Paul Daniels remembers his best teacher, "Little" Billy Pearson
Paul Daniels speaking. Well, what’s left of him. I’m just heading into Ipswich where I’m doing panto. You’re calling about my best teacher, right? Well that would be Little Billy Pearson. I went to a grammar school in Redcar called Sir William Turner’s. I was the only boy in my town who passed the scholarship to go to this ancient, ancient school back in…Oh when was it now? Oh lordy, lordy, lordy. It was 65 years ago.
The school was extremely strict. Prefects were allowed to whack you on the backside with plimsolls – I was an angelic little child so it rarely happened to me [chuckles] – but Little Billy Pearson was quite a kindly teacher. A rarity.
I’m, sorry if I sound sidetracked, I’m just watching my wife drive and – oh dear, she’s just given me “the look”. Yes, yes it’s the lovely Debbie McGee. Debbie, TES, say hello. [Debbie shouts hello.] I’m not sure if you heard that. It’s a very big car.
When this little wee fella came into the classroom on Day 1, we all stood, as you did in all-boys grammar schools back then. He put his feet on his desk – he was the only teacher that ever did that – and he said: “I’m Billy. Known to you all from here on in as Little Billy Pearson. I teach mathematics. That’s my job. Your job is to learn mathematics.”
You could tell he was very popular because at the end of every year, the teachers would file down the Great Hall to shake hands with the headmaster and then they would – hang on, I’m just looking at where Debbie’s driving now. I’ve got to be careful with my wife. [Debbie: “Erm, excuse me, you’re the one that got us lost!” Paul to Debbie: “How long have we been together?” Answer isn’t audible. Paul laughs. “How the hell has that happened?”]
So, as these teachers came down the middle of the Great Hall, Little Billy Pearson always got by far and away the most applause. He was easily the most loved of all the teachers. Which is saying something, because he was deadly accurate with chalk and blackboard wipers if you’d stepped out of line. He could hit a kid at 50 paces.
But the whole school ran on discipline. I went to one of my son’s schools, and all the teachers were in frayed-bottom jeans and sweatshirts. When did that happen? At William Turner’s, from Day 1, you would be greeted with a wall of cloaked, capped and gowned teachers and you automatically knew that they all knew more than you.
He certainly kept you on your toes, did Little Billy Pearson. In the midst of lessons about algorithms and all of that, he would suddenly whip round, point and yell: “Daniels, square root of 124, NOW!” You dared not relax in the presence of this genius. And it worked! Maths has always been one of my favourite subjects. In fact, one of my very first magical tricks was a “mathemagical” trick – I still do it to this day.
Have I been back to the school? Once. I never joined any of the old boys’ clubs. I’m not really a club kind of a person. I’m very much, you know, me, but I did get an invite back and I accepted. All my old classmates were there and the headmaster, a former military man (told you it was a tough school), was asking us all what we did for a living. One guy was a banker, another was an accountant, the same sort of jobs you know? And he came to me and he said: “Daniels, isn’t it?”
“And what do you do, Daniels?”
“I’m a professional magician,” I said.
And he grabbed me, gave me a hug and right in my ear, he said: “One escaped.”
And I mean this – I really do – I was going to call my autobiography that: “One Escaped”. In the end, I called it Under No Illusion, but that’s a different story.
Anyway, I must go. It’s been an absolute pleasure. Good luck with your career and, as your parents are no doubt always saying: “When are you going to get a real job?”
[Giggles as he hangs up.]
A wizard CV: Paul Daniels
Born 6 April 1938, Middlesbrough
Education Sir William Turner’s Grammar School, Coatham, Redcar, North Yorkshire
Career Magician, entertainer and national treasure. Starred alongside wife Debbie McGee in The Paul Daniels Magic Show, which aired on BBC One from 1979 until 1994 and Wizbit in the 1980s
Paul Daniels was speaking to Tom Cullen. Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee: the Intimate Magic Tour comes to Leicester on 18 February, as part of Dave’s Leicester Comedy Festival, 3-21 February (comedy-festival.co.uk)