Michael Parkinson: 'You don’t have to like someone to interview them'

For decades, he was the master of the prime-time interview, coaxing revelations from John Lennon, Woody Allen and Madonna. How will Sir Michael Parkinson take to swapping seats with our own charming interrogator, Deborah Ross?
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The Independent Online

Off, then, to interview Sir Michael Parkinson, who may or may not be from Yorkshire (Is he? Does anyone know for sure? Might he have ever visited, at least?) and of whom I am peculiarly fond. I know, I know, this is hopelessly un-post-modern of me, but his Saturday night chat show was the event television of my late childhood and early teens, and I think I'd still prefer to watch an hour of that than, say, a Piers Morgan blubathon. I later ask Parky: What do you think of Piers Morgan's show? "I've never seen it," he says. Never? "I've got better things to do on a Saturday night," he says, "like taking the Lady out for a lovely meal." But aren't you just a little bit curious? I persist. "Why would I be?" he asks. "It's all tabloid, X Factor people." But, I protest, you interviewed Robson Green! "He was huge at that time," he says. Cheryl Cole is huge now, I reply. He grumbles disobligingly. How are we ever going to drag our Parky into the modern age. How, how, how? I don't know, just as I don't know this: did he ever meet George Best or Muhammad Ali, back in the day when stars were real stars, and the greats were greats? It would certainly be interesting to find out.

We meet at his office in Windsor which, it turns out, is housed, along with other offices, in some kind of stately home within extensive grounds. Nice place, I say. "It has 70 acres, its own deer herd, and a little golf course," he says. He lives just three miles up the road, so I wonder why he can't work from his own home.

Is it Mary (his wife of 51 years)? Is she always at you for sex? She has always seemed the type. "Not at all!" he exclaims. He says he has a production office next door "with thousands of tapes, an editing suite, and three or four people working in there". He is wearing jeans, but they seem to be fancy jeans. I read the label on the back: "Façonnable". What's all that about, Parky? "I bought them in Harrods," he says. "They are French." Very nice, I say. "I like the fit of French clothes," he says. I wait for him to return the compliment, to say something along the lines of "Ohhh, you are lovely, aren't you?" or "smashing frock", but he does not, probably because I'm not lovely and my frocks are drab, which is fair enough.

I ask him: of all the women you have interviewed, back in the day when stars where real stars, and the greats were greats, who was the most desirable? "Diana Rigg, in the Seventies – lustrous," he says. And the most beautiful? "Raquel Welch at 24. Flawless skin with a translucent quality, and wonderful eyes, although later it was very difficult to make out what had been done by God and what by hand." And have you interviewed people you've actively disliked? "Of course. You don't have to like someone to interview them." Who? "I'm not saying." Go on. "No." What about Meg Ryan? "I'm not saying, and none of your beguilements can charm me," he says. If you aren't lovely and you wear drab frocks, this tends to be the trouble. It's hard to get anywhere.

His office is filled with nice paintings and cricket stills and yet no photographs of himself alongside any of his famous guests. I'm teasing. There's a montage of Parky surrounded by Muhammad Ali, George Best – he has met them! Who knew? – Billy Connolly, Dame Edna, Dame Helen Mirren, Dame Judi Dench, Tom Cruise, Dustin Hoffman, Sir Paul McCartney, blah-blah, blah-blah, and Madonna. He says it took 20 years to get Madonna on the show, "but once she came to us she was wonderful".

He was also impressed by her grooming team, who wore torches on their heads and carried long sticks with cotton buds on the end that were occasionally shoved up her nose. Why? "To check for bogies." I laugh. He laughs. I find I'm having fun. Come on, I say, who made the most excessive demands? You can tell me that, at least. Mariah Carey, he says. "She demanded a large dressing room which had to be draped in white linen and damask and all that balls. So we created this space for her in what had been a band room, underneath where the ordinary dressing rooms were, but when I tried to go downstairs to say hello, I was prevented by this platoon of huge security guards who didn't have a clue who I was. 'But I'm the bloody host!' I told them. They just looked at me and said: 'Yeah, man, yeah'." That told you, Parky. "It did," he says.

