'A CT scan showed a brain tumour and there was nothing they could do. The doctors said Paul had two months to live... he died four weeks later'
As Debbie McGee prepares to open the Belfast Telegraph's Holiday World show next week she tells Leona O'Neill of her Northern Ireland roots, her long marriage to magician Paul Daniels and her own cancer scare
Debbie McGee was one half of one of the most famous magical duos the world ever produced. Indeed the 'lovely Debbie McGee' as she was known was magically 'sawn' in half by her husband Paul Daniels on stage many times.
She says the magic died the day 77-year-old Paul, her husband of 28 years, passed away in 2016 from an aggressive brain tumour that took his life in just four weeks.
The 61-year-old, who lives in Berkshire, says, four years on, she is finally beginning to find her sparkle again after his loss and is looking forward to coming to Northern Ireland later this month to launch the Belfast Telegraph's Holiday World Show. Her dad was born in Londonderry, so she says Northern Ireland "feels like home".
"I grew up in Surrey," she says. "My dad Patrick McGee was from Stroke City - Derry or Londonderry. So I have big ties with Northern Ireland and I still have cousins and three aunts who live there. I have three cousins and an aunt in Belfast and the others are still in the area my dad was brought up in.
"Our childhood was lovely. It was a very secure, Irish upbringing in that dad was very much about the family unit. They were very supportive, my mum and dad, and very loving. Dad was very wise and had lots of common sense. So I had a really, really happy, secure childhood.
"Dad had been brought up on Roulston Avenue in the Waterside area of Derry. We used to go over all the time. I went back about 18 months ago. I was doing something for The One Show and we contacted the people who own the house. I went back and had a look, and it was fantastic.
"My dad left Northern Ireland when he was 18 years old and went to stay with an aunt who lived in Richmond in Surrey. He came over to look for work and met my mum, Babs, so, of course, he never went back.
"We would have visited Northern Ireland a lot to visit family when I was growing up. I do remember about the Troubles.
"We weren't ever caught up in anything that I know of but in those days there were soldiers everywhere and it wasn't the normal life that I was used to in England. I remember it very vividly, people talking about a bomb that had gone off or someone they knew who'd been killed.
"As a youngster it was quite a big thing."
While other kids her age holidayed in Blackpool, the McGees came 'home' for summers and holidayed in Portrush and Buncrana in Co Donegal. She says the Troubles, which would have been raging at the time, didn't faze them.
"When you are a kid I don't think you realise that there might be danger involved," she says. "And because we were going over to see my grandparents, we always stayed with them, I never ever felt unsafe and still don't. I wasn't really aware of it in that way. There were soldiers around and things I hadn't seen before and there were borders. You could travel anywhere in England and you would never see a border that you had to get through. But I remember that in Northern Ireland.
"I don't remember feeling unsafe at all. I think my parents probably kept a lot of the stuff they knew from us as we were only children. I remember vividly the trips on the overnight ferry to Ireland. The excitement at walking across the gangplank and seeing the water below and seeing what I thought, as a little girl, was this huge ship. We would be sailing at midnight and we had cabins. That is such a vivid memory for me of happy times going to Ireland.
"We would go out to Portrush and Buncrana for the day and go back to my grandparents' house and I don't remember the Troubles as being something to be frightened of. I remember once being left with my aunt in Belfast and staying with her for a time - it was lovely. I still go back now and visit them all."
As a teenager, Debbie found herself caught up in a different type of troubles, the start of the Iranian revolution, escaping the country just minutes before the airport was shut down.
"I won a place at the Royal Ballet School," she says. "I just wanted to go into showbusiness. I was addicted to reading autobiographies of people in showbusiness, and watching movies and going to the theatre. I loved entertaining. And after graduating, I joined the Iranian National Ballet Company in Tehran. But it was all brought to a halt by the Iranian Revolution breaking out. I got out just in time, but I went through some things beforehand. We were all - all the European people in the company - hidden in an apartment block for about three weeks. The boys used to go out at 7am each day and get what food they could and we ate what we could. We had this Swiss boy who was brilliant at making good food out of nothing. And really he kept us all going.
"I had always been a saver and I had saved a lot of money. And then I tried to leave, to get the last flight out of Tehran Airport before they closed it - but when I got to the airport they had scribbled something on my visa so they wouldn't let me on the plane because they thought that I had done that. I fluttered my eyelashes at some young customs guy and he stamped my passport and I ran across the tarmac with one of my friends and we got on the plane just before the door closed."
Debbie found herself back in England auditioning for summer shows. From thousands of girls she was picked to work alongside a performer she had never heard of - Paul Daniels - and the rest is history.
"I had no idea who Paul Daniels was," she says. "He had become famous while I was living in Iran. I auditioned for a summer show and got through. They put us in little groups and I was with Paul Daniels. I had no idea what he did or looked like. I thought he might be a comedian. I asked my parents and they said he was a magician. I hated magic and thought 'oh my god, I have to work with a magician for four months'.
"I remember being in my friend's house and her kids called me in to see him on Blankety Blank. He ripped his shirt open and he had a Superman T-shirt on, and had red pants over his trousers. That was the first time I saw him. I thought he was really funny."
She says it was love, and indeed magic, at first sight. "Our first meeting was about the fourth day of rehearsals," she recalls. "I was first to arrive at the church hall we were rehearsing in and I was sitting on the wall outside and Paul walked up with a box with all his tricks in it. We joked with each other and there was immediate chemistry, but because I was 20 years younger than him he really kept me at bay for a long time. Nine years later we got married. But we always had this amazing chemistry."
