Nicholas Parsons interview: The veteran broadcaster on 48 years of 'Just a Minute', and how he nearly pursued a career in politics

Parsons became a household name in the 1970s as host of 'Sale of the Century' on ITV, and has chaired Radio 4's comedy panel game 'Just a Minute' since its inception in 1967

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The Independent Online

Nicholas, you're 91! You must be slowing down a bit?

No, no, I've been all over the place. I was just saying to my wife that I've got so much on at the moment and we're hoping for a break. I'm doing a show called Holiday of my Lifetime, with Len Goodman, and an antiques show with Gyles Brandreth. I'm doing one or two charity things, more Just a Minute, and then I'm off to Edinburgh in July for my one-man comedy show. I can't believe they still want me!

Do you think about being old?

I read The Stage every week and one of the first pages I turn to is the obituaries. So many people you knew or worked with are dropping off the perch, it's very sad to see. And I'm aware of it physically. I used to play squash and water ski. I still do the garden but that's a bit tiring now so I come in and rest. But mentally, I don't notice it at all.

What's your secret?

Just a Minute! I did the original pilot and haven't missed a show in 48 years and over 900 performances. It keeps me young because it's such a mental challenge, and requires such tremendous concentration. I have no back-up or script. I need to have listened to every word to know if there has been a repetition. But I also try to generate fun, and throw out lines to clever young comedians like Paul Merton [Merton is 57].

 

Did you think it would be a hit back in 1967?

The pilot was awful – terrible – and they didn't want it. It was only when a clever young producer saw potential in it and fought to get a series that it carried on. I was originally supposed to be on the panel, but the only thing the BBC liked about the pilot was my chairmanship. I said, but I was awful! But they said everyone else was worse – and from that disaster has grown one of the biggest successes of BBC radio.

Is it true that you were nicknamed Shirley at school?

Yes. I always wanted to be an actor, you see, but when I was young, you didn't go into the theatre unless you had connections. My parents were horrified but when I told my school friends, the big star at the time was Shirley Temple, so they nicknamed me Shirley. I didn't mind at all. I had dyslexia but I was good with my hands and my parents got me a job as an apprentice engineer up near Glasgow, working with all these rough characters on Clydebank. And me with my public school accent! I did five years there, then the Merchant Navy. When I got discharged because I became ill, I decided to become an actor – in the middle of the Blitz. I sat in one impressarrio's office for three days straight until he promised to give me an audition.

What was your breakthrough?

Working with Arthur Haynes on stage and television. That established me as a household name. That also started as an absolute disaster, too.

You almost became an MP

Yes, I've always been into politics. I joined the Liberal Party and was asked to stand in Yeovil; they got Paddy Ashdown instead. I later supported the Liberal Democrats, and it's so sad to see their demise as a result of the coalition. I was also very sad about Charles Kennedy, a very brilliant young man who told them not to do it.

What do you think of young people in your trade today?

It's such a changed world. Now you've got all these reality shows, and Britain's Got Talent. They must all think they've got talent, and the very few who get anywhere become overnight successes and are treated as stars. But unless you've got something really special, nothing replaces experience, yet there are so few places left where you can learn your craft.

Biography

Nicholas Parsons, 91, has spent seven decades in radio, theatre and TV. Noted for his genial presenting style and fine diction, he became a household name in the 1970s as host of ‘Sale of the Century’ on ITV, and has chaired Radio 4’s comedy panel game ‘Just a Minute’ since its inception in 1967. His one-man show is at Chickenshed Theatre in north London on Sunday 21 June. (020 8292 9222; chickenshed.org.uk)

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