David Nixon: Magic Man

November 9, 2018

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 whenNixon 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 BoxAs 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.

Pre-Order David Nixon’s Magic Box

Pre-Order David Nixon’s Christmas Magic

Martin Cater



Comments:7

  1. Paul Faulder Reply
    18/11/10

    I’m really looking forward to these releases. David Nixon has been overlooked for too long and has been a perfect choice for Network for ages so i’m delighted that it is now happening. These shows were a childhood favourite of mine (and clearly many others) and Martin’s feature is both a welcome reminder of David and full of information that is new to me.

  2. Ian McLachlan Reply
    18/11/10

    I am delighted that Network are releasing these two DVDs. David Nixon was one of my favourite TV personalities and I have often asked Network if they would release David Nixon’s Magic Box. I very much hope that they are very successful and more DVDs with David Nixon will be released in the future.

  3. Tom Cotterill Reply
    18/11/12

    I remember the show with affection, along with Ali Bongo, ITV seemed to rule the roost in magic in the 1970’s until Paul Daniels appeared on the Wheeltapper’s & Shunter’s. David also had a half hour show that ATV screened after News At Ten in autumn 1976 which appeared to be a magazine programme and I vaguely remember him demonstrating the first generation Philips VCR (pre-VHS and Beta!) then after David’s show finished at 11pm, The Prisoner began it’s first run on ATV since the early 70’s (and the final episode brought about the formation of Six of One), ah memories!

  4. Chris Ingram Reply
    18/11/17

    David Nixon was truly a Gentleman he possessed those rare qualities of total professionalism in his presentation that we rarely see today.

  5. Paul Pert Reply
    18/11/30

    That’s a nice article Martin Cater. David Nixon was a very active member of the Concert Artistes’ Association and a friend of my late dad who was also a member. After meeting initially as part of ENSA, they did several Variety and CAA shows together, usually at the CAA’s HQ in Bedford Street, London (still there!) along with other stars of the day such as Bill Pertwee, Leslie Crowther, Cardew Robinson, Pamela Cundell, Ali Bongo and Hugh Lloyd to name but a few. I’m happy to report that Nixon was unquestionably as much of a gent in private as one would expect him to be from his, ‘public’ persona. This is a pleasantly unexpected DVD release from Network Distributing. It’s a fitting tribute to a very pleasant, talented man who died way too soon and definitely one for my generation.

  6. Steve Sullivan Reply
    19/01/01

    I remember watching The David Nixon Show on Thames as a boy in the 70s on our 26″ colour television made by Thorn EMI. My Mother enjoyed the programme and thought that David Nixon was a true gentleman as well as a polished professional magician. I used to enjoy watching Anita Harris, a great sport and a real lady, in the series too as, even at that tender age I fancied her! So it will come as no surprise that I was delighted to hear of the release of this series on DVD. It was going to be purchased for Christmas but I had overspent so it’ll be bought later in Jan/Feb 19 – I can’t wait. I enjoy playing these classic series to find out just how much I can remember, and occasionally a piece from a series will bring back some obscure memories that had been locked in my mind over all those decades. Remarkable, the magic of television.

  7. Peter Denmark Reply
    19/01/04

    I always thought he was such a nice chap, even at the tender age of 7 which I would have been when the early shows were first shown. He was one of the first celebrities I was aware of dying and I was devastated. He was taken far too early but I am so glad I am old enough to have seen him during that golden age. Now I have the chance to revisit those shows and in the case of most of them, see them for the first time with my little girl who coincidentally is the same age I was when I first saw them.

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