The Full Parky

 

I sat opposite Michael Parkinson at a charity dinner last winter and he looked bored out of his mind. The West End premiere that preceded it probably wasn't his cup of tea ("bloody hell" he muttered at one point). He winked once, but for the most part lounged back in his black tie, maybe slightly squiffy, giving an impression of girth, of spent success, at any rate exuding the comfortable aloofness of the most famous person at the table. Occasionally, he would wander off and Mary Parkinson, his wife, would peal, "Where's the old silver fox gone now?"

It was a very different Michael Parkinson I met the other day in a Green Room at BBC's Television Centre in London, to promote the return of Parkinson, hitting the screen again after 15 years. He was on the phone when I went in, but shot out a free hand: "Mike Parkinson" and once off it, he was all over the room, lithe and fit and up-and-at-'em. Bit of joshing with "darling", the publicity woman. A few loud blowings of his nose, cursing of his eyesight ("I can't see anything without my glasses. Terrible") and some sorting out of the BBC as if he'd never been away.

"If there's anything you need . . ." the publicist says, halfway out the door. Parky was straight back at her. "I tell you what we might need, er, er, some fresh tea." "Oh is it stewed again?" she replies.

`A bit stewed so . . . eventually?" He was jetlagged too, straight off the plane from visiting his son and grandchildren in Australia. Does he travel business these days? He guffawed at the thought: "Nooo, I go first class," he says, shaking his silver head, crinkling up those saggy, well-lined eyes, the flat Yorkshire "a" in "class" particularly pronounced. "Oh no . . . When I started making money . . . I don't sit at the back of the bus any more. Oh no."

A lot has changed since Parkinson went away. As he puts it: "Different person, different time, different hair, different neck sizes." In the old shows from 1971 to 1982, in his slacks and sideburns, he flirted with Raquel Welch and sparred with Muhammad Ali, hands clenched between his knees, head bent forward as if to catch every fascinating word. Parky was the viewer's representative on Mars: "Don't you have rather long hair for a singer, Mr Jagger?" he said then. "Oh Christ," he says now remembering the occasion.

Nowadays, in a land peopled by Mrs Merton and Clive Anderson, ruled by publicity schedules and militant PRs, the chat show is an altogether different creature: knowing, ironic, a spectacle in itself. "I think it's come full circle," says Parkinson. `I think I'm a wiser man now, a better interviewer than I was. A more mature man - it would be odd if I wasn't!" He breaks off for a spluttering ironic laugh, before slamming back into the subject.

"I think we've explored every avenue apart from doing a talk show in a submarine or a hot air balloon. I think people would actually like to hear a conversation between two people without some kind of gimmick being produced, without any kind of in-yer-face nonsense." So the new Par- kinson show will be exactly like the old. Same format, same set, same theme tune: "Yup, totally: diddly dum-di-dum," he hums. Even, you could say, the same guests. Parkinson looks down his glasses at the publicity material. "I've interviewed Elton before, Liam Neeson no, Ewan McGregor no, Phil Collins yes, Helen Mirren yes, Sir David Attenborough yes, Joanna Lumley yes, Anthony Hopkins yes, Barry Manilow yes, Paul Merton no." But there is a new ingredient in the mix: Parkinson's status as a famous person in his own right. He doesn't return as the boy from Barnsley, the son of a coal miner; or as a journalist in the ascendant. He returns as Parkinson, the chat-show host par excellence.

Of course, he wouldn't put it quite like that himself. Indeed, as a correction in the Sunday Telegraph noted: "We are happy to make clear that, despite the impression which might have been inadvertently given by a profile in the Sunday Telegraph Magazine of Dec 14, Mr Parkinson has never claimed that he is `the best bloody interviewer in the world'." Even so, the recent re-runs of his old interviews got ecstatic reviews, far better than he ever earned at the time. For better or worse, he comes back as a legend, an emblem of a golden age.

"I think that works in your favour," he says. "I remember I used to call everybody Mr or Mrs or Miss. Halfway through the interview with Orson Welles he said, `Call me Orson', and I said, `I prefer Mr Welles', and he said, `Why?' and I said something appallingly pompous like, `Out of deference to your stature', and he said, `Bullshit'. So I called him Orson from that point on.

"In those days I suppose I was overawed by them. But really in a talk show, the guests become more conversational and more relaxed if they think they already know you. I watched Robin Williams and Billy Crystal on the Oprah Winfrey Show yesterday and they were fantastic, wonderful, because they treated her as someone of equal stature. She got a performance from them they wouldn't give to anyone else."

He leans back on the uncomfortable BBC sofa as if it were a first-class airline seat, twirling his glasses in his hand, one calf hitched up across the other knee. It's not hard interviewing the interviewer's interviewer. He has opinions about everything - football ("two superleagues in 10 years"), successful marriages ("luck"), the tabloids' obsession with soap stars ("20 pages of bollocks"). He conducts a one-man conversation, by turns amusing himself greatly, almost crying with laughter, then enraging himself.

