An interview with the nation’s best-ever interviewer: Sir Michael Parkinson
- Credit: Jane Brown
How does it feel to interview Sir Michael Parkinson, the nation’s best-ever interviewer? Katie Jarvis takes a very deep breath – and finds out
Usually (and I’ll level with you here) I’m OK.
I mean, I shook for a solid hour beforehand, the first time I interviewed Jilly Cooper. I’ll grant you that.
And I had that nightmare where I was frantically driving round Oxford 24 hours after our planned meet-time, still trying to locate Richard Dawkins’s house. (Perfectly feasible in Oxford.)
But Sir Michael Parkinson is the only one – the only one - where I’ve kept a brown paper-bag by the phone to ease symptoms of hyperventilation.
‘I know!’ I think, brilliantly. I’ll formulate the world’s wittiest question with which to kick off the interview. Start as I mean to go on.
It goes well.
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“Gabble-stutter-burble-Katie-garble-jibber-jabber-THANK-YOU!-sputter-bumble-Bette-Davis!” I mumble at high speed, as if auditioning for a major speaking role in a BBC drama.
There’s a momentary baffled silence over the phone-line.
“I’m so sorry,” Sir Michael Parkinson says, kindly, as if I’ve just emerged in stilettos at the top of his iconic stairs, then belly-flopped all the way down. “It’s a bit of a blurred line.”
I love his voice. If anything is designed to take away nerves, it’s his calming voice. Still gently Yorkshired, and mellifluous, too. As if you’d wound up the lift-cage from the depths of Grimethorpe Colliery and opened it to reveal Yehudi Menuhin playing on a Khevenhüller Strad.
I pick myself up, dust myself down, and metaphorically take a seat opposite him on a comfy padded black chair.
“Sir Michael,” I begin again.
It’s not difficult, in point of fact, interviewing Sir Michael Parkinson. He knows what his audience wants. They don’t really want to know – not really – about illness or distress or even whether or not acting is in Meg Ryan’s combative nature. They want to be entertained. Pure and simple.
And, boy, can he entertain.
“Sir Michael,” I begin, wittily. “I try to learn from the experts. Bette Davis once told an interviewer she was only there to talk about her autobiography, available in all good bookshops.
“So tell me about your forthcoming tour.”
He laughs. And he’s off. “She was wonderful Bette Davis! The trick with Bette Davis was, whenever she was on the show, always to mention in the introduction why she was there. If you didn’t, she would say, ‘You know, I didn’t come here because I like you; or because I’m friendly with you. I don’t know you at all. I’ve come here because I’ve written a book.’
“But I’m not like that. I’m a much sweeter person than Bette Davis; most people are sweeter than Bette Davis.”
He is sweeter. That’s true.
He’s had his chillier moments, admittedly. Some of them downright parky (NB aforementioned Ryan; NB sticky moments with Helen Mirren). But who else would have been able to ask Malcolm Muggeridge if he was a virgin when he married. (“No, I wasn’t…”). Or Richard Burton if he’d tried to drink himself to death. (“I had a go.”) Or question Tony Blair on how his beliefs played a part in his disastrous decision-making. (“So you pray to God when you make a decision like that [going to war]?” “Well, I don’t want to go in to sermons…”
But, essentially, yes.)
So, to go almost full-Bette, there is a Cheltenham event at which Sir Michael will be reminiscing – interviewed by his youngest son, Mike - and playing clips of his favourite moments.
Favourite moments?!? How on earth he can choose, I simply do not know! The roll-call is phenomenal – far easier to name those he didn’t interview. Frank Sinatra, for example, whom he did meet at a cocktail party, introduced by mutual friend Sammy Cahn.
“Good to meet you, Mike,” Frank said.
“Now he knows your name you’re halfway to getting him on the show,” an excited Cahn exclaimed.
“Goodbye, David,” Frank said, as he left.
Or Katharine Hepburn, who promised on an annual basis to consider appearing on his show. But at least Parky got Peter O’Toole to admit he fell in love with Ms Hepburn while filming Lion in Winter. Even after she once came backstage to see him and caught him peeing in the sink.
You can bet those knock-out interviews with Muhammad Ali will be in there, though.
“Ah,” Michael Parkinson tells me. “Meeting him was one of the joys of my life.
“I admired him on many levels. I admired what he did from the background he came from.”
[Indeed. Such as a young Cassius Clay – as he was before his name-change – being denied a glass of water at a store because of his colour.]
“I understood his rebelliousness. I understood his hatred of authority. I understood all that. I almost sensed in him something that was not always apparent: that he had a good soul. More than that, I always sensed there was a tragedy awaiting him.”
He was, Sir Michael says, the most remarkable human being he’s ever encountered. But that sense of tragedy was never more apparent than in the fourth interview they did together, in 1981, when Ali – tired and reflective – spoke slurred of voice and bