Saturday Profile: Michael Parkinson, the king of chat

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A few days after recording his final show earlier this month, Michael Parkinson was describing to friends how it had felt to say goodbye. After 40 years at the top his unhappy 16-year interregnum in the chat show wilderness not withstanding it was clearly an emotional occasion, and the stars had turned out mob-handed to pay their respects and ease the 72-year-old Yorkshireman's passage into supposed retirement.

Billy Connolly, originally brought on to the programme on the advice of a garrulous taxi driver, was there. So, too, were national treasures Sir David Attenborough and Dame Judi Dench. Sir Michael Caine had returned to the scene of former late-night glories, as had David Beckham and Dame Edna Everage.

But it was not this glittering cast of guests many of whom knew they owed their inquisitor a farewell drink for his helping hand on their own course to fame and riches that left the biggest impression on the host; it was the audience reaction.

"I got a 12-minute standing ovation," an almost incredulous Parkinson told friends, his eyes once again moistening to the point of tears, as they had at the climax of that final broadcast. It was a telling reaction from a man who has forged a career out of a unique brand of bluff bonhomie and whose flirtatious rapport helped to define the mass television age, by way of the heyday of the regional press and Fleet Street.

His inclusion in today's New Year's honours list will no doubt have elicited a response with its feet rooted equally firmly on the ground of Planet Normal.

At such pinnacle moments and there have been so many over the years Parkinson likes to imagine what they would make of it back at the Barnsley Chronicle, the local newspaper where he started out. For in the modern world, where the rapidly devaluing currency of celebrity has become both the means and the end for many careers, Parkinson continues to think of himself first and foremost as a journalist.

It is a trait those who worked with him right until he quit his television and radio shows earlier this month unusually for the media world at a time and place of his own choosing both recognised and admired.

Though he was often savage with researchers whose shoddy Googling might leave him exposed before an audience of millions, those he worked with describe him as meticulously informed and professional.

"He is just a delight to work with in so many different ways," a friend and regular contributor to his popular Radio 2 Sunday Supplement show recalled yesterday. "In terms of professionalism, he is unstuffy and never star-like. He is always assiduous in preparation and is simply never casual in his approach to anything to with work and that is the same for his chat show too. To his great credit he has never become intoxicated with his own television myth, even though he is, quite simply, a legend."

Parkinson was born in Cudworth on the outskirts of Barnsley, South Yorkshire. His father Jack, who until his premature death from lung disease remained a towering figure in his son's life, was a miner. It was not a future he wanted for the young Michael. When he was a young boy, he took him down in the pit cage of the Grimethorpe Colliery to observe the men at work, crawling on their bellies through the dark and the dust. He told him if ever he tried to get a job at the colliery he would "kick him all the way home".

Despite the austerity, Parkinson's was a happy childhood. Both parents loved him, and the rich culture of the South Yorkshire coal field, with its brass bands and choirs, offered the soundtrack to his childhood. It was his father's great ambition that his son should play cricket for Yorkshire a dream he could never fulfil though he did partner a young Dickie Bird at the crease.

After leaving Barnsley grammar school at 16, where it's said he was paid to write essays by less able boys, it seemed inevitable that he should set out on the career path he continues to describe as that of a "jobbing hack".

Provincial newspapers were a fertile breeding ground for talent in the 1950s, and Parkinson cut a dashing figure pedalling between council meetings and court hearings on his drop-handled bike.

By now he was indulging another passion, this time for cinema, an interest, along with sport and news, which was to define his career. "I used to go to the cinema four times a week. I knew how a New York taxi driver spoke long before I knew how anyone in Manchester talked. In the end, I got to interview the people I'd only ever seen before 30ft high on a screen," he said recently.

After national service, during which he served as a young captain in Suez (nearly coming to grief at the hands of Egyptian civilians unimpressed with the British invasion effort), Parkinson found himself gravitating towards television.

The breakthrough came at Granada. It was, recalls Parkinson, an "entrepreneurial" age and journalists were left to make what they could of themselves in the new medium. His knowledge of the movies, and a chance meeting with a TV producer, landed him the job presenting Granada's flagship popular arts programme, Cinema.

Whereas once Parkinson would have found the gates of the BBC barred because of his Yorkshire accent, by 1971 the corporation was moving with the democratic times.

The host, and his producers, figured that if they could land someone of Orson Welles's stature, other high-profile guests would follow. They agreed to the star's demand to be flown to London lying on a mattress to ease the pain of a bad back, removing two seats for the purpose of accommodating the ailing titan.

