Jimmy Nicholson: Legendary crime reporter
Jimmy, with his customary pint of Guinness, with former Daily Express News Editor Mike Parry
By STEPHEN WRIGHT Daily Mail Associate News Editor
While covering the Rose West trial in Winchester 18 years ago, a diminutive, elderly man – who was wearing a distinctive black leather jacket/cape – introduced himself to me outside the court building.
We had been speaking for about two minutes when he looked at his watch and suddenly declared he had to leave because he had been booked for a ‘live interview – by satellite – with CNN in Atlanta’.
CNN wanted him to compare the West case with the Moors murders, which he had covered in the 60s, he told me.
His name was Jimmy ‘the Prince of Darkness’ Nicholson, a truly legendary figure in the world of crime reporting.
Jimmy had long since retired after a distinguished career in Fleet Street, but he had not lost his passion for the big occasion and there was no bigger court case in the 1990s than that of serial killer West.
Until a few years ago, ’The Prince’, who died in June 2016 aged 89, could still be found around the Old Bailey and near New Scotland Yard, regaling us with his stories from the ‘good old days’ in Fleet Street where he worked for the Daily Express and Daily Star, amongst others.
One of his favourite anecdotes was how he had fooled fellow hacks covering the crimes of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley into believing that MI5 agents had gone undercover on the Moors, dressed as sheep.
His news desk rang him furiously after the first editions had dropped, asking him why he had not filed the story.
Word of the death of ‘The Prince’ is a matter of deep sadness for dozens of hacks, past and present, who remember Jimmy – a mainstay of the Crime Reporters Association - as one of the great, great characters of Fleet Street.
Among those I corresponded with over the last few days was my distinguished former Daily Mail colleague, John Edwards, who recalled the night Jimmy was christened the ‘Prince of Darkness’.
John told me: ‘It was during the Spaghetti House siege in Knightsbridge in 1975. One of the hacks had got himself a suite at the Hyde Park Hotel with a balcony more or less overlooking the restaurant.
‘Gallons of drink was being consumed. It was maybe 3am one morning. Jimmy, as you know, didn't wear overcoats. He wore capes. He walked out onto the balcony and lifted the cape and it was silhouetted against the neon lights of Knightsbridge.
‘I looked at him and told Keith Graves, of the BBC, he looked like Dracula the Prince of Darkness. The name stuck. Jimmy always thanked me for it.’
John, who described ‘The Prince’ as a ‘dear friend’, went on: ‘Jimmy is way up in the top ten of all-time Fleet Street characters. No one who ever met him even for five minutes ever forgot him. He could back it up by being a bloody good reporter.
‘During the Black Panther case, the police put out an impression of the suspect in a balaclava and carrying a sawed off shotgun. I covered the trial of the killer Dennis Neilson in Oxford in 1976, as did Jimmy. I said to him that the picture had always struck me as looking like him.
‘Jimmy smiled: 'it was me!’
‘And it was true. It genuinely was him. He posed for it.’
According to legend, a detective had identified ‘Jimmy Nick’ – as he was also known – as being roughly the same height and build as Dennis Neilson, and persuaded him to pose on the condition of strict anonymity.
Another of Jimmy's close friends, Tim Miles – former crime hack at the Mail – sent me photographs of ‘The Prince’ at a leaving do in the Harrow, a popular watering hole near Fleet Street, in 1987.
Tim said: ‘The Prince's legendary sayings were drawn from the vernacular of 1950s Hollywood film noir.
‘One of my personal favourites was when we landed together in Sardinia chasing down the story of London businessman Rolf Schild, kidnapped for ransom with his wife and daughter. All but one of the hotels were shut.
‘Jimmy cast a jaundiced eye over the rain-swept, bleak, out-of season island and remarked: 'Hey baby, let's round up these bandidos and head home for Christmas.'
Tim added: ‘Of all the crime reporters, Jimmy was arguably the best connected to the major villains of his era. He had a hot line to the likes of Freddie Foreman, Frankie Fraser and the Great Train Robbers when they were active criminals, long before they became feted regulars on the celebrity party circuit.
'And when the career gangsters found themselves inevitably back behind bars, Jimmy would spend time visiting them in far flung Cat A jails on the Isle of White and Durham.
‘They repaid him with big exclusives.’
A few years ago, I was at a Scotland Yard CID dinner where Jimmy was on the top table with various police VIPs.
With perfect timing, ex Met commander Roy Ramm described to diners how Jimmy had once been a rather unsuccessful defence witness for Charlie Kray. In other words, Kray was later convicted. Jimmy chuckled.
Recalling stories of Jimmy’s extraordinary career reminds us of a time when crime reporters could mix freely with senior officers, whose trust he always enjoyed.
That he could also enjoy the confidence of senior prosecutors, judges and the most notorious criminals of his day is a tribute to his true journalistic skills.
If he was still working, I can’t imagine Jimmy relying on Freedom of Information requests for his stories – nor putting up with the wall of silence erected by police press offices in the post hacking scandal era.