Even today, when millionaires are generated two or three times a week by the National Lottery, the British public still prefer those who have wealth suddenly thrust upon them to respond with a cautiousness bordering on indifference, to be as level-headed in their spending as a stoic tycoon.
Wealth fascinates us but money is vulgar, and if, watching safely from the moral high ground, we see it cost some lucky soul dear, that reassures us that we are better off without the jackpot that fate is probably never going to serve us up.
Viv Nicholson, a packer in a liquorice factory whose miner husband Keith scooped an unprecedented pools win of £152,300, 18 shillings and eight pence in 1961 (“back then, even the eight pence meant something,” she later recalled), was the ultimate Aunt Sally in this regard. She was unapologetic and brassy. But the money, equivalent to around £5m today, burnt a very large hole in her pocket, and within five years it was all gone. She had spectacularly fulfilled the promise she had delivered like a banshee cry to salivating reporters: “I’m going to spend, spend, spend!”
The Nicholsons had ticked the “no publicity” box on their pools entry (for which they were so broke they had borrowed the stake), but even if Littlewoods had honoured that request Viv’s flamboyant personality would have made discretion impossible. She was a crowd all by herself, a gutsy champagne blonde would could eat men for breakfast and who believed life was about more than just cooking their tea.
Vivian Asprey was born in Castleford, West Yorkshire in 1936. She was bright and creative and won a scholarship to art school at 13, but her father, a heavy-drinking coal miner, refused to allow her to go, and when asthma incapacitated her mother she raised her six siblings largely by herself. She was married and pregnant at 16 but left her first husband when the boy next door caught her eye. That was Keith Nicholson, who, although only the second of five husbands, was unquestionably the love of her life.
At the time of the pools win the pair were raising four children on £9 a week. With no aftercare given to them by Littlewoods, inevitably they became kids in a sweetshop; in no time at all Viv was spending an estimated £1,400 a week. The couple bought a £4,000 bungalow in a middle-class suburb and Viv learnt to drive in a succession of cars ranging from pink Cadillacs to silver Chevrolets, changing them as often as she changed her hair colour.
The money had made them classless but marooned them in an empty world where both rich and poor distrusted them. Their days became a wasteland of alcohol abuse, and when Keith died in a car crash she wore her funeral suit for three months. What little remained of the money went to the tax man. She was offered £50 a night to strip to the tune of “Big Spender” in a Manchester club but was sacked for refusing to shed her underwear. That Christmas, to afford some presents for the children, she sold her story to the News of the World.
Ten years later, having survived two more widowings from drink and drug-addicted spouses, an overdose and two suicide attempts, she told her story to a student, Stephen Smith, who was preparing a thesis on the effects on people of instant wealth. It came to the attention of the television director John Goldschmidt, and with Jack Rosenthal delivering the best script of his career, Spend, Spend, Spend became one of the great television films.
Goldschmidt’s immaculate direction and the bravura performance of the late Susan Littler, one of the most exciting actresses of the 1970s, guided an enormous audience dazzlingly along the road to ruin and saw the play scoop four Baftas and an RTS award; the subsequent book delivered Nicholson a fresh windfall of £60,000.
True to form she blew this, too, as well as the £100,000 in royalties she made from the successful West End musical version two decades later. The only instance of her ever having saved for a rainy day was in setting up a trust fund for her children’s education straight after her win. She became a Jehovah’s Witness in 1979, evangelising around the streets of Castleford with her customary gusto. Jack Rosenthal remembered that the last time he saw her she told him how she had renounced both drink and men while running her hand up the inside of his thigh.
Today, with credit cards and payday loans the order of the day there are short-term escapes from the boredom of poverty, tempting for so many because in today’s society poverty would appear to be the most socially unacceptable of crimes. In Viv Nicholson’s day, she committed what were then even worse ones: self-indulgence and bad taste.
In later years she worked in a perfume shop in Wakefield. The dementia she battled in her final years was becoming apparent when I interviewed her in 2004, but one memory shone bright even as her mind dimmed. “My Keith,” she said, clutching my hand tightly. “I still miss him. I can even still smell him.”
Vivian Asprey, pools winner: born Castleford, West Yorkshire 3 April 1936; married firstly Matthew Johnson, (marriage dissolved), secondly Keith Nicholson (died 1965), thirdly Brian Wright (deceased), fourthly Graham Ellison (marriage dissolved), fifthly Gary Shaw, four children; died Wakefield, West Yorkshire 11 April 2015.Reuse content