Saturday 17 September 2022

Wales made and Britain says "Farewell" to the Grande Dame of Television Celebrity Interviewers, Mavis Nicholson

Page views : 515

Mavis, who has died at the age of ninety-two  from her middle years onwards forged a dazzling career in the male dominated world of TV  interviewers. She was born in the Autumn of 1930 in Briton Ferry, a town and community in the county borough
of Neath, at the industrial mouth of the River Neath near Port Talbot, South Wales. She was the first child of Olive and Dick Mainwaring who drove a crane in the Port Talbot Aberavon Steelworks and it was from him that Mavis inherited her lifelong Socialist convictions. 

Born, before her parents were married, she grew up in the family terraced house in Mansel Street which housed, in addition to her mother and father, two uncles and her grandmother and grandfather. Hers was a happy childhood, with love and affection, surrounded as she was, by this extended Welsh family that helped to forge the future Mavis and explains why she once said : “I’ll tell you what I did have, a great instinct about people”.  

She revealed this closeness of familial relationships when, reflecting on her early years and said : "My mother had twins six years after me and I was the apple of her eye till then and she never told me that she was having babies. I didn't know. And they came home, two babies and me spoilt, and suddenly I had to leave mother and father's bedroom, we were very overcrowded, and sleep in (her grandmother) Martha Jane's bed and I remember the first night I was in that bed, big bed, feather bed and Martha Jane said : "Move over. You've warmed that up nicely for me. You get into the cold bit" (link)

Mavis dreaded her friends finding out about the bed and continued to share it with Matha Jane for another thirteen years, until she left home at the age of eighteen to go to university. Nevertheless, the possessive, baleful and increasingly bitter old lady was a dominant figure in her life and Mavis immortalized her in her autobiographical book, 'Martha Jane and Me' which was published in 1991. 

Broadcaster and journalist Carolyn Hitt, met Mavis in 2016 when filming the BBC documentary, 'Being Mavis Nicholson : TV's Greatest Interviewer' and said "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. 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".

Mavis later reflected : "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. When I was about ten she asked me what I wanted to be ? 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".

In 1940, at the start of the Second World War Mavis won a scholarship and gained a place at the Neath Grammar School for Girls and seen here, standing in third row, third from the left. The 1946 Jubilee edition of the School Magazine confidently asserted that : 'The school this year is represented by students at many universities' and went on to point out that although generally girls’ careers were teaching, clerical or nursing, the school had one engineer who had passed her Mechanical Sciences Tripos examination in 1942 and further, that no woman’s name had appeared on the Cambridge Engineering lists for 16 years. 

Outside school her childhood mentor was Eileen Sims, a classics graduate with a double first, who was a deacon at the local Jerusalem English Baptist Chapel, where at 14, Mavis was baptised with seven others in a tank of cold water. It was known locally during the war as “the conchies’ chapel” and might well have been attended by some of the 400 Baptist, conscientious objectors who refused to fight in the Second World War at this time. Some years later Mavis was true to her Baptist roots when, in 1981, she was, as a vocal opponent of nuclear proliferation and demonstrated with the other women at Greenham Common and in 2002, marched in London in protest against the war with Iraq. 

Mavis took her religion very seriously in her teenage years and said : 'I did have a real zeal for religion - I was up in pulpits preaching the brotherhood of man and praying with heart and soul for it - without losing my equally strong devotion to clothes and make-up, the cinema and boys'. She a special relationship with Miss Sims or 'Simsie', who gave her out of school lessons in Latin to ensure that she could enter the sixth form at school. In a remarkable early example of her curiosity and need to draw people out, she had once, on one of their slow walks to the chapel, asked Simsie if she'd ever been in love ? To which she replied : "Once. Don't ask me any more. It's a hopeless case. I have never told anyone and never will, because it is out of the question". Mavis persisted and said : "Does he know ?" to which Simsie replied : "Heavens girl, absolutely not and never, ever will. That's why, Miss M, you must not ask me anything more and please don't try to guess".

On leaving school in 1948, having gained a place at University College of Swansea to study Economic History, she later said : 'When I left home for college, though I didn't know it at the time, that day I left hone for good'. Before leaving she was full of foreboding and : 'The sickening terror I felt at the prospect of sharing a room with a girl called Mary Davies, a 'doctor's' daughter' who would find out that, at home, she didn't have a bathroom. Before she left she gave Sarah Jane a hug and said : "Grandma, you were like a mother to me when I was little. I'll never foreget that". She also wrote to Simsie, 'Dear Miss S, I know that God has been good, that He is the one way ... but Simsie, there's a heap of weakness in my heart and I need more heavenly guidance. I need a human prod which is what you are'. 

In 1949, now a second year student at the age of nineteen, at midnight on that New Year’s Eve in 1949 she met and started her affair with fellow student and future husband, Geoffrey Nicholson and recalled : "As the clock struck 12, Geoff walked towards me - poetic-looking, very thin, long hair, which no one had then, and in a red shirt which no one wore - said, "Happy New Year", and kissed me".

Geoff, who was a year older than her, was a first year student who had elected to do his two years national service as a lance-bombadier in the Royal Artillery, before studying English Literature at the university. Like her, Geoff, the son of a Saxone shoe shop salesman, came from a working class background and it was at the University that they both made the acquaintance of the young, the then, left-leaning, twenty-six year old English Literature lecturer, Kingsley Amis, he himself the son of a clerk for the mustard manufacturer Colman's in the City of London. 

In 1951, Mavis failed her final exams and ended up without a degree, but still managed to win a 'Edward Hulton Scholarship' to train with a small group of graduates as advertising copywriters in London. Geoff won his scholarship the following year and joined Mavis in London where they promptly got married. 
Mavis, in fact became one of Kingsley's many mistresses shortly after the marriage and agonised over the affair. Kingley's wife Hilly, who counted Mavis a friend, had known about it, but did not demur, partly because, as she later said : “She was never a threat, we were all in love with Mavis”. 

In London and in their twenties in the 1950s, the Nicholsons became the centre of a lively social circle, including included the actor Maureen Lipman and  journalist Valerie Grove and the Welsh journalist and broadcaster John Morgan who worked for BBC TV. The circle included included Kingsley, who after the publication of 'Lucky Jim' in 1954 was now, 'novelist', Kingsley Amis. According to Peter Corrigan, the Nicholsons :  'Became a much-loved double-act. Amis did not always approve of their views and claimed to have invented the word 'lefties' during one little set-to with them. While it was true that the Nicholsons didn't have dinner parties as such – they invited people for an argument and threw some food in – they were by no means belligerent but had in abundance the Welsh love of debate'.

Kingsley would go on to dedicate his 1960 novel, 'Take a Girl Like You' to Mavis and Geoff. The story followed the progress of a twenty-year-old primary school teacher, a 'traditional' Northern working-class girl with a dusky beauty, who warded off the attempts to seduce her by a 30-year-old teacher at a local private secondary school. 
In fact, her friendship with Kingsley endured for 35 years and he invited her to accompany him when he won the Booker Prize for his 1986 novel 'The Old Devils' and she visited him in hospital to say "goodbye" a week before he died in 1995.

Mavis found work a journalist on women’s magazines, including the radically chic 'Nova' in the 1960s and then left her professional life to devote herself as the mother of her three sons and financially supported by Geoffrey who himself was a modest, unassuming man, to whom family mattered more than career but nevertheless became highly successful as one of a small team on the 'Observer' newspaper. It was there that he helped to transform the character of sports journalism in the late 1950s by introducing a quality of writing that matched, and was sometimes superior to, that on the arts and foreign pages.

Mavis's career as a television broadcaster began when, at the age of forty-one, in 1971, she was spotted when she appeared on Thames Television’s news magazine programme, 'Today', hosted by Eamonn Andrews. She was criticising a local council plan to bus the children of immigrants across London to a school attended by her sons. Eamonn told her : “You ought to be on television,” to which she replied : “I think I ought”. Shortly afterwards, the Thames Television executive, Jeremy Isaacs, asked her to come on air, provided she promised not to change and she was asked to host a programme, called 'Tea Break', on newly launched 'Daytime Television'. She did not conform to the popular image of a television presenter and his verdict was that she was : “Sharp, earthy, Welsh”.

In fact, Jeremy had already encountered Mavis on the dinner party circuit and 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 and her presence there 
became a break from the past with her 'Good Afternoon', because British television had previously only started to broadcast in the late afternoon. It was the start of a television career which would span the next 25 years. She worked on 
'After Noon Plus' and 'Mavis on 4' through to the 1990s and it was during this time, that she interviewed a galaxy of celebrities.

Also : 

Hers was a world
 dominated by male counterparts where she excelled by dint of her quick wit and ability to really 'listen' to what her subjects were saying to her. When asked : 'What was her favourite interview ?' she said : "Margaret Thatcher, so I could have a good go at her. 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". When questioned about her skill as an interviewer she said : "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". 