The couple had an amazing - some would say rather 'magical' - life together.
"We were married for two weeks short of 28 years and I had worked with him for 38 years when he died," she says. "It was a long time and a great life. It wasn't your normal run-of-the-mill life. Our show was really, really popular. We would get 12 and 15 million viewers tuning in for our Saturday night show and the same on Mondays. I forget how big it really was. It was huge.
"We worked around the world. We were guests of Prince Rainier of Monaco, we had a PA and at breakfast every morning we signed about 1,000 autographs and we lived in a huge house that had once belonged to Roger Moore. We were both from working class backgrounds and when you don't come from money this was proof that you had worked hard. But we were always down to earth. I always collected my own dry cleaning. We didn't forget our roots and we were both very, very family minded. We were never people who let fame go to our heads. Because we knew nothing ever lasted forever."
Given that their age gap was considerable this led to many in the media unfairly branding Debbie a 'gold digger'. Talk show host Caroline Ahern, Mrs Merton (below), once famously asked Debbie: "What first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?"
"Paul really was an amazing man," Debbie says. "He was so charismatic and so caring and very, very unselfish.
"We were married for 28 years. Those names they said never, ever bothered me. People who knew us, or people who met us, could see this incredible bond Paul and I had. I always used to think, I am so glad I don't have to be a journalist and write rubbish about people. A lot of journalists who interviewed me in those days, I used to feel sorry for them. Because most of them had very unhappy love lives or didn't have a partner and here I was who had met the guy of my dreams.
"Marriage takes work, but our marriage just got better and better. Paul used to tell people that all the time. We grew closer and closer all the time and I think we were lucky that we both had parents who had very strong marriages. My mum and dad had a fairytale marriage. They were still holding hands and cuddling on the sofa in their 80s.
"I was really happy with Paul. He made me laugh every day. He spoilt me.
"Yes, there were times when it was hard, but most of my memories are lovely ones. We just laughed together and looked after each other."
Debbie says the cancer that "took his sparkle" came out of the blue. He died four weeks after being diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumour.
“He died on St Patrick’s Day,” she says. “Looking back, which is very easy with hindsight, I think he was showing signs of something from November. He was getting much more tired. He normally had barrels of energy.
“In late November I was going out to lots of Christmas dinners and events that he would normally come with me to. He would tell me to go on, that he didn’t really feel like it. And that wasn’t really him. I thought that we had been on tour all year and he was conserving his energy for the panto season.
“The only thing that I noticed at first was that he struggled learning his lines for panto. He had such a vast brain and he learnt everything so quickly. I think that over the time in the panto he had somehow lost his sparkle, that is the only way I can describe it. And he was much more tired than I’d ever known.”
Debbie adds: “I got him checked with the GP and there were a few tests done and he was diagnosed with anaemia. He was started on injections to help this, but he wasn’t getting any better.
“On February 12 I took him to A&E because he had woken up really confused. I thought it wasn’t right so I took him to hospital.
“They sent him for a CT scan and that showed a tumour. They said that it was so big there really wasn’t anything they could do.
“It was horrific news to get. They told me that he probably had about two months to live. They asked me if I wanted him to go into a hospice. I somehow got strength from somewhere and I said that I wanted to take him home. He loved our home. He could look out at the river.
“I must have put a mask on, because I just thought, whatever time he has got left I want it to be the best it can possibly be.
“I got him home and all through February — he lived for a month — there were some sunny days.
“We were able to have a walk around the garden, sit on the patio. He loved Magnum ice creams. Every afternoon he had one of those. And the family all got to see him,” Debbie adds.
He knew was dying but he wasn’t able to say anything about it, because by then the tumour was pressing on the part of the brain that was processing new information. I remember we were watching The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel one evening and there were tears streaming down his face, and I think he knew what was going on.”
Paul’s death had a huge impact on Debbie’s life, coming just a year after her beloved father Patrick also passed away from cancer.
“I was just in shock when he died,” she says. “I felt like somebody had thrown me in the ocean and I didn’t know which way to swim. I felt like my body was made of egg shells. You just feel weak in a funny sort of a way. I just got up and got dressed, but nothing meant anything. I couldn’t really have been bothered. I got back to work quite quickly and that really was my saviour, along with my family and friends.
“And now I’m really just finding a way to live my life without him, and being happy without him but with these wonderful memories and that is all you can do.”
Debbie says she has never been able to face doing magic after Paul’s death, but that she has not stopped working.
She became the nation’s favourite on Strictly Come Dancing in 2017 and has not been off our screens in recent years, starring in shows such as the BBC One gameshow Would I Lie To You? and ITV’s Loose Women.
She had her own brush with cancer last year, a time she says was “terrifying”.
“Last January I went for a regular mammogram and they picked up a lump,” Debbie says.
“They picked it up very, very early so it hadn’t gone into full-blown breast cancer. They took two lumps away. It was frightening. It made me think that I needed to look after myself. Since losing Paul I had worked a lot and got really tired sometimes and was probably pushing myself a bit too far. I made me think what I wanted out of life now, what would make me happy.”
Debbie says she is greatly looking forward to coming to Belfast for the Belfast Telegraph Holiday World Show.
“Northern Ireland feels like a second home to me,” she says. “I love coming over. I just adore my Irish family there, I am so close to them. I feel that it’s all a part of me, now even more so since losing my dad. But I always did. I love Ireland and the people are so special.”
Northern Ireland’s favourite annual celebration of travel and tourism will be held in the Titanic Exhibition Centre from January 17-19. Find out more at www.holidayworldshow.com or follow the event on Facebook