THE INTERVIEW: TONY PARSONS TALKS TO BEN THOMPSON

Television's Mr Big Mouth concedes that he might have been `a bit over-exposed of late'. But he's not going to let a little thing like that stop him
always a master of the unexpected posture, Tony Parsons sits on the couch with his legs crossed beneath him. The man who can reduce grown adults to tears of apoplexy with a single sweeping generalisation exudes a surprising air of swami-like calm. Furthermore, he is not wearing any shoes. Visitors to the elegant Parsons residence in the burnt-out heart of Islington's media ghetto are politely asked to remove their footwear to preserve the shiny wooden floor. Tidy ranks of his brogues and loafers stand guard in the hallway like Imelda Marcos's private army.

The shelves in Parsons' airy lair are unnervingly well-ordered too. Amid the geometrically stacked CDs and videos, The World At War stands out."It was my Christmas present to myself," Parsons says fondly. "I think it's the best documentary ever shown on British television." He's been watching an episode every couple of weeks, whenever he's in that World At War mood. "If I'm ever thinking `Christ, I've got 14 hours of TV to do', I'll watch the preparations for the Normandy landings and think `Actually I've got it pretty easy...'." When it is respectfully pointed out that few people would question this assertion, the left-hand side of Parsons' mouth heads for his eye. In layman's terms, he smiles.

Tony Parsons' dad was a commando in the war; a "big war hero" who won the Distinguished Service Medal. His son, born in 1955, is part of the last generation that grew up still able to feel authentic pride in the achievements of World War II. Admiration for the wartime ideal of masculine bravery and self-sacrifice still causes him to look back through rose- tinted contact lenses to a time when men were men and women were glad of it. But this does not make Tony a lad. "You can't get a real man into a pigeon hole," he insists, pointing out that when his marriage to Julie Burchill broke up in 1984, it was he who got and kept custody of their son Bobby (now an Oasis-obsessed 16-year-old). "Is that the sort of thing lads do?" Parsons demands imperiously. "In between masturbating over Pamela Anderson posters and eating cheese and onion crisps, do they invest in parenting?"

Using an expression like "invest in parenting" is a classic Parsonian ruse. His manifold contributions to cultural debate in this country are characterised by a heroic determination to say the exact opposite of what will be expected of him. Would it be fair to assume that he is never happier than when expressing a question begging opinion on a subject - the class system, say - in which his personal stake is markedly different to that of those who will take issue with him? Having gone out of his way to get the opposition's back up, he can then sit back and bask in the predictability of their annoyance.

Parsons is not at all shamefaced. "It's true, I do enjoy that." Anyone who heard his already semi-legendary tussle with Melvyn Bragg on Radio 4's Start The Week recently will know just how much. The older man had got rather the better of a previous encounter, at one point eliciting from Parsons the immortal expostulation "That's outrageous, Melvyn, call my agent." This time Tony was waiting for him. He baited Bragg to such a frenzy of school-masterly rudeness that Melvyn's mum demanded her son publicly apologise. "I've got nothing but respect for Melvyn," Parsons smiles, magnanimous in victory. "We're both working class boys and our mums want us to be polite - I can understand that."

The interesting thing about Parsons' working class-ness is its mobility rather than its entrenchment. "If you come from Essex like I do, you tend to be a little bit rootless," he explains, "because in 99 cases out of a 100 your family has been transplanted from London." Tony was not that solitary exception, but he was an only child. His mum came from Plaistow and his dad from the Old Kent Road. For the first five years of his life he lived above a greengrocers in Romford, then his parents moved to Great Burstead, between Billericay and Basildon.

"It's totally suburban now, but then it was quite rural," Parsons reminisces. "I would wander the fields with my air rifle..." That's a lovely image. He laughs, "Blasting at everything that moved." Were his favoured targets tin cans or god's creatures? "I shot a bird once, but watching it fall from the tree broke my heart, so I never did it again." Was that like a rite of passage - the adolescent male goes off to kill a bear in the woods? "Exactly, except in my case it was a sparrow."

Young Tony was schooled from the first in the ways of the cockney cuckoo. "The teachers at my primary school were quite shocked suddenly to have a little artful dodger in their midst," he remembers. "Because I was the first, they actually suggested I should have elocution lessons." He pauses. "It was a good job I didn't, too, otherwise I'd never have got all these lucrative TV commissions." Things have certainly looked up since the dark days of the early Eighties, when Tony languished in relative obscurity writing airport novels about tennis while Julie became Fleet Street's highest paid hatchet-woman.

Now when Parsons refers to her - "Taking back R Whites lemonade bottles to get the deposit money for bus fares to the NME: we made our own entertainment in those days I can tell you" - it is with something very like fondness. It was not always thus. Rumour has it that the portrait of his ex-wife which emerged from Baby Love, Parsons' scandalous yet sadly unpublished novel of sex and drugs in the late Seventies pop media, was somewhat less than flattering. Tony doesn't deny this. "It's a myth that Julie got the book stopped though," he insists. "I mean, God bless her and good luck to her, but Julie couldn't stop a taxicab unless someone else was holding her hand." He grins. Success being the best revenge, Parsons has few scores left to settle.

Tony has, even by his own admission, been "a bit over-exposed" of late. Much of the abuse heaped upon his class and sex TV programmes in print has - especially given the gaping holes in many of their arguments - been absurdly personal. Tony does not seem too bothered. "I realise that some of the antipathy - not all of it, obviously, but certainly some of it - is the envy of less successful peers. And I think it's healthy for someone who dishes it out to have to take it as well." He can do this, he boasts, "till the cows come home". This is Parsons' one great advantage over the namby-pamby media timeservers who can often be heard bemoaning the insouciance with which he straddles the high culture/low culture divide: he is not afraid to make a fool of himself. Who could fail to be beguiled by the trailer for his shiny new Channel 4 vehicle Big Mouth, in which an epiphanic Tony proclaims "It's chocka!". If people are going to be paid outrageous sums of money to spout opinions of dubious validity, they might as well have fun while they're at it.

It's too early to say if Tony's Big Mouth will become one of the nation's cultural fixtures - being at the front of the class holding the chalk instead of at the back throwing paper darts will certainly be a worthy challenge for him - but The Late Review has certainly never been the same since the break-up of the Parsons/Paulin/Pearson dream ticket. "It's like Star Trek," Tony explains. "You can't replace Scotty or Mr Spock - you've got to have `Late Review: The Next Generation'." Does he enjoy talking rubbish on TV? "Absolutely. There's an element of performance which I enjoy. And I like those nerves, that knot of fear in the belly." It's a Hemingway thing then? "Ah yes," Parsons laughs, "old Ernie."

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