When she reflected on her interview with Rose Kennedy, the mother of American President John F Kennedy she said : "She was very startling, but that was a terrifying evening to start with because she came in and said : "I don't want any fuss. I don't want to know any questions. I've been asked all the questions in the world". And she came into the studio and said : "I don't want to be made-up. I've got enough make-up". So she sat down and said : "What do you think I look like ?" I said : "Well, you've got a blob of marmalade on your skirt". I said : "Let's get that off. And so we got that off and she said : "Anything else Madam ?" So I said : "You've got a snag in your stocking". And I said : "If you could just put your foot behind, you won't see it". "Anything else Madam ?" So I said : "I don't think your little cardy suits your dress". So I went over to this little cardy. I took it off. Now inside that cardy was her name before she got married. It was her school cardy. Her comfort blanket. She said : "If you say so Madam, I will take it off. I'm gonna do a darn good interview for you". I think she thought I had courage enough to tell her those three things, it really did get us going". (link)

In 2015 when Andrew Billing was reviewing the Gold TV Series, 'The Interviews' in 'The Times' he said : 'It's first subject is Kenneth Williams, a comedian for whom, as it points out, the chat show became his main means of artistic expression.' 
Jumping on his remark that “we all choose façades”, Mavis Nicholson, on her Thames TV afternoon show in 1976, asked what his façade protected and was rewarded with the insight “a deep inferiority complex”. His diaries, he admitted, contained detailed contemplations of suicide. He died of a barbiturate overdose in 1988'.(link)

In 1974 Mavis interviewed the comic duo, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore and Andrew wrote : 'Frequently in drink too, was Cook, a brilliant satirist who found his career becalmed after Moore, his partner, won Hollywood stardom. Again Nicholson, in 1974, asked the key question: why did he drink? Boredom, he replied. Sitting beside him, Moore, perhaps embolden by the artificiality of the conversation, demanded to know why he allowed it to hammer his concentration when they performed on stage. The pair never toured together again'. (link

Maya Angelou, the eminent writer and poet, who had also won  international acclaim as an actress, filmmaker, ambassador and civil-rights activist was interviewed by Mavis in 1984. As a result of their meeting Maya said that she was struck by "Our oneness, our similarities; that we're born continents, oceans and races apart, means very little. She's short, I'm tall. She's white, I'm black. She's Welsh, I'm American ...but we have so much. We simply, immediately almost, knew the other. I like her a lot because she doesn't laugh at other people : she laughs at herself. I like that she's tough, tough as an old walnut - a black walnut. And she's tender as a grape. That's how I want to be. She can't bear pretension, she would laugh it out of existence if she could". (link)

Mavis herself said : "I thought what a privilege it was going to be to meet this woman, to be given half an hour of airtime with her. I was alarmed by her talent, but there was something about her writing and her feelings that I felt I shared, so I felt we would get on. I remember, very vividly, feeling somewhere along the line that she was a sister".

In 2018 when Mavis was given the BAFTA Cymru Special Award for her 'Outstanding Contribution to Television', in 
St David's Hall in Cardiff she said : "I was absolutely flabbergasted. Then I thought 'be confident girl' and say "how wonderful it's about time"".

Maya Angelou said of Mavis  : 

"Mavis's greatest quality is to be herself, but she represents human beings. Some people are still themselves, but they only represent their class, their age group, their particular level of education. But she represents something very human, something that does not deny anybody entrance, and I think that's her greatest achievement".

Mavis said of herself : 

"What effect I really had, I can't tell you. I just loved interviewing people and I wasn't particularly greedy about my career".

Monday 12 September 2022

Britain is no country for old men trying to sort the fact from the fiction

"Game of Thrones a long time ago?" "No". 

"House of the Dragon, an even longer time ago ?" "No". 

"Edinburgh, 2022 ?" "Yes !"

Thursday 1 September 2022

Britain says "Goodbye" to its much-loved TV Presenter, Bill Turnbull and asks the question : "Why are so many of its men still, needlessly, dying from prostate cancer ?"

