Nicholas Parsons: 'That's what life's about – having fun'
After 43 years at the helm of 'Just a Minute', nothing can keep the all-round entertainer down. Andrew Johnson meets Nicholas Parsons
Sunday 18 April 2010
If anyone has a claim to the somewhat shaky crown that comes with the title National Treasure, it is Nicholas Parsons. At 86 he's four years older than Brucie and yet his punishing schedule is full for the next year. He is clever, witty, funny and he's done it all, from stand-up comedy to straight acting. So why bother? Why not just put his feet up and tend the garden he loves? Like many of us, he confesses he's still trying to prove himself to his parents.
Not that he's going to do anything as pseudy as baring his soul to a journalist. He is an old-style trouper. "I just love performing and that's the chief reason I still do it," he says.
So much so that he appears to have prepared quite carefully for our meeting. Is that a touch of rouge on his cheeks? Either that or he's preternaturally healthy. Actors do wear make-up, of course, just not usually at home. It must be for the photographs, for which he later poses without once dimming the wattage of his smile.
Now, this might be misinterpreted as vanity. But an interview, he says, is a job and as such he is "switched on" throughout the conversation.
Some performers, such as Eric Morecambe, whom Parsons knew, never switch off. When Parsons is switched on he is almost limitlessly engaging and entertaining. Every now and again, however, a grumpier – more human – Nicholas shoulders his way through. It is Nicholas who scolds the photographer for suggesting taking some snaps during the interview. "No, no, no," he says. "One can't possibly concentrate on what one is saying and on photographs at the same time."
As we seat ourselves in the living room of his new home in a Chilterns village outside Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire, he takes a phone call. "I had to get a new battery for the car," he explains. "Everything is so technical these days. Once you put the new battery in it buggers up the radio. You have to have a special code to put in. I didn't know what the code is."
Nicholas is slightly irritated. But then we're off: Parsons returns and brings with him a fountain of engaging recollections, stories, anecdotes and, every so often, a little insight into what drives him.
He has a remarkable memory for the names of the people he has worked with, and, to his credit, not just the performers. He reels off the dates of the shows he's been in going back to the 1960s.
He would be great as a contestant on Just a Minute, the Radio 4 quiz show he has hosted for 43 years, in which contestants have to speak for a minute without repetition, hesitation or deviation. Actually, he'd be great at the first two: he'd be buzzed for deviation quite a lot.
Yet there's nothing vague about him; he is still remarkably busy and youthful. We are talking because he is about to take his one-man comedy show to the Brighton Fringe. But that's by no means all.
"I've got two one-man comedy shows," he says. "I've got one that I take around the country called Just a Laugh a Minute, but the one I do in Edinburgh is called Nicholas Parsons' Happy Hour, which is me doing stand-up and having guests. I'm going back to Edinburgh for the 10th successive year. I do three weeks up there, which is quite demanding, and I'm also doing two Just a Minutes while I'm up there, and I usually guest on other shows as well. The Brighton Festival – they have a fringe and they said you should come and do Nicholas Parsons' Happy Hour. I'm doing it for four nights; they are getting the guests. I normally get the guests with my PA, I go and see them, so I chat with them, then we can engage and spark each other off and have a bit of fun. But I haven't time."
He explains that he has to finish his memoirs, present a new touring show called Masters of the House in Newcastle – "It has a lot of top singers singing the top songs from the top musicals, and it's been so successful they've said 'Let's increase its appeal by having a host, a compere'" – and he's making a radio documentary about his time working as a marine engineer in the Clydebank shipyards "to please his parents".
"So I'm going to record that, it'll be two or three days up there. Then come August I'm back up to Edinburgh again, three weeks there, then I'm back doing Masters of the House, then I'm on a cruise ship where I entertain, doing my comedy shows, and my cultural show about Edward Lear, I'm doing a couple of dates on that."