We are here, ostensibly, to talk about his latest book, Parky's People, which features 100 of his interviews. I say that one of the interviews I most remember, aside from Emu, was the one with Val Doonican, and that story he told about his father retreating to the shed at the bottom of the garden to die. It made me cry. It made my sister cry. It made my mum cry. "It made me cry!" says Parky. I was disappointed to not find it in the book, I say. "Doonican isn't in the book?" he says. Have you read your own book, Parky? "Well," he says tetchily, "if it's not in the book, it is certainly on the DVD, which will be out before Christmas." He can, indeed, be a grumpy old bugger. He says he is tired, didn't get back from a literary festival until 2am the previous night, and also has a cold. He says he likes writing books but doesn't like going on the road to flog them. Now people have camera phones, they want their picture taken with him, "so signings take four times as bloody long" and the flash means "you can't see a bloody thing for about three minutes afterwards". He says one woman even came up to him recently with a book that wasn't his book, as it was the New Testament: "I said to her: 'I didn't write this.' She said: 'I know. I'm not stupid.' So I asked her why she'd bought it for me to sign it. 'Because,' she said, 'it was cheaper than your book!'"

I ask if he misses doing Parkinson. He says not. I say: if you could have had the Queen on your show, and you could have asked her one question, which she would have to of answered candidly in front of the nation, what would that question be? "Good question," he says. Watch and learn, my boy, watch and learn. He continues with: "I suppose the tabloid question would be: what did you really think about Diana? The broadsheet question would be: who is the person who most disappointed you and who is the person you have most admired? Just think of who she has met and been in front of. There isn't anybody in the 20th and 21st century she has not observed."

I say I'd ask her what job she would like to have done, if she hadn't been Queen. I can see her as a baggage handler at Heathrow. He says: "I can see her as a security guard! Take those boots off!" He laughs mightily. He is not without a sense of humour.

Parkinson's show began on the BBC in 1971, moved to ITV in 2004, and was cancelled in 2007. He says he had no option but to leave the BBC when he did because, having brought back Match of the Day, they wanted to boot him from Saturday nights to Wednesday evenings against Coronation Street. "I said to them: 'Don't be silly, you know where a talk show works, and a talk show works after nine o'clock'." He is quite certain he had no choice. "We had all these debates and arguments and I thought bugger it, I've just had enough of this. So we let it be known to ITV we were ready to talk if they wanted to talk." Did you feel personally betrayed by the BBC? "I felt disappointed because it was a BBC show, and it did belong on the BBC, but I left without any regrets at all. We are in a very competitive, commercial market and people have to make decisions. Some of those decisions are open to question sometimes, and you can get cross about that, but I looked on the bright side of things and thought I'm going to double my money by going to ITV as well, so why should I not? I reckoned I had about five years left and it would be the pension fund." So you could keep Lady Mary in tiaras? "Golf clubs would be more pertinent," he says.

I ask him about "the curse of ITV" – all those big BBC stars who crossed over and fell on their arses, like Morecambe and Wise, Des Lynam and, now, Adrian Chiles and Christine Bleakley, whose famed chemistry doesn't seem quite as sizzling now. He says he did not fall on his arse. "We didn't get lower ratings or anything," he says. But the show finished? "I just didn't like the people involved, which is a different thing." He says when he first moved to ITV, it was on condition he took the whole kit and caboodle with him; the whole Parky production team. It was also on the understanding he had full editorial control.

But then there were changes at the top, a new guy came in – Simon Shaps – and it all went belly up. Shaps invited him to the Ivy. "He said he wanted to get to know me, and I arrived thinking: 'This will be rather nice', but he had a contract with him and said to me: 'I want to talk to you about one or two things, particularly the thing about you having editorial control' and I said, 'You're going to start talking to me about a contract, when we are having lunch at the Ivy?' When he said he was, I told him he could take his contract and shove it where the sun don't shine. I went back to the office and complained to the bosses and he was severely reprimanded or something. And from that point on, I remember saying if he ever takes over, start the motor... and that's exactly what happened." I wonder if he feels the standard of his guests did taper off eventually. "No!" he protests. Hello? I say. Martine McCutcheon? "She was the best Eliza Doolittle I'd ever seen!"

