Sir Michael Parkin­son

Katie Jarvis sum­mons up her courage to chat to the king of the chat shows

Cotswold Life - - NEWS -

Usu­ally (and I’ll level with you here) I’m OK. I mean, I shook for a solid hour be­fore­hand the first time I in­ter­viewed Jilly Cooper. I’ll grant you that.

And I had that night­mare where I was fran­ti­cally driv­ing round Ox­ford 24 hours af­ter our planned meet-time, still try­ing to lo­cate Richard Dawkins’s house. (Per­fectly fea­si­ble in Ox­ford.) But Sir Michael Parkin­son is the only one – the only one – where I’ve kept a brown pa­per-bag by the phone to ease symptoms of hy­per­ven­ti­la­tion.

‘I know!’ I think, bril­liantly. I’ll for­mu­late the world’s wit­ti­est ques­tion with which to kick off the in­ter­view. Start as I mean to go on.

It goes well. “Gab­ble-stut­ter-bur­ble-katie-gar­ble­jib­ber-jab­ber-thank-you!-sput­ter­bum­ble-bette-davis!” I mum­ble at high speed, as if au­di­tion­ing for a ma­jor speak­ing role in a BBC drama.

There’s a mo­men­tary baf­fled si­lence over the phone-line.

“I’m so sorry,” Sir Michael Parkin­son says, kindly, as if I’ve just emerged in stilet­tos at the top of his iconic stairs, then belly-flopped all the way down. “It’s a bit of a blurred line.”

I love his voice. If any­thing is de­signed to take away nerves, it’s his calm­ing voice. Still gen­tly York­shired, and mel­liflu­ous, too. As if you’d wound up the lift-cage from the depths of Grimethorpe Col­liery and opened it to re­veal Ye­hudi Menuhin play­ing on a

Kheven­hüller Strad.

I pick my­self up, dust my­self down, and metaphor­i­cally take a seat op­po­site him on a comfy padded black chair.

“Sir Michael,” I be­gin again.

It’s not dif­fi­cult, in point of fact, in­ter­view­ing Sir Michael

Parkin­son. He knows what his au­di­ence wants. They don’t re­ally want to know – not re­ally – about ill­ness or dis­tress or even whether or not act­ing is in Meg Ryan’s com­bat­ive na­ture. They want to be en­ter­tained. Pure and sim­ple.

And, boy, can he en­ter­tain.

“Sir Michael,” I be­gin, wit­tily. “I try to learn from the ex­perts. Bette Davis once told an in­ter­viewer she was only there to talk about her au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, avail­able in all good book­shops.

“So tell me about your forth­com­ing tour.”

He laughs. And he’s off. “She was won­der­ful Bette Davis! The trick with Bette Davis was, when­ever she was on the show, al­ways to men­tion in the in­tro­duc­tion why she was there. If you didn’t, she would say, ‘You know, I didn’t come here be­cause I like you; or be­cause I’m friendly with you. I don’t know you at all. I’ve come here be­cause I’ve writ­ten a book.’

“But I’m not like that. I’m a much sweeter per­son than Bette Davis; most peo­ple are sweeter than Bette Davis.” He is sweeter. That’s true.

He’s had his chill­ier mo­ments, ad­mit­tedly. Some of them down­right parky (NB afore­men­tioned Ryan; NB sticky mo­ments with He­len Mir­ren). But who else would have been able to ask Mal­colm Mug­geridge if he was a vir­gin when he mar­ried. (“No, I wasn’t…”). Or Richard Burton if he’d tried to drink him­self to death. (“I had a go.”) Or ques­tion Tony Blair on how his be­liefs played a part in his dis­as­trous de­ci­sion­mak­ing. (“So you pray to God when you make a de­ci­sion like that [go­ing to

‘Fleet Street was full of life – drunken, mad, barmy, silly; it was sex­ist. But it was very, very en­joy­able, if you were at the cen­tre of it’

war]?” “Well, I don’t want to go in to ser­mons…”

But, es­sen­tially, yes.)

