Michael Parkinson: The world’s greatest chat show host

Michael Parkinson: The world’s greatest chat show host

Michael Parkinson died aged 88 (Image: Getty)

He was almost called Melbourne Gershwin Parkinson. His father, a huge cricket fan, opted for the unusual first name, as that was where England had won a Test match shortly before he was born. His mother, however, wanted to honour her favourite composer. Fortunately, they compromised with the more traditional Michael.

Sir Michael Parkinson, who died on Wednesday at the age of 88 after a short illness, will forever be remembered as one of Britain’s greatest talk-show hosts.

During a career that lasted more than 70 years – most of it on the prime-time programme Parkinson, after early years at the Daily Express – he interviewed many of the most famous human beings on the planet, employing brilliant journalistic skills in some unforgettable encounters.

A statement from his family said: “After a brief illness Sir Michael Parkinson passed away peacefully at home last night in the company of his family.” They asked for privacy and time to grieve.

For such a giant of broadcasting, his background was a humble one. He was born in 1935 on a council estate in the South Yorkshire mining village of Cudworth, not far from Barnsley, and close to the colliery where his father Jack toiled.

Parkinson senior, desperate his son shouldn’t follow him down the mine, decided one weekend to show him the grim reality of working underground. A morning in the pit was all that was needed to discourage the youngster.

“You won’t get me down there for a hundred quid a shift,” Michael assured his father, who was happy when his son later opted for a white-collar career instead.

Michael’s primary school was Snydale Road Junior School, where his love of reading saw him placed in charge of the library. It also gave him a solid grounding in cricket, leading to his appointment as school team captain, and delighting his cricket-obsessed father.

“As far as he was concerned it wasn’t merely a possibility but a certainty that one day I would wear the white rose,” Michael wrote in his 2008 biography, Parky.

“He drilled me in every spare moment on the basic principles of the game. By the age of eight I had a solid defence and a hatred of getting out.”

Michael fell in love with the sport, just as his father had, and continued playing throughout much of his life. Later, playing for Barnsley, his teammates included Geoffrey Boycott and Dickie Bird.

Michael won a place at Barnsley Grammar School, but he disliked many of the teachers and admitted education there brought him no joy. “I was in an all-male world, instructed by short-tempered brutes who, when all else failed, would try to beat information into you,” he wrote.

As a youngster, he had determined to pursue a career in journalism, encouraged by the rather glamorous portrayals of American reporters in Hollywood movies. After leaving school with just two O-levels (art and English), he got a job as a junior reporter on the South Yorkshire Times.

Michael made his screen debut in the early 1960s at Granada TV (Image: )

Then came the obligatory National Service where, thanks to his journalistic training, he joined the Army’s press liaison department. In 1956 he saw active service in the Suez Crisis where he claims he became the youngest captain in the Army.

At one point he joined an amphibious assault force on Egypt’s Port Said. As he recalled in his biography: “There was tracer both going in and out of Port Said… I realised that, instead of a weapon, I was carrying my portable typewriter above my head and I wondered what Mum and Dad would think if they received a telegram from the War Office informing them their son had died defending his Remington.”

On returning to Britain, Michael soon had a reporting job on the Barnsley Chronicle, while continuing to play at Barnsley Cricket Club, with his old mates Geoffrey Boycott and Dickie Bird.

“There were times when the three of us would sit on the balcony at Barnsley and look over the sweep of the ground to the town in the distance, and wonder what the future held. Geoffrey became what he set out to be, one of our great openers, for Yorkshire and England. Dickie went on to become one of cricket’s most trusted umpires and treasured characters and I ended up being attacked by Emu. I often sit and wonder where it all went wrong.”

Some would contest it couldn’t have gone better.

In the late 1950s he worked his way up through the Yorkshire Evening Post and the Manchester Guardian, eventually joining the Daily Express, “the most successful and glamorous organisation in all of Fleet Street”, as he described it.

Parky with wife Mary and sons Michael Jr, Andrew and Nicholas in 1983 (Image: )

He remembered the awe he felt walking into the lobby on his first day: “The building was a declaration of its confidence and success. Every day it was polished and pampered until it shone like a guardsman’s boot. You half expected to see Fred Astaire dancing down the stairs into the foyer.”

He spent two years on the Express, one of 30-odd feature writers, at a time when the paper sold four million copies a day.

With typical modesty, he once described how he was employed “to fill the one gap left on the features page after the obligatory political piece, the blessed Beachcomber column, Rupert Bear, and the cartoon by the greatest of them all, Carl Giles”.

