Shortly before my trip to Maidenhead, I began to receive text messages from Michael Parkinson saying to look out for a BMW at the station: he’d pick me up. This was somewhat surprising. At the end of last year, Parkinson caused a stir when he appeared on breakfast television noticeably changed – “unrecognisable”, the tabloids said. He is 87 and was in hospital before Christmas for a heart problem which required two blood transfusions.
The Michael at the station is his youngest son, large of presence, whose Twitter handle reads, “Son of a famous father, husband to a famous wife [Fiona Allen from Smack the Pony] and I shall have my fame in this World or the next!” Sir Michael, like Sir Tom Jones, was wise enough to create the kind of very stable family unit that keeps a famous man afloat: a wondrous 60-year marriage to a local girl, and a son, one of three, devoted to the brand, which, 16 years after the Parkinson TV show ended, consists of books, journalism and “in conversation” tours.
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Dad doesn’t have a mobile phone, Mike explains, sweeping along the road – well, he does, but he can’t use it. If he can’t get it to work, he just hits the same button repeatedly. “I say, ‘Dad, if I asked you a question and you didn’t know the answer, and I just kept hitting you in the forehead, would you come up with the answer? You would not.’”
The house, where Michael has lived for 30 years, is very Maidenhead, and very white, in a 1980s-TV-star way. Big white stable doors, white floors, white sofas – which are extremely deep and comfy. The walls seem to be heated. Warm and deep in a chair, in a pale blue cashmere sweater with a cup of tea, is Michael. His soft hands are speckled brown. His eyes have changed the most, paler and more deeply set.
I tell him his recent book, My Sporting Life, is very romantic. “Really?” he says. A collection of his sports journalism, it explains something at the heart of anyone who interviews famous people for a living: the bittersweet pull of hero worship. The most wistful passages are his account of trying to set up an interview with Donald Bradman, the great Australian batsman, which never happened. “He spent his entire life on the run from me, but I should have been so lucky,” he says softly. “I always knew that in the pursuit, not only was I leagues behind, I’d never get there.”
What was it about Bradman? “He was a strange, contained man. The greatest batsman there’s ever been, and that kind of separation changes someone, shapes their personality, so it’s very difficult to understand them. It must be difficult to know yourself to be better than anyone in the area that you specialise in. Every time you observed him play, there was a detachment which made him unreachable.”
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I last spoke to Parkinson for an article celebrating 25 years since the BBC mockumentary Ghostwatch, a pre-reality-TV shocker that aired on Halloween 1992 and caused outrage and disturbance across the nation. A product of the kind of risky and unmonitored commissioning at the Beeb that people go misty-eyed about, the key to its success was Parky himself. Here was the grandfather of the nation, dry, incredulous and paternalistic, slowly coming to terms with the fact that poltergeists were attacking his studio. He relished the acting job, abandoned the script and told them he’d make it up himself.
Parkinson has arrived at an interesting stage in life. “I am old, I know that. I’m at the point where you know for sure you won’t live for ever.” He has had his years in the sun – but he has also been through his Alan Partridge phase (“Smell my cheese!”), around 15 years ago, when he finally left mainstream TV and was on the sidelines, doing digital versions of his show. There were battles, like when the BBC tried to move Parkinson to a slot that clashed with Coronation Street on ITV. And he is still haunted by two celebrity interviews that didn’t go well, constantly having to fend off questions about them from people like me. But otherwise, he is reflective.
He has strong feelings about the BBC. “I worked there when it was a dream factory, at its zenith of creative power and audience involvement.” He recalls getting in a lift with Morecambe and Wise, wearing a “regrettable” leather jacket, and Eric Morecambe telling him he looked like a tall wallet. He shared an office with a group of anarchic young writers and performers which included Rowan Atkinson, Mel Smith, Griff Rhys Jones and Pamela Stephenson.
Does he still support the licence fee? “Yes. It is not a case of ‘To pay or not to pay?’ – it’s what we should pay for and what we will miss if we don’t. The BBC’s future is being debated in the destructive, binary fashion all issues of public interest are prey to in the present day.” Parkinson believes the need for the BBC is more urgent than ever. “When charlatans and snake-oil salesmen occupy high office, and when the truth is a relative concept, there has never been a more important time for the public service broadcaster to go back to its Reithian principles. The BBC should bring a sane, quiet, informed and varied voice to a world of hysterical bellowing and instantaneous judgement.”
