Michael Parkinson talks 50 years interviewing the biggest stars in the world

Sarfraz Manzoor meets Sir Michael Parkinson.

Michael Parkinson

By: Sarfraz Manzoor

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This interview was originally published in Radio Times magazine.

I’m on a train heading to meet Sir Michael Parkinson and I have butterflies in my stomach. I rarely get nervous ahead of meeting anyone, but I have spent the past few weeks rewatching old episodes of Parkinson and seen him talking to John Wayne and Fred Astaire, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, David Bowie and Madonna.

It was deeply enjoyable to revisit these classic interviews, but it was also rather intimidating to realise that I was about to interview the greatest talk-show host in British television history.

I shouldn’t have worried.

Sir Michael Parkinson, who is now 86 but in great health mentally and physically, is everything one might wish him to be – engaging, personable and bracingly forthright.

It’s 50 years this summer since Parkinson first launched (the anniversary is being marked by a BBC1 documentary on Saturday). The son and grandson of miners who grew up within sight of the Grimethorpe Colliery near Barnsley, Parkinson started out in local newspapers at the age of 16 before being lured on to television at Granada in Manchester.

“I was very ambitious,” he recalls in the garden of his riverside home, “and secretly I wanted to be famous as well. I love being in showbiz. I love asking questions. I love meeting people. In that sense I was ideally created for television.”

In the early 1960s Parkinson was presenting shows on Granada that frequently featured performances by a new band from Liverpool called the Beatles. Paul McCartney asked for his autograph for his mum. He later worked on a film show called Cinema when he received a phone call from the BBC asking if he fancied presenting a late-night talk show.

The first episode of Parkinson aired on 19 June 1971 and guests in the first series included John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Ringo Starr, George Best, Michael Caine and Orson Welles. An impressive list – but not impressive enough for the BBC, who wiped the tapes. Virtually nothing from the first series has survived.

“The BBC had a committee that sat down and decided what they would get rid of,” says Parkinson. “They thought, ‘Nobody wants to watch that.’ I mean, why would you do that?”

The first incarnation of Parkinson ran from 1971 to 1982 and particularly in the early 70s the show featured guests who are now considered among the immortals of the silver screen – James Cagney, Gene Kelly, Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman and Lauren Bacall.

Michael Parkinson and Bette Davis
Michael Parkinson and Bette Davis
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“I was desperately in love with Ingrid Bergman and Lauren Bacall,” Parkinson says. “Bacall – I fantasised about running away with her. Shirley MacLaine, I fell head over heels with. Her brother [Warren Beatty] came on the show and said, ‘Are you the guy trying to date my sister?’ And I said yes.”

In his memoir, Parkinson recalled David Niven vomiting from nerves before coming on the show and it made me wonder if he had suffered the same – did he not have sleepless nights ahead of meeting such icons?

“I don’t get nervous as such – I get properly on edge,” he says. “I had to overcome a fear that I wasn’t up to it. The bigger the name the greater respect I had.” The biggest name and the person Parkinson routinely cites as the most extraordinary person he interviewed was Muhammad Ali. Parkinson met Ali four times and each time a slightly different Ali showed up, from cocky to angry to vulnerable. “What a figure, what a personality,” says Parkinson. “I’ve seen some beautiful men in my time but he was gorgeous. Beautiful – but the gibberish he talked was extraordinary.”

In 1974, Parkinson flew to the United States to interview Ali alongside the American talk-show host Dick Cavett. The two men were meant to be co-hosting the interview, but Cavett completely took over and Parkinson barely got a question in. “That didn’t play well with me at all,” he says. Did he feel humiliated? “I did, yes,” he replies.

“I was looking forward to having a word in his ear but at the end of the show he did a backflip over the settee, went to the back of the set, went to the car and drove off.”

Parkinson didn’t hear from Cavett for another three years when he suddenly received a phone call. “He said, ‘Hi Mike, do you know Larry Olivier? Do you think you could give me an introduction?’ I wanted to say, ‘F*** off.’ But I didn’t. I just said, ‘I don’t know him that well.’“I thought, ‘You cheeky bastard!’ I mean, he knew how badly he’d treated me.”

One talk-show host with whom Parkinson did enjoy a deep friendship was David Frost. “We enjoyed each other’s company over many years. We were bonded by a deep love of cricket. He was a very interesting man and I admired him greatly.” Frost was arguably Parkinson’s only rival during the 70s but, unlike him, Frost had also forged a successful US career having landed now legendary interviews with, among others, the Shah of Iran and Richard Nixon. “I was in Los Angeles when he was doing preparation for the Nixon interviews,” Parkinson reveals. “We were staying in the same hotel. And I saw how hard he worked to get that right. He had to. He’d mortgaged his house. I liked that about David. He was a gambler.”

Michael Parkinson
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The other interviewer whom Parkinson venerated was Alan Whicker. “If I had a hero in terms of interviewing, it was him,” Parkinson says. “He was wonderful. He played the pauses better than anyone else. I’ve rated him all my life. He was a star. He was also a very nice man and generous to other performers.” Whicker was a guest on Parkinson in 1982 in what turned out to be the final series of the show’s original run. Why did it end? “I can’t remember. Why would I walk away? I don’t think I did. I think I was quietly shown the door.”

