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
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