Parkinson uses the word “lucky” nine times in our interview – of his 36-year career in television, but about every stage of his life before that, too. Of his first jobs in local news in Yorkshire: “I was lucky to be on a little paper, in my view. What happened after that was just amazing good luck.” Of his career trajectory, which others might see as the standard process of getting a slightly better job each time: “I’ve been very lucky all my life; whenever I’ve moved somewhere it’s been a step upwards, from local papers to the Guardian.” Of the dawn of his TV work in 1971: “In those days Granada [TV] was highly political, and I was so lucky to join at that moment in time.” On fame, and vice: “I was lucky in the sense that I don’t think it affected me that much.” “I’ve been lucky all my life,” he says. “Here I go – I sound so self-satisfied.”
What is it that drives someone to say they’ve had a charmed life? A lucky man is a certain type of man. Luck is a feature of optimism, of extroversion and drive, but it is also about storytelling – a learned identity, based on the narrative you tell about yourself. “When I did my national service, they made me a bloody captain. What am I doing with three pips on my shoulder, from Barnsley?” he says. To be lucky is also to be humble, which makes you more attractive, and opens you to yet more luck. The archetype that keeps coming to mind is Dick Whittington.
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Parkinson’s father, John, his original hero, died at the age of 71 from pneumoconiosis, a result, he is sure, of a life digging coal in Grimethorpe Colliery. John took his only child into the pit at 14 to show him why he should not work there. “When I think of him, I smile. I could never imagine why somebody who worked for 12 hours down a pit every day was as happy as he was.” By the time his father showed him the coals, Michael was at Barnsley Grammar School, and failing, much to his mother’s disappointment: she had been his teacher, and was getting through four or five library books a week herself. What comes to mind when he thinks of her? His mother, he says, “was an extraordinary woman” from a humble background. “She was tough, she was ambitious and she’d no right to be. She was talented, too, a very good designer of knitwear. I used to be dressed in gaudy patterns. She was an exceptional woman, by God she was. She should have gone to university.”
Parkinson was a victim of the eleven-plus: a bright spark who had a major crisis of confidence when hot-housed with other bright sparks. He left grammar school with two O-levels, in art and English. What happened? “I was put into the express stream, which meant you took four years rather than five to get through school. So somebody thought I was bright, but I just lost confidence. I don’t know what it was. I just threw it away.” He wanted to be a sportsman: as a member of Barnsley cricket club in the late 1950s, he and his opening partner Dickie Bird had try-outs for Yorkshire alongside Geoffrey Boycott.
He worked on local papers at 16, then on the Manchester Guardian, an “ordinary reporter” alongside writers such as Anthony Howard and Michael Frayn, “who drifted around looking beautiful and writing beautifully”. He moved to the Express as a feature writer, “which was a bit like working with a merchant bank. They treated me very well, never tried to tame me, but I wasn’t always very happy.” Towards the end of his Fleet Street years, he was drinking too much: travelling home one evening he only recognised Surbiton station by a blurred “o” and an “n”, pulled himself off the train, and fell on to the tracks on the other side of the platform. “I am not proud of that. But I had a very, very strong-minded lady wife who would have beaten me up if I’d carried on. I’m still married to the same person I met all those years ago in Doncaster. There’s no conflict in the family. So, from my point of view, I can feel a bit chuffed.”
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I call Melvyn Bragg to ask him what had been so good about Michael Parkinson’s TV chat show, enough to keep it going for 31 series, from 1971 to 2007 with only a few breaks in transmission. Bragg used to watch it on Saturday nights in the early 1970s, several years before his The South Bank Show began. If you were at home with young children it was what you did, he says. He lists, speaking in bullet points, what made Parkinson the country’s greatest interviewer. “He made questions seem like conversation: that meant he’d done a great deal of homework. He had a manner, people wanted to tell him things. He was easy to make smile and laugh: you can’t learn that kind of flair. He was fearless – a film star one week and Jonathan Miller the next. He was where you wanted to be on a Saturday night: in the company of famous people who were articulate. He was fluent and affable, but he didn’t let anything pass. And he played to people’s strengths – didn’t try and catch them out.”
“And he’s absolutely right to talk about luck!” Bragg adds. “The first stage is getting the job – luck – and the second stage is keeping it.”
