Paul Daniels dies live on TV

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.

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Posted by on October 31, 2016 in Uncategorized


Everywhere I go I feel it

Sometimes it would be nice to take your brain out and wash it under a tap, then stick it back in. Sometimes, in a dream, I can just exist. Call it depression, call it mistakes, call it some kind of damage: it’s there, and it is part of me. It took time to make peace with that knowledge. For years I hoped it would, or could, go away. I don’t think it will.

It’s like having a silent, bleak passenger, a parasite that sucks all your confidence and joy, and poisons you from the inside. It takes and it gives nothing back. You carry it around, and you feel it wherever you go, whenever. Sometimes it fades to the background, and becomes part of the general hum – you can get on with the business of living, which isn’t easy anyway. Other times, it grabs you by the eyes and tries to drag you down to roll in the mud.

Depression is a cunt. It lies to you and it hurts you. It tells lies about other people and it hurts them too. You’re responsible for everything you do, but you don’t want to do some of the things you do. You want to be better, in every way. You want to be a person who isn’t sick; you want to be a person who isn’t so shameful, wasteful, pathetic. You just want a chance, any chance, to see what it might be like to have a crack at life, a fair chance, without this invisible, heavy film soaking into your skin. But that is not your life.

There are ways to get help. There’s no use fighting it on your own, although only you can fight it. Everyone wants to help but no one can. And you have to accept, at some point, that you are trapped alone, even when you are surrounded by other people – sometimes especially when you are surrounded, that’s when you feel most alone.

That’s just everyday life. Sometimes, making it from Monday to Tuesday is an achievement. Sometimes, making it from 9am to 10am. Just mark out the time. Little victories. I’m still here. I’m one minute further away from *that thing, the thing we don’t talk about* than I was earlier. Each keystroke is one more second. Each moment is a moment you got through. Each day is a victory. Each breath a hope.


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Posted by on October 10, 2016 in Uncategorized



Back in therapy, for the first time in six years, and it’s getting somewhere, I think. I like the beige, comforting room with the double door; the mantelpiece with the clock that I can’t see; the window that looks out onto a hill where I can see lights from other windows, a set of traffic lights and a plane wheeling overhead. But I like having that space, that empty space – the space that exists between you and another person – the space where words can go, and you can fill the air with a thought.

I know it doesn’t work for everyone but I think it might be starting to work. It’s like walking down a long, curved corridor, and somewhere down the corridor there might be a door, eventually, though you can’t see where you’re going because of the curve, and all the floors and walls and ceilings merge into one great arc of space, where you know you are moving forward, but you don’t know much more than that.

I’m not a talker. I don’t like talking. But I need to. Like I don’t like running, but I run because it gets me something: pain, which is good; and burning fat, which is good; and a place where I can’t stare at my phone, which is good. I don’t like talking, but I talk because talking gets you to somewhere where you want to say what you want to say. Each pause brings you closer. If you’re always filling space before someone else speaks, or asking questions, it’s never going to change anything. You have to define the world around you, somehow, by talking, and if you don’t do it, you’ll never know; it will remain always undescribed, always unknown, or known only in a way that seems familiar or simple or safe, and maybe not the place it actually is.

My daughter describes the world through talking, though she only has a few words. She makes the sounds into music, and tells the world what it is. As soon as the words come out, they become what they are, and they tell her what to say next. She sees and speaks, unafraid to say the wrong thing or to get the words wrong or that someone might interrupt or talk over her; she speaks because it’s the joy of creating the world around you through the sounds you make and the things you say. She talks because she can, because she has to, because she does. I watch, and I learn, and I listen, and I copy. Your world is the people in it, and the love they bring. Your life is the music of the words. Listen, but always speak.

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Posted by on October 8, 2016 in Uncategorized


Pick fruit

Can’t get a job? Pick fruit. We’ll send all the foreigns back home to pick their own fruit. Now you pick it. Can’t pay your bills? Pick some fruit. Take back control. Make some jam. Jam is great. Exports are great. Great Britain. Export the jam to the French, they love a bit of jam but they’re too stupid to make their own jam because they’re foreign and French and smell. Pick fruit. Pick fruit to make jam. Take back control. Go and pick some fruit. Want a job? Tough. You can’t get one. There aren’t any left. Pick some fruit. Go and pick fruit for chuckles and buttons. Take an apprenticeship for nothing. Pick fruit. Be a fruit picking apprentice. Great British fruit picking apprenticeships, available now. Don’t want to pick fruit? You get nothing. You lose. Good day.