So, to go al­most full-bette, there is a Chel­tenham event at which Sir Michael will be rem­i­nisc­ing – in­ter­viewed by his youngest son, Mike – and play­ing clips of his favourite mo­ments.

Favourite mo­ments?!? How on earth he can choose, I sim­ply do not know! The roll-call is phe­nom­e­nal – far eas­ier to name those he didn’t in­ter­view. Frank Si­na­tra, for ex­am­ple, whom he did meet at a cock­tail party, in­tro­duced by mu­tual friend Sammy Cahn. “Good to meet you, Mike,” Frank said. “Now he knows your name you’re half­way to get­ting him on the show,” an ex­cited Cahn ex­claimed.

“Good­bye, David,” Frank said, as he left.

Or Katharine Hep­burn, who promised on an an­nual ba­sis to con­sider ap­pear­ing on his show. But at least Parky got Peter O’toole to ad­mit he fell in love with Ms Hep­burn while film­ing Lion in Win­ter. Even af­ter she once came back­stage to see him and caught him pee­ing in the sink.

You can bet those knock-out in­ter­views with boxer Muham­mad Ali will be in there, though.

“Ah,” Michael Parkin­son tells me. “Meet­ing him was one of the joys of my life.

“I ad­mired him on many lev­els. I ad­mired what he did from the back­ground he came from.” [In­deed. Such as a young Cas­sius Clay – as he was be­fore his name-change – be­ing de­nied a glass of wa­ter at a store be­cause of his colour.]

“I un­der­stood his re­bel­lious­ness. I un­der­stood his ha­tred of au­thor­ity. I un­der­stood all that. I al­most sensed in him some­thing that was not al­ways ap­par­ent: that he had a good soul. More than that, I al­ways sensed there was a tragedy await­ing him.”

He was, Sir Michael says, the most re­mark­able hu­man be­ing he’s ever

en­coun­tered. But that sense of tragedy was never more ap­par­ent than in the fourth in­ter­view they did to­gether, in 1981, when Ali – tired and re­flec­tive – spoke slurred of voice and bloated of fea­ture.

“[That in­ter­view] was my favourite but also the sad­dest be­cause I knew, when he walked on, that he was…” He pauses.

“He fought twice more af­ter that when he shouldn’t have been in a ring with a bal­let dancer, never mind with 15-stone guys try­ing to kill him. And I just saw the in­evitable con­clu­sion of his life be­ing a ter­ri­ble, ter­ri­ble tragedy for all that he achieved.

“I sort of think he was mis­un­der­stood. He played his own part in his own down­fall – of course he did, as we all do. But he was a very in­ter­est­ing man and he had very nice in­stincts some­times. Some­times he was a bully and some­times he was a racist.”

[“I know whites and blacks can­not get along; this is na­ture,” Ali once said, along with pro­nounce­ments that mixed race mar­riages were against the laws of God.]

“But none­the­less, he was a fas­ci­nat­ing man; I liked him and I think he liked me. I think we got on.” It sets me won­der­ing, this syn­ergy with Ali (and some­thing sim­i­lar with Ge­orge Best – we’ll come on to him shortly) whether it was to do with their back­grounds. Odd, I know, when on pa­per Parkin­son and Ali couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent.

But both had es­caped their des­tinies. Both had tal­ents that al­lowed them to di­vert from the path their an­ces­tors trod and move on to greater things. Ali, de­scended from slaves in the Amer­i­can South, bobbed and weaved away from a life of semi-lit­er­acy; a world where seg­re­ga­tion robbed his peo­ple of op­por­tu­nity.

Sir Michael climbed out of Cud­worth, a min­ing vil­lage in South York­shire, (he could see the pit from his bed­room win­dow), where the black­ness of coal seams was rarely washed out. Even in a weekly tub in front of a coun­cil-house fire.

“Blacker than a crow’s arse,” his dad la­con­i­cally de­scribed life be­low sealevel.

