Michael Parkinson

‘I hate this phrase “professional Yorkshireman”,’ says Michael Parkinson. ‘I really do not know what it means. Do I get paid for being a Yorkshireman? No. Am I proud of being a Yorkshireman? Yes.

‘Yorkshire people are a bit like Texans,’ he adds. ‘We’re the biggest piece of the country – a beautiful county that’s produced so many talented people. And we’re proud of that. I don’t think it’s anything to hide.’

He might not be on the official White Rose payroll, but Parky’s bluff Yorkshire charm helped him build a stellar career, from cub reporter on his local paper to our most celebrated talk show host, whose Saturday night conflabs with such 20th century colossi as Muhammad Ali, John Wayne and Orson Welles (not to mention that damn emu) are the stuff of legend.

Now 82, he’s as busy as ever, despite recent health problems. ‘I had a bit of a bad time for four years,’ he explains. ‘I had prostate cancer and hopefully, touch wood, we’ve got rid of it. And then I got this back problem.’ Having been told by his doctor he faced ‘a choice between a wheelchair or an operation’, earlier this year Parkinson had surgery to repair two ruptured discs on his spine.

‘It’s a serious operation – you have to learn how to walk again and do all kinds of silly things,’ he says. ‘But I’m getting through it. I still lurch a little bit, but generally speaking I’m feeling a lot stronger. So life goes on.’

Indeed, he’s about to hit the road for a UK tour of his new live show, Our Kind of Music, in which he will recall his various encounters with legendary recording artists, interspersed with clips from the archives and live performances – including our host singing Moon River (‘a treat not to be missed’, he promises drily).

‘We’re playing the Palladium, which is a terrifying thought,’ he admits. ‘I mean, I’ve done the Palladium before, but I’ve never walked out pretending to be anything other than an interviewer. Now I’m going to start crooning.’

He’s confident his health is up to it, though. ‘Except sometimes I have difficulty stopping, so I might walk off stage into the orchestra pit...’

The show has also inspired an album of the same name – a 3-CD collection of classics from the Great American Songbook, featuring the likes of Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and Nat King Cole, alongside one of Parky’s most successful musical discoveries, Jamie Cullum.

‘The Great American Songbook is the greatest collection of popular songs ever written, in my opinion,’ says Parkinson. ‘It’s America’s classical music, basically.’

It’s the music that has fired his imagination since he first discovered it as a 10-year-old boy in Barnsley, towards the end of the Second World War. ‘I was fiddling with our Bush radio and I came across the American Forces Network, broadcasting out of Germany. The English hit parade at that time was How Much Is That Doggy in the Window? and all that sort of stuff, which didn’t hold much interest to for the American GIs – nor me, I have to say.

‘I heard Louis Armstrong playing, and then I heard Ella sing, and Billie Holliday sing, and I was just captivated by what was new music for me – blues and jazz and all those strands of music that eventually came to make up the Great American Songbook. And then when you look into the history of it, the people who wrote these songs – they’re all immigrants. Irving Berlin was the godfather of all this. He wrote 1500 songs, and lived to be 102. He outlived his copyright, which I think is wonderful.’

What that kid listening to the wireless in South Yorkshire can’t have known was that one day he’d get to meet – and even perform with – so many of his musical heroes. ‘A lot of the great performers came on the TV show,’ he recalls. ‘Fred Astaire, Mel Torme, Oscar Peterson, Tony Bennett, Bing Crosby – I sang a duet with Bing. All the great singers apart from Francis Albert.’

Francis Albert being Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, of course. ‘I never hooked Sinatra, though I did meet him at a party in New York,’ he says. ‘[Songwriter] Sammy Cahn said to him, “Next time you’re England, you must do Mike’s show”. So I was feeling confident. At the end of the night, I went up to Frank and said, “Thanks for inviting me, I’ll see you in England, hopefully.” And he said, “Sure thing, David...”’

Parkinson began his journalism career on the South Yorkshire Times, and later wrote features for the Manchester Guardian and the Daily Express (via a National Service detour in which he took part in the Suez operation, and had the distinction of being Britain’s youngest Army captain.) In the early 1960s, he joined Granada Television and then the BBC – where, as a miner’s son who’d left school with two O-Levels, he admits he often felt like a fish out of water.

‘I was made to feel a bit that way, throughout my career,’ he says. ‘Even when I was at the height of my fame, some of the rows I had with the management, and some of the things that were said at committee meetings, were extraordinary – things about me and my accent, and not being suitable. And you think, “Who are these bloody people”? So it never went away. It’s very Oxbridge, the BBC, still. It’s a public school club.’

Launched in 1971, Parkinson brought the world’s biggest stars into people’s living rooms in a way that had never been seen before. ‘When I said, “Ladies and gentlemen, my guest today is Fred Astair, or Muhammad Ali” it was like a man from a spaceship arriving, because the audience knew who they were, but they had no idea about the kind of people they were. They’d never seen them on talk shows before.