Look, it’s not our fault that your pension doesn’t exist, or, if it does exist, is going to be destroyed very soon. You can’t have one. You can’t have one because we’ve got them, and we’ve got a triple lock, because we’re special. We were born when we were born, and we deserve better things than you, and we bought our houses when there were jobs for life and we could afford them, so we deserve them, and you don’t, so you don’t get them. It’s not our fault if your parents weren’t born at the right time, or didn’t do as well as us, because we did, and if you didn’t, tough. Have a grammar school instead.

Well, not for you, obviously. Not for your children, probably, because you can’t afford the coaching and if you don’t have the right advantages, you’re not naturally ‘bright’ enough in the first place. But it’s fair because it’s social mobility. I mean there isn’t any evidence that they improve social mobility, but people want them, because they like to think their children are all above average intelligence and deserve it, and as we know, people get what they deserve, and if they don’t, they don’t deserve it, and that’s that. Have a grammar school.

Have a blue passport. Have a nice blue passport, like the good old days. Have a Blue Peter style competition to choose the design, although it’ll be the Queen, because what other way to remind you that some people deserve what they have and other people – worse people, people like you – don’t? Maybe we should get her a new yacht, to show how much she is loved, while everything else swirls around the toilet bowl, just to rub it in.

Because all you want is to get rid of the foreigns, you’ll do anything. You will accept any hardship. You will be worse off and you will like it. You will suffer and you will say thank you, like the serfs you are. You don’t want back those libraries we closed because we said that austerity was the only option, only we just realised – sorry! – that it wasn’t, but we can’t undo that now. The important thing was, we kept the right people wealthy and didn’t touch any of that. You might even get pounds and ounces back, if you play your cards right. And now our troops can torture and kill with impunity, just like the Good Old Days when the Empire ruled and grateful foreigners allowed us to ruin their countries. We certainly showed them – and now we don’t want them over here.

Enjoy your bright new future. Control back. Immigrants gone. Blue passports. Fruit picking. No jobs. No life. No benefits. No welfare. No libraries. No hope. But you can feel slightly warmer inside, knowing that for a few glorious minutes, we Took Back Control. We won.


Posted by on October 4, 2016 in Uncategorized


Where does your nice bit ever be

Louis Theroux’s Jimmy Savile documentary last night on BBC2 provided a moment that jumped out of the television and grabbed you round the throat.

Speaking about her abuse at the hands of Savile and her own grandfather, survivor Sam explained why she tried to think about the happy times she had with her abuser. “Where does your nice bit ever be?” she asked, if everything was to be tainted by him. Childlike words, yet so articulate. Why allow the abuser to claim every memory?

“I never said to him, don’t, because I knew he could.”

You try to minimise things, at first. You try to imagine it might not have happened. You’re angry that it happened. Did it happen? Maybe it didn’t really happen. Maybe everything else was OK though. Up until that point, it was fine. Afterwards, it was fine. Maybe if you can just isolate that one event, it makes it fade. Maybe you should, because it means you own the memory, and not that other person, and maybe that’s how it should be.

That’s why the lady from Stoke Mandeville kept the Lego Savile head in her shed; it’s why she kept a discreet shrine to Jimmy on her Welsh dresser; it’s why the former PA said that she couldn’t believe the accusations. You do what you have to do to make yourself be able to live.

Theroux himself, up to that point painting himself as some kind of well-meaning idiot, one in a long line of people to have been “beguiled” by Savile, had been trying to look at why he had failed to spot that Savile was a predator, why so many people had failed to spot the signs.

Angrily, Sam said that Theroux had been “mugged off” in his documentary, and that he had been groomed himself by Savile. Theroux, in the moment, disagreed, but I don’t think he ought to have done. He was used by the abuser, not in the horrific way the other victims were, but used for a purpose. Savile saw something in him that he could use. I remember the first documentary coming out at the time, and the rumours I’m sure I’d already heard about Savile being a paedophile, an abuser, a dirty old man, whatever you want to call it.

Theroux was an enabler, of sorts, though only a minor player, a mediocre enabler of evil in the great scheme of things. Others knew about the accusations and suppressed them; other brave victims came forward, and were dismissed. Savile needed those enablers more.

