The host with the most

AN interview with Michael Parkinson is as difficult to get as dress circle seats at Covent Garden.

Repeated calls bring the offer of a 30-minute interview slot two months ahead. But he retired years ago, so how crammed is his schedule? “Yes, it’s been a pretty active retirement,” says Parkinson. “We’re very lucky, aren’t we, those of us who pursue a career that enables us to go on and on?” His friendliness and charm are reminders of why Parkinson was such a success as an interviewer and broadcaster for half a century.

The tiring work in his diary is fulfilling duties outside television. Every charity wants Parkinson’s name on their headed paper; everyone wants him to draw the crowds. “From now to the end of the year, 90% of my diary is filled with those kind of appointments,” he says. “I really must trim them back.”

Parkinson says it’s no good taking on a role like chancellor of Nottingham Trent University if you’re not going to be committed. “That is an honour. I do enjoy it and I find the students very enlightening and inspiring. I see them coming up at graduation, full of optimism, and I think, ‘oh gosh, you’ve got it all before you’.”

Born into a Yorkshire mining family in 1935, Michael’s first love was cricket, and one of his earliest claims to fame was keeping Geoffrey Boycott out of the Barnsley team by scoring a century, and 50, in two successive matches. Journalism soon took over, first in local papers, then on the Manchester Guardian and the Daily Express. Conscripted into national service as Britain’s youngest army captain, he saw active service in the Suez crisis in 1956.

Television was expanding and exploring new horizons in the 1960s and Parkinson was ready and waiting. He worked on current affairs programmes for the BBC and for Granada (it was on Granada’s Cinema programme that he had his first star interview, with Laurence Olivier). Then, in 1971, came his own talk show for the BBC, called Parkinson. It was a huge success, running first for an unbroken 11 years to 1982, and again from 1998 to 2007. Parkinson calculates that he interviewed 2,000 international celebrities during that time. In between, he was part of the original line-up for TV-AM in 1983, with Angela Rippon, Anna Ford, and Robert Kee; took over Thames TV’s Give Us A Clue from Michael Aspel, and hosted BBC1’s Going for a Song.

At the same time, that familiar Yorkshire voice was hosting Desert Island Discs, Parkinson on Sport, and Parkinson’s Sunday Supplement on radio. His fame was such that he appeared as himself in several TV shows (including Neighbours) and movies (eg Love Actually). He was a hit with the Top Gear team, too, posting a lap time of 1:49.4 as the ‘star in a reasonably priced car’. He’s even on the cover of the Wings album, Band on the Run.

Officially announcing his retirement in 2007, Parkinson busied himself with writing. Parky: My Autobiography, published a year later, was a success both for its lively conversational style and the colourful snippets of information he imparted about his celebrity guests. In Sept 2008 he launched his own website, which includes online interviews with luminaries such as Nelson Mandela.

So who does he remember most? “Well, yes. I think the most remarkable man I ever interviewed was Muhammad Ali. And George Best, I loved that kid like a son. He was incredible, absolutely symptomatic of the Sixties and the way the world changed then. Nobody had seen a boy with long hair play football like that,” he says.

There were the awkward ones, too. The much-publicised interview with actress Meg Ryan in 2003, when she deliberately turned her back on co-guests Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine, and gave icy, one-word answers to Parkinson’s gentle probing.

Parkinson was later to admit that was his most difficult television moment. Oscar-winner Dame Helen Mirren can’t seem to forget an interview she did with Parkinson in 1975, when she claims he made sexist comments. The star, famed for her willingness to bare all in the cause of art, called the experience “enraging”.

Mostly, though, they love him. He received the CBE in 2000 for services to broadcasting, and was made a knight in 2008.

With typical Yorkshire bluntness, Parkinson said that he was not the type to get a knighthood, coming as he did from Barnsley. “They give it to anyone nowadays,” he says.

Now, Parkinson is somehow finding space in the diary to come over to Bantry for the West Cork Literary Festival (his appearance with Miriam O’Callaghan sold out within days).

“I always enjoy Ireland. I loved appearing on the Late Late Show. We haven’t got that kind of show any more in the UK — just comedians showing off their own scripted wit. I used to go on with Gay and it was really agreeable, because the audience actually understood and joined in if given half a chance. That’s my kind of show,” he says.

Oddly enough, for someone so much in the public eye, Parkinson says that he is more solitary than outgoing.

“I don’t like the limelight, I don’t like parties. I have my family (wife Mary, three sons, eight grandchildren) and that’s where I like to spend my free time,” he says. Parkinson and his son Nick also run the Michelin-starred Royal Oak pub in Maidenhead, an enterprise which gives him much pleasure. “It’s great getting together with all the family down there. It’s what life’s all about.”

But the world still wants to see him, and the offers keep coming. In September, Sky Arts will air a new Parkinson show, Masterclass. “We’ve just finished recording that. We had this idea of a close-up look at dancers, musicians. There is a tendency to equate celebs with fame and achievement with just walking down the stairs, so I wanted to point out that to be a great performer who will be known for all time, there is no easy way,” he says.

This is clearly something about which he feels passionate. “You have to be talented, but the work is exhausting, all the time. Those who think they have it rough should just hear what these people have done,” he says.

As long as you have that ability to be positive about what you’ve got, you’ll get ahead, says Parkinson, firmly. “It’s no good saying I can’t get from where I am, you can.”

And is there something — anything — that he hasn’t done yet that he yearns to try? “Well, funny you should say that. Since I’ve retired, I’ve always wanted to write another kind of book. Maybe it’s a play, maybe it’s TV, but there is something there. I’m only thinking it out now as I talk to you.

“The autobiography was one thing, but it didn’t include everything, that’s for sure. You don’t discard experience, but you don’t necessarily mention it all. Maybe it’s time.”

* Michael Parkinson appears, in conversation with Miriam O’Callaghan, at the Maritime Hotel, Bantry, as part of the West Cork Literary Festival, Jul 12.

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