This BBC Wales programme about Mavis Nicholson, the absolutely wonderful TV interviewer, is a must-watch for anyone interested in celebrity culture. She interviewed the biggest names in showbusiness, starting on an innocuous afternoon show aimed at women, and always got the greatest answers from them, due to her honesty and rapport with her subjects.
In the programme, Eamonn Holmes points out how times have changed in the world of asking people how wonderful it was to work on their latest film. “You had got that in-depth interview where it mattered, where questions were important, where you cared about the quality of what you were talking about. That’s all different now…the PR companies rule the interview shows. They decide who you interview and what you’re going to ask them.”
Mavis talks about telling Kirk Douglas that their interview will be “the conversation you’d like to have, rather than what you expect to have”, and this interview with Kenny Everett shows how she gets so much out of him; it’s almost like therapy and you can feel that there’s something cathartic for Everett to talk about big issues.
27 years ago that was, and you simply can’t imagine anyone in the public eye talking like this in a TV interview.What I love about Mavis’ style is that it’s so deceptively easy. Unlike Michael Parkinson, she wasn’t a journalist, and her style reflected that. This 1974 interview he did with Richard Burton acts as a great compare and contrast between their styles. Parky’s clipboard questioning gets the results, but it seems far less relaxed and natural than the Nicholson way.
Hard to imagine such a major star and serious figure putting themselves through this kind of thing today, where it’s all about the comedy chat show, where you don’t have to reveal a single personal thing apart from something funny that happened on the set of your latest film. Ultimately, the celebrity interview is about flogging a product, and in a world where there’s now so much media that allows you to do this, you don’t have to do an hour baring your soul on a talk show.
The star interview thing is a strange concept. Every time I sit in a hotel room and switch my recorder on, I think how fake it all is. As journalists, we’re supposed to come out of the encounter being able to tell our audience exactly what our subject is like, and ideally get them to tell us something they’ve never told anyone else before, the sort of thing you’d have to have months in expensive therapy to draw out normally. When it does happen, it’s great, but there are increasingly few opportunities to sit down in a room with a subject any more.
Print journalists may be asked if they want to do an interview via email, or via conference call with the subject’s press officer listening in. They may be asked to a ’round table’ event where you sit at a table with the celebrity and half a dozen other journalists with different aims and different questions. I remember years ago there was this dreadful woman who could turn anything round to the fact she worked for the Highgate Residents’ Association publication. If someone had confessed to a murder in a press conference or round table, she’d butt in with the line “Yes, well, I understand you live in Highgate; what do you think of the changes in the refuse collection timetables?”. Brilliant.
There was also a press event where I was beside myself to find I was the only journalist at a table with Alan Bates. We were talking about his new project for Christmas and a woman came and sat beside me and asked Bates if he was going to spend the festive season with his family. Normally you’d find this personal information really useful when writing a piece, but I was desperately trying to change the subject, as in the previous few months, Bates’ wife had died, and a son died a couple of years previously. Awks.
Another great chance to talk at cross purposes come at the events where both press and public meet. The public pay to come to an event which a TV company also uses as a launch, and while the press want stories for websites and papers, Brianna who’s come all the way from Idaho just wants to tell her screen heartthrob that she fancies him. Very nice, Brianna, but most people don’t actually care.
It’s only a few places that major stars will talk to any degree, and on television, hardly at all, which is why the Mavis Nicholson programme provided a great chance to watch the halcyon days of intelligent people talking to each other about things that matter to all of us, and bring us together in a very human way. Here’s Mavis with Bowie, which is just lovely.
I think it would be great if a TV copany commissioned a new series of Mavis Nicholson interviews with some of the major personalities of today. As you’ll see when you watch the programme about her, she’s still got it – and also, 40 more years of experience from when she started the job. Imagine how great it would be if her fabulousness was unleashed on a new generation.