It was, of course, a matter of timing. There were jobs on Fleet Street, in the 1950s, for people with two O-levels. And there was an easy confluence between Fleet Street and TV broadcasting: the BBC was a new home for people who had never dreamed of becoming part of the establishment, allowing them to exist at the cusp of celebrity, conducting long interviews with stars. Stars were mysterious then, with no interior lives on display, no way to tell their stories before people like Michael Parkinson got to them.
In his book, he takes a pop at the idea of levelling up – something that, in his youth, he didn’t even think about because the opportunities were there. Were things radically better for northerners in his day? “It’s so much tied up, isn’t it, with your own personality, and the luck of the draw?”
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There is a thick frost on the lawn and a rather magical mist where it meets the River Thames at the end of the garden. Parkinson makes his way out in the cold, in just his blue sweater: we are going to look at his office.
His wife, Mary, appears. She was once on TV, actually stood in for him on his show, until she “had the sense” to get away from the business. Mary likes to practise her golf swing by driving the balls into the Thames. In a subtle trick of engineering, the river runs partly under the house, which is why this one hasn’t flooded when all the others nearby have; a few years ago, Mary opened a little hatch in the floor, and there it was.
Parkinson’s office is a large shed decorated with photos of Muhammad Ali and stacked with jazz CDs – 50 Big Band Classics, Ella Fitzgerald. Across one wall is the archive his son Mike has made, copying all 600 of his TV shows to DVD, interviews with well over 2,000 people. “I know people have a rose-tinted view of 1970s television but to be honest a lot of this stuff is complete crap!” says Mike.
“Dear, dear,” mutters Parky, next to him.
When he formed friendships with sportsmen, were those relationships coloured by his admiration for them? “People always believe that you bribed your way to the friendship, that there was an ulterior reason, apart from your own charm,” he says. “You get an awful lot of jealousy from people who wanted to get that close.”
When he saw George Best playing football with the three Parkinson boys in his garden, he says, Best seemed normal; that changed in public. “And then you wondered, ‘If I’d had that kind of hero worship when I was that age, how would I have been?’”
A rundown of the most famous interviews shows you that Parkinson is a man’s man: Ali, Billy Connolly, Peter Ustinov, Peter Sellers. It is perhaps not surprising, given that part of his skill was the way he connected, that he was fascinated by the differences between an exceptional and an “ordinary” man like him. His 1980 interview with Princess Anne was great, but two encounters with women – Helen Mirren and Meg Ryan – are now as famous as Parkinson himself, a sign of the state of modern journalism, he says pointedly (“they shall follow you around like a bad smell”), and evidence of revolutions in gender equality which have nothing to do with Parkinson at all.
Let us start with Meg. It is an anthropological artefact, this interview from 2003 – a fascinating example of social change. Meg is promoting a new film, Jane Campion’s In the Cut, a raw and explicit “debunking of Western romantic mythology”, as Meg puts it. (“A search for cynicism and disenchantment!” complains Parky.) He asks her various things: how well she knew her co-star Mark Ruffalo before she let him kiss her backside; whether her decision to make something so bleak was a result of her recent divorce from Dennis Quaid, and whether she would soon turn back into her old rom-com self again. The interview chills, freezes, then breaks down.
The funny thing is that even ten years ago, it was seen as evidence of an unhinged Hollywood diva on the slide. But watch it in 2023 and she looks perfectly sane. Parkinson is the one with the problem: “You clearly don’t like being interviewed!” he splutters. What was making him feel that he had to break the fourth wall?
“There comes a moment where, on television, you have to face the fact that things don’t go quite as you planned,” he says. “She was going through a bad time, she’d had a broken love affair, she was at the end of a tour, and she was promoting a film [In the Cut] which she was obviously disappointed in. She was not in a good mood, and nor was I. I’d planned something jollier and she let me down. I thought, I’m giving you the stuff, but it’s coming back sour. I thought, ‘Christ, I’ve been booby-trapped here.’ So I lost my temper and I shouldn’t have done. I decided that the only way out was to say, ‘For Christ’s sake, woman, talk sense!’”
Ryan said later: “That guy was like some disapproving father! I don’t know what he is to you guys” – meaning Britons – “but he’s a nut.”
What potential Parkinson had with the young Helen Mirren, who appeared on the show in 1975 carrying a single feather, with a new tattoo on her fingers – a Mayan phrase which roughly equates to “Love thy neighbour”. Instead, he asked whether her “equipment” might get in the way of serious roles, and called her the sex queen of the RSC. Afterwards Mirren called Parkinson a “sexist old fart”.