He does not take himself lightly. (Take me to the Ivy and I'd sign any old thing!) I wonder if he ever suffers from self-doubt. He insists he does. "I have it all the time. You always wonder: can I still do it? Did I ever do it? I did a series of stage shows in Australia. Did I have doubts about that? You bet your bottom dollar. I was terrified. I think it would be a very boring life if you didn't have self-doubt." Do you fear failure? "I don't fear it, but it depresses me greatly. I can be hurt by criticism, but you can't stay in bed because someone doesn't like you. Providing those who love you also like you, it's all right. I've got some grandchildren who think I'm fabulous!"

His three grown-up sons live nearby, as do seven of his eight grandchildren. Have you ever changed one of their nappies? "Are you mad?" he replies. "I never changed my children's nappies. Of course not. God almighty! I was brought up in a household where that didn't happen, and it didn't happen in my household either. I'm not going to even apologise for that." Can you use a washing machine? "No, but I can do a dishwasher and, what's more, my wife doesn't have a clue how to do it properly. I'm very precise with the knives, particularly, whereas she just chucks them in, and then they come out unclean. I tell her this and she doesn't do anything about it." Divorce, Parky? Sometimes it's the only way. "This is married life," he replies philosophically. "These are the things that meld us or stretch us or break us."

We start to wind up. He wants to go home, to bed, with his cold being as bad as it is. Is Mary a good nurse, I ask, or does she say: "Stop your bloody moaning, man, and just get on with it"? She is a good nurse, he says, "because she used to be a teacher, but she is out playing golf this afternoon." I do know a good divorce lawyer, I say. He'll come to me if he needs the number, he says. He then lies on a sofa for the photographer. Between shots, we talk about art. He is very interested in art. He owns some Lowrys. His dream painting, if he could own anything out there, would be Manet's A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, currently in the Courtauld Gallery in London.

"I think the barmaid is absolutely beautiful. I could look at her all day long. There is something wonderful about her face." He also says: "The nice thing about being knighted was waiting in the hall outside the room where you get the tap and looking around the paintings. A Titian. A Gainsborough. It's extraordinary." And when the Queen gave you the tap, did you ask her what job she'd do if she weren't Queen? "I did not," he says. Let's face it, I tell him, you fluffed it. "I did," he accepts, smilingly. He can take some teasing. I also tell him this: although it's probably too late for you Parky, if you don't mind me saying, I hope you have picked up some interviewing tips from a master today.

"I have," he concedes. "Oh, yes." That said, I forgot to ask if he'd ever been to Yorkshire. Damn, damn, damn.

Close encounters: Parkinson's TV moments

Orson Welles

Before an interview in 1971, the giant of cinema swept into Parkinson's dressing room to suggest he ditch his pre-prepared questions. It was a good call: the resulting interview helped seal the chat show's reputation.

John Lennon

Also in 1971, Lennon refused to answer any questions about The Beatles – unless Parkinson asked them from inside a sack. So Parky dutifully stuck a bag over his head, and continued the interview under cover. Parkinson has deemed the sack concept a "potty idea" of Yoko Ono's, who was also on the show.

Rod Hull and Emu

During a 1976 interview, Parkinson was attacked by Rod Hull's alter ego, an emu puppet, which knocked him off his chair. The broadcaster has since complained that "the only thing I am ever remembered for was being attacked by a fucking emu".

Muhammad Ali

Parkinson has cited Muhammad Ali as his favourite-ever interviewee, although he admits that the boxer ran rings around him: "I interviewed him four times, and I lost every time".

Woody Allen

Allen accused Parkinson of having a "morbid interest" in his private life, after his interview on the show in 1991 (Allen's first chat-show appearance in 35 years) included probing questions about his custody battle for his two children following the break-up of his relationship with Mia Farrow.

Meg Ryan

A famously frosty interview with the actress, who gave monosyllabic answers to his questions. When an exasperated Parkinson asked her what she would do in his place, she snapped, "Why not wrap it up?". He has termed the 2003 encounter his "most difficult TV moment".