Meg Ryan, Graham Norton, cancer and me: Michael Parkinson at 80

The journalist and TV host talks about a life spent asking questions, his recovery from serious illness and how he fears he will be remembered for an errant emu


Michael Parkinson has interviewed over 2,000 people. He recently had reason to review them all when compiling a DVD collection and he’ll be discussing some of his most memorable encounters next week in a live interview with his son, Mike, at Dun Laoghaire’s Mountains to Sea book festival. He seems to view himself, in this context, as a sort of curiosity. “[The audience] are interested to maybe have a look at you. ‘He’s slightly old.’ ‘God almighty, he’s fat now isn’t it?’” He laughs.

Years of being an interviewer has made him a good interviewee. He talks quickly and enthusiastically. He says “for Christ’s sake” sporadically, usually before chuckling heartily. He seems to enjoy being interviewed. He’s been thinking a lot about his youth as a coalminer’s son in Yorkshire, because he’s writing a book about it.

“I was part of a very lucky generation,” he says. “After the war, the soldiers came back, voted out the Tories and in came that great reforming Labour government . . . There was a real sense that something fundamental and basic was happening, that we were getting rid of all the old problems that bedevilled us. And included in that was the fact you left school at 16 and followed your dad down the pit or into the factory.”

His father actively discouraged him from becoming a miner. “He’d been locked out too often and been penniless too often,” he says. “I remember his dignity in dealing with this filthy job, and his resolve, shared by my mother, that I should never follow in his footsteps. He took me down the pit and gave me a tour, not the Hollywood job they gave to visitors. It frightened me . . from that point on I had no ambition whatsoever, except to get away as quickly as possible.”

American culture was both his “boyhood crush” and “his university”. His mother took him to the cinema four nights a week and taught him to love books by Steinbeck, Hemmingway and Dos Passos. “I knew more about America than England, ” he says. “I knew what New York looked like before I knew what London looked like . . . It seemed to me a more enviable culture than the one I was in.”

The idea of becoming a journalist came from “watching Humphrey Bogart with a trilby on saying things like ‘hold the front page, sister’.” In retrospect he’s amazed at how easy it was. “I could walk away from Barnsley grammar school, which did me no good at all except holding up my ambition to be a newspaperman, and walk straight into a newspaper office and say ‘gis a job’.”

He’s sad for young people that it’s not so inclusive now. He moved from local papers to the Manchester Guardian to the Daily Express to the BBC. He covered the war in the Congo and the Arab-Israeli Six Day War. “I wasn’t comfortable being that kind of war correspondent. The war in the Congo nearly finished me off. I never have been as frightened in my whole life. They were eating people for God’s sake . . . I covered the Six Day War for the BBC . . . I was even more frightened doing that because at least when you’re doing a print journalism job you could cover the war from a five-star bar in the Ritz.”

He knew he wanted something else. He recalls having lunch with the broadcaster Fyfe Robertson who said: “Get into the studio. You’ll never make a fortune standing knee deep in mud in a field outside Peterborough talking about the price of potatoes.” He laughs. “That was good advice.”

He went from presenting news reports to hosting the late-night review programme Cinema, to, in 1971, hosting his eponymous talk show.

Bill Cotton signed me,” he says. “He wanted the Ed Sullivan Show. He wanted light entertainment chit, chit, chit, chit and about five songs every show.” As a journalist Parkinson wanted something weightier and “they just let us do it.”

Not everything worked. “I used to do an opening five minutes like the Americans, like Johnny Carson for Christ’s sake. I had a couple of very good writers but I was not very good . . . I’m not a stand-up comic. I’m a journo and I’m better asking question than making statements . . . I had the virtue of working for a company which booked me for 10 shows and then forgot about me . . . In those days there were no committees to sit and theorise about how you make a show work; you just got on with it.”

He was also lucky, he says, because in those days on a talk show “you were allowed talk to people like the poet laureate or a politician or a scientist. It wasn’t a bench full of Hollywood film stars . . . You could have Jacob Bronowski on for an hour and a quarter talking about nothing but science and persuading people who had no interest whatsoever that it was fascinating and brilliant.”

His parents were pleased. His father loved “Hollywood actresses of a certain vintage”. He would “turn up and drool whenever Ingrid Bergman was on the show . . . My mother fell in love with every leading man there was . . . When James Stewart kissed her I thought she’d faint. I saw her legs wobble.”

Was there a point when he feels like he came into his own as an interviewer? “It’s a perpetual series of ups and downs,” he says. “Every interview is different . . . You have to work at it. You have to know more about them than they’ve forgotten about themselves and then you shape it on air with a beginning, middle and end. There has to be a sequence to it. There has to be a story to it.” He pauses. “And sometimes the opposite happens and there is a virtue in chaos.”

