Michael Parkinson was a maestro of the golden age of British television

Parkinson, who has died aged 88, will be remembered for his blend of entertainment and serious thinking, a rare combination today

By Donald Clarke | The Irish Times

It is easy to get sentimental about the often-touted golden age of British television in the 1970s. But there really was a period when one of the BBC’s biggest shows allowed guests 20 minutes (or more) to chew over everything that mattered to them.

Michael Parkinson
Michael Parkinson

Michael Parkinson, who has died at the age of 88, was a maestro in the art of interviewing. During the first run of his eponymous show – lasting from 1971 until 1982 – he carried out justifiably legendary interviews with the likes of Muhammad Ali, Orson Welles, David Niven, Peter Ustinov and Lauren Bacall. It would not be entirely correct to say he displayed no ego. A proud – and unmistakable – Yorkshireman with strong opinions, he would occasionally prod his subjects in provocative fashion, but they were always allowed space to roam about the conversational hinterland. Often the stars had books or films to flog. Sometimes, they just happened to be in town. We were, however, in a very different place to the offshoots of the PR business that often now pass for talkshows. It really does seem like a golden age.

Parkinson always saw himself as a journalist first. Born near Barnsley in the UK, he attended grammar school, excelled as a club cricketer and, after cutting his teeth on school papers, landed a job on features at the Manchester Guardian (yet to lose the “Manchester” from its masthead). Just old enough to undergo national service, he saw action during the Suez crisis. On return, he moved into television, working in current affairs for Granada and on the BBC’s magazine series 24 Hours. The Parkinson show began in a late-night slot on Saturday and fast became an unmissable institution.

Parkinson’s grounding in print journalism held him in good stead. He always did his research. He actually listened to what his guest was saying. The interviews were usually good natured, but tensions – famously with Ali – occasionally added spice to the entertainment. Parkinson called the boxer, whom he interviewed on four occasions, “the most remarkable man I ever met”, but the chats did not always glisten with bonhomie. “You do not have enough,” Ali once cut back. “You are too small mentally to tackle me on nothing that I represent.” Parkinson was unshaken. “Must have been a good question I asked you because you’ve been talking for about 15 minutes,” he responded.
Gay Byrne was doing something similar on the Late Late Show in an era when masters such as Niven and Ustinov were turning the finely honed anecdote into a high science. Both gave Billy Connolly the opportunity to stretch profanely before delighted audiences. But Parkinson did have his run-ins.

A decade or so ago, a shockingly sexist interview with Helen Mirren – largely unnoticed in 1975 – was unearthed on YouTube. Parkinson calls her a “sex queen” of the Royal Shakespeare Company and praises her “sluttish eroticism”. “It was completely inappropriate,” Mirren told me in 2014. “And it struck me so at the time. It was insulting. It’s not as if I was a glamour model.” In 2003, during one of the show’s various revivals, Meg Ryan and he carried out a famously flinty, largely monosyllabic (on her part) exchange that a survey later identified as the third most shocking chatshow moment ever.

Parkinson will, however, be mostly remembered for drawing out great conversation from gifted communicators. The Parkinson show was revived on ITV in 1987, before a return to the BBC in 1998 and, confusingly, more episodes on the commercial rival in 2004. By then we were elsewhere, deep into the era of the hurried interview as shameless sales pitch, but Parkinson retained his more rigorous approach in the new century.

Away from the TV chatshow, he had a controversial three-year stint as host of the durable BBC Radio 4 series Desert Island Discs, beginning in 1986. “After my sixth show the BBC board of management voiced concern that all the guests who had so far appeared on the programme… had been born in Yorkshire,” he griped some years later (obviously, they were nothing of the sort) – Anna Ford, Angela Rippon and David Frost were on the board. Parkinson was also among the star-studded line up board that launched TV-am breakfast television in 1983. He also appeared on Give Us a Clue and BBC One’s Going for a Song.

[ Michael Parkinson on George Best: ‘We became friends and that was it’ ]

In later years, despite his reputation as a grumpy Yorkshireman, he was generous about the generation that came after him. “Graham is very clever. He’s brighter, he’s funnier than all the rest. He’s not sycophantic,” he said of Graham Norton, his successor on Saturday night. “My show was interesting in that it was a hybrid. I could do the very serious or the very funny, and I could do the one in-between,” he told the New Statesman earlier this year.

He will surely have accepted that he was part of an extraordinary generation that included such versatile TV professionals as buttoned-up Alan Whicker, enthusiastic David Attenborough and the inquisitive Joan Bakewell. That blend of entertainment and serious thinking is rarer in the current hectic media environment. Anyone who has pointed a microphone at a celebrity owes him a debt.

Parkinson is survived by his wife Mary, also a busy journalist, whom he married in 1959, and by their three sons.

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