My least favourite part of my job as a journalist is preparing for interviews. I like to imagine a snow-capped mountain peak in the distance: this peak is your basic level of knowledge about the life of your interviewee and it takes many hours to scale. Once you get to the top, grumpy and low on oxygen, another peak emerges: “stuff the interviewee, in all their years being interviewed, hasn’t talked about before; anything to make this one different”. Whether you ever reach this peak is another matter.
If your subject is very old, the research process is five times as long. I have an aversion to notes in interviews, and an obsession with making them look like spontaneous conversations, so I drill myself like an actor learning lines. I have also noticed the strange and unavoidable transference that occurs with the elderly subject: you become the child or grandchild, sitting at their feet. It feels almost disrespectful trying to draw them back to difficult psychological experiences that occurred decades earlier, when they’ve lived so much more of life than you have.
In March this year, I visited Michael Parkinson for his last print interview before he died on 16 August, aged 88. I didn’t feel like Parkinson’s child or grandchild because we talked about the process of interviewing itself. He dissected the pain and embarrassment his two car-crash encounters (both of which I knew he had been forced to talk about way too much already – boy did I feel cheap) had caused him in real time. Of his infamous 2005 interview with Meg Ryan, he remembered the cold flood of failure as he realised he was coming up against resistance. Parkinson generally got no resistance because he was a good listener – naturally fascinated without being fawning. I got the sense that being around famous people never wore off for him: he essentially felt quite ordinary – a failure at grammar school, he didn’t go to university and had lots and lots of “luck”. No matter how great he knew he was at his job, he still wanted to be liked, and if it wasn’t happening that was very difficult. The humiliation of not being liked on screen, in front of an audience! He told me the real reason for his beef with Helen Mirren – his other disastrous interview – then told me not to tell anyone.
Parkinson had one of those unscalable mountain lives – one foot in the coal mines of Barnsley, the other on Fleet Street at that unique point in time when there were jobs in the establishment for people like him. He represented the era when stars were stars, and interviews were the only way they could promote themselves. Frail and faded, but bright-brained, he explained the reason for Graham Norton’s success – an appearance of effortlessness, which is of great value for chat shows, though many others seem like “chats” because they are, and the research hasn’t been done. The host just turns the carousel of well-loved anecdotes to keep the clickbait going.
I remember his family at home in Maidenhead: one of those families everyone hopes to have in old age, fizzing around him, caring for him, full of in-jokes and gentle ribbing. His son and manager, Mike, who co-wrote Parkinson’s memoirs in later years, I originally described as wearing a flat cap, till I suddenly suspected I’d made this up and texted to check. “No, I most certainly was not wearing a flat cap. Have you given me a greyhound too?” And his wife, the slightly giddy Mary Parkinson, who knocks golf balls into the River Thames.
Parkinson made his way slowly out into the frost, to his office. There, on hundreds of chronologically labelled DVDs lovingly put together by his son, was his archive. Mike Jnr said, “of course, a lot of this stuff is complete crap!” Parkinson tutted, pretty defenceless now, but well aware of how good he was.