Recently, Nicholas Parsons was filling out a health insurance form that required him to declare how many sick days he’d had in the last year. ‘I wrote: I’ve never had a day off work for health reasons in the whole of my 65-year career!’ he tells Weekend, proudly.
‘I haven’t missed a single edition of Just a Minute in more than 900 episodes,’ he adds of the Radio 4 panel game he has presented – without hesitation, but with some inevitable repetition and much enjoyable deviation – since 1967.
So what’s his secret? ‘I am very healthy – I don’t remember the last time I took to my bed, and I don’t seem to get as many sniffles and coughs as other people,’ he says. ‘I’m lucky in that I’ve got very healthy genes – my older brother’s still alive. Of course, you feel a bit below par sometimes, but you work through it. And I’m a great believer that the more you use your brain, the younger you’ll remain. If you don’t keep using the grey matter, you’ll just fade away.'
Not that, at 92, Parsons doesn’t occasionally feel the strain. ‘I feel my age in my legs,’ he says. ‘I have to pace myself, to make sure the body keeps up with the mind.’
By ‘pace’ himself, he means taking the odd day off in a busy schedule of TV and radio appearances, festivals, lunches, dinners and all manner of charity engagements. He’s finally packed in doing panto (that’s a young man’s game, for people in their 80s), but will still be taking his regular Happy Hour show up to the Edinburgh Fringe in August.
Christopher Nicholas Parsons has been a feature of the British entertainment landscape for longer than most of us can remember. But if his parents had had their way, we’d never have heard of him. As a child in Grantham, Parsons struggled with dyslexia (as no-one called it then), and developed a stammer – in part, he thinks, from being left-handed but made to write with his right. He harboured ambitions to be a performer from a young age, but his mother ‘thought everyone in the theatre was debauched, degenerate and alcoholic’ and his father – a doctor who, contrary to popular rumour, was not responsible for delivering Margaret Thatcher into the world (though he was the family’s GP) – thought he should learn a proper trade.
He’d always been good with his hands, with a talent for stripping down and repairing clocks, so it was decided he should train to be an engineer. ‘The next thing I knew, I was on a train, during the war, going up to Glasgow to work on Clydebank. Can you imagine? Going straight from a middle class, professional family, with a public school accent, to Clydebank.
‘But you learn to find ways to make relationships and, in the end, I was accepted as one of them. I think it was the embryonic actor in me,’ he considers. ‘You have to find ways to get the audience on your side.’
He found other audiences, too, performing in concert parties and appearing on the radio after coming to the attention of the impresario Carroll Lewis. At the end of the war, he told his parents he’d decided to become a full-time actor. ‘They said, “Don’t be ridiculous, you’re a qualified engineer now”. I said, “I know, I did that to please you. Now I’m going to please myself”.
‘My father was very fair, actually, and said he’d pay for me to go to RADA or somewhere. But I said no, I had a bit of raw experience, and I wrote to producers and impresarios, and just persevered. I wouldn’t take no for an answer – I sat in one theatre impresario’s office for two whole days, morning and night, until he gave me an audition.’
His tenacity was rewarded with a role in the West End play The Hasty Heart, after which he did weekly rep in Bromley. When work dried up, he formed his own cabaret act, and later became the resident comedian at The Windmill Theatre in London. ‘People love to put labels on you as one sort of performer or another,’ he laments. ‘But I’ve always diversified.’
In the late 50s and early 60s, Parsons spent 10 years as the straight man to the hugely popular comedian Arthur Haynes, including a sell-out season at the London Palladium and an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in America.
‘I was called the straight man, but it was a partnership,’ he stresses. ‘I changed the direction of what a straight man was. I’m an actor, and I created characters, which Arthur could bounce off. I played it straight, and he played it for gags.’
Later, he became a regular on The Benny Hill Show. ‘Benny was a very sweet, lovely person,’ he says. ‘But Benny did like to confine you – he didn’t really want you to get laughs. He’d rather have had the old-fashioned type of straight man.’
In 1971, Parsons was offered the chance to host a ‘modest little quiz’ for Anglia TV. Sale of the Century would go on broadcasting – ‘from Norwich’, as the introduction famously boasted – for 13 years, peaking with an audience of 21 million – still a record for an ITV game show.
‘I was proud of its success, but I never felt it meant a great deal to me professionally,’ he says. ‘It was a lovely job, but I wanted to get back to acting – probably I was giving a slight performance as a quiz show host. But when it finished, that’s what I was labelled as, and it was very difficult to get cast in films and theatre. It was like starting all over again.’
Three decades on, Parsons' versatility is not in doubt, and he remains much in-demand. On those days when he’s pacing himself, though, he’s happy pootling around the converted Buckinghamshire barn he shares with his second wife, Annie – not to mention several of those clocks he reassembled in Grantham almost a century ago which, like their owner, just keep on ticking.
‘There’s a loud lantern clock that chimes throughout the house,’ he says. ‘It talks to you. I used to listen to it chiming when I was young, then my children listened to it chiming when they were small. And we can still hear it now. It’s a sound that’s been with me my whole life. In total, there are probably around half a dozen clocks I put together as a boy that are still going.’
And they still keep time?
‘Well of course,’ he says, slightly puzzled by the notion. ‘What’s the point of a clock if it doesn’t keep time?’
What indeed. Knowing him, they’ll probably keep going forever.
Published in Waitrose Weekend, June 23, 2016
(c) Waitrose Weekend