Michael Parkinson: Oh lucky man!

Britain's most renowned interviewer is 75 today. He is first, last, and always, a journalist. And he doesn't much care for some of the stuff on TV these days. David Randall meets Michael Parkinson

Sunday 28 March 2010 02:00

I met Sir Michael Parkinson at Scott's in Mount Street, the kind of Mayfair restaurant that has an awning and a commissionaire in an overcoat and top hat. He was a helpful chap, telling me the great man was always pretty much on time, and pointing out Hayward's opposite, where he gets all those suits and colourful ties. The commissionaire was more of a Marks & Spencer man, he told me; and, should you ever find yourself standing outside restaurants for a living, he recommends their long johns. "Longest winter I've ever known, this year. I was wearing two pairs some days."

Michael Parkinson is not, you suspect, a long johns man. Nor is he given to behaving like a "celebrity". He arrives, punctual as predicted, without the kind of fuss normally associated with people whose faces are universally recognised. He is 75 today, and looks exactly as he does on the box. Whatever other miracles television make-up artists perform, they do not include making something of Parkinson that he is not. What you see on the screen is what you get in real life.

The ideal person to interview him is not me, nor any person alive, I fancy. It would be, if such a miracle could be arranged, his grandfather Sammy, a miner whose back was permanently blackened by years at the coalface, and who died years before his grandson achieved fame. He would fix him with a quizzical look, take in his Home Counties house, his knighthood, and success, and say: "Now let's get this straight, lad. You're telling me you earned all this just by sitting on your arse and talking to people?"

Well, there's a bit more went into it than that. But he is, as he's the first to admit, a lucky man from a lucky generation. "No world war, and a job for life if you didn't bugger it up," plus, he adds later, all to the soundtrack of the Great American Songbook, the music of Sammy Cahn, Cole Porter, the Gershwins, with some jazz mixed in. There were other pieces of fortune, too; but, as he acknowledges, the most striking piece of luck was to be born the only son of two people who, for all their lack of conventional worldly success – and, in his mother's case, largely because of it – planted something pretty valuable in the young Parky.

His father, John William but always Jack to any who knew him, was the funster. "He gave me a love of sport and comedians. He introduced me to Len Hutton and Frank Randle, which is a pretty good start in life." The man who was one of the most formidable beach cricketers ever to tread the sands of Bridlington (part of the trick was to bat when the tide was coming in, thus shortening the boundary), gave him other things. He may have hewed coal at Grimethorpe Colliery, but he was a great and infectious chuckler, as is his son. And he knew, and loved, high days and holidays.

"Family traditions are very important," says Parkinson when he talks, not only about that far-off childhood but also the family he has today: three sons, five granddaughters, three grandsons, and, of course, his wife of 50 years, Mary. Only last weekend, they showed five of their grandchildren round London, and loved every minute of it. "Grandchildren are a very special relationship," he says, "you mediate, you teach – it's like having the best parts of the relationship with your own children again." It is, he says, very different, to his own grandparents. "They seemed really ancient. I doubt my grandparents, aunts and uncles had five teeth between them. Me? I certainly don't feel 75."

His mother, Freda, was "the engine of my ambition". She was a woman whose class, and the age she grew up in, denied her the opportunities her intelligence deserved; and her son was the beneficiary of this thwarted ability. She gave him books, a love of film and theatre, and the perpetual curiosity that would serve him so well. "She opened up the prospect of a life beyond the confines of a pit village," he says. He was her life's great work, really, and, tellingly, she called him Michael, whereas, to his dad, he was always "Mike". He thrived as a young kid, loved Snydale Road Junior School, and got 11-plus results so good that he was awarded a place in the top stream at Barnsley Grammar School.

He hated the place. Among its assorted horrors was Goodman the German master – a two-bit sadist whose speciality was pressing his knuckles into the tops of small boys' heads. His time there rankled so much that, years later, when asked to speak at a dinner for the headmaster who had once caned him, he declined. He said he stopped caring and working, and left at 16 with two "O" levels. There is, you suspect, a well-developed "bugger this for a lark" streak in Parky. He joined the South Yorkshire Times as a trainee reporter, and wore a belted raincoat and hat in imitation of his Hollywood heroes. Unlike them, he added cycle clips, and pedalled off in search of stories and adventure.

Even before his hair turned grey, Parkinson – unlike many of today's pretty telly faces – looked like he'd done a bit of living and was prepared to tackle a bit more if that's what was required. By the age of 34 he had served his newspaper apprenticeship, done National Service (he was at Suez, and the Army's youngest captain), worked as a forklift truck driver in a glass works; reported for the Barnsley Chronicle, Yorkshire Evening Post, Manchester Guardian, and Daily Express; covered the Lady Chatterley trial, Nye Bevan's funeral, the war in the Congo and a man who made boots for elephants; worked for two Michael Heseltine magazines, as a producer for Granada, Sunday Times sports columnist, and covered the Six Day War for the BBC in 1967. His arrival as a television face came in 1969, when he fronted Cinema and began interviewing film stars. He moved to Good Afternoon, a daytime magazine show whose opening shot was of a plate of arrowroot biscuits, and then, in 1971, came the start of his lasting fame and fortune: the chat show known simply by his surname.

He's just finished viewing all 800 shows ("It took four months to watch it all") so that he and his team can compile three DVDs for release in September or October. There will also be a book of the best 100 interviews.