It was a hunch that reaped rich dividends. James Cagney, James Stewart, Fred Astaire, Lauren Bacall and Sammy Davis Jnr followed Welles. Muhammad Ali squared up literally on one show to Parkinson four times.

And then there were the Brits. Laurence Olivier, David Niven, George Best, Billy Connolly, Frankie Howerd, Tommy Cooper, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore all bared their souls to the cameras. Rod Hull and Emu helped to take the programme to new levels of popularity.

Looking back from this media-saturated age, it seems an attractive proposition to view the stars of the 1970s as simply bigger than those that are around today.

They were certainly more rarely seen. Many of them were bigger characters, too. "To talk to people who'd flown over Germany as well as played Hamlet was to deal with a different creature. There was a hinterland, a background, a testimony to having lived a life other than that bounded by the proscenium arch," he observed in a recent interview.

But, of course, this golden age couldn't last for ever. By the early 1980s Parkinson and the BBC were falling out of love and he hitched his star to that of TV-am. It was not a happy ship, nor a commercial success.

The years after TV-am were not the best for Parkinson either. His marriage to Mary, the teacher he met at a Yorkshire bus stop when still a cub reporter, remained strong, but there were clearly tensions. Appearing on his own show was a "drug" for him and he missed it. Fame had turned him into "male crumpet" and he was, he admits, flattered by the attention of beautiful women. He was also drinking too much.

He took over Desert Island Discs briefly, but fell out with creator Roy Plomley's widow. In the mid 1990s he washed up on the shores of daytime TV as presenter of Going for a Song.

Yet inside the BBC the mood was changing. A retrospective of the greatest moments from the 1970s chimed with the nostalgic Britpop-infected mood of the times.

A return series in 1998 was well received and the list of guests was, as always, impeccable. There were some great highlights Tony Blair revealing how his faith had seen him through the worst days of the Iraq war and some low points, notably Meg Ryan's barely disguised, monosyllabic, dislike for her host.

But times were again changing. The bar for celebrity was being ever lowered, it seemed, and Parkinson held out against the zeitgeist, insisting his guests must be interesting for what they had achieved, not for having taken part in a reality show.

The backlash against his style of questioning polite, interested and respectful was also growing. Parkinson was at odds with the taste for rottweilers in the Paxman/Humphrys mould or the interviewer-as-star, à la Jonathan Ross.

Parkinson is respectful towards Ross, but insists the two men are producing fundamentally different shows. He becomes more animated when told he is too soft, perhaps a touch of journalistic pride, surfacing again. "I am not interviewing war criminals or paedophiles," he thundered at one interviewer recently. "I am interviewing people whose only crime is to entertain people."

Parkinson, angered at being squeezed to fit around Saturday night football highlights programmes, defected once more to ITV in 2004. But as he approached his 70th year he found himself struggling to hit the advertisers' preferred 18-35 demographic.

He didn't like it when his last series was delayed to make way for Al Murray and he started to feel he was getting "Grumpy Old Man" syndrome. Some felt that his best work continued on radio where he brought artists such as Jamie Cullen to a wider audience.

Though he wants to spend more time with his wife, three children and eight grandchildren, Parkinson shows no sign of slowing down. He intends to carry on broadcasting, but not before he finishes his autobiography, currently being bashed out on his 1971 Remington portable typewriter, the model favoured by his teenage hero Ernest Hemingway.

A Life in Brief

Born Michael Parkinson, 28 March 1935, Cudworth, Barnsley

Early life Son of a miner. Attended Barnsley grammar school, leaving with two O-levels. Became the youngest captain in the Army during his national service. Trials for Yorkshire County Cricket Club.

Career Joined Yorkshire Evening Post and the Manchester Guardian before heading to Fleet Street, where he worked on the Daily Express. Worked for Granada Television, getting his BBC chat show in 1971. Helped to found TV-am, and presented shows including Desert Island Discs, Give Us a Clue and Going for a Song. Chat show returned 1998, switching to ITV in 2004. Presented Parkinson's Sunday Supplement on Radio 2 from 1996 until 2007.

He says "I have been in this business for too bloody long and I'm beginning to get that Grumpy Old Man syndrome."

They Say "Muhammad Ali, Rod Hull, Meg Ryan blah, blah, blah. Farewell then, Michael Parkinson ... I think we've all had enough." Kevin O'Sullivan, TV critic, Sunday Mirror