At an age when most `all-round entertainers' are winding down on the golf course, the dapper Nicholas Parsons is riding the wave of his new cult status.
Janie Lawrence meets his latest incarnation, Widow Twankey.
Backstage at the Bath Theatre Royal there is pandemonium. With only five hours to go before the opening night Widow Twankey is so hot and bothered he is more Widow Cranky. "Where's my dresser?" he snaps, pulling off his curly wig. The following morning the man eating breakfast in the dining room of one of Bath's genteel hotels is an altogether more familiar sight. Minus his panto dame costume this is the Nicholas Parsons we've come to expect. Dapper and immaculately turned out in blazer, spotted cravat and flannel trousers, his humour has substantially improved.
Nevertheless he exudes a surprisingly nervy energy, probably, one suspects, only kept in check by his wife, Annie. An extremely glamorous and thoroughly charming fiftysomething, she is the measured calm to his highly strung agitation. "Darling, how do I like my kippers?" he fusses while she serenely reads the morning paper.
This is either his seventh or eight panto. "At my age I must be mad." And what precisely is his age? "I don't tell anyone - my doctor knows." I imagine Parsons is in his late sixties but he's wearing well.
For many Parsons is and always will be the former host of Sale of the Century - "from Norwich". Smooth to the point of being oleaginous he was the game show host everyone loved to hate. "The press used to castigate the show but people loved it." To others he is the voice of Just a Minute, back this month on Radio 4 for what is unbelievably the 32nd series. Most startling is that at a stage where one might have expected his career to be on the decline Parsons appears to have reinvented himself. He is a frequent after-dinner speaker, regularly tours both in Britain and abroad with his one-man show and is hopeful that a sitcom role and film may soon be coming his way.
During the past few years he has stealthily but steadily acquired a cult status. Guesting on late-night television shows and starring as the narrator in the Rocky Horror Show he has outcamped the campest performer. Previous Parsons haters have now become unashamed Parsons fans and, along the way, he's acquired a young fan base. Does he understand why? "No, you tell me. But isn't it nice. It's not been deliberate - it's just happened. If I was to try and analyse it it might inhibit my performance. I've just gone with the mood of things."
He seems perfectly happy to be the butt of jokes and recalls with some pride that TV producers often congratulate him for the sporting spirit with which he throws himself into any show. What he does resent is people's constant attempt - I fear he means journalists - to pigeonhole him. "The English are by nature a very conservative people and someone always wants to put tags around your neck. You must remember I do everything and spread my talents over a very broad spectrum. I've done a lot and am an all-round entertainer."
To act was his ambition from childhood. His doctor father had other ideas and at 16 he was despatched to relatives in Glasgow and an engineering apprenticeship at Clydebank. Fresh out of public school with a stutter and having been surrounded by what he terms "domestics", it was a rude awakening. "One of the few things I'm proud of is that I survived it. It was tough and harsh but I was privileged and it was the most valuable learning for life."
Surprisingly he lasted five years and in between studying for a sandwich course at Glasgow University he started performing at concert parties. He secured some time in rep but when he arrived in London he was invariably cast as the "young wet juvenile". "I looked like one but I wasn't very good at those roles."
In frustration he began work at the Windmill Theatre as a comic, appearing after the strippers. Meeting the comedian Arthur Haynes was his break because he was soon a regular on his television show. "I never set out to be a straight man but I turned out to be very successful." In 1967 he was voted radio personality of the year.
Yet there are unexpected sides to his personality. I ask if he is always as positive as he appears. "You've got to be positive if you're going to get anywhere. That is what life has taught me," he replies swiftly. So he's never been a victim to those bleak periods of depression which seem to affect so many comedians? "Of course - I've had psychoanalysis," he adds reluctantly. "I had it in the Sixties when you didn't talk about it and kept it very quiet. I'm indebted because I don't think I'd have survived if I hadn't had it. I was trying to face up to the difficult side of my nature and I think it's the only really brave thing I've done. If you can learn to live with yourself you can live with other people."
Annie is Parsons' second wife. They met 16 years ago - "Annie, when was it darling ?" - at a charity cricket function. At that point Parsons was still married to his first wife, mother of his two children, Justin and Suzy. A former PA, Annie now does all the driving and four years ago heroically typed her husband's 30,000-word autobiography, The Straight Man (My Life in Comedy). "She's very patient but at other times wishes one were a bit more normal. The eccentricities appear as you get older and I recognise there must be certain tolerance requirements. At times that tolerance is probably stretched."
As if on cue Annie chivvies him along. "Come on darling, we must go." Has he any ambitions he would still like to fulfil? "To keep working," he retorts as Annie guides him away.
`Aladdin' is at the Theatre Royal, Bath until 23 January. Just a Minute, Radio 4, Saturdays, 12.25
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