I ask for an example. “The only thing people remember about me is being attacked by a bloody emu,” he says. He’s talking about the time Rod Hull and his Emu puppet wrestled him to the floor. “It dominates to this day. When I do a one man show, I put it right on the end because I know they’re all waiting for it. They’re gasping for it . . . It’s a fundamental truth of television . . . that in the end that’s all they’ll remember you for. They won’t remember the fact that you had 15 interviews with David Attenborough, at which time he delivered the most extraordinary sequence of intelligent views on the world . . . They won’t remember that. They’ll remember that you once had a row with a silly Hollywood film star and that you were attacked by a bloody emu.”

So what does he feel in the moment an interview goes off the rails? “If you watch the Meg Ryan interview you see what I do,” he says. “I lost my temper with her because she was rude and stupid. She wasn’t trying. She had committed. She signed a contract. If you’re a professional you go out there no matter the situation. Your dog might have died, but you still go out and concentrate and try your best. She didn’t do that. She was rude to the other guests and she deserved what she got.

“When I look at it, I think I could have gone further in my exasperation and my anger at what I regard to be bad manners. When you know it’s not working you try to make a virtue of it and the virtue of that interview is you showing, for a moment, a side of a woman who for whatever reason was a very unhappy person.”

And with the emu? “I knew in that moment that that would live with me for the rest of my career.” He laughs.

What does it feel like during a very good interview? “You can hear it in the audience. You can sense it. You’re very alive when you’re doing an interview on television. Your senses are very tuned. There’s no coughing . . . There’s no shuffling. You’ve got that incredible stillness that only happens when an audience is totally engaged . . . The most memorable of all is an interview I did with Jacob Bronowski who [presented] the Ascent of Man, where he talked about visiting Auschwitz where his family were murdered and standing outside the gas chamber in the place where they put the bodies and burned them . . . You could hear the silence. It was extraordinary. I will never forget that moment.”

A magazine asked could they use a transcript of that interview. It reads like prose, he says. “That’s how clear his mind was. How moving he was.”

He’s very proud of all of his shows for the BBC and ITV. He’s less sure about Masterclass, the more recent series he did for Sky. “It was at a point in my life where I was developing cancer [of the prostate] and I didn’t really realise what was happening to me,” he says. “I had my first treatments when I was doing that show. There were moments when I was so shagged from the radiotherapy treatments. I remember being down at the back of the theatre . . . and I had to walk down a series of steps . . . and I remember they cued me and I thought ‘I can’t do this. I’m going to walk off’ but I didn’t. I lurched down the stairs and did it.”

He was recently given the all clear, but the treatments were difficult. He talks about this briefly but worries about “putting people off. I’m a crusader in this area. What age are you?”

“Forty,” I say.

“Do you get checked out?”

“Not really,” I say.

“Well you should. You’ve got to. It spreads very quickly and it can kill you. I’m really zealous about this. I don’t want to put people off by talking too much about the after-effects . . . The important thing is: you recover.”

It must have been strange hosting a chat show, giving the illusion of complete control, when suffering an illness that is the ultimate symbol of losing control.

“Yes it is!” he laughs. “Well put.”

He shifts the focus back to his illness’s effect on the quality of his shows. “There are a couple of interviews I’m very proud of, but you’ve got to feel on top form. You need to be able to bounce down. You’ve got to give it a bit of energy. If I look at it now I think I should not have done that.”

He’s still a huge fan of television. He can’t believe how good drama has become (he loves Happy Valley) and though he’s not a fan of contemporary talk shows (“lazy in my opinion”), there is an exception. Who? “Your Irish lad, Graham Norton. I think Graham’s show is brilliant . . . they very cleverly book it to Graham’s strength and they let him pursue his own wacky way of creating situation and it bloody well works.”

He doesn’t like television produced “by committee”. “The BBC light entertainment department [in the 1970s] was two men and two PAs,” he says. “Now it has an entire floor . . . There’s a bureaucracy on top of you that [feels] like a heavy weight . . . You’ve got to give people their head. You have to hire people who’re creative and say to them ‘get on with the bloody job’ . . . You can’t spend your life trying to second guess some clown sitting in an office somewhere theorising about the meaning of life and television. It’s barmy.”

A little later he says: “Newspapers always pick up on this in interviews – ‘Parky criticises modern TV’ – and it really pisses me off because they’re not listening. They’re not looking at what I’m saying. I mean it’s worth talking about [but] try not to give it too much emphasis.” He laughs. “Make it funny.”

He is funny. I ask whether people on the street call him Parky or Sir Michael (he was knighted in 2008)? “Parky in the main or Mike or Sir Michael if I’m going to a posh place,” he says.

“I don’t care. I don’t use [the title] in my profession. I’m proud of the fact I have a knighthood and that I got it for my services to journalism and television, but it doesn’t change the way I view the world or how I talk to people . . . I’ve never hidden away from the public. I don’t walk around with a pair of dark glasses on. That’s nonsense. That’s the way to be recognised.

“You walk among people and people are generally nice to you. But you know, lurking at the back of their evil minds, they’re dying to say: ‘Where’s the emu then?’”

An Evening with Michael Parkinson is on at the Pavilion Theatre in Dun Laoghaire on March 13th.

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