How do you interview an expert interviewer? Joanne Lau stuttered and apologised like a ’90s Hugh Grant romcom character as she chatted with this week’s Awesome Old Lady, the completely charming and engaging Mavis Nicholson.
Mavis with her son Steve c. 1984. Picture by Saul Wordsworth
Mavis Nicholson, 84, is an acclaimed writer, broadcaster and legendary interviewer with her television shows Afternoon Plus and Mavis on Four. She has spoken with numerous cultural figures and icons, including Maya Angelou, Elizabeth Taylor, Helen Mirren and Nina Simone. Mavis is also the author of Martha Jane & Me: A Girlhood in Wales and What Did You Do In the War, Mummy?, a fascinating collection of interviews from women of hugely different backgrounds who lived through the Second World War.
Let’s start with your name. Is there a story behind the name Mavis?
My mother wanted an unusual name and she didn’t know another Mavis. Mavis is a song thrush and my mother thought it was rather a pretty name for a girl. I’m by no means a singer, but I do love singing when I’m on my own, or with other people.
Where were you born?
Briton Ferry, South Wales. I had a very happy childhood there. The town was an interesting blend of industrial and natural. On one end of the street you had a lovely stretch of woods and on the other, a railway line. It was a very nice place to grow up. I did well at school. I played with the other kids on our street. Our neighbours, Carrie and Vernon, would take me to Sunday school. I remember being baptised at 14 in a very cold pool and thinking how unfair it was for the minister to be wearing a nice warm Macintosh and galoshes while I was freezing in a tennis dress with an elastic band holding the hem down for modesty!
Growing up in Briton Ferry, it was easy to believe in socialism because I couldn’t see any other way for workers to be treated fairly. My father took me as a child to his steel works and it looked like hell with all of the furnaces blazing away. He showed me the cranes carrying the molten metal above the sheds and looking around his work place, I thought my father was an absolute hero for being so brave as to do such a job. I thought the men weren’t treated very well and I became a socialist very early on and I’ve never changed my left-wing stance ever since.
You were one of the first women on daytime television with Good Afternoon in 1972. What was it like for women in media at the time?
We were just glad to be there because women hadn’t really had a chance to be on air. Women were very under-represented and we were determined to represent women’s rights while we were on. It was about bloody time, frankly! We grabbed the opportunity with both hands.
It was Jeremy Isaacs, who has head of Thames Television at the time, who we really have to thank. He wanted five women to do the five days of the week on afternoon telly. He was doing it to establish the rights of women and to get them better represented.
In addition to broadcasting, you’ve also been an advertising copywriter, full-time mother, writer, and you recently retired from being an agony aunt for The Oldie. What was that like?
I quite miss being an agony aunt. I did it for 18 years and gathered quite a few readers. I found I became a different sort of agony aunt. People would write in about their problems, but they would also write in about how they solved them, so it became more of an exchange. I really liked that. It extended beyond the usual agony aunt dynamic in that it became a discussion with them about solutions as well as problems. I thought that was a nice turnabout.
I resigned only recently when Richard Ingram (founder of Private Eye and The Oldie) left, because he’s my great pal. I liked working with him and I didn’t want to stay when he wasn’t there. He used to come up to me sometimes and say: “Are you short of problems? I’ve got one for you.” One day he said: “I find that at the moment I talk to myself on the way to the supermarket and people are staring at me. How can I solve this?” I said: “Put your hand up to your ear and they’ll think you’re on a mobile.” There you are. Simple solution to a problem!
What advice would you give your 30-year-old self?
I honestly don’t know. I was doing pretty well, thank you very much! [laughs] Once I got to 30, things were on the up. I had babies, which I loved. Then when the babies were old enough, I managed to do some freelance writing. As that went on, I then got asked to go on telly. So it all happened to me very smoothly.
What are you most proud of?
I’m proud of several things and I couldn’t mention one without mentioning the others: 1) I’m proud of my parents. And ditto my three sons who are one offs. I adore my five grandchildren. 2) I’ve always been proud of my friends. I love them and admire them. 3) I’m proud of my success, but hopefully not too proud! 4) I’m proud of being a socialist who has stuck to it.
Would you like to be a young woman in the 21st century?
Yes, but I think I’d be a little bit more watchful of my rights than the women are now. In my view, a lot of young women seem careless about their freedom in that they seem to take it for granted. They’re not political enough about being a woman. I’m talking a lot to my granddaughters about this and they’re very good about it. Women need to be careful or all their rights are going to get eroded – the men will steal them back. I’m not anti-men though. I love men!
Mavis, with family friends and, right, her late husband Geoff. Picture by Saul Wordsworth
What is your favourite indulgence?
I love films. I help run a film society, which we’ll unfortunately have to close soon due to shrinking audience sizes. It’s happening in cinemas and film societies all over the country and I think it’s because it’s so easy to watch the films at home now. People can put them up on their big screen, have their beer and chips and stay snuggled up at home. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it does break down the community aspect of watching a film together.
Who is a woman you looked up to growing up?
In my book, Martha Jane & Me: A Girlhood in Wales, I talk about my grandmother, Martha Jane, whom I loved, but she was quite a character as well – a right handful! I loved and admired my mother, but we were more like chums as much as anything else.
I admired a woman named Eileen Sims. She had a BA in Latin and because she had been a conscientious objector in the war she could never get a position at the grammar schools. I needed to have maths or Latin to go to county school and I was hopeless at maths. Eileen coached me in Latin and because she knew we were pretty badly off, she did it for nothing.
What is your idea of beauty? Do you have a daily beauty routine?
Beauty in general really affects me. I love beauty – paintings, landscapes, trees… The trees outside my window are wonderfully spooky in the winter. Oh you mean my beauty? There aren’t many things I do. I just put some cream on when my skin is dry and keep my hair clean. It’s not that I’m careless, but I have been lucky, I apparently look younger than I am. I was recently in hospital and the doctors couldn’t believe I was 84!
What is one thing most people don’t know about you?
Oh, I’m an open book, darling! Once you’re well known, if you’re friendly, people will get an awful out of you about yourself, while you get an awful lot out of them about their selves. I’ve always been as curious about people as they can be about me.
Joanne Lau is that tired-looking Chinese-Canadian girl on the tube scribbling in her notebook and staring into space a lot.