The much-loved TV presenter of the BBC's 'Breakfast TV', Bill Turnbull, who has died at the age of sixty-six, was diagnosed with the prostate cancer which killed him, in 2017. Last December he was interviewed by Michael Dodds, the writer and Conservative peer, who himself had been diagnosed and was being treated for prostate cancer and was the guest editor on the BBC Radio 'Today Programme'. Bill told Michael that he had ignored possible symptoms for months before finally going to see his GP. He said : “Maybe if I’d seen my GP earlier, I wouldn’t be in quite the mess I am in now. But men do that : "I’ll be all right, there’s nothing wrong with me". And : "It’s embarrassing”. 

Bill knew that his prostate cancer was treatable, but not curable and he said, laughing, at the time, that his hope in life : “Was to stay alive as long as possible”. In the event, he lived for just another nine months. In that respect he had been been like many old and 'not so old men', who do not get tested in time and do not seek help, despite the good outcomes of being treated, if the disease is caught in time.

Having been diagnosed with prostate, Bill had 'gone public' with his diagnosis in March 2018, following in the footsteps of actor, Stephen Fry, who had done the same the month before. Their revelations encouraged men of a similar age to get screened. The NHS 'National Disease Registration Service' said : "Our findings show a marked increase in the number of prostate cancers diagnosed from the time of Fry’s and Turnbull’s announcements of their own diagnoses". It is quite clear that Bill and Stephen's decisions to go public encouraged men of a similar age to get screened. 

Former NHS England boss Simon Stevens said  : “A debt of gratitude is owed to Bill Turnbull and Stephen Fry for the work they have done to urge men to seek medical advice if they think something isn’t right. 'The Turnbull and Fry Effect' could help save lives ".

Nevertheless, Michael Dodds made the point in the 2021 radio programme, that prostate cancer : "Has the title of 'A Silent Killer' because people are reluctant to talk about it and we are high risk". 

"The truth of the matter is : This cancer don't care about your colour. It don't care about your wealth - don't really care about you. What it does, if you ignore it - it will kill you. And that's how I put it across to all men".

Mike in his own words interviewed on Channel 5 by Sian Williams in 2020

My own prostate cancer was discovered, almost by accident six years ago, when I had my bladder removed, because of bladder cancer and as a matter of course my prostate was also removed and a biopsy revealed, it too, harboured cancer even though , at 67, I had no symptoms. Its the reason why I, if the opportunity arises that I tell the old men and young men I meet, to get themselves checked out. It is a disease specifically for men, since women do not have a prostate gland and in Britain it is now the most common type of cancer for men, with one in eight white Brits diagnosed in their life time and one in four black. 

The facts are that there are about 50,000 new cases of prostate cancer in Britain each year and about 11,000 men will die as a result. Despite this death toll, there is no totally effective screening programme, because a blood test showing levels of the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) is only a guide. It does not accurately distinguish between dangerous cancers and harmless ones.

Professor Nicholas Van As of the Royal Marsden Hospital, Chelsea, underlined this point when he said : "The problem with prostate cancer is you may find the cancer and it may be a cancer that men never needed to know about, because in his natural lifespan, it was never going to progress and he'd never need treatment. Although we have a blood test - a PSA test which is useful in prostate cancer, it's actually not a good screening test. You can have an elevated PSA and not have prostate cancer. In fact, you can have a lower than, what's classically thought of as a 'normal PSA' and still have prostate. So it's not a very good diagnostic test".

Professor Ros Eeles, of the Institute of Cancer Research, told the 'Today Programme' that if a PSA test was carried out now on every man in Britain over the age of 55 it would lead to over-treatment. She said : “We will end up treating at least 12 men for every one man that you should really find disease which is going to impact on that man’s life. In the breast screening programme, it’s three to one”. 

However, she was optimistic that situation would change and said : “With the advances in genetics and also imaging, particularly MRI, realistically we do need some more data but we’re probably looking at getting close to a tailored screening programme in the next three to five years. We might need to use all of them together so we can find those who have significant disease”.

Professor Peter Johnson, the 'National Clinical Director for Cancer' at NHS England, told the Programme that, because of the pandemic, there were several thousand fewer men starting treatment than in a normal year. He said : “It isn’t that there’s a big backlog in the system of people waiting to be diagnosed, it’s literally we haven’t even met them yet and that’s what we’re anxious to reverse”. He urged men to use the risk checker on the 'Prostate Cancer UK' website.

In 2019 Bill had said : 

"I like to say I have been buoyed by a thousand points of love. From friends and colleagues, my footballing family at Wycombe Wanderers, and from countless messages from people just wishing me luck.  Also hearing from men who have been diagnosed and treated as a result of me speaking out – I can’t tell you how much that means to me, and gives me strength for the time that lies ahead".