Captain Moonlight: Always good for a laugh

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The Independent Online
NICHOLAS PARSONS had been in Croydon. Now he was in a hotel at the foothills of Hampstead, near his London flat. He has memoirs to sell. Read all about it here today; later in the week, the Sun, big spread, at home with partner, in the Cotswolds. That's show business. Another sip from the pint of lager, another carefully modulated offering about the difficulty of writing and the importance of laughter. This is a man who once held the world record for the longest after-dinner speech: 11 hours. Jointly, with Gyles Brandreth.

The lager was the falsest note, but it had been a long drive from Croydon. Otherwise the trademark blazer and hair were firmly in place. His book is called The Straight Man, after his time with Arthur Haynes and Benny Hill, but it was as A Quiz Show Host that he was taken into that part of its heart the nation saves for those it loves to mock, bypasses to an easy laugh: Tony Blackburn, Des O'Connor, Jeremy Beadle.

The Parsons quiz show was Sale of the Century ('And now . . . from Norwich . . .') The Parsons persona took the QSH's classic intermingling of rich smarm and improbable sincerity into new areas. He has since turned himself into the Post-Modern Quiz Show Host, appearing in all manner of adverts and progs leading and sending his old self over the top.

There are other strings. He still chairs Just a Minute, the BBC radio quiz show which indulged Kenneth Williams and indulges Paul Merton. There is now a television version, on Carlton. Parsons is often a handy butt: 'During the recording of the third series I felt the panellists had exhausted all the ploys of getting back at each other, and there was now a tendency for them to have a go at me,' Parsons recalls in his book. 'I remarked on this

to David Hatch (the then producer), who shrewdly replied, 'Nicholas, that's probably the way the show is going to develop, and I think your shoulders are broad enough to take it'.'

You sense in the book, though, a certain longing that things should have been otherwise. A distant father (a doctor, who, family legend relates, delivered Margaret Hilda Roberts) and an unimpressed mother ('It seemed it was my destiny as a child to be put down at every turn. Perhaps it was no surprise that, as an adult, my destiny was to be put down as a straight man'). An education (St Paul's) interrupted by the war and an odd interlude as an engineering apprentice in Glasgow. A determination to get on the stage and to prove that he could do the lot: legit acting, rep, tour and West End, solo cabaret, posh, Windmill and working men's, funny voice man on the radio. He was the voice of Sheriff Tex Tucker in Four Feather Falls (his wife did Noddy once; they are now divorced, hence the partner). But people were always trying to pigeon-hole him: 'I'm an entertainer, a performer,' he says below Hampstead, over the lager.

Not eager, though, in the flesh, to admit of any frustration. Anxious not to appear immodest. Satisfied with second fiddle: 'If I was a frustrated comedian who was itching to get the laughs all the time I wouldn't have taken so much pleasure in helping others get laughs.' Unconcerned about the mockery: people who don't like being laughed at, he says, have no sense of humour.

Still, he felt that the press had gone a little far in the Sale of the Century days (the Sun ran a campaign to get him taken off). But he had never complained. Parsons can take it. I tell him that to create such a smarmy Quiz Show Host had been very brave. He looks slightly dubious.

He must have been a bit hurt, too, when Arthur Haynes sacked him. 'And then Arthur got rid of me,' he says, 30 years later. Arthur hadn't liked the competition. But great comics are strange people, to be cherished. He doesn't count himself among them, although he thinks he must have something of what makes them special: 'I think it's fundamentally a desire to be recognised, a need for the reassurance and the love and the warmth that laughter and applause give off, which maybe feeds some insecurity in your nature that you've been unable to come to terms with in any other way.'

There is this theory that psychoanalysis ruins comics. Look at the now serious and deadly John Cleese, they say. Parsons underwent analysis in the Fifties. But, he counters quickly, Frankie Howerd was often on the couch. So I congratulate him on his success in exploiting all the mockery, and he looks slightly dubious again. He is anxious that it should be very clear that he was not elected Rector of St Andrews as some kind of joke. When I ask him if he regrets not having concentrated on one talent, he says he would have liked the respect accorded to dedicated actors. But that's showbusiness.

(Photograph omitted)