Whew! He's also about to turn up in Miss Marple. He does stop every now and then, to go on holiday, play golf or tend his garden – "I'm mad about gardening" – but there are three reasons for his hectic schedule. The first is that it's in his blood. After five years at Clydebank he made an irrevocable choice to pursue his dream of acting, overcoming his stutter on the way. "You're never really cured, but you learn to control it." He spent years treading the boards in repertory, never getting a big break but a "succession of little breaks", which eventually saw him in lead roles in the West End in plays such as Boeing Boeing. His television comedy act with Arthur Haynes in the 1960s made him a household name. He was in films by the Boulting brothers.
"In this country they like to label you. I was an actor and I did my time in rep and proved I was an actor. But it was comedy work and I wasn't getting it. There was a lot of cabaret around then, so I started doing that, and they said, 'Oh, he's a cabaret artist' and I got more and more cabaret work. Then I started doing revues – 'Oh, he's a revue artist'. Then I did an audition for The Windmill, which was stand-up and they said 'Oh, he's a stand-up comedian'. Then I joined the BBC drama rep, which I thought was the furthest thing away because they had all these dialects, and they said 'Oh, he's a voice man'. And you get all these different labels, but I'm all of those things, so when people ask what can I do, I say I'm an actor."
Then "out of the blue in 1971" came the show he is still perhaps best known for – Sale of the Century for ITV. It also almost ruined him.
"I was asked to do a quiz. I'd never done a quiz before but as an all-round performer you assess what is involved in doing it and you find your way of doing it. The trouble is, it was so successful that people said 'Oh, he's a quiz master', and I stopped getting work as an actor. My career took a dip because the press was very condescending about quiz shows then."
His career recovered, however, not least because of his ability to adapt to each new generation. His role in an experimental late-night youth TV show in the 1980s called Night Network, as the narrator in a touring version of The Rocky Horror Show in the 1990s, and his work ethic saw him through.
The second reason for his work schedule is money. He talks about it a lot, unashamedly. "You develop a lifestyle and need to support that lifestyle. If I was retired we would cut down considerably on the lifestyle we lead. Annie [his wife] has her car, I have my car, we have a flat in London as well because of the work. Our overheads are high, but my work sustains that. I earn a good living, but it's not astronomical. But I take good work and I enjoy it."
The third, and perhaps the most telling, reason for his workaholism, however, is that despite all he has achieved he's still trying to prove himself to his parents. "Your very early childhood influences are always very powerful, and I think I'm still struggling to prove to my parents that this is what I should be doing. So I think that drives you to some extent. Once I became successful they were proud of my success, naturally. But they definitely didn't want me to do it. My father thought it was stupid."
Of course, when pressed on this, he quickly backtracks. "No, no, no. I gave you that as a suggested supplement. The major thing is because I was always imbued with the idea of becoming an actor and was thwarted. I just love doing it."
And he has another, very good argument for soldiering on: he believes people don't have enough fun in life. "You can't take yourself seriously. I learned that being a straight man. That's what I do on Just a Minute – laugh at myself and they make jokes at my expense. But that's what life's about, isn't it? Having fun."
1923 Born Grantham, Lincs. His father was the local GP and may have delivered Baroness Thatcher when she was born in 1925 in the same town. His mother was a nurse.
1934 Educated at St Paul's Cathedral school, London.
1936 Works in a pump-making factory on Clydeside. Qualifies as a marine engineer. Appears in repertory theatre in Glasgow.
1947 Makes first film appearance in The Master of Bankdam.
1952 Becomes resident comedian at the Windmill Theatre, London.
1957 Gains fame as the straight man to comedian Arthur Haynes in ITV comedy show.
1967 Hosts BBC radio show Just a Minute. Has appeared on every show without hesitation, deviation or repetition ever since.
1971 Hosts ITV's Sale of the Century for 12 years.
2004 Made an OBE for services to drama and broadcasting.
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