Seeing them all was a bit of a shock. "I'd forgotten how much the culture has changed. You know, we spoke to Jonathan Miller for an hour, we interviewed playwrights like Ben Travers. People like Jacob Bronowski. Imagine that happening today. In fact, I can't remember a time so dominated by celebrity culture and the lowest standards. Now, you can't find a conversational talk show. It's sad. It's saying to the audience, you don't want that any more. That's bollocks."

He's certain the pendulum will swing back in five or six years' time. Meanwhile, he warns against hosts who "think they're funnier than Woody Allen, or that the actress they're talking to fancies them .... These people are not there because they like you, but because they've got something to flog."

He declines to name any favourite subjects, but the great old-time actors are spoken of with special affection. Men like Jimmy Stewart, not only as modest as his screen character, but "people like him had fought a war. Jimmy Stewart flew bombing missions. He knew there were things more important than movies. He was a full man."

And we talk, too, of the spookiest interview of all, when Alec Guinness (a naval commander during the war) revealed that when James Dean showed him his new Porsche car he had a sudden premonition. "If you drive that car," Guinness told Dean, "you will not be alive in a week's time." Dean laughed it off. Six days later, he crashed and was killed. "We always had very detailed research," says Parkinson, "but that was one of the two occasions when I had no idea what someone was going to say."

The other time was when Val Doonican told what his father said to him as he lay dying. "You think I'm pretty good, don't you?" Doonican said he did. And his father said: "Well, I'm not. I'm a shit. I thought I'd better tell you that because when I'm dead someone will say to you 'Your dad was a shit' and you can say 'I know. He told me'."

Parkinson's time as a print and television journalist, which included being detained by surly weapon-wielding militia in Zanzibar, ensured he would always know there are worse things in life than sulky Hollywood actresses who don't like your line of questioning.

He had two further assets in his career – his family and a considerable hinterland. There was sport, and, thanks to his mother, film. She took him, sometimes four days a week, to the Rock Cinema in Cudworth, which was perhaps the strangest fleapit in all England. It looked like someone had tried to make a Moorish palace out of breeze blocks.

Inside, however, it was the magic carpet which transported the young Parky to a world of Bogart, Bacall and Bette Davis – and, a little later, to lust after Ingrid Bergman, Veronica Lake, and sultry B-movie actress Vera Hruba. (At the 1936 Olympics, she, then a teenage Czech skater, was introduced to Hitler who asked her if she'd like to skate "for the swastika". She said she'd rather skate on the swastika.)

Parky likes women who know their own minds, and he met his match, and what he recognises is the other foundation of his career, on the top deck of a bus in 1959. Mary was a teacher, and "I knew she was the one as soon as I saw her. She's always been the bedrock, while I was all over the place. Marriage is the basis for so much – you don't realise how important it is until much later."

His own parents were devoted to each other. His father died 35 years ago, but his mother went on, in the cottage to where he'd relocated his parents, in Oxfordshire, her native county. A widow for a third of her life, she was resolutely independent, and then, in her nineties, came what he has called a "swift decline into senility that was wretched to witness". Imagined visitors came calling, she began wandering in the street at night, and, finally went into a nursing home.

It was witnessing her confusion, and the way she was sometimes treated, that prompted him to accept, in 2008, an invitation to be the Government's Dignity in Care ambassador, touring nursing homes and the like and writing a report. He still, and always will ("especially if I'm on the receiving end of it") agitate for respectful care of the elderly that does not involve being called "dear", "ducky", or being addressed in a loud, slow voice.

"I'll retire in 2011," he says, referring to what will be his 77th year. He says he might revive his neglected relationship with golf, and he'll watch his family grow. His son Nicholas operates the acclaimed pub and restaurant, the Royal Oak at Paley Street, in Maidenhead, Berkshire; Michael runs the production company, and his eldest, Andrew, is a producer. Entertainment is the family trade passing down the generations now, not mining.

All that's left of Grimethorpe, the colliery where his father worked, is a brass band. The ground under which its miners bent and sweated is now a nature reserve. And the flickering projector beam of the Rock Cinema is no more. The old dream factory is now Ramsdens Direct, a "brand name clearance outlet", whatever that is. What would old granddad Sammy, who never went on holiday and never once went to London, make of it all?

Life and times

1935 Born in Cudworth, near Barnsley, South Yorkshire

1951 Joins South Yorkshire Times as trainee reporter.

1955 Called up for National Service.

1958 Joins Manchester Guardian as reporter after stints on Barnsley Chronicle and Yorkshire Evening Post.

1959 Marries Mary Heneghan.

1960s After the Daily Express and two magazines, joins Granada as TV producer.

1965 Starts sports column for The Sunday Times.

1969 Starts presenting Cinema for Granada.

1971 The famous late-night talk show begins.

1983 Becomes one of the group who won the commercial early-morning franchise with TV-am. Their enterprise is riven with continuous crises before being rescued by Roland Rat.

1985 After the death of Roy Plomley, he takes over Desert Island Discs. Plomley's widow disapproves and later says: "I don't think he's civilised enough." The audience disagreed, and ratings climbed.

1996 Starts Parkinson's Sunday Supplement on Radio 2, playing music from his beloved Great American Songbook.

1998 His talk show resumes on BBC and, with a switch to ITV, it runs until 2007, when he formally retires.

2010 Prepares release of DVDs containing the best of his 800 shows, plus a book of the 100 most memorable interviews. Celebrates his 75th birthday.

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