Which of us who grew up in the thrall of Paul Daniels’ magic, under the spell of his Saturday-night humour and charm, could have imagined he would spend his latter years as a kind of sexual outlaw? Not many of us, I would wager. But that’s what happened.
When, in 2012, he bravely criticised the hysteria over the sexual behaviour of 1970s light entertainers, Daniels went from being viewed as a sweet, ageing refugee from the era of old-fashioned entertainment to being treated as a kind of magician version of the Marquis de Sade. One of the classiest purveyors of light-hearted, family-oriented TV culture in the late 20th century became positively countercultural in the 21st. It was his greatest magic trick, and I’m sure I’m not the only person who loved him for it.
Daniels’ daring moment came in December 2012, when he wrote a blog post asking awkward questions about the Savile scandal and the growing hunt for perverts of the 1970s. A few journalists may recently have started to wonder out loud if the whispers about paedophile rackets in parliament and rampant abuse by every DJ and comedian of the 1970s haven’t become a little unhinged. But Daniels beat them to this punch by a few years.
He said he had no doubt Savile was a ‘bad guy’ but he wondered if all his accused are ‘for real’. ‘Life back then was a blur, and therein lies a major problem with what is going on now’, he said. ‘It was 35-40 years ago. How the hell can you say you did or you didn’t? Anyone can come along and claim to have been ‘abused’ by anyone they care to name.’
Even worse, in the eyes of his stinging critics, Daniels admitted to having had a pretty wild life ‘back then’, when light entertainers often found themselves at parties, with young women, everyone a bit boozed-up. ‘Did I have such a life? Yes. I would be lying if I said I didn’t. Were they all over 16? OMG, I hope so. Can I remember them? No.’
At the height of the Savile scandal, it took real guts to say something like that – to admit that the 1970s were indeed a blurry mess of drink and sex and dodgy but hopefully not criminal goings-on, and that you were sometimes in the middle of it. Those of us who had long admired Daniels’ instinct for entertainment could now also admire his willingness to stick his neck out on the touchiest of subjects – to say what he feels to be true regardless of the likely blowback.
And the blowback was pretty severe. He was a ‘disgrace’, according to anti-child abuse campaigners. Twitter wondered if he too was a pervert. He took his blog post down in response to the hysteria.
And there you have it: a man who embodied the harmless, wholesome entertainment of Saturday night TV in the 1980s had come to be viewed as a sexual disgrace, an ill-speaking danger, in the 2010s. This told us something important about Daniels: that he was willing to sacrifice his popularity in the name of speaking his deeply felt truth, a trait all too lacking in these cautious, self-censoring times. And it tells us something important about 21st-century Britain, too: that we have become so wound up about alleged sex crimes of the past, so fearful of sex in general, so concerned about male misbehaviour and female victimhood, that even the diminutive, charming master of magic Paul Daniels can strike us as a scary sexual being.