Biography: David Nixon

David Nixon

David Porter Nixon was born on 29 December 1919 at the family home in Colney Hatch Lane, North London, the youngest of three children born to Marjorie and George who was, at that time, a Ministry of Food officer. In 1922 the family moved to a fairly affluent area in Essex, residing at 30 Britannia Road, Westcliff-on-Sea. At a relatively young age David was captured by the magic of the theatre after seeing a performance of Peter Pan, and around the same time he was also captured by the magic of magic itself. At a children's Christmas party David saw his first professional magician, an accomplished society performer by the name of Stanley Collins. This left such an impression on David that years later he would write: 'I thought he was the most courteous gentleman I had ever met. I was impressed by his magic but even more by his charm. He asked me to help him and although I was a very shy kid he put me at ease and made me feel important with such remarks as "...thanks to the help of this young man..."' It was a style that would become a trademark of David's professional career.

David's father was also a magic enthusiast and had perfected about six tricks. When David himself began to show an interest in learning how to perform them his father showed him and one Christmas his Aunt Gertie bought him an Ernest Sewell Magic Set. He began perfecting the tricks until he felt confident enough to perform them publicly and did so for the first time at the annual Scout concert at St Saviour's Church Hall in Westcliff. The local paper made a note of the young magician and their reporter wrote 'The cub who conjured should go far, his sleight of hand was slick and his patter good.'

By 1935 David was confident enough to give his first professional performance and over the next three years he grew in confidence until he was ready to perform the entire magic section of An Evening of Music and Magic at St Saviour's. However, on the day of the performance David was taken ill with what was eventually diagnosed as pneumonia. The result of this illness meant that David missed his chance to apply for university and with no reason to stay on for another year he left school and found a job at Henley's Telegraph Works Ltd in Woolwich. To his delight, David discovered that the works had decided to form a concert party in order to give a Christmas Concert.

In 1938 David became a member of The Magic Circle and continued to perform and on 25 October he presented An Evening of Magic and Mystery entitled Hey Presto at St Saviour's. Like most other fledgling showbiz careers, David's was put on hold by the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. In 1940 David volunteered for the RAF but failed the medical as a result of the pneumonia which had left him with a weak heart and a shadow on his lung. David joined an amateur concert party and toured the local Army and RAF camps entertaining. A friend suggested that David join ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association), the organisation that was set up to provide entertainment for British troops. By the end of the War David was an accomplished entertainer with a polished act and in the summer of 1946 he was invited by Greatrex (Rex) Newman, a member of the inaugural committee of ENSA, to become compere and conjurer at the Floral Hall in Scarborough. It was the first of several summer seasons that David performed there and in 1948 he met another performer destined to become one of the most famous names in British comedy: Norman Wisdom.

During a two week try-out at Bridlington before going on to start the summer season at Scarborough, David suggested that it would be a good idea if Norman pretended to be a stage-struck youth who came out of the audience to help perform a trick on stage, but who then messed the whole thing up. Norman went out and bought himself an under-sized suit and matching cap in a second-hand shop in Scarborough. He paid 31 shillings in total for the look that would become his trademark for the rest of his career. The partnership between David and Norman was a roaring success and earned them an engagement at the London Casino. But in spite of this success at the end of the engagement both performers decided to go their separate ways. The same year David Married Margaret Burton, who had been the leading lady at the Scarborough summer season. However, it was not destined to last and the couple divorced in early 1952. That same year David announced his engagement to Paula Marshall and the couple were married in April.

By the start of the 1950s television was beginning to emerge as the new and fastest growing medium. Although it would still be a few years before TV really captured the public imagination the BBC were broadcasting a regular television service from Alexandra Palace and were constantly on the lookout for new talent. David later recalled his first televised appearance: 'I was walking along Charing Cross Road, visiting agents, when I bumped into Henry Caldwell. This was in the early Alexandra Palace days of TV, and Henry had not even started the show that made him famous, Cafe Continental. But he was putting on a short variety show with Nat Allen's Band. He asked me to do my act and that was my first TV engagement.' Later still, David appeared in the fortnightly show It's Magic! which also starred Tommy Cooper, and he appeared on a number of children's shows. It was on just such a show that he was seen by Dicky Leeman, producer of What's My Line.

What's My Line was nothing short of a television phenomenon in the 1950s. The hugely successful series had the most simple of formats. A contestant 'signs in', does a short mime of the type of job they do, and a celebrity panel has to try and guess the profession by only asking the contestants questions that can be answered either yes or no. Hosted by Eamonn Andrews, What's My Line was the first must-see television programme in Britain. By 1954 it was into its third series when panellist Michael Denison had to withdraw due to a pantomime commitment. Dicky Leeman already had a shortlist of replacements but at the top of that list was David, who Leeman had noted as having a 'wonderfully warm TV personality.'

