The year is 1987, and we’re five years ahead of the controversial transmission of Ghostwatch, the Screen One drama about Michael Parkinson being possessed by a man called Pipes who had his face eaten off by his own cats. Paul Daniels is about to die live on TV.
This, for me, is the true Halloween highlight from the archives. A surprise that came from nowhere, a live magic show with a deadly escape to finish it off. Surely they wouldn’t… would they? But they did.
Hard to know where to begin, but let’s set it up. Paul Daniels got massive audiences in the 1980s, absolutely huge and by today’s standards unimaginable, often in the tens of millions. At the same time, he was a love-him-or-hate-him figure, a petite and balding man from Middlesbrough of no conventional attractiveness who was a gift for lazy impressionists and comics alike. The magic show was perhaps on the decline by this time, but Halloween 1987 was going to embed it in the memories of all who saw it.
You should see the above clip in the context of Daniels’s usual performances, where his fast and effortless patter and showmanship, perfected in a career spent honing his craft in small theatres and working-men’s-clubs, shone through. You might not have liked him – not a lot – but he was slick. But this performance is anything but, and it’s on purpose.
All the umming and ahhing from Daniels isn’t just the demands of live TV – he was used to delivering his act without retakes. He’s getting it wrong on purpose, creating a kind of edgy, nervous tension around his performance. There’s a sense that he doesn’t really know what’s going on – he claims not to know how much lead shot will set off the trigger on the device that might just kill him, for example. He’s messing with our minds. Hang on, is Paul Daniels really going to do this? He doesn’t look ready. Is he going to be OK?
“Now this is very dangerous,” begins Paul, after bringing up Harry Houdini, someone who famously nearly perished during his escape attempts, “I have to warn you this can go wrong.” He then goes on to instruct anyone of a nervous disposition to switch off. What’s going on? Why has he said that? Daniels’s act was never about “this can go wrong” – he was always in charge.
Daniels introduces the maiden itself. A real torture device? A genuine instrument of killing? Pretty sure none of those are still around. But we didn’t have the internet in 1987, we just had to take him at his word. It certainly looked the part. It looked bulky and like it could do you some damage. Very heavy, he claims. It certainly looks heavy. You see a strange hooded figure at the side of the stage. What’s he doing there? This whole show was filmed in an old castle to enhance the Halloween theme, and to make it as creepy as possible. A hooded guy in a monk’s outfit, what’s that all about? The lighting is perfect. Dim, oppressive.
Paul rattles his wand on a couple of spikes to show you they’re real. The guests have inspected it, he says. Well then how’s he going to get out? He shows you underneath. He shows you people round the back. It’s all one camera shot and it never cuts away, even when he claims to be showing you round the side, which you never actually see. He shows you the door slamming into the iron maiden. It looks and sounds like a real thing, not a prop. “The door weighs several hundredweights,” says Daniels. You’re starting to get a bit worried for him. That looks like it could hurt someone.
Handing over his jacket and bow tie, Daniels gets strapped in. He tells his assistant and wife, Debbie, to leave the room completely. Why? That seems odd. It’s all designed to unsettle you. Something’s going on here, but what? You haven’t worked it out yet, but you’re starting to get nervous. “Aren’t the rattle of chains on Halloween wonderful?” he chirps, as he gets locked in by two Georgian footmen. But he has to warn you again. “I mean it,” he says. “This can go wrong.” He’s telling you again what’s going to happen, but you don’t believe it yet. “Don’t move out of your seats if it goes wrong,” he tells the audience, like it’s a safety briefing, but of course there’s probably another reason for that. It ratchets up the tension just another notch.
The escape attempt takes 10 seconds, which is one reason why it’s so transfixing. The clatter of lead shot into the cup. The slam of a catch. Part of the paper door concealing Daniels gets ripped. Is he? But too late. And bang, the door shuts.
Then, silence. One of the hooded figures looks around, as if to say, what’s happened? What’s gone wrong? The camera shot finally changes. A hand-held camera wanders around alongside and behind the iron maiden.
You’re waiting, you’re waiting. He’s not behind it, where is he? He’s going to pop up with a big grin in a minute, surely? Then the screen fades to black and a voice, firm but authoritative, says “Ladies and gentlemen, Please leave the room in an orderly fashion.” Wait, what? The end credits are running over a black screen. How…? But…
Right at the end, Daniels pops up again. Ah, he’s OK. Standing there with a barn owl. “This was recorded yesterday, and all I can say is I hope the last illusion goes well!” And there’s a cheeky wink, and he’s gone again. But… is he dead or not?
Trauma. Did I just see someone die on live TV? Why wasn’t the continuity announcer worried about it? What just happened? Did it really happen? We had to wait until after Monty Python’s Flying Circus (I believe it was Sportscene in Scotland) to find out. That was a half hour of terror. Were we going to go to a grim-faced newsreader telling us about how Paul Daniels had died, and how we’d all seen it at home, and how we felt terrible about it? No. Up popped Daniels again, next to the iron maiden we thought had killed him, telling us he was perfectly OK. Oh, the relief.
It might seem really strange now but, looking back, you could only really get away with this sort of thing, including TV magic without some lummox traipsing into the comments and spoiling it for you, before the internet. You just had to take on trust what you were seeing. In so many ways, this Halloween shocker provided the platform for Ghostwatch to go and do even more amazing things with it a few years later (- Sarah Greene slammed into a cupboard, seeing a ghostly man with bleeding eyes in front of a curtain, or did you? There was no way to rewind -) when it led to dozens of angry letters and a promise that, no, the BBC would never be naughty like that again. It was all thanks to Daniels paving the way, and doing it with style.