Debbie McGee tells Steve Pratt that she feared the magic had gone out of the festive season, following the death of husband Paul Daniels, until a North Yorkshire pantomime came along

DEBBIE McGee wasn't looking forward to Christmas, her first since magician husband Paul Daniels died. The offer of pantomime in York at the Grand Opera House, where they made their panto debut as a couple, is helping her through this difficult time.

Middlesbrough-born Daniels died in March less than a month after being diagnosed with a brain tumour. He and "the lovely Debbie McGee", as she became known as the assistant in his magic act on stage and TV, had been married nearly 30 years.

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"Everyone says when somebody dies it's the first of everything which is difficult and it's so true, and Paul and I were really big Christmas people. I got through our wedding anniversary, through his birthday and my birthday, but Christmas was the big one. We both really loved Christmas," she explains during a break in rehearsals for Aladdin, in which she plays the Genie of the Ring.

When the role was offered and she heard it was in York, she said yes immediately because she has family living in the city and is staying with them during the run. Her sister and family who live in the south are coming up to stay over the Christmas period.

"Because this is my first without Paul I was really dreading Christmas. When I was offered the panto it ticked so many boxes for me and has been so helpful," she explains.

"Now I'm really looking forward to Christmas and I really wasn't. I was thinking what shall I do, where shall I be? So it's just been fantastic for me and I love York so much. It's wonderful that I'm here.

"I'm spending Christmas Day somewhere I hadn't been with Paul. When we did panto in 1995 we rented a flat by the river and we spent Christmas Day on our own. This year we're having a family dinner in a hotel. So it's all fallen into place for me."

Keeping busy is helping her deal with his death. She went straight back to presenting her BBC Radio Berkshire show and hasn't stopped working since, guesting on shows including Loose Women, Pointless Celebrities and Who Does The Dishes. She's also recorded a documentary for Channel 5 for screening in February, but which she's not allowed to name, saying only "I think that's going to be really good and that was with some other actors."

"At the moment the phone doesn't stop ringing, which is great and I'm considering everything, And if the phone stops ringing I want to get into some more after-dinner speaking. I haven't had to look at the moment, it's just been there".

What some people don't realise is that after training at the Royal Ballet School she had a successful career in classical ballet, modern dance, cabaret, theatre, TV and films before becoming known as Paul's assistant "the lovely Debbie McGee". She continued to do other things, such as presenting and corporate events, in her own right while they were together.

She introduced Paul to performing in panto. For many years they had a family Christmas after recording their BBC-TV Christmas special in early December. The couple first worked together in panto in York, in 1995. "I'd always said to Paul he'd love it and then someone pulled out and our agent rang to say they'd asked if we'd both like to step in. I said to Paul this is your chance to find out if you do like it. That was his first and he absolutely loved it. After that we didn't do them every year, but we did quite a few."

They didn't always play a couple on stage. "We did a Dick Whittington where he played my father and I was Maid Marian, but because of our real relationship and people knowing it there would be jokes. Also I laugh easily and Paul only needed to look at me and I'd go. So if our parts weren't related there were nice moments on stage always."

No wonder she says her York Genie will be "a giggly one". She has scenes with Paul Sinha, alias The Sinnerman from ITV's quiz show The Chaser, in his panto debut

Debbie, who ran her own classical dance company in the early 2000s, has a dance number with the babes in Aladdin. "I haven't danced in a company for 30 years, but I'm still quite fit and am picking it up. The years I've done panto I've always enjoyed it because I get to sing and dance.

"I trained at the Royal Ballet School, but went to a very good all round dancing school before that so I could always do everything. I won the British tap dancing championship and all sorts when I was younger. Dance was my first love, but because I was always so busy with Paul I couldn't run two careers and that's why I gave up."

Paul, of course, was a legend in the world of magic and Debbie, herself a member of the Inner Magic Circle, has a few Genie-related magic moments in the York show, but doesn't feel the time is right for her to do a magic act. "At the moment I feel that's the area I get emotional because I can't think magic without thinking Paul. I don't know how I'll feel in another six months," she says.

"Magicians from around the world have been in touch regularly. They all called Paul the Godfather and are having a tribute night to Paul in the New Year. So I'll always have that link to magic, but whether I'll do it myself is another thing."

  • Aladdin also features Hear'Say singer and Dancing On Ice winner Suzanne Shaw, former Emmerdale actors Fraser Hines and Stuart Wade (who also directs) and Carl Tracey from Nick Jr's Go!Go!Go!. Runs until January 1. Box Office: 0844-8713024 or atgtickets.com/york