At one point, our interview hits the buffers when he forgets the name of the National Union of Journalists leader who in 1979 kiboshed plans for Parkinson to go five nights a week (by persuading Parliament it represented "a trivialisation of the airwaves"). "Guy who died recently. Um . . ." He clicks his fingers in irritation. "Ulsterman . . . um . . . What was his name? The guy who used to do a media show for Radio 4 . . . What the hell was his . . . this is jetlag you see. The guy who died recently. The broadcaster. The journalist. The Ulsterman . . . What the hell was his name?" He has started banging the table with his pen. "Oh shit. I can't go on without . . . no, no. No." Vincent Hanna? "Vincent Hanna." His relief - mine too, actually - is palpable.

He's at his most cheerful when remembering some of the old shows. Asking Rex Harrison in the Green Room if there was anything he didn't want to talk about: " `My wives,' he said. `But Mr Harrison, you've been married eight times, it'll leave a bloody big gap in the conversation." Asking the same of Princess Anne - and being told `Mr Parkinson, you may ask me anything you want. I don't necessarily have to answer.' " Of the time when Billy Connolly said "about as welcome as a fart in a spacesuit" and Angie Dickinson got an attack of the giggles. Or when he asked John Conteh, in front of Pete and Dud, if he had sex before a fight: "Well you can imagine what Peter Cook did with me on that one - `Do you have sex before a show, Mike?' " Of watching Fred Astaire rehearse an act "10,000 times" before coming on; of listening to Jimmy Stewart.

"I was lucky because that generation of Hollywood stars did tend to be storytellers. I think the system that they worked in produced anecdote, produced characters, like John Ford. And the other thing about those people, they weren't just film stars, they were rounded men. Jimmy Stewart was a very brave man, he had a brave war. You know there was another dimension to them; they were less introspective, less narrow-minded about their job, less posey. And they weren't the puppets of PR people. When I interviewed James Cagney it was the first time he'd ever been interviewed. Astaire too."

And was it true he went out on the town with them after the show? "Before the show with Lee Marvin. We went to a drinking bar called the Tatty Bogle in Dean Street - no, not Dean Street, in Soho somewhere - and there was behind the bar a red-headed woman called Joan who had seen them all come and go. Used to lend me money . . . She was a mad keen movie buff. Anyway I took Lee Marvin down there and he got so pissed, so enamoured of this woman behind the bar, that he said to her, `What can I do for you?' And she said, `Could you just show me how you did that scene in Cat Ballou when you did the fast draw and your trousers fell down?' `You got it lady', he said, and he stood there in the room, drunk in the middle of Soho. Jesus, he pulled his pants down and he had these big red drawers on . . . oh Christ, it was funny. I can just see him now standing there and he's let his hair down and she's going clap clap clap - it was a wonderful bizarre scene - ah he was a wonderful guy, marvellous man."

Parkinson can hardly go on, he's so tied up with laughing. And then he remembers something else. "I took Jack Lemmon down there, too. We had a wonderful time and when I took him home his wife was waiting on the doorstep of the hotel - first time I'd ever seen a wife waiting for her husband on the doorstep of a hotel. He wrote this marvellous letter afterwards saying, `Dear Mike, this is the first letter my doctor has allowed me to write since I saw you . . .' " And he creases up again.

WOULD it be better if Parkinson (62) left well enough alone, and stayed in his memories? Brad Pitt, as he admits, wouldn't be as much fun on the town as Lemmon or Marvin ("though Tom Hanks might"). Wouldn't it be better, now he has stopped "chasing his tail", and has got time to potter around his Thames-side home at Bray in Berkshire, to enjoy his grandchildren and play golf with Mary? But then you remember that this is a man who has been to TV-am and back, who has earned a lot of money in the past 15 years, presenting Going For A Song and The Antiques Quiz, as well as radio work and writing sports columns for the Daily Telegraph. And maybe he just wants one last go at what he did best.

"I did an interview when it was first announced that I might be doing this," he says. "And James Naughtie looked at me and said, `Have you got the energy to do all that again?' And I knew what he meant and I had to answer that question: do I have the energy? Not to do the show, but to do the business - promoting it, the critical flak and all that sort of thing. And I think I have. It's not going to hurt my career. I mean that's established or over or whatever it might be. It's not going to make a difference to me now." But he's still jittery enough for one subject to be off-limits. What about his football team Barnsley, which has made it to the Premier League? "Oh well, I mean, I don't wish to talk about this actually," he says, suddenly bashful. Why not? "Because the problem is that Barnsley might be relegated . . . and I don't want to go down the same chute."

The new series of Parkinson started last night on BBC 1. Elton John is among the show's guests scheduled for next Friday