Among his more demanding duties, he covered the Lady Chatterley trial and Aneurin Bevan’s funeral in 1960, and the following year accompanied Princess Grace of Monaco to her ancestral home in Ireland.

By now, he was married to Mary, with an infant son, Andrew (two more sons, Michael Jr and Nicholas would come later) when, out of the blue, he was offered a job as a producer at Granada Television. His first role was on a news and current affairs programme called Scene at 6.30. “In the early days only 10 per cent of the programme-makers at Granada had any previous experience of telly,” he recalled in his biography.

“The rest of us, mainly recruited from newspapers, learned as we went along. The pervading atmosphere was one of creative anarchy.”

It was here that he made his debut as a presenter in front of camera. “I got away with it. I reached the end of the show without fainting or making a fool of myself,” he recalled.

The Beatles had a regular slot (Paul McCartney once asked Parky for his autograph), while a TV debut for the Rolling Stones saw a youthful Mick Jagger expressing doubt that he and his friends would ever amount to much.

After further success on the BBC news programme 24 Hours and the Granada film review show Cinema, Michael finally got his big break, launching his eponymous chat show in June 1971. The guests on that first edition were actor Terry-Thomas, tennis player Arthur Ashe and photographer Ray Bellisario.

On and off, over the course of the next four decades, Parky, as he became known, presented well over 500 episodes and, by his reckoning, interviewed over 2,000 guests, including John Lennon, Clint Eastwood, David Attenborough, David Bowie, Diana Ross, Elton John, Harold Wilson, Madonna, Paul McCartney, Robert Redford, Sean Connery, Tom Cruise and Tony Blair.

In fact, it would be easier to list the celebrities who didn’t appear on his show than those who did. Michael himself once said that Frank Sinatra was the “one that got away”. “Otherwise, I’ve met everyone I have ever wanted to meet,” he added.

Many of the interviews have since become part of TV folklore.

There was the bruising encounter with Muhammad Ali, for example, one of four chats Parky had with the heavyweight world champion. “I’m not just a boxer,” snarled the sports legend on one occasion. “I can talk all week on millions of subjects and you do not have enough wisdom to corner me on television, you are too small, mentally, to tackle me on nothing I represent.”

In 1975, the actress Helen Mirren appeared wearing what, at the time, might have been considered a very low-cut dress. Parky later confessed that his line of questioning was misogynistic. During some of the earlier shows, David Niven was once physically sick in his dressing-room with nerves, Peter Sellers walked on dressed in Gestapo uniform, while Orson Welles encouraged Michael to toss his list of questions into the dustbin, insisting, “let’s just talk” instead.

And who could ever forget the encounter with Rod Hull and his puppet Emu, who first pecked the presenter, then attacked him, and eventually wrestled him to the floor?

Parky often expressed regret that he would be remembered more for that feathered stunt than for any of his myriad other interviews. Flightless birds aside, what made him such a consummate talk-show host? Michael himself believed his training as a journalist was a great aid, ensuring he allowed guests to speak at length.

“Today it’s quips and banter because the interviewers are not journalists,” he once said. “Graham Norton gets people chatting away, having a party. But too often the presenters cannot ask a question or listen to an answer.”

Another modus operandi that placed him above many of his peers was that he was never afraid to ask probing questions, even if it made guests squirm. The actor Woody Allen was distinctly uncomfortable when Parky quizzed him on the custody battle for his children. And when Meg Ryan appeared in 2003, the audience could feel the palpable hostility between host and guest.

Aside from the famous talk show, there were plenty of other presenting roles, including TV AM, Give Us A Clue, Good Morning Britain, as well as prolific sports writing, a sports show on Five Live, and a series of children’s books. He was knighted in 2008. “They give it to anyone nowadays,” he said at the time, ever self-deprecating.

During his illustrious career, Michael was asked countless times which was his favourite interview of all. Surprisingly, it wasn’t with one of the many superstars he hosted, but instead a Polish-British philosopher called Dr Jacob Bronowski, creator of 1973 documentary series The Ascent of Man, who described to Michael the horrors of Auschwitz during the Second World War.

When Michael reviewed the clip, on a BBC documentary to celebrate 50 years in television, he broke down in tears. “He had a great gift,” he said. “The great gift talk-show hosts dream of guests having. Which is that he was wonderfully articulate and never quoted a boring sentence in his life.”

Those words could very well apply to Michael himself.

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