“I was the first male Parkin­son in a hun­dred years not to go down the pit,” he tells me. “My par­ents were de­ter­mined that I wouldn’t go down; I didn’t need much per­suad­ing, I have to tell you. My father took me down and it fright­ened the hell out of me.”

Out­side of work, his dad, John, gave a new mean­ing to the phrase ‘sports mad’ – cricket be­ing his true pas­sion; York­shire be­ing the world’s only jus­ti­fi­able county.

(Is it true that his dad was proud of him achiev­ing tele­vi­sion fame, but deeply dis­ap­pointed he didn’t end up play­ing pro­fes­sional cricket for the county?

He laughs.

“A ker­nel of truth. He didn’t think that when I was meet­ing Gin­ger Rogers, though, I tell you!)

Every week, a man from the lo­cal news­pa­per would turn up on his Raleigh bike to col­lect match re­ports from the Parkin­son house­hold. Michael wanted his job.

“I was lucky that I al­ways knew what I wanted to do; and I was equally lucky in that, in those days, you could ac­tu­ally walk into a lo­cal news­pa­per of­fice at 16, as I did and say, “Gis a job! “and they gave me one. From that point on, I be­came a jour­nal­ist.

He couldn’t do that to­day, he muses. Too much univer­sity; too lit­tle op­por­tu­nity.

He was, I sug­gest, born at ex­actly the right time; the stars (pun in­tended) in per­fect align­ment.

Not just be­cause there was op­por­tu­nity for a lad with lit­tle in­ter­est in O-lev­els to walk into a hack’s job. But be­cause news­pa­pers had space for ec­cen­tric­ity. I love the tales in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Parky, about Ex­press ed­i­tors like Howard Ke­ble, who would lay out a page with a head­line such as

The Glory of Love? “Great!” a re­porter would say: “What’s the story?”

“That’s for you to find out,” Ke­ble would re­ply.

Or Der­rick Amoore at Granada, who’d spend the morn­ing fir­ing an air pis­tol at a dart­board in his of­fice, be­fore say­ing – mid con­ver­sa­tion about foot­ball – “Tu­nisia. Why don’t we hear about Tu­nisia?” and duly dis­patch­ing a film crew.

Sir Michael chuck­les at the mem­ory. “What I en­joyed about Fleet Street

– I use that as a generic term for jour­nal­ism – was it was full of life; an abun­dance of life. It was drunken, yes – not many drugs; it was mad, yes; it was barmy. It was silly; it was sex­ist. All those things piled in. But I tell you what: it was very, very en­joy­able, if you were at the cen­tre of it. I can’t work out why.”

But even amongst those hacks, Michael Parkin­son was a vi­sion­ary. For he was one of the few to em­brace tele­vi­sion in an era when Fleet Street – he in­cluded, at first – was con­vinced this new-fan­gled phe­nom­e­non would sim­ply go away.

“In 1962, I joined Granada – the best of the in­de­pen­dent com­pa­nies, ever. The cul­tural rev­o­lu­tion started up there.

‘The pub­lic – if not the world – got Ge­orge Best 180 de­grees wrong. They thought he didn’t want to give up foot­ball. He did. They thought he wanted to give up drink­ing. He didn’t’

The 50s and 40s were bloody aw­ful; it was like liv­ing in a black-out – the smog. Then, all of a sud­den in the 60s, some­body switched the light on. And it be­came tech­ni­colour.

“Peo­ple like us at Granada – young and vig­or­ous; we didn’t de­cide to change the world but the world changed around us. The mu­sic par­tic­u­larly. We had the Bea­tles on our show – the res­i­dent group. Mick Jag­ger was my first celebrity in­ter­view. All that changed every­thing and, from that point on, it spun on its axis.”

I’ve not gone full Bette Davis yet. There’s an­other prod­uct: a new book on Ge­orge Best out in Novem­ber: a mem­oir Michael and his son have writ­ten about this foot­balling leg­end, who was also a fam­ily friend.

The pub­lic – if not the world – got Ge­orge 180 de­grees wrong. They thought he didn’t want to give up foot­ball. He did. They thought he wanted to give up drink­ing. He didn’t.

