their youngest member. With friends I made there, we went to a few shows at the Edinburgh Fringe – Jerry Sadowitz and Rudy Coby being the stand-out memories. Shortly after that, Paul Daniels came to Glasgow. My friend Peter bought tickets and, despite an age gap of forty years or so, he was a bigger kid than me – daft, and with a tremendous sense of fun. It was only on our way into the theatre that I discovered he had got us all tickets for the second row of the stalls, and I was immediately apprehensive – as I said, I had long ago learned that I preferred being backstage to being on it, and I didn’t much fancy being a volunteer facing one of the biggest auditoriums I’d then been in.
Knowing that the magician is most likely to (as the books all advised me) pick an audience member who looks like they are enjoying themselves, I decided I would just sit stony-faced throughout. Easy! Especially since Paul Daniels, the magic icon of my childhood, had not been on television in years and had been widely derided even before his TV career waned. How good could he really be?
I quickly found out that he was exceptionally good, disarmingly quick-witted and extremely funny. I was fucked. He bantered with people, presented his magic, and at one point called a wee girl up onto the stage to help with his Linking Rings. She was seven if that, and at the end of the trick Paul Daniels asked for a kiss, presented his cheek, and then handed her one of his commercially-available magic kits to take with her as she returned to her seat. He requested another volunteer, looking directly at me, and so with a great deal of peer pressure from the adults I was with, I reluctantly made my way up onto the stage. In my head, I thought of something I could say that might be funny – I now realise that was probably the first time I said something that got an audience to laugh. It took me a further eleven years to actually try stand-up comedy.
“At the end of this, I’m not giving you a kiss,” I said matter-of-factly. Paul Daniels bantered with me in his trademark way – asking questions that required an affirmative answer then telling me “Say ‘Yes, Paul.'” I think he may have made reference to Katie Price when I told him my name – Jordan having just started making a name for herself and making jokes about my name easy. When I told him I worked in Index he referred to it as “ah, downmarket Argos.” All the while, his assistant was wheeling some contraption onto the stage, with a cloth over it. Evidently I was to be part of some grand spectacle.
“Have you ever seen one of these before?” he asked, deftly removing the cloth to reveal a full-size guillotine. FUCK. This was not a prospect I fancied, and in hindsight I wished I’d told him that I had seen one before, due to my growing love of Alice Cooper (who famously uses one in his vaudevillesque stage shows, and who I wrote about meeting.) It wasn’t long before I was led around the machine, knelt down with my head forward and locked in the stocks, the blade dangling high above my neck. I remember thinking to myself that if it went wrong at least it would be a quick death. So much for magic being light entertainment!
Paul was in front of me doing his big build-up. He had a box, and while he removed the lid he told the crowd he’d only ever had two accidents with this trick. He placed the open box in front of me, ostensibly to catch my head. “They weren’t the same accident,” he said, putting the upturned lid behind me. That was quite funny, but I didn’t feel much like laughing right then – being genuinely worried as anyone in my position might well be. You can rationalise as much as you like about professionalism and track record and safety checks, but when you are the one secured under a blade that is destined to come crashing down – yeah, you’d probably entertain the thought that it might go wrong too.
As it happened, I lived. I don’t remember much beyond an almighty adrenaline rush as I left the stage, although I do recall that after the show all the guys told me how glad they were that it wasn’t them, and was I not terrified?! Bastards! Ha. Paul and Debbie McGee did a signing in the foyer, and I still have my autographed ticket stub from that night.
Above: My signed ticket stub.
Eight years later, after I had graduated, that was the first theatre I worked in in Glasgow, and I eventually did three pantomimes there as well as gigs by assorted comedians, music acts and variety shows. They remembered Paul Daniels being there, and the guillotine, but not my involvement in his show.
I lost touch with all the guys after I left the magic club and let my interest drift. I’ve spoken to a few of them in the past few years though, thanks to the magic of social networking. My closest friend back then later set up in business as a professional magician, and – having helped me out enormously in my youth – it gave me great pleasure that I was able to repay the favour in some tiny way by booking him to perform at my sister’s wedding. It was nice to see him again. If you are in the Glasgow area and looking for an all-round talented entertainer (in the true sense of that word), you can book Ian here.