Spent: Viv Nicholson Passes Into Mythology

Great Britain


The people who make it into modern mythology aren’t always heroines or heroes; particular;y here in the UK we often remember them because they tried and failed. One thinks of our love of explorers like Scott of the Antarctic or Earnest Shackleton and the Endurance, or even Eddie the Eagle, the hopeless Olympic skier.

Add to them a raft of stranger tales like those involving Cynthia Payne and the Luncheon Voucher scandal, or Joe Orton and the library books, and you finally get to the villains – Lord Lucan murdering his nanny, Jeremy Thorpe destroying the Liberal party after hiring a hitman to kill his lover, Shirley Porter bringing disgrace to Westminster as she turned it into a corrupt banana republic. They all get books and occasionally movies.

But in the middle there are ones who simply got out of their depth. Vivian Nicholson was one, famous for winning the equivalent of 3.5 million on the football pools, only to have it bring endless tragedy.

Nicholson, a factory packer from Yorkshire, just died this week, and will be remembered for her disastrous answer to the question, ‘What are you going to do with the money?’ when she replied ‘I’m going to spend, spend, spend!’ And she did, on cars, jewellery, furs, parties and a sprawling new home. She bought a silver Chevrolet and a pink Cadillac, in which (once she had learnt to drive) she would roar over the lawns of her children’s private school, having dyed her hair pink-champagne blonde, then green, then yellow, then blue.

Nicholson was married five times. Having divorced her first husband she married Keith Nicholson, who was killed in 1965. Her third husband also died in a car crash. Her fourth, Graham Ellison, divorced her within weeks of their marriage, and her fifth died of a drug overdose. A huge tax bill left her bankrupt. Failing to adjust, she continued to spend beyond her means, and depression and alcoholism followed before she ended up stripping, then working in a hairdresser’s.

She became the subject of a play and even an intelligent musical (now coincidentally in revival this week at the Union Theatre). The story strikes a chord because it catches the downside of the capitalist fantasy that anyone can have anything. At the time when she won (1961) there was no advice available on how to handle sudden wealth. She did what most factory workers would have done back then, just more brashly.

The catchphrase ‘Spend, spend, spend’ will now join ‘Well, he would, wouldn’t he?’ and ‘Up to a point, Lord Copper’ as Viv becomes part of that strange elite group of well-meaning businessmen, sports failures, call-girls and hopeless politicians who represent colourful dropped stitches in the tapestry of British history. I’ll raise a glass to you, Viv.

NB Somebody just asked me what ‘football pools’ were.

3 comments on “Spent: Viv Nicholson Passes Into Mythology”

  1. Jo W says:

    I can remember the headlines in the newspapers at the time and the subsequent discussions amongst my family and friends as to their ideas of what to do with such wealth. The most my Dad won on the pools was just under £20. I think it helped with the cost of our school uniforms at the time. Someone asked you what the pools were? Some people are just tooooo young!!😉

  2. John Griffin says:

    I guess we get surprised when others don’t share our cultural frame of reference – I get that all the time teaching sixthformers. At least many now know what vinyl is, but today mentioned that TVs in the mid1950s were small screen, B&W and often had magnifying glass in front, and that most houses didn’t have one. Blank stares, but that from a bunch who had little idea about the British Empire, who was Queen in the second half of the C19 nor about the British Empire (I was introducing globalisation), didn’t realise that t’internet didn’t exist 25 years ago etc etc. Football pools were soooo 50s & 60s and B&W really.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    The ten year olds who stared in my office door to where I was typing a new library card on a *typewriter* are part of that, John, but Sixth formers who don’t know Queen Vicky?

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