“I felt so sad that it went the way it did, because I was a great admirer, I think she’s a fabulous actress,” he says. “She’s a bloody good interview. She’s bright, she can be funny. I’ve interviewed her three or four times since and she always brings it up. She always starts off with a dig.”
So what got in the way? “Mutual loathing! She’s got love and hate on her bloody fingers, and she wanted me to ask her about the price of coal?” Like Ryan, Mirren seemed reluctant to answer the obvious questions. “Come on, lady, come on, please! Give me a break!” he cries, remembering. Then he tells me, in confidence, about a previous beef that existed between him and Mirren which meant the interview was doomed from the start. “I was not in the right mood to receive such a lady at all.” It is quite a story, and no doubt true. But when it comes to his two car-crash interviews, Parkinson prefers to blame personality clash rather than to consider the nature of the questions he was asking, still bearing the sharp humiliation of being regarded coolly by ladies who, for one reason or another, were refusing to play along.
He says he once took advantage of a TV guest, though he won’t say who. “I got to a period in his life about drinking and drugs, and I could tell I’d got him, I could tell I’d reeled him in,” he says. “In that moment, I could ask him anything I wanted, and he was vulnerable. You have to make the decision. You say to yourself, if I make him cry it’ll be a headline. But I’m not proud of that.”
And you did? “I did, yeah. And I have to say, it was because I had a friendship with him. I became aware I was using that intimacy to dictate the questions. I’d got to that stage.”
“Interviewing fascinates me,” he continues. “It’s really complex. It’s not just a question of asking the right questions. It’s about making a connection with somebody in the most discomforting of situations. I used to sit there at the bottom of the stairs waiting for them to fall. There they were, the poor buggers, stuck at the top of the stairs and they weren’t used to this sort of thing. I used to have this fantasy that one day a person would roll from the top step to the bottom step, and then I would go over and ask them the first question.”
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Ten years ago, full of late-life vim, Parkinson would bemoan the death of the TV chat show, blaming much of it on Jonathan Ross. Modern shows, he said, were designed to put the personality of the host in the spotlight, which is not what he was about. These days, he loves Graham Norton.
“Graham is very clever. He’s brighter, he’s funnier than all the rest. He’s not sycophantic. He looks like he’s doing an interview, but he’s laying it all out for an anecdote. He creates an atmosphere, creates a situation. He’s not John Freeman [the cerebral host of the BBC’s Face to Face interviews in the early 1960s] but who is? And you don’t need that when you’re doing light entertainment. My show was interesting in that it was a hybrid. I could do the very serious or the very funny, and I could do the one in-between.”
Looking to make him grumble, I ask him about celebrities’ seemingly insatiable desire to talk about their mental health – but here, too, he is a modern man. “I think that’s useful providing it doesn’t become a gimmick. Any means by which you can offload a problem to a sympathetic ear, whether it be on television with a brass band playing, or in a quiet room somewhere, is no bad thing. We all need to do that.”
He’s not really grumbling about anything these days. He loved Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley, whose dramatic denouement had just aired when we met. “Oh, isn’t she wonderful?” he gasps quietly of Sarah Lancashire, the lead actor, like a very thirsty person finally getting a really good cup of tea. “Oh, can she act. I would imagine if I were a fellow actress, I’d retire.” He knew her father, who was a scriptwriter for ITV. “You could say with somebody else, a lesser actress, that that kind of writing, the fearlessness of the insults especially in that last sequence, could easily topple into parody – but it didn’t.”
He is, finally, glad to be out of it all. “I’m not bemoaning the fact I’m not doing it. I’d had enough,” he says. “I wasn’t born to have the kind of life I’ve had.” Mary appears again. “Are you getting the train back? How lovely! I used to get the train to school – the Flying Scotsman, that’s how old I am!” Mike Jr appears, too, wielding car keys. Parkinson pushes himself up out of his armchair and makes his way across the room to shake my hand.
“I’m making a lot of huffing and puffing noises these days, have you noticed?” he says.
“I have, Dad,” says his son.
My Sporting Life: Memories, Moments and Declarations by Michael Parkinson is available now (Hodder & Stoughton)
Purchasing a book may earn the NS a commission from Bookshop.org, who support independent bookshops
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This article appears in the 08 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why universities are making us stupid