David NIXON (1919-1978)
THIS IS YOUR LIFE - David Nixon, magician and television personality, was surprised by Eamonn Andrews at The Magic Circle Headquarters in London.
David joined the Magic Circle in 1938 having developed an interest in magic through his father, who was a lawyer by profession but dabbled in magic as a hobby. David worked with ENSA during the war years, and after played in variety, including a successful partnership with Norman Wisdom.
His television career began in 1954 when he joined the panel of What’s My Line? He presented various television programmes including several series of his own magic shows – all of which made him the best-known magician in the UK.
David was chosen to present an episode of This Is Your Life when the team surprised Eamonn Andrews for the second time.
“I swore it would never happen to me!”
Among the mementoes housed in the headquarters of the Magic Circle is the jacket once worn by the incredible escapologist Harry Houdini. And I really could have used old Harry’s skills the night I found myself trussed in a sack unable to breathe. That night I almost did think that I was on my way to the next life.
It was all part of the surprise for David Nixon, and when I got out of the sack to come face to face with him we were both as white as ghosts and on the verge of collapse – if for different reasons.
It all began when we decided to try to achieve the impossible by beating David at one of his own tricks. For master magician Nixon had been up to his tricks ever since he received his first conjuring set as a present when he was a boy in Westcliff-on-Sea.
Even as a teenager, he had the neighbours scratching their heads with a trick he performed by gaslight in a back street of the seaside resort. As the neighbours walked by a lamp post, they would see shiny coins on the ground. But as they bent to pick them up they were flabbergasted to see them disappear. The trick, we learned from an old school pal of his, was one of the simplest he ever pulled. You see, the coins were attached to a piece of cotton which he had draped over the lamp post and over a wall behind which he hid. When he heard someone investigating he would give the cotton a tug, and the coins vanished into thin air.
But from those impromptu street performances David had gone on to become a first class magician. During the war he was with ENSA, travelling to the world’s battlefronts and visiting no less than twenty-seven countries. His magic brought welcome light relief to the battle-weary troops.
Later, his skill, dedication and charm took him right to the top of his profession. And he became a nationwide celebrity almost overnight when he joined the team on television’s What’s My Line? And I discovered he had a way with words as well as magic.
One thing was for sure as we sat around the conference table: it would need a very clever trick to pull the wool over David’s eyes.
We were fortunate to have, in Royston Mayoh, our own resident man of magic. Royston had produced and directed many of David’s television shows and, like me, knew him as a friend. His first suggestion was to call on David’s associate in magic, Ali Bongo.
It was easy enough to convince David that he was wanted to perform a televised trick as part of a Christmas programme. But the difficult bit was to decide which trick?
We eventually agreed on the broad principle that it should be an illusion that would enable me to make a switch with someone. What made it doubly difficult was that Ali had a rule that he only talked about the intricacies of magic with David present.
So Ali and Royston went along to try to get David to agree to a trick without his knowing that it was the one they actually wanted him to do.
Knowing that David always improved on an idea by personalising it, they had to present him with just a half a trick so that in the privacy of his own office he would unwittingly improve it into what we wanted. If you see what I mean …
What none of us foresaw, of course, was that David would decide to improve the trick even more – after the cameras had started recording.
Obviously I cannot break the confidences of the Magic Circle, but the idea was for David to make Ali disappear and then re-appear out of a sack in the form of actress Penny Meredith.
On the day in question I took the short drive from the studios to the headquarters of the Magic Circle and crept in through a back door, having been given a signal that David was busy inside. He was perfecting the trick. And I was busy thinking about mine because, as you might have guessed, I was planning to do a switch with Penny.
All seemed fairly straightforward from my point of view as I clambered into a sack which was due to be loaded on to Santa’s sleigh and pushed into the room where David was performing in front of camera. The sack, designed, dare I say it, to take the less bulky body of the shapely Miss Meredith, was a tight fit for me. But I wasn’t too worried about that, knowing that I would only be in there for less than a minute.
Never in the history of This Is Your Life surprises can a minute have lasted so long. It was now, of all times, that Mr Nixon decided to make another addition to the trick. As I lay there on the sleigh trussed up like something fried not only in a Southern state of America, I could hear a frantic debate going on featuring Messrs. Nixon, Mayoh and Ali Bongo.
David’s “improvement” meant lengthening the trick. And the longer it got the nearer I got to the next world. My legs were numb with cramp and I was gasping for air as I felt the sleigh being gently moved beneath me.
I didn’t dare breathe as we entered the studio in case David heard me. But had he not opened the sack when he did I think I would have exploded. I leapt out like a jack-in-the-box and I got as big a shock as he did when I saw him turn white and begin to shake.
I am delighted to say that within the hour David was still shaking, but not with shock – with delight. This time the shakes were caused by another of our surprises that nearly went wrong in a way that had threatened the show even before we had set out on the pick-up, although we didn’t know a thing about it until afterwards.
Having known David for many years I knew that the show would not be complete for him without his 18-year-old son Nicholas. But right from the outset we knew that Nicholas, who was training to be a Merchant Navy Officer, was miles away at sea.
When researcher Suzie Manwaring-White managed to contact him he was aboard an oil tanker in the Indian Ocean. But when she told his company just why she was making her confidential enquiries they generously agreed to give him special permission to leave the ship in Hong Kong so that we could fly him to London.
What we didn’t realise was that David regularly wrote to Nicholas while he was away and, just days before the show, one of his letters was returned with a statement saying Nicholas had left the ship. David, naturally worried, telephoned the oil company. And by a fluke the official he spoke to was the one Suzie had let in on the secret. He assured David that Nicholas was on the ship. A mistake must have been made, he said, apologising for the error.
It was an error that had both David and his seafaring son roaring with laughter as Nicholas read his Dad’s letter after the show before he clambered into bed at the family home in Surrey. He was home for Christmas and that night an oil tanker steamed through a Far Eastern Sea with at least one empty bunk on board.
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