The 80s saw Parkinson follow other adventures: he was part of the launch team for ITV’s breakfast show TV-am, he forged a new television career in Australia and took over from Roy Plomley as the presenter of Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. I tell him that my favourite edition of Desert Island Discs was the one with Robert Maxwell. “He was overwhelming and he never understood a question you asked,” recalls Parkinson. “He just ploughed on. I think he used to get up in the morning, start talking and didn’t shut up until he fell asleep at night. He was totally, utterly, disgracefully awful. There was nothing about him to like.” Parkinson left the programme in 1988 after only three years. “I always thought Desert Island Discs was a lovely idea but it had its problems,” he says, adding, “The music interrupted too much.”

In 1998, Parkinson returned to BBC television. “When the show came back it was better. I was much more confident, I was older and I’d done it once so I knew I could do it better.” The second manifestation produced many memorable moments, among them Victoria Beckham revealing she called David “Golden Balls” and Paul McCartney singing Yesterday. “They are the moments you treasure. You look back and think whatever else went wrong, that was right and that was a privilege. In the end, that’s what you’re looking for – the possibility of sitting next to someone like McCartney who, by any stretch, is a genius and a nice lad, our Paul.”

There were also some rather less comfortable encounters, such as Woody Allen becoming tetchy when questioned about his marriage to Soon-Yi. “You can do as much research as you need and you can feel confident that you know more about the guest than they know themselves,” he says, “but you can’t actually predict human relations. You can meet people you don’t like, or who don’t like you, and then you’re in trouble.”

In October 2003, Meg Ryan was a guest on the show. It would become one of the most awkward of encounters. Parkinson has talked often about their meeting and the narrative I had accepted about the interview was that essentially Ryan had been a hostile and uncommunicative guest, Parkinson the innocent victim. But when I rewatched it ahead of speaking to him today, that wasn’t my impression at all. Ryan was uncomfortable, yes, but she also appeared vulnerable and Parkinson seemed determined to make her feel more uncomfortable with slightly needling questions.

I tell Parkinson that in watching the interview again, my strongest impression was that he could have been kinder to her as she seemed rather fragile. “I wish I hadn’t lost my temper with Meg Ryan,” he says, “I wish I’d dealt with it in a more courteous manner. I was quite obviously angry with her and it’s not my business to be angry towards the guests. I came across as kind of pompous and I could have done better.”

What would you say to her, I ask, if you saw her again? “I’m sorry,” he says, adding, “but you must understand that you played a part in it, too. Neither of us were on top form, and we were both discomforted.”

The Ryan encounter is one that – along with Rod Hull and Emu in 1976 – is most often cited when discussing Parkinson, which is rather unfair because what struck me when revisiting old episodes was how often he was able to create an atmosphere where stars felt relaxed. I think of Madonna being charming and funny, and how at ease David Bowie was – even telling Parkinson that he reminded him of his father. “My nature has been to create an atmosphere in which the guest feels comfortable,” he says. “In the end it’s a relationship between two people. The two people needn’t necessarily adore each other but they’re interested enough in each other to respect them and answer the questions properly. That’s when it really works.”

Parkinson finally ended its run in 2007, following a three-year spell on ITV. The talk-show hosts who followed in his wake might occupy the same space in the schedule, but Parkinson has a point when he says there’s no one doing what he did. I ask him if he rates Piers Morgan. “I enjoy a lot of the stuff that he does because I do think we need a voice like that. I miss him on television.”

Graham Norton? “He is the best at it,” he says. “Graham invents a party and he has the best jokes and gets them all together. But there’s a problem: I feel that we’ve heard it all before.” The other problem with all of today’s talk shows is that in their desperation to entertain they have less faith in the audience than Parkinson. Norton and Jonathan Ross can feature Madonna in their respective shows (and they have) but Parkinson also featured remarkable interviews with the historian and television presenter Dr Jacob Bronowski, who talked about visiting Auschwitz. He also invited Harold Pinter, WH Auden, John Betjeman and Gore Vidal on to his show. It’s hard to imagine Norton or Ross introducing any of them.

He has no regrets about no longer being on television, he says. “In this ultra-sensitive world I doubt I could actually do an interview nowadays without being sent off. There are so many pitfalls and booby traps in life now. I think I had the best of it.”

What does he think the secret to longevity was in having a television career? “I think people have to like you,” he says. “It’s as simple as that. It’s about what they make of you, warts and all. That’s crucial – and if you knew the answer to it, you’d be a rich man indeed.”

I don’t know the definite answer but I would hazard a guess that part of the reason why the audience took to Michael Parkinson was that he never thought it was his role to outshine his guests. For all his success there was a part of him that was still that little boy in Barnsley staring in awe at the silver screen. “When you’re a child and you are sitting there watching glamorous film stars, to think you might one day say, ‘My next guest is Lauren Bacall’ is too fantastic to even contemplate. But I did that, and I never got bored with it. I had a weekly sense of wonder.”

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This week’s Radio Times magazine is out now. Parkinson at 50 airs tonight at 8:30pm on BBC One. If you’re looking for more to watch, check out our TV Guide.