Nearly 50 years ago, Viv Nicholson vowed to 'spend, spend, spend' when she won the pools. She now wishes the money had never come into her life. Sheena Hastings reports.
WE'RE walking through a shopping centre car park in Castleford. To right and left people obviously clock Viv Nicholson, and a few double-take slightly. One man shouts, "Hello, sweetheart," as though she's an old pal.
Does she know him? "No, no idea," says Viv, who carries on walking at a cracking pace, fuelled by the bacon sarnie and cup of hot chocolate she's had for lunch. That guy might not recall her name, but he knows she's the "spend, spend, spend" woman, who put Castleford on the map nearly half a century ago.
Some people still walk up to her in the street and quote her most quotable phrase into her face, but they don't do it with the needle and venom that spiked their words years ago.
Viv is small and sylph-like in her smart cream trouser suit and black and white blouse, with cream high heels sporting natty black patent toe pieces.
No wonder she's so slight. Speed-walking Viv says she eats very little, preferring to spend her money on clothes. Even if she's only on a state pension and doesn't have much of a social life, she always likes to look her best.
Back at her small neat end-terrace house, the wardrobes full of smart clothes and a teetering stack of shoe boxes are evidence that old habits die hard. Standards set long ago have to be maintained, whatever the bank balance. Her hair's bleached blonde and sharply cut, amazingly by her own hand. She scrubs her face with apricot kernel wash every night, and applies the Clinique moisturiser she's been using for decades.
Whatever the secret is, she doesn't look 72. There's a force-of-nature vitality about Viv Nicholson that's often missing in people a third of her age.
For every high there's been a cataclysmic low, but she's still standing.
Viv was a young mother working in the local licquorice factory when she and her miner husband Keith won 152,319.00 on the Littlewoods football pools back in 1961. For a couple living in a three-up two-down rented for eight shillings a week, those eight score draws represented a king's ransom – the equivalent of 5m today.
They'd only done the pools three times, and each time the five-shilling stake was borrowed from Viv's mum. The night they realised they'd won they went out to the pub – "we had just enough for a pint for Keith and a half for me" – and no-one believed their tale of good fortune.
A few days later, after Littlewoods minders had escorted them to London to collect their giant cheque from Bruce Forsyth and Viv made her famous declaration to the press that she intended to blow the money and enjoy herself, Castleford sat up and believed.
After a spree at Harrods for Viv (including 80-guinea gold watch) and back-room pep talks from Littlewoods to Keith about how to invest the money, they headed back up North.
"The street was like bedlam," recalls Viv. "Suddenly we had a lot more friends, and my dad who didn't even like me, was out at the pub bragging about us all the time, happy that he had all the money he wanted for beer."
The begging letters started, the knocks at the door from people who said they'd only go away if they were given 10, the woman who jumped up and down on the car and said she had to have cash to go home to Italy. People around the town began to criticise Viv's spending.
"Their problem was that they didn't get any of it. What they didn't see, and what I've never spoken about, is the fact that without making a fuss, I did help people, like the woman in a wheelchair who'd never had a holiday to the seaside."
But what Viv wanted Viv got: a Chevrolet Impala, designer clothes and jewellery, flash holidays, and a smart bungalow a few miles away in Garforth, where "the neighbours hated us and our noise. Mind you, we did party, party, party…" The exuberant blonde dyed her hair pink or green or blue to match her outfits.
The eldest of five, with two invalid parents, Viv had struggled from the age of 12 to earn money to help at home and did most of the housework as well. She'd married in haste at 17, had a child, then met Keith "the love of my life" soon afterwards and had three more.
Looking back in a quiet moment, she says she wished that fortune had not brought them the big win. "We had a wild life, and I did enjoy it, but it drove a wedge between me and Keith. He was drunk all the time and always out, and we started to fight and drift apart."
One night, when about half the money had gone, Keith was killed after his blue Jaguar skidded across the A1.
"Before the money we had nothing, but we loved each other and got on with things. I remember one time when he went off to work with his two cigarettes for his breaks, and he brought half of one of his fags home to share with me. I really loved him, but the money came between us."
After Keith's death, the taxman took most of what was left, but Viv fought a legal battle and retrieved 34,000. There were three more marriages – with one husband dying in another car smash , and another from an overdose. "Why did I marry them? Because I had nothing to do, and they asked me…"
Viv tried to start a business in Malta, but parted with the island on bad terms. She and her brother Geoff launched a cabaret singing act, but that career was short-lived, when Viv refused to sing naked in a Manchester club. A clothes shop she opened burned down.
Twenty-five years ago Viv returned to Castleford, to the little house she lives in now, which is owned by two of her sons. Money from an autobiography and a West End stage musical of her life, produced by the West Yorkshire Playhouse, brought respectable cash injections, but she blew every penny. Until retirement she worked in a perfume shop for 15 years, but was always in a fix financially even then. Spending is part of her nature, she says.
"I can't not do, I love to spend. I enjoy it, and I haven't ever just spent it on myself." Her children went to boarding school, and one unusually sensible move before Keith's death meant enough money had been put in a trust for their schooling.
There have been a few houses along the way, but not one solitary candlestick remains from the hedonistic 60s.
In the last few years Viv Nicholson has survived a stroke, and three years ago gave up alcohol after drinking herself into a stupor to the point where she was comatose in hospital for three days and close to death for another couple of weeks.
She says her faith – she became a Jehovah's Witness 30 years ago – helped her through the crisis, and she made things up with the family. She babysits some of her grandchildren, and now has a great-grandson.
She feels as though she's made her peace with Castleford. "People are friendly when I go around the town now. Maybe they like to see you back where they are."
She's still full of unspent energy, with too much time on her hands. "I'd really like to have a job. I'm as lively as anything, I'll do practically anything, and I need the money. Maybe I could have a TV programme, helping people with their sex problems…?," she laughs raucously at the thought.
Viv Nicholson is the subject of an ITV documentary, to be shown next week. "I did it because it was nice to be asked, it earned me a few quid, and it was something to do."
There must be an occupation out there for a gregarious woman with a colourful past who can talk for Yorkshire. Viv Nicholson, the lass who vowed to spend like there was no tomorrow, still has a reputation to keep up.
Spend, Spend, Spent, ITV1, 8pm on Monday, August 25.