And then, too, throughout the whole documentary, you had the sense that everyone was trying to confess. Theroux, despite his denials, was trying to confess to being an enabler of Savile. The victims who had come to him with a half-story, and another he met, who’d told a radio station half a story about meeting Sir Jimmy – up to the point where he’d committed a sexual crime – had wanted to confess. Savile himself was always trying to confess to what he was. Leave anyone talking for long enough and they will tell you; you just have to try and see what they’re saying, through all the words.

True, it’s easy to look back and see it as more obvious than it was, but to some people it was obvious. Some people were vocal, and were ignored or dismissed. Some people were overwhelmed by power, which was created by others who enabled the abuser to commit his crimes. It’s those voices you have to listen to, even if they aren’t telling you something you want to hear.

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Posted by on October 3, 2016 in Uncategorized


Very Real Concerns

Today, I, a Guardian journalist who is also very clever, went to the North to see why poor people – who should vote for the pissweak version of Labour that chinstroking liberals like me think is just socialist enough without being frighteningly radical – are turning to Ukip and voted Leave.

It turns out it’s Very Real Concerns. Jack, 53, who smokes and smells but whose accent I can kind of understand a bit, is walking through his horrible estate that overlooks chimneys or something, manufacturing decay, whatever. “It’s them fucking blacks and that,” he says, and I nod along. “They’ve gone and taken all the fucking jobs, and the Poles too.”

Everyone I see on Jack’s estate is white. He is white. Everyone I meet is white. But here, they have Very Real Concerns about immigration, which the stupid elitist left-wing Labour party of Jeremy Corbyn and his dickswinging antisemites, has ignored for too long.

“It were when Gordon Brown called that bigot a bigot for being bigoted,” says Jack, and again, I nod along and hmm and hah in the right places. “Fucking Labour, don’t understand anything about working people no more.”

In the social club, which is probably like something out of Phoenix Nights or something, but I’ll just add the detail later, Jack’s friend Mike takes up the thread about why these isolated communities have Very Real Concerns about immigration and feel abandoned by Labour.

“It’s them fucking blacks and that,” he says, and I nod along and sympathise. “Jeremy Corbyn needs to come up here and see the queues of Poles and Romanians down the benefits office.”

Mick, of course, is right. True, I haven’t seen any Poles or Romanians during my time in the North, but they are here, and almost definitely putting pressure on local schools and housing and something else. It’s why people like Mick and Jack will never vote Labour again.

You see, you might think these are racists, but I’ve learned something different, because I’m cleverer than you. These people are a world away from your pampered north London existence of artisan breads and some sort of generic peasant foodstuff that I’ll make out to be a marker of upper-middle-class elitism. These people are Labour’s heart, and they are dying away because we are not listening to them.

“I’ve never fucking voted Labour anyway,” says Mick, over a pint, probably some beer or something. “BNP every time for me, fucking blacks and Asians.” And I nod and tell him I’ll edit that bit out because it’s kind of ruined the thread a bit for me.

What do these brave ruddy-cheeked working men feel about Europe, I wonder? “Fucking Europe,” says Jack. “Fucking blacks and Asians coming over here,” he adds. And I nod and can only feel sympathy for these abandoned communities.

On the train home to the correct and proper place where I live, which happens to be north London, but from which I distance myself in order to pretend that north London is actually where all those elitists, of whom I am not one, live, I reflect on what I’ve learned. People in the North might seem to be racist, but that would be to misunderstand what these brave, salt-of-the-earth Labour heartland voters are saying. They are crying out for a Progressive policy against immigration. As Mick said to me, “Send them all fucking back.” And if ever there were a timely condemnation of Jeremy Corbyn’s luvvies and their purity politics, that was it.

Whether Labour ever listens is another matter.

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Posted by on September 23, 2016 in Uncategorized



I remember after the last Olympics, people wondered aloud whether the running, jumping, cycling and everything would inspire a nation to get off its collective flabby arse and do some exercise. The answer was, predictably, no. This time, we’re wondering again. And the answer will be no again. And people will wonder why.

Well, as someone who bucked the trend and managed to get off the settee and do some exercise and lose some weight – a little over five stone since 2012, since you were wondering – I think I can tell you some of the reasons why it doesn’t just happen.