'Certainly film stars of that generation weren’t allowed by the studios to go on television until the 70s, when I started the show. When I said, “Ladies and gentlemen, James Cagney”, instead of this 30-foot high character from the screen, it was this tiny little man peering round the set.’

He confesses he was often starstruck. ‘But you couldn’t allow yourself to appear to be starstruck. Though I did appear to be in love with one or two of them, I must admit – Lauren Bacall and Shirley MaClaine, people like that. They were irresistible. It was the best job in the world, frankly.’

He doubts he could get away with being so flirtatious and touchy-feely with his female guests today, especially in the post-Weinstein climate.

‘You could flirt on television in those days,’ he says. ‘Shirley MacLaine was the most outrageous flirt – don’t talk about me, watch her! That was part of the game. It was harmless, silly, romantic and all those things. But the majority of stories we’re reading about now are not flirting – they’re serious assaults by men on women, and that’s a different thing altogether.’

He says that Mary, his wife of 58 years, ‘had a bit of a time of it’ during her own career as a television journalist and broadcaster, and he’s mystified why women continue to be paid less than men, but hopes the issues can be addressed ‘without too much hysteria’.

Not all his female guests fell for the Parky charm offensive, of course. He offended a young Helen Mirren by introducing her as ‘the sex queen of the Royal Shakespeare Company' and asking if her figure undermined her ambitions as a serious actress, and failed to hide his irritation with a famously sullen and hostile Meg Ryan.

These, he tells Weekend, should serve as a cautionary tale for fame-seekers. ‘I always think "they should  look at you, Parky, and imagine that, for all the things you’ve done in your life, and all the people you’ve interviewed, you’re only remembered for these two things".’ He gives a rueful chuckle. ‘That should give you a fair idea of why fame is not worth a dime.’

Much of Parkinson’s success was down to the eclectic nature of its guests: for every James Stewart or Gene Kelly, a John Betjeman or a WH Auden.

‘Auden was fascinating,’ he says. ‘I remember looking at him and thinking he had the most wrinkled, lined face of any person I’d ever seen. I swear I saw dust in his wrinkles. And Betjeman was a treat – a wonderful, bubbling, enthusiastic man.

‘When we started, the BBC wanted a variety show. We didn’t want to do a variety show: what we wanted to do was a show where you could put on [mathematician, historian and polymath] Jacob Bronowski with Jimmy Tarbuck, and Matt Busby with the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The test was not how famous they were, but how interesting they were.’

Why is no-one doing this today? ‘Oh, don’t get me started on my favourite subject,’ he groans.

That said, he rejects any notion of having lived through a ‘golden age’ of television. ‘We had Muffin the Mule, for god’s sake! It was a good period for talk shows, that’s for sure. An exciting time. But television has as many failures in its system as it does successes. That’s the way it will always be. When it’s good it’s very good, and when it’s bad it’s lousy.'

Parkinson ran, on and off, for more than 35 years. A decade on from the final show, Parky – a Knight of the realm since 2008 – has no plans to retire (‘I didn’t start work to retire, and Mary probably wouldn’t want me under her feet’), with future projects including a book about his friendship with George Best.

Despite his unswerving loyalty to Yorkshire, he’s long been settled by the Thames in Bray, Berkshire (though, perhaps tellingly, he still mispronounces it as ‘Burkshire’), with his three children and eight grandchildren all living within a three-mile radius. One of his sons, Nick, runs the nearby Royal Oak, which the family bought 15 years ago and turned from a slightly rundown pub into a Michelin-starred restaurant.

It’s a long a very long way from the slag heaps of South Yorkshire: instead of coal, here the local industry is haute cuisine.

‘In the parish of Bray there are eight Michelin stars,’ says Parkinson. ‘Heston’s got three [at the Fat Duck], the Rouxs have three [at the Waterside Inn], we’ve got one and there’s one other [The Crown at Burchetts Green]. The nearest place to us with eight Michelin stars is Zurich!’

Life has turned out so well, in fact, that he doesn’t even harbour any regrets about not being picked for his beloved Yorkshire County Cricket Club when he had trials as a teenager.

‘I wasn’t bad at cricket, but I wasn’t as good as Geoffrey Boycott. But then who was?’ he says. ‘We played together, me and him and [legendary umpire] Dickie Bird. And we’ve all done well in our own ways, the three of us who went to those Yorkshire nets together.

'Arthur Mitchell, who was the coach at the time, asked Dickie who I was. Dickie said, “That’s Mike Parkinson, he’s a mate of mine, a reporter on the South Yorkshire Times”. Arthur took one look at me and said, “When tha sees him next, have a word with him, and tell him to keep on reporting”. And I’m glad he did.’

Published in Waitrose Weekend, December 14, 2017

(c) Waitrose Weekend