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In his prime, Michael Parkin­son epit­o­mised what’s best about TV, writes Graeme Blun­dell

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Tv -

SO much to do, and so lit­tle time,’’ 72- year- old Michael Parkin­son mut­ters wist­fully to him­self. This is af­ter guest Billy Con­nolly ad­mits to an am­bi­tion to write a Mid­dle East­ern mu­si­cal called Sad­dam, You’re Rock­ing the Boat. Af­ter 25 years and more than 600 shows, it’s Parky’s last ap­pear­ance in the in­ter­viewer’s chair from which he once seemed to talk to ev­ery­one fa­mous in the world.

Ear­lier, Con­nolly speaks for mil­lions of view­ers of a cer­tain age when he yells: ‘‘ Don’t go, don’t go.’’ Then he sheep­ishly ad­mits: ‘‘ It’s the only TV I get, no­body else will have me.’’

For this two- hour vale­dic­tory spe­cial the miner’s son, who has dom­i­nated celebrity in­ter­view­ing for a gen­er­a­tion, as­sem­bles the lu­mi­nar­ies Con­nolly, Michael Caine, David At­ten­bor­ough, Judi Dench, Edna Ever­age, Peter Kay and Jamie Cul­lum.

And most of them are good value, es­pe­cially 65- year old Con­nolly and Caine, now 74, still witty and still work­ing. ‘‘ You don’t re­tire in the movie busi­ness,’’ he says in that much im­i­tated nasal voice. ‘‘ It re­tires you.’’

Ap­pro­pri­ately, an age­ing sub­text in­forms the show, the con­ver­sa­tions of­ten el­e­gaically cir­cling around the per­ils of old blokes con­tin­u­ing to work, the sig­nif­i­cance of lega­cies, and whether it’s worth get­ting up in the morn­ing. ‘‘ At my age you have heard ev­ery­thing and met ev­ery­one, so you just sit at home and talk to your­self,’’ Caine says. ‘‘ You don’t even have to look your best.’’

And Con­nolly, who has been on Parkin­son more than any other per­son, says of reach­ing his 65th birth­day: ‘‘ The big­gest ter­ror I have of grow­ing old is smelling of pee.’’

The craggy host, who has seen and heard it all, looks slightly ap­palled. And, sud­denly, even older.

When Parkin­son says he’s a di­nosaur, he is ob­vi­ously right. His tastes and style of talk show are rooted in a star sys­tem that is van­ish­ing fast. What has hap­pened since he be­gan is that the stars have dis­ap­peared ( usu­ally af­ter ap­pear­ing with him), their place on the fame chain re­placed by a rapidly grow­ing num­ber of gaudy celebri­ties.

Ebul­lient co­me­dian Kay, once the show’s warm- up act and much younger than the other guests, tells Parkin­son he is show busi­ness’s kiss of death. ‘‘ We’re not here be­cause we’re any good,’’ he says, ges­tur­ing to the as­sem­bled age­ing stars. ‘‘ We’re here be­cause we are still alive.’’

Th­ese days, af­ter all, you don’t have to be re­ally fa­mous to be owned by other peo­ple, spot­ted,

gos­siped about and in­ter­viewed on TV. Parkin­son re­cently said that it was so much harder to make an event of his show, now that celebrity has be­come cheap­ened by its ubiq­uity.

The fact that fame is now sep­a­rated from achieve­ment, un­cou­pled from worth and an end in it­self, ob­vi­ously sad­dens him deeply. For the celebrity, as Parkin­son of­ten laments, fame has lit­tle to do with a sense of ful­fil­ment or ac­com­plish­ment: it’s noth­ing more than a de­gree of vis­i­bil­ity.

No one asks proper ques­tions any more, Parkin­son grum­bled in his in­ter­views, and no one lis­tens to the an­swers. Any­way, th­ese days ev­ery­one in the world knows ev­ery­thing about ev­ery­one. It made Parkin­son seem for­lornly su­per­flu­ous.

And he ap­peared to be­come re­mote in the past few years, con­tent with his mem­o­ries of old­fash­ioned show- biz stars and crick­eters. He rarely in­ter­viewed any­one from cul­ture’s cut­ting edge.

Con­nolly tells a funny story of a very young fan who wants the co­me­dian to say f . . . off’’ to him. When he does the kid is ec­static, his dream’s come true. What is that?’’ Con­nolly asks Parkin­son, ob­vi­ously per­plexed. I don’t know, it all passes me by,’’ he mut­ters into his hand, sadly.

My show has al­ways been dif­fer­ent, be­cause it’s jour­nal­is­ti­cally based,’’ Parkin­son was fond of say­ing, unim­pressed with post­mod­ern chat shows hosted by comics or re­al­ity TV refugees.

But as the years pro­gressed those tough ques­tions he boasted of con­sisted too fre­quently of an­o­dyne set- ups such as Would you like to tell us that funny story?’’ or You are just so lovely, aren’t you?’’

At his peak it was said pos­sessed the York­shire­man’s gift of ag­gres­sive ob­se­quious­ness, an es­sen­tial in show­biz in­ter­view­ing. But in later years he adopted a lethar­gic style of ques­tion­ing that en­cour­aged mu­tual ado­ra­tion and syco­phancy.

His las­civ­i­ous old codger’s style with women, flirt­ing, sim­per­ing and pat­ting, be­came em­bar­rass­ing. It was no won­der Meg Ryan re­fused to play ball. In 2003, she gave Parkin­son a fa­mously ex­cru­ci­at­ing in­ter­view.

When Parkin­son sug­gested that her new film had a bleak mes­sage, Ryan glared at him: Have you ever been ro­manced?’’ The York­shire­man chuck­led. Have I?’’ he mut­tered. Sure.’’ Ryan glared at him. And does it turn out well nor­mally?’’ she in­sisted. Yeah, I mean . . .’’ he started to say. Re­ally?’’ Ryan in­ter­rupted. Well, get a look at you, dude.’’ How­ever, as Dench sug­gests in her mu­si­cal trib­ute in this fi­nal show, the hun­dreds of star­lets on pa­rade, all try­ing to get laid’’, flirted with him out­ra­geously and touched his knee in­tently. ( Ge­orge Melly wrote of Parkin­son’s in­abil­ity to con­trol his lust while talk­ing to ac­tresses. A fright­ful sa­loon bar leer takes over as he leans to­wards them.’’)

Some­times, too, he could be a tri­fle be­fud­dled ( he once said of a guest that he had few equals and no peers’’), but at his best he al­ways knew what ques­tions to ask to keep his show mov­ing. Clev­erly, he never ap­peared to ask any to which he did not know the an­swer.

I’ll miss him. He has been there for a large part of our lives, a com­fort­ing pres­ence and a civilised part of our col­lec­tive cul­tural me­mory. In the be­gin­ning we all tuned in to to hear what his fa­mous guests had to say and he let them do it bril­liantly.

For­get hard- nosed jour­nal­ism; at his best Parkin­son lis­tened, laughed and played the ge­nial host, a lit­tle hu­mour­less maybe, of­ten clum­sily mawk­ish, but never less than kind and at­ten­tive.

Parky was a re­minder that TV can be a good friend, al­ways so­cia­bly there at the push of a but­ton, able to displace even soli­tude in our lives.

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