David soon became a popular member of the panel and by 1955 the BBC were ready to give David his own television show. It was not, however, a magic show. Home and Dry was a humorous magazine programme that focused on the Nixons at home (that home in reality being Studio G at Lime Grove Studios). The six shows featured a hobbies corner, a handyman feature and 'family friend' who would pop in for a mock interview of sorts. Among those 'friends' were Spike Milligan and Eric Sykes. Although not strictly a magic show, David did get the chance to perform the odd conjuring trick. He had to wait until later in the year to get his first magic show. On 9 September 1955, at 915pm, just a few weeks before Commercial Television arrived in the UK, the BBC announcer introduced "David Nixon presents It's Magic!" Then, just as David's career was taking off in leaps and bounds tragedy struck.

On Sunday 9 December 1956 David and Paula left home in separate cars to travel to Leeds where they were due to begin rehearsals for Cinderella at the Empire Theatre. Paula left first and David followed on an hour-and-a-half later. But as David reached Alconbury he noticed a hold-up. A car had crashed up ahead and there were police and firemen by the wreckage. It was Paula's car and by the time David arrived there she had already been taken to hospital and pronounced dead. At the inquest into the crash a verdict was returned of death by natural causes. The pathologist noted 'inflammation of the heart muscles associated with viral pneumonia.' Her injuries from the car crash were no more than superficial and it would appear that she had had a heart attack at the wheel of the car causing it to leave the road. The public responded with great affection to David and he received in excess of 15,000 letters.

It took a while for David to pick himself up from the tragedy but the therapy he decided upon was to immerse himself in work. His television career began to flourish and 1958 was a particularly busy time for David with TV appearances, summer seasons, pantomime and a Royal Variety Performance. In 1959 he fell in love with 21-year old Vivienne Nichols. Although David felt there might be problems because of their age difference (he was 39 at the time) it soon became apparent that Vivienne felt exactly the same about David and on 15 January 1960 they married in Bournemouth.

Throughout the 1960s David became one of the best-known and most popular personalities on British television. His relaxed and easygoing style of presenting made him the perfect compere and quiz show guest. Fair Deal was devised in 1966 by the BBC specifically for David. In 1967 David did a children's show for the BBC entitled Now for Nixon and in it he introduced a glove puppet in the form of a fox; Basil Brush. The public loved the interaction between David and the Basil who was voiced by Ivan Owen and the hugely successful relationship continued on The Nixon Line in 1968. Into the 1970s David made appearances on Joker's Wild, Celebrity Squares and Give Us A Clue. Whose Baby? devised in 1972 by Eamonn Andrews became David's baby as he hosted the show where a group of panellists had to identify the famous parent of a child. From a merchandising point of view David was extremely popular and there were David Nixon magic boxes, David Nixon magic books and even a David Nixon magic cooking card set! His 1970 series for ITV, David Nixon's Magic Box teamed him up with magical advisor Ali Bongo and it also introduced the popular singer and actress Anita Harris. In 1973 David became the latest 'victim' on This Is Your Life in which family members and star guests alike gathered to pay tribute to him.

1976 bought David's election as King Rat of the Grand Order of Water Rats, the entertainment industry charity and brotherhood, based in London. Former members included Charlie Chaplin, Peter Sellers, Danny Kaye, Laurel and Hardy, Maurice Chevalier, Bob Hope, Will Hay, Frankie Vaughan, Tommy Cooper, Ted Ray, Les Dawson, Sir John Mills, Sir Billy Butlin, Howard Keel, Sir Harry Secombe, Charlie Chester and Arthur Haynes.

Late in 1973 David contracted a cold which led to pleurisy. His doctor arranged for him to have an X-ray. The result revealed a cancerous lesion in his lung. He immediately underwent a treatment of radiotherapy. He kept the condition secret only revealing it some time later in Bradford during a cancer fund raising charity banquet. Following the treatment he went into a period of remission but during 1978 David's health began to deteriorate. David continued to fulfil his commitments appearing in November at the Royal Variety Performance and later that month, on Sunday 26th, in spite of rapidly failing health he appeared at the Water Rats Ball at the Grosvenor House Hotel. The next day he recorded his last television programme, Basil Brush's Magical Christmas. On 1 December 1978 David suffered a massive haemorrhage and died.

David Nixon was the father of television magic. His personality, warmth and charm made him one of the most popular television personalities on British screens for over twenty years as millions of viewers tuned in to watch a true wizard at work. He was one of the earliest TV celebrities and as a panellist on What's My Line? or as the host of It's Magic and many other shows, David Nixon was not just a magician, but a peerless performer who was a natural star.

for Television Heaven