There’s two bits of Parklife by Blur that are revelant. The first is Phil Daniels’s cockney geezer character insulting some fat bloke. “Who’s that gutlord marching? You should cut down on your pork life mate, get some exercise!” The second comes later, when he says, “And it’s not about you joggers, who go round and round…” – all right, it’s just a silly song and there are probably better examples. But it highlights an attitude I’ve seen and heard a lot: first, take the piss out of people who are fat (and assume they don’t do exercise); second, take the piss out of people doing exercise.

Which leads me to this point: you must always take the piss out of fat people doing exercise. Like it’s the most fucking hilarious thing you’ve ever seen in your entire life. Go to a non-league football match and hear the jovial taunts aimed at the guy in the tightest-fitting shirt. Who’s actually playing football while other people are standing around doing nothing. Whatever else happens, you must make them suffer – for being fat in the first place, then for daring to be active at all rather than gluttonously stuffing pies down their face.

When you’re really fat you avoid things like mirrors and going out in public. It’s bad enough blubbering around in your own house, squeezing into your own ill-fitting clothes and feeling awful about the way you look and feel, without having to endure the cavalcade of taunts you’re likely to face from the general public. (At this point I should emphasise that I understand it’s much, much worse for women than men, but I can only speak from my own experience.) Then, when you actually try to do something about it, when you try to do some exercise, the jeers get louder. Your humiliation is worse. You either have to try and find a gym or swimming pool, and notice the chortles and sneers from the impossibly athletic, young staff watching you in less clothing than you’d ideally want to be wearing; or you have to go outside, among real people.

I used to live by the seaside, so I’d run along the beach. It was quite nice to get out there in the fresh air and try to exercise, but in the end I gave up, because, even with sunglasses on and a hat, wearing as baggy clothes as I could find to hide my figure, even with music playing as loudly as possible into my ears, I could still hear the shouts – people really do shout at you, so you don’t miss it – and see the gestures.

Cut down on your porklife, mate. Get some exercise! But not near me or I’ll take the piss out of you. Laugh at fatty. Now, I’ve been pretty overweight most of my life and I see the obvious amusement I provide you with. Yes, I wobble and I wear slightly larger clothes. I know, you’re already chortling. Funny. Marvellous.

It’s all about shame. Shame at these bloated corpses, these wobbly bodies, for daring to be in the same space as you. They don’t belong to people. You notice this when you see the decapitated, bloated midriffs, dehumanised of the person owning them, on the news, whenever obesity is discussed. It’s all about reducing the person to their body. Their big body.

Why doesn’t the Olympics inspire a generation? Because it shows you these supreme athletes at their peak, where anything other than absolute success is failure – even silver medallists feel they haven’t achieved something they should have done, and see it as a disaster. They’re doing things you can’t even imagine contemplating, and they’re still getting slagged off and feeling bad about themselves.

It wasn’t the Olympics that inspired me; it was just needing to be healthy. It certainly wasn’t a patronising “kick up the arse” lecture from my GP that made me change (although of course, as I’ve said before, people really do believe that’s the best way to get me to do something). It was just wanting to have the energy to look after my daughter, and the desire to want to be around for a bit longer, or at least to try.

So I started with tiny goals. Can I walk for half an hour? Can I walk for an hour? Can I walk a kilometre in ten minutes? It’s hard and then you try and try and get there. And you do it as much as you can. When you’re walking, people don’t really detect that you’re exercising, so you can get away with it. You can hide a little. Then, one day, I tried running as long as I could. I tried running a mile, because a mile seemed interesting. A mile in ten minutes? That came months later. Now I can run four, five kilometres. And there’s more to come. More to do. And I’m finally at the stage where I can say fuck you to passer-by abusers, because they don’t know where I’ve come from or what I’ve done, and sure, it’s my fault I got out of shape, but it’s in my power to do something about it, not for them, but for me.

The Olympics won’t ever inspire anyone, except those who have the confidence to be out there already – and good for them. But until we get it out of our culture that it’s acceptable to laugh at fatty, not much is going to change. Shaming and abusing won’t do anything. It just causes hurt, and makes it worse. So if you see a fat person running, or walking fast, or in your gym, the best thing you can do is leave them the fuck alone to get on with it, because it’s an achievement for them just to be there.

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Posted by on August 22, 2016 in Uncategorized