Mavis Nicholson Obituary | Television
“Among the prizes that television has given itself lately, there should really be one for the best listener,” said a television critic in 1987. And by all accounts, the person deserving of this honor was Mavis Nicholson, a quick-witted Welshwoman. broadcaster, who by dint of natural talent had forged a prominent career in television that began at the age of 40 and would last more than 25 years.
Nicholson, who died at the age of 91, was for a time the favorite interviewer of critics and stars, and can arguably claim a place in television history as the first solo interviewer with a show. regular on British television.
Nicholson was spotted in 1971 when she appeared on Thames Television’s Today news program, hosted by Eamonn Andrews, criticizing a local council plan to transport immigrant children across London to a school frequented by his sons. “You should be on TV,” Andrews told her, and she replied, “I think I should.” Soon after, Thames executive Jeremy Isaacs asked her to come on air on the condition that she promise not to change.
She joined a weekly afternoon program, Tea Break, with Jill Tweedie, Judith Chalmers, Mary Parkinson and Rita Dando. She remained with her successive shows Good Afternoon and Afternoon Plus. She loved the fact that three million people were watching: The Sunday Telegraph once called her (much to her amusement) a ‘capable veteran’. She was never a hardcore feminist in the Tweedie tradition, but she was one of the key signatories to a 1980 letter opposing a tougher amendment to the 1967 abortion law. Always practical, she said women can’t get very far if men aren’t willing to change their lives too.
She was selected by the new Channel 4, run by Isaacs, as co-anchor of its expansion into afternoon television in 1984, for a bi-weekly current affairs magazine show A Plus 4. This has quickly led to her daytime interview show, Mavis on the 4th, which started with a half-hour slot on Mondays and Wednesdays and went on to win three editions in 1987. “No one can interview people better at the television than Nicholson,” Good Housekeeping said that year.
His skill lay in extracting secrets from interviewees. His 1979 session with David Bowie on Afternoon More, about why he chose to live in (then) difficult places, like Berlin and Japan, and his creation of a character, lives via YouTube. She has interviewed a wide range of people including Elizabeth Taylor, Oliver Tambo, Glenys Kinnock, Billy Bragg, Kenneth Williams, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore and Mary Wesley.
In 1988, when Michael Grade axed Mavis on 4, it caused an uproar: around a thousand letters poured in and Grade was accused of abusing an older woman on television. The BBC broke Nicholson and Grade wrote to The Times denying ageism: “It was the format that showed its age.” She returned to Channel 4 in 1991 to present other series including Third Wave, In With Mavis and Moment of Crisis.
She was born in Briton Ferry near Swansea in the hardscrabble of the 1930s. Her father, Dick Mainwaring, operated a crane in the Port Talbot steelworks, and Mavis shared a bed with her grandmother in a cramped house after his mother, Olive, had twins. She had a happy childhood, with the love and affection of an extended Welsh family. Her mother wanted her to be a teacher. She once said, “I’ll tell you what I had, a good instinct for people.”
At Swansea University she managed to fail her final English exams, losing a degree, but met her future husband, Geoffrey Nicholson: they married in 1952. There, too, they both met the writer Kingsley Amis , then lecturer in English. Department, and his first wife, Hilly. Amis, who shifted to the right politically, remained a close friend of the Nicholsons and is said to have coined the term “lefties” to describe discussions at their table. When he went on to win the Booker Prize for his 1986 novel The Old Devils, he invited Mavis to the celebratory dinner.
Mavis and Geoffrey both won Edward Hulton scholarships to train as copywriters in London after Swansea University. They moved to north London and Geoff became a sports journalist and writer: his last Fleet Street job was at the Independent newspaper as a rugby correspondent in 1986.
They were part of a lively group of friends that included actress Maureen Lipman and journalist Valerie Grove. Mavis had worked from home while raising three sons, Steve, Lewis and Harry, writing for magazines including the stylish Nova, for which she was editor. She used to go there once a week to hand in her copy, back in the pre-internet days, before television suddenly called her.
In the late 1980s, she and Geoff had taken up residence in the Welsh village of Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant, at the foot of the Berwyn Mountains, near the Shropshire border, in a charming farmhouse and converted barn.
Although she continued to host television series and several radio shows, including a return to her childhood, in the 90s she returned to writing. She published an autobiography, Martha Jane and Me: A Girlhood in Wales (1992), and wrote a dying aunt column in Oldie magazine in which she, as the quintessential “people person”, naturally excelled. When Oldie editor Richard Ingrams resigned in 2014 over a dispute with the magazine’s publisher, she followed suit.
In 2016, BBC Wales released a tribute documentary about Nicholson’s life. In June 2018, perky as ever, a veteran of literary festivals, she was a speaker at the launch of the Montgomeryshire Literary Festival in Llanfyllin, Powys, close to you.
Geoff died in 1999. She is survived by their sons and five grandchildren.