George Michael loves him. Robbie Williams's mum fancies him. Caroline Aherne keeps his picture on her wall. Thirty years on, Michael Parkinson is still the king of the talk show. The difference is that these days it's the interviewer who has become the st

Click to follow
The Independent Online

I cannot tell a lie. Circa 1978, while my schoolfriends yearned to become the next Kenny Dalglish or David Bowie, I was a Michael Parkinson wannabe. Still am, really. But that was his heyday, when Saturday nights meant Starsky and Hutch, Match of the Day and Parkinson. A little later, Saturday nights meant five pints of bitter at the Snooty Fox, a bag of chips, and sometimes a chunder on the top of the No 17 bus. But even then I hurried home to catch Parky's goodnight and Laurie Holloway's jaunty "derduddlerdurdlurdur..."

I cannot tell a lie. Circa 1978, while my schoolfriends yearned to become the next Kenny Dalglish or David Bowie, I was a Michael Parkinson wannabe. Still am, really. But that was his heyday, when Saturday nights meant Starsky and Hutch, Match of the Day and Parkinson. A little later, Saturday nights meant five pints of bitter at the Snooty Fox, a bag of chips, and sometimes a chunder on the top of the No 17 bus. But even then I hurried home to catch Parky's goodnight and Laurie Holloway's jaunty "derduddlerdurdlurdur..."

Now that his talk show is with us again - BBC gods be praised and youth-obsessed focus groups be damned - Parkinson finds himself interviewing people of my generation. Like Caroline Aherne, who has a photo of the young Parky stuck on her wall at home. Or younger, like Robbie Williams, not even born when Parkinson was first aired, who told Parky that his mum fancied him. Which is all a bit arse about face, as they say in Barnsley. If anyone has to be starstruck, it should be the guy asking the questions.

Still, the veneration has worked to Parkinson's advantage. George Michael is another with fond memories of BBC1's Saturday nights in the 1970s. So when the singer decided to share his recollection of events in a certain Los Angeles lavatory, he got his people to contact Parkinson's people. However, Parkinson had a problem. How was he going to open the show? He couldn't go in like Flynn, as it were, by quizzing George immediately about the arrest.

"But I knew that everyone would be waiting for me to ask the question, and I couldn't bear the bloody tension. Then he rang me and said he wanted to get together. We sat down at The Ivy, and his first words to me were, 'I've always wanted to get on your show... to think I had to show my dick to an LA cop to do it!'" Parky roars with laughter. "And I said, 'I'm not writing you a script, but if you say that as soon as you walk on, I'll be home and dry and you will be too. That way, you've raised it, and you've made a joke of it.'"

Parkinson's George Michael interview in December 1998 enhanced the reputations of both men, and did no harm, either, to the sales of George's latest record. Their encounter was never intended simply as a soul-baring exercise. "Of course not," says Parkinson. "He had a new record coming out. Do you think Bing Crosby came on my show because he was a personal friend? Bollocks! But if we had to have him singing his latest song, was that such a bad thing?"

Nay, nay and thrice nay, as Frankie Howerd (the only Parkinson guest who ever begged to be scripted) might have said. And similarly, does anyone think I am sitting here at Langan's nattering to Parky because he has nowt better to do? Bollocks! No, Parky has a new book to plug, a collection of newspaper columns called Michael Parkinson on Golf (Hodder & Stoughton, £12.99). And very good it is too. It sheds some light, moreover, on the social evolution of M Parkinson, now a member at ultra-smart Wentworth, who 30-odd years ago founded the Anti-Golf Society.

"All my friends had started playing, like Jimmy Tarbuck, and I was maybe a bit working-class chippy about it. Also, I didn't like clubs very much and still don't, because they exclude people. I have played most of my golf with a woman (his wife, Mary), and that's how you find out what it's like to be a second-class citizen."

This denunciation of sexual inequality is somewhat at odds with Parkinson's image as an unreconstructed son of South Yorkshire, which he has himself encouraged by confessing that he became stroppy and resentful when Mary briefly enjoyed a successful telly career of her own. Their marriage went through some turbulence, and in the end, Mary's career gave way. So it could be argued that Parky is only a fair-weather friend of equal opportunities. Or that he has mellowed. Either way, there is no doubting the sincerity of his tirade against snotty golf clubs and, an object of particular loathing, the Marylebone Cricket Club. "I wouldn't touch the MCC with a bargepole," he huffs.