“When he was on the run from the me­dia, he used to come and stay with us. And my three boys, of course, who love sport, used to play foot­ball with him on the lawn. He liked kids – they didn’t bother him; it was adults that both­ered Ge­orge. And so it’s a fond re­minder of a real tragedy.”

Sir Michael wrote his first book on Ge­orge in 73; even then Ge­orge was on a down­hill slope. “You could tell, in a sense, reread­ing the book that it was about a pend­ing tragedy – it was all go­ing to end in tears, and it did.”

In­ter­est­ing that Ge­orge once told him he didn’t re­gret a thing. Was that right?

“No, I don’t think that’s right at all. That’s the de­fence of a man who might pre­tend he’s had a great time; but he knows bet­ter than any­body that he’s dy­ing. That he’s killing him­self – and that was Ge­orge. You know, he killed him­self in the end. Here he was, a fit, young ath­lete and won­der­ful player: gifted, bright, in­tel­li­gent – all those things.

“And he drank him­self to death. Why? Well, his mother was an al­co­holic; so, if you be­lieve that there are genes that are trans­fer­able, that might be a rea­son. But he didn’t have the pro­tec­tion. When David Beck­ham came along 20 years later, it was dif­fer­ent. It was a big scene. There were PR peo­ple and there were agents who knew the game. When Ge­orge ar­rived from Ire­land – a lit­tle peas­ant lad, aged 16; like a match­stick, he was – he had none of that pro­tec­tion. The first time I met him, he was liv­ing in a coun­cil house with Mrs Full­away, his land­lady, and he had 10,000 let­ters unan­swered on his bed­room floor.” It was over­whelm­ing. “Over­whelm­ing; pre­cisely. I al­ways had that great feel­ing that, had he ar­rived a bit later, it might have been dif­fer­ent. But, as it was, he was the founder – the hub of the turn­ing point of foot­ball: a game into show busi­ness.”

So, peo­ple to­day. To whom would he give his right arm to get on a show?

“Ooh, I think Mr Trump might be rather in­ter­est­ing.”

“Re­ally? I thought you’d run a mile.” “I don’t think so.”

“How would you han­dle him?” “Well, I don’t know. I’d have to do a lot more re­search than I’ve done on him. I’d have to think of a way of get­ting through all that blus­ter. I’m not laud­ing him as a ci­ti­zen who’s up for a medal

– of course not. And I think his reign might well end in tragic cir­cum­stances, But he has turned the world on its head. As an in­ter­viewer, you couldn’t pos­si­bly turn that gift down.

“He doesn’t know what it is to tell the truth in many cases, ob­vi­ously. What do you do with that? You say, ‘Well, that’s a lie. Why do you tell lies?’”

I’ve had 20 min­utes 21 sec­onds of my (pretty gen­er­ous) 20-minute al­lo­ca­tion. I’m push­ing my luck now. But.

“What would be your ideal din­ner party?”

“Oh god. It would have to be Billy Con­nolly. There would have to be Peter Kay there. There would have to be Dame Edith Evans. There would have to be…”

“Sylvia Brooke?”

“What?”

“Sylvia Brooke.”

He laughs. “What was she called?” We pro­nounce her ti­tle in uni­son. “The Ra­nee of Sarawak!”

One of the great English ec­centrics of a kind he de­lighted in in­ter­view­ing.

“That’s right. The woman who used to pee over the bal­cony.” (Ac­tu­ally, it was her hus­band, the Ra­jah, who led guests to think the rainy sea­son had come early when he peed over the ve­ran­dah of their Sarawak Palace.) Michael Parkin­son tee-hees. “Shirley Ma­claine was due to come on and talk to her. But she backed out be­cause she saw me do the in­ter­view with the Ra­nee and said, ‘I ain’t go­ing on with her! She’d kill me.’”

He’s off again. And I could lis­ten for as long as he’d let me.

Michael Parkin­son in­ter­views He­len Mir­ren in 1975

Michael Parkin­son with Bette Davis, 1975

Michael Parkin­son with Ge­orge Best

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