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

The broadcaster on his friendship with the footballer, the 'skinny kid' from Belfast

Michael Parkinson with his friend, George Best. As a talk show host, Parkinson went on to interview Best more than a dozen times.

Michael Parkinson with his friend, George Best. As a talk show host, Parkinson went on to interview Best more than a dozen times.

 

Michael Parkinson couldn’t wait to meet George Best.

It was 1963, Manchester. Parkinson – who had just joined Granada Television – had heard about a “skinny kid” from Belfast from the then manager of Manchester United, Matt Busby.

“Matt said to me he’d discovered a genius. I could barely wait for the arrival of this child from Belfast,” says Parkinson. “When I saw his first game, I knew Matt wasn’t lying.”

As a talk-show host, Parkinson went on to interview Best more than a dozen times. The two also became firm friends – Best would later stay at his house and play football with his children.

Parkinson has since written a book about their relationship, and – in conjunction with his son Mike – is to speak about Best at the Open House festival in Bangor, Co Down on August 29th.

“I never saw a player like him,” Parkinson tells The Irish Times, “and nor have I since.

“George was extremely gifted, and you didn’t need to be blessed with foresight to see that he had the lot.

“Maybe it was difficult to see the emerging sex symbol from the skinny kid who arrived, but nonetheless there was a certain amount of charm about him, a certain amount of confidence, that spoke well for the future.

“We became friends and that was it. I wasn’t wrong in my choice of friends, and I hope he wasn’t either.”

Parkinson characterises his role as “a kind of big brother”.

“I think he liked the fact that I wasn’t too magisterial in my attitude towards what might be called the more colourful side of his life,” explains Parkinson.

“There were responsibilities, and I would try to persuade him from that downward path but, as with any addict, it’s a problem, and George was a drunk.

“That was his flaw, and the more you knew him the more obvious it became to you – not to him – that he would suffer, in a sense, a tragic end, and that’s what happened to him and we couldn’t do anything to stop him.

“In the end we didn’t even try because we knew he wasn’t listening, but you forgave him all that because of the memories.”

Footballer George Best. George was extremely gifted, according to Parkinson. Photograph: PA
Footballer George Best. George was extremely gifted, according to Parkinson. Photograph: PA

He remembers how Best would worry about his parents in Belfast during the Troubles, though he explains, “He wasn’t a political animal. I never heard him sound off about anything in that area. If he had opinions, he kept them to himself.”

‘Entertainer’

“He saw himself basically as an entertainer and that’s what he was, he was a great entertainer.

“He played like an Irishman. He had a careless gift – careless in the best sense of the word – with what he had to offer. He didn’t hide it, he displayed it wherever he could.”

Parkinson recalls visiting Best’s parents at their home in east Belfast. “The last time we were over in Northern Ireland, about six months ago, we went to the house I used to visit. It’s now open to the public and to see the little bed he used to sleep on, it’s the strangest scene.”

For Parkinson, it evokes “nostalgia and a reminder of a very different time. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything in the world,” he says.

Best died in 2005 aged 59, after a long battle with illnesses linked to alcoholism.

“I think we all felt a collective kind of guilt about why did we allow it to happen,” says Parkinson. “Then I think we all came to realise in the end that it was George didn’t want to change.”

George Best playing for Manchester United in 1969.
George Best playing for Manchester United in 1969.

Did he feel a personal sense of guilt? “Yes, we all did. We all thought we could have done more because we all had a good time, we all went out with him drinking, we all got pissed with him.

“None of us backed off and said I’d better not have a drink because it might encourage George.

“It was just that he was young and we were young and it was the 1960s and there were a lot of drugs and a lot of booze about – not that George did drugs, but it was that kind of hedonistic society.

“He was like this great shooting star, all of a sudden he appeared, whoosh, and then he’d gone.”

Sir Michael Parkinson is in conversation with his son Mike at the Open House Festival on August 29th. The event is sold out. Full festival details are available at openhousefestival.com

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