He warms to his theme. "I don't believe in the honours system either. Let's give medals to the poor buggers who picked up the pieces after the Paddington crash, but to someone like me? For what? For being highly paid and having the time of our lives? I've never, ever woken up and said, 'Sod it, I've got to go to work.' Unlike my dad, who had to go down the pit every day."

I point out that there are lots of showbiz types who get justly rewarded for their tremendous "cherridy" work. "Yes, but I've seen too many people getting involved in charity as a plan of campaign, in the hope of getting a gong." There was once, he confides, a gentle inquiry. Might he be interested in becoming Parky MBE? His reply was polite but unambiguous.

He is not always polite. He didn't massively enjoy Jerry Springer's recent stab at doing a talk show over here. "I thought it was crap from beginning to end. He didn't seem to like it himself, he didn't have a clue what he was doing, and whoever put it on should be bloody ashamed of themselves." I hazard a wild guess that we won't be seeing Jerry cantering down Parky's staircase. But he hasn't finished yet. "Mr Springer said something very interesting. He said he was encouraged to come to England when he saw a show on which two people did nothing but talk gently to each other. That must have been my show. And he missed the point. The point is that there is an audience for it."

There sure is. In January, over 10 million people watched Parky interviewing Geri Halliwell, Dawn French and Carol Vorderman. Yet for years, the BBC thought his type of talk show was obsolete. And Parky was inclined to agree. When I first interviewed him six years ago, he ruled out the chances of a comeback, saying "when you've done Edith Evans, why would you want to do Madonna?" Indeed. Although I don't suppose he'd turn his nose up at Madonna now, not with 25 shows to fill next year, and another 25 in the year after that.

The new series begins in January, but there will be three specials over Christmas, notably one featuring Sir Paul McCartney. McCartney has been top of the Parkinson wish-list since the Seventies, so Parky is chuffed as little mintballs, as they rather curiously say in Barnsley, that he has finally agreed. And the great man is unlikely to be as awkward as John Lennon who, in 1971, refused to answer questions about the Beatles unless Parky asked them from inside a sack.

George and Ringo both appeared on Parkinson too, so the McCartney interview will complete the Beatles set. And with it, Macca will be fulfilling a promise made aeons ago, when he agreed to be interviewed in return for Parky agreeing to be photographed for the cover of Band on the Run. "We go a long way back," says Parky. "Before they were famous, in the early Sixties, the Beatles were resident band on a show I produced for Granada. We've always got on well. He always liked people who were in long-standing relationships, like he was."

Parky's long-term relationship exceeds 40 years, and we won't give his age away, except to wonder whether Mary is still sending him a Valentine, birthday greetings, bottle of wine. She has now joined us. They make an engaging double-act, as she jogs his recollections of former colleagues at the old Manchester Guardian, and at Granada in those halcyon 1960s. "We didn't know it at the time, but Granada was at the epicentre of a cultural revolution," Parkinson recalls. "I couldn't have got a job as a doorman at the BBC, but (Granada boss) Sidney Bernstein had decided that Granada should be one long Coronation Street. Everyone should have a Northern accent, and if you didn't, you had to learn one."

Parkinson began in 1971, the BBC having finally acknowledged that not every presenter had to speak like Richard Dimbleby, and continued until 1982. There followed Parkinson's disastrous flirtation with telly executive-dom, as one of TV-am's so-called Gang of Five. "After TV-am, I became a jobbing presenter. I have always taken the view, a bit like Michael Caine in movies, that you should do everything." And so he did, from Going For A Song to Give Us A Clue, until the BBC, overwhelmed by the feedback following the transmission of one of his old Muhammad Ali interviews, raised the spectre of a comeback.

And now he is king of the talk show again, confident that he has become better at it, though a little sad that they don't make guests quite like they used to - one minute there was Cagney, the next minute, Cagney and Lacey. "But there are still big stars around," he says. "I think Tom Hanks is marvellous. And I would love to get Harrison Ford." Mary murmurs her assent. "But the one I really want you to do is Sidney Poitier," she adds. "Ooh yes," I say, as the three of us leave Langan's and slide into the Parkinsons' chauffeur-driven Jag, which drops them off at their Mayfair pied-à-terre before taking me on to a more humble address, where I muse that there are probably more reasons now than ever before to be a Michael Parkinson wannabe.

Comments