From the mid 1950s until his untimely death in 1978 at the age of just 58, David Nixon was one of the most familiar faces on British television. Known as much for his warm, gentlemanly persona as his brilliance as a magician, Nixon was in constant demand as a conjuror, compere and gameshow panellist, and was very much the all-round entertainer, with an inclusive, avuncular style that made him a hit with viewers and listeners alike.
Nixon’s father, himself an amateur magician, taught David his first tricks, which the budding young conjuror was soon performing in public. At a children’s party, he witnessed a performance by a professional magician named Stanley Collins, whose charm left a lasting impression on the young Nixon, as well as providing an example for his own style of presentation. Nixon wrote of Collins: ‘I thought he was the most courteous gentleman I had ever met. I was impressed by his magic but even more by his charm.’
In 1938, David was admitted into The Magic Circle – no mean feat – and on the outbreak of war, unable to enlist for front-line duties as a result of childhood pneumonia, he joined ENSA, providing entertainments to the troops. By the end of the conflict, he was a polished professional, and embarked on the first of many summer seasons as conjuror and compere. During these early years, an encounter with Norman Wisdom led to the creation of the bungling character for which Wisdom would become famous, and for a while the two worked together, with Wisdom planted in the audience as a stooge who would come up and spoil Nixon’s performance. But the double act, despite enjoying huge success and a season at the London Casino, was short-lived. Nixon was about to take his next career step, into the emerging medium of television.
A chance encounter on the Charing Cross Road with entertainment agent Henry Cauldwell led to Nixon’s first TV appearance in May 1949, on a variety show with Nat Allen and his orchestra. But his big breakthrough came not by magic, but in the form of the television panel game, What’s My Line when Nixon was chosen to replace departing panellist Michael Dennison. He would remain on the show until its demise in 1963, by which time his face was known to millions of television viewers.
Nixon’s first starring TV spot took the form of a domestic entertainment, hosted (seemingly) from his own living room – in reality, a studio set – with Nixon appearing alongside his wife, Paula Marshall. Conjuring tricks formed a small part of the show, but Nixon would soon be hosting a bona fide magic programme in the form of It’s Magic, with appearances commencing in September 1955 on BBC television.
Tragedy struck a year later when Paula died in a car accident on her way to a theatrical engagement. Despite receiving thousands of messages of sympathy from the public, Nixon found the publicity surrounding the accident distressing, and took the decision to stop giving press interviews about his private life. Immersing himself in his work, Nixon saw his career go from strength to strength; scarcely a week went by when he was not to be seen or heard on BBC television and radio, on top of his many theatrical appearances. In 1960 he was married again, to Vivienne Nichols, daughter of bandleader Eric Robinson. It was in partnership with Robinson that Nixon took one of the lesser-known steps in his career, helping to launch a new musical instrument, the Mellotron, which was later to find fame as part of the Beatles’ musical arsenal.
By the mid-1960s, Nixon was firmly established on the British entertainment scene, with a succession of series on BBC television, including Nixon at Nine-Five, and the children’s shows Tricks ‘n’ Nixon and Now for Nixon, with foxy glove puppet Basil Brush assisting in the latter. The Nixon/Brush double act continued in a mid-evening slot with The Nixon Line, running from October 1967 to March ’68. Meanwhile, over on the BBC radio Light Programme, Nixon was demonstrating his wit and erudition as a regular member of the panel show Many a Slip, in which David and fellow panellists had to identify deliberate solecisms in scripts from series creator Ian Messiter and musical interludes from Steve Race.
Back on television, Nixon left the BBC in the late 1960s, to host a new late-night show for ITV, Tonight With David Nixon, described in the TVTimes as ‘magic and personalities.’ In March 1970, he returned to the established magic and variety formula of his BBC shows with David Nixon’s Magic Box. As well as presenting his own magic act, Nixon introduced illusionists from around the world, interspersed with comedy acts and songs from regular co-star Anita Harris – who also gamely allowed herself to be sawn in half and made to disappear as part of Nixon’s act. After an initial six weeks on air, the series returned for a longer run in December of the same year, of which only four editions survive. These can be seen, alongside the complete first and third series in Network’s new release of David Nixon’s Magic Box: the first time these shows have been seen since the early 70s.
By now, the Nixon name was being used to sell boxes of tricks and magic books to children (Nixon had started out himself with a junior magic set), and for a while he had a regular column in the magazine Look-In, presenting simple sleight of hand illusions to readers of the ‘Junior TV Times.’ Nixon continued to make programmes for ITV during the 1970s, including the two Christmas specials which can be found on Network’s companion release, David Nixon’s Christmas Magic. 1976 saw him elected to the position of King Rat in the charitable organisation The Grand Order of Water Rats, but by the middle of the decade Nixon was in failing health. A routine X-ray in 1973 had revealed the presence of lung cancer, and after a brief period of remission, he fell ill again in 1978. His last television appearance saw a reversal of roles when Basil Brush invited his former mentor on as a guest on his own Christmas show. Sadly, Nixon died just days after the appearance was recorded, on 1 December 1978.
After early tragedy, Nixon, a private man, enjoyed a settled home life with his wife and children, telling the TV Times in a rare interview in 1971: ‘I want nothing more than to do better television shows and to relax in the garden or on a boat.’ There can be no doubt that he achieved his ambition, and you can revisit David at the height of his television fame in these two engaging DVD collections.