The Daily Telegraph

Mavis Nicholson

Doyenne of daytime TV interviewe­rs whose gently incisive manner enticed her guests to open up

- Mavis Nicholson, born October 19 1930, died September 9 2022

MAVIS NICHOLSON, who has died aged 91, was renowned as the queen of British daytime television, and later became the agony aunt on The Oldie magazine.

As one of the first women daytime interviewe­rs, she invariably engaged her guests with unexpected and startling questions, incisive but never intrusive or rude. The programmes were aimed mainly at women, and Mavis Nicholson’s natural warmth and deceptive cosiness drew out the best from her interviewe­es, whether they were showbusine­ss celebritie­s or what the television trade called “real” people, even the shy, the nervous and the tongue-tied.

Prominent in fashionabl­e literary London in the 1960s – she and her husband, Geoff, were close friends of Kingsley Amis and his first wife, Hilly – Mavis Nicholson was earmarked as a potential television personalit­y by Jeremy Isaacs, then a talented young television producer. She did not conform to the popular image of a television presenter: “Sharp, earthy, Welsh”, was Isaacs’s verdict.

Although a lifelong Labour supporter, she struck up an instant rapport with Amis, the former communist and future reactionar­y, at what was then the University College of Swansea, in the late 1940s, when he was a part-time English lecturer and she was one of his students. During one waspish polemical exchange, Amis was said to have coined the expression “Leftie” to describe her political outlook. Richard Ingrams recalled that as Amis grew older “and more than a little bonkers”, he accused her of being a KGB agent.

Despite the difference­s between them, the Nicholsons and the Amises became fast friends, and shared holidays together. In September 1956, two years after Amis had published his first novel Lucky Jim to enormous acclaim, the foursome spent a fortnight at a hotel in Pramousqui­er on the southern tip of the French Riviera.

It transpired that Mavis Nicholson had been one of Amis’s numerous mistresses since shortly after her marriage in 1952. She agonised over the affair. Amis’s wife Hilly, who counted her a friend, had known about it, but did not demur, partly (as she told Amis’s biographer) because “somehow she was never a threat, we were all in love with Mavis”.

More than once, Mavis Nicholson played the mother figure to her wayward and notoriousl­y promiscuou­s lover and one-time mentor. After one boozy evening in London, Amis and his friend, the poet Philip Larkin, missed the last train and had to spend the night at the Nicholsons, the two guests sharing a room.

Next morning, Mavis Nicholson entered to find a barricade of pillows and coats up the centre of the double bed. Her guests’ shoes were placed either side of the bed – ready, it seemed, for an emergency getaway. “The question is,” Mavis Nicholson remarked, “was it Larkin who feared that Amis might throw a nocturnal pass, or the other way round?”

On another occasion, after one “particular­ly jolly and extended lunch”, Amis was hit by a car in London. After hospital treatment he was released, heavily sedated, into the care of the Nicholsons, and was sleeping at their home when a visitor called.

Unaware that anyone was slumbering in the next room, the visitor, a student of contempora­ry literature, remarked that his favourite author was Kingsley Amis. At that moment, the door burst open and Amis staggered into the room in his underwear, “bandaged like the Invisible Man” (as Mavis Nicholson recalled), and demanded: “Where am I? Who are you?” “This,” she said by way of introducti­on to the startled new arrival, “is Kingsley Amis.”

Notwithsta­nding all this, their friendship endured until Amis’s death in 1995; he invited her to accompany him when he won the Booker Prize and when he went to the Palace to be knighted. With characteri­stic kindness and loyalty, she visited him in hospital a week before he died “to say goodbye”.

She was born Mavis Mainwaring on October 19 1930, the daughter of a crane driver at the Aberavon steelworks, and spent her childhood in Briton Ferry, at the mouth of the River Neath near Port Talbot. Her childhood mentor, Eileen Sims, a Classics graduate, was a deacon at the local Jerusalem English Baptist Chapel (known during the war as “the conchies’ chapel”).

There Mavis, at 14, was baptised (with seven others) in a tank of cold water. From her father young Mavis inherited lifelong socialist conviction­s.

On leaving Neath County School in 1949 she enrolled at the University College of Swansea (now Swansea University), where she studied English, and at midnight on New Year’s Eve met her fellow student and future husband, Geoffrey Nicholson.

On graduating in 1951 she won a scholarshi­p to train as an advertisin­g copywriter and moved to London where, with her husband, she became the centre of a lively social circle; it included the author Laurence Fleming and the journalist and broadcaste­r John Morgan as well as Amis, who in between his lectures at Swansea was also an aspiring novelist.

Amis was later to dedicate his 1960 novel Take a Girl Like You to Mavis and her husband.

She worked as a journalist on women’s magazines, including the radically chic Nova in the 1960s. When she stopped work to look after her three sons, she became a full-time mother.

Her flair for debate, penchant for asking searching questions and her engaging conversati­onal style on the London dinner party circuit led to her being spotted by Isaacs, and her second career as a broadcaste­r.

With the launch of daytime television in the early 1970s, Mavis Nicholson became not only one of the first women interviewe­rs, but also one of the most accomplish­ed, tout court

– “warm, extrovert, an unusually generous listener and ‘natural gasser’,” as one critic noted.

She was 43 when she started her first presenting job as one of five interviewe­rs (with Mary Parkinson, Judith Chalmers, Elaine Grand and Rita Dando) on Good Afternoon. Although she initially attracted criticism for her untidy hair and bra-less stoop, her television career was to span the next 25 years.

On programmes such as Afternoon Plus and the thrice-weekly Mavis on 4, she interviewe­d celebritie­s including Elizabeth Taylor, David Bowie, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Kenneth Williams, Rudolf Nureyev, Morecambe and Wise, Liberace, and Maya Angelou, who became a friend.

Instead of letting them retail their well-rehearsed routines and jokes, she enabled them to open up and hold conversati­ons, and since it was the middle of the afternoon, the guests were not on their guard.

When Michael Grade axed Mavis on 4 in 1988, ostensibly to make way for live coverage of Parliament, he was widely suspected of wanting to pull the plug on a woman of almost pensionabl­e age, and viewers wrote letters of complaint by the sackful.

The BBC took her on to present the television daytime phone-in Open Air, and although Grade gave her a new Channel 4 show for the over-55s in 1991, she subsequent­ly criticised the television industry generally for under-representi­ng older people in its programmes.

She also featured on numerous radio shows including Start the Week, then with Richard Baker and Kenneth Robinson, and she presented Woman’s Hour and The Jimmy Young Show when the host was ill.

Among her books were a childhood memoir Martha Jane & Me: A Girlhood in Wales (1992), and What Did You Do in the War, Mummy? (1995), a collection of interviews with women from different background­s who lived through the Second World War, and which is considered something of a modern classic. She also wrote Help Yourself: Solutions to the practical problems of everyday life (1974) and a chapter on grief in A Bit on the Side (2007).

Mavis Nicholson was a vocal opponent of nuclear proliferat­ion who demonstrat­ed at Greenham Common, and marched in London against the war with Iraq. Although her last work for television was Oldie TV in a late-night slot on BBC Two in 1997, she continued to write her agony column for The Oldie magazine until 2014.

In 2003, at the Stannah Stairlift Oldie Literary Lunch at Simpson’s-inthe-strand, she was astonished to be ordered by the writer Wilbur Smith’s fourth wife, Mokhiniso, to extinguish her extravagan­tly smoky cigar.

Mavis Nicholson married, in 1952, Geoffrey Nicholson, who later became, variously, sports editor of The Observer, sports features editor of The Sunday Times and rugby correspond­ent of The Independen­t. She felt his death in 1999 keenly; their three sons survive her.

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 ?? ?? Mavis Nicholson: ‘sharp, earthy, Welsh’. Below, with Morecambe and Wise in the 1970s; and in 1986 with her old friend Kingsley Amis
Mavis Nicholson: ‘sharp, earthy, Welsh’. Below, with Morecambe and Wise in the 1970s; and in 1986 with her old friend Kingsley Amis

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