How Mavis Ni­chol­son ba­came a chat show pioneer

She was the first fe­male chat show host and is viewed by many as its great­est ex­po­nent. Ahead of re­ceiv­ing a BAFTA Cymru Spe­cial Award this week­end, she tells David Owens about her ex­tra­or­di­nary life in tele­vi­sion

Western Mail - - WM2 - ■ The 2018 Bri­tish Academy Cymru Awards will be held at St David’s Hall in Cardiff to­mor­row. Find out more at: wales ■ See to­day’s Magazine for our in­ter­view with Bafta Cymru nom­i­nee Eve Myles

I’M watch­ing a YouTube video of David Bowie be­ing in­ter­viewed on Bri­tish tele­vi­sion in 1979. His eyes, dif­fer­ently coloured, are twin­kling. He’s open, hon­est and dis­arm­ingly can­did. It’s like eaves­drop­ping on the most in­ti­mate con­ver­sa­tions of two peo­ple who have known each other all their lives.

Both are ev­i­dently cap­ti­vated with each other.

The in­ter­viewer is a mid­dle-aged woman from Bri­ton Ferry and is con­duct­ing what is rightly viewed as one of the best TV in­ter­views ever recorded with the singer.

Sat op­po­site the Thin White Duke is Mavis Ni­chol­son – known to many as the UK’s first fe­male chat show host.

Through­out the ’70s to the ’90s, the pre­sen­ter and broad­caster in­ter­viewed some of the big­gest names on the planet. They in­cluded David Bowie, Mar­garet Thatcher, El­iz­a­beth Tay­lor, Lau­ren Ba­call, Nina Si­mone, Ken­neth Wil­liams, Bette Davis, Pe­ter Cook and Dud­ley Moore.

To­mor­row, Ni­chol­son – who cel­e­brates her 88th birth­day on Oc­to­ber 19 – will be awarded the BAFTA Cymru Spe­cial Award for Out­stand­ing Con­tri­bu­tion to Tele­vi­sion at the 2018 Bri­tish Academy Cymru Awards at St David’s Hall in Cardiff.

“I was ab­so­lutely flab­ber­gasted. Then I thought ‘be confident girl’ and say ‘how won­der­ful it’s about time’,” she laughs, speak­ing about her award on the phone from her home in Llan­rhaeadr ym Mochnant in mid Wales.

The broad­caster came late to tele­vi­sion. Her work­ing life orig­i­nally be­gan in Lon­don as a copy­writer, but she stopped work­ing when she had her chil­dren – three sons Steve, Lewis and Harry.

Un­con­ven­tion­ally, her sec­ond ca­reer as a broad­caster be­gan aged 40 when, be­cause of her prob­ing and en­gag­ing con­ver­sa­tional style at the din­ner ta­ble, she was asked by Thames Tele­vi­sion to host a pro­gramme on newly-launched day­time tele­vi­sion.

The then Con­troller of Fea­tures for Thames Tele­vi­sion, Jeremy Isaacs, had en­coun­tered Mavis on the din­ner party cir­cuit – where the par­ties she hosted with her hus­band, the late journalist Ge­off Ni­chol­son, were leg­endary. Isaacs was im­pressed with the way this “small charis­matic Welsh woman” could en­gage those around her. See­ing how nat­u­ral she was on the screen sealed the deal.

With­out any back­ground in the in­dus­try Mavis was plunged straight into the strange new world of live day­time tele­vi­sion.

Through that decade her roll-call of in­ter­vie­wees read like a Who’s Who of pop­u­lar cul­ture – More­cambe and Wise, Pe­ter Cook and Dud­ley Moore, Ken­neth Wil­liams, He­len Mir­ren, Lib­er­ace, Kenny Ev­erett, Rudolph Nureyev, Charl­ton He­ston and a baby-faced Elvis Costello, mak­ing his tele­vi­sion de­but.

Ask her if she felt like a trail­blazer at the time and she will modestly tell you: “There weren’t many of us around but I felt confident that we could do a good job. I was very proud of it all. Peo­ple were very sweet about it they said ‘they should have asked you ages ago’.”

De­spite her modesty, there’s no doubt her break­ing through this glass ceil­ing of a male-dom­i­nated TV world, would lay the ground­work for those who would fol­low.

“What ef­fect I re­ally had I can’t tell you,” she says. “I just loved in­ter­view­ing peo­ple and I wasn’t par­tic­u­larly greedy about my ca­reer.

“If any­thing as soon it started to

hap­pen, I took it for granted a bit. I was pleased of course. This sounds a bit cheeky, but I felt it was time I got recog­ni­tion for some­thing that I re­ally loved do­ing.”

Broad­caster and journalist Car­olyn Hitt met Ni­chol­son in 2016 when film­ing the doc­u­men­tary Be­ing Mavis Ni­chol­son: TV’s Great­est In­ter­viewer.

“She has been a hero­ine of mine since my school­days,” said the Western Mail colum­nist and doc­u­men­tary maker.

“I wanted to re­mind peo­ple how great the long-form in­ter­view can be – and cel­e­brate the woman who was ar­guably the best in­ter­viewer in the busi­ness.

“Off sick or home re­vis­ing, Mavis On Four was my af­ter­noon treat. The stu­dio was in­ti­mate and min­i­mal­ist. Two chairs, Vene­tian blinds and, con­sid­er­ing it was a day­time show, weirdly late-night light­ing.

“But it was the con­tent that mat­tered not the style. Against this sim­ple back­drop, con­ver­sa­tions of nu­ance, depth and in­sight un­folded.

“The re­lent­less cu­rios­ity is per­haps pe­cu­liar to a cer­tain kind of Welsh work­ing-class up­bring­ing.

“Bette Davis, Kirk Dou­glas, Lau­ren Ba­call, it didn’t mat­ter how ma­jor the celebrity and how many times they had played the in­ter­view game be­fore, Mavis got some­thing from them that no-else could,” she adds.

“The alchemy of her in­ter­views was part jour­nal­ism, part psy­chother­apy plus the re­lent­less cu­rios­ity which is per­haps pe­cu­liar to a cer­tain kind of Welsh work­ing-class up­bring­ing.

“Any­one who, like Mavis, grew up in a house­hold where strong women con­stantly chat­ted, gos­siped and de­bated will recog­nise it.”

Ni­chol­son says that her nat­u­ral in­quis­i­tive­ness has al­ways been a part of her char­ac­ter. Ac­cord­ing to the broad­caster, and agree­ment with Hitt, it can be traced all the way back to her Welsh child­hood.

“My mother said to me around the time when I was on telly – she said ‘do you know what I said to you but you were too young to hear me say it, you’ve got some­thing that makes peo­ple want to talk to you, be­cause when you were out­side in your pushchair and I was rush­ing into the butcher’s, I’d come out and there was at least one per­son talk­ing to you.’ She said I had the kind of face that peo­ple wanted to talk to and that she was never sur­prised that I was a good in­ter­viewer and be­came suc­cess­ful.”

Her mother was ob­vi­ously a huge in­flu­ence on her tal­ented daugh­ter giv­ing her be­lief that she could be any­thing she wanted to be.

“When I was about 10 she asked me what I wanted to be,” she re­calls. “I said maybe a teacher. My mother said ‘You can be any­thing – even a film star.’ There’s no doubt about it, she re­ally gave me my con­fi­dence.”

Ask her what I guessed would be a dif­fi­cult ques­tion – what was her favourite in­ter­view – and she has no hes­i­ta­tion in fir­ing back: “Mar­garet Thatcher, so I could have a good go at her,” she laughs. “We got on like two houses on fire. She’d ob­vi­ously checked on me. She knew my pol­i­tics were not re­motely like hers. That was a bat­tle, a ter­rific bat­tle that was.

“Mostly I’ve al­ways found that peo­ple do like peo­ple be­ing in­ter­ested in them and I can gen­uinely say I’m in­ter­ested in peo­ple. It’s not a put on job at all.”

There’s no bet­ter ex­em­pli­fier than that ter­rific in­ter­view with Bowie, who seems com­pletely im­mersed in the in­ter­view with Ni­chol­son.

For the broad­caster it’s all about trust be­tween in­ter­viewer and in­ter­vie­wee. “For that time you be­come their friend as well as an in­ter­viewer,” she says.

What is strik­ing about Ni­chol­son’s in­ter­views is her warmth and her em­pa­thy. Hers is a self­less ap­proach to in­ter­view­ing, putting the in­ter­vie­wee front and cen­tre. So what makes a good in­ter­viewer I won­dered?

“A nat­u­ral cu­rios­ity, which is not a gos­sipy one,” she says. “It should be sim­ply that you love peo­ple. And I do love peo­ple. I like find­ing out what makes peo­ple tick. If you do that it means that they are ex­press­ing them­selves as well as well.”

It’s sad then that the art of the long-form in­ter­view seems lost amongst the frip­pery of celebrity, the con­trol of PRs and the ego of the chat show host, so does she be­moan what has seem­ingly be­come a lost art – on TV at least?

“I’m sur­prised that it’s got lost be­cause it’s a re­ally lovely form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion,” she says be­fore adding. “If they want to re­new it, I’m per­fectly happy to do it at my age.

“I’m still go­ing strong.”

> Mavis and El­iz­a­beth Tay­lor > Mavis to­day > Mavis and Ste­wart Granger > Mavis and Ru­pert Ev­erett

> Mavis with Vera Lynn > Mavis with Bette Davis in 1987 > Mavis Ni­chol­son with Tom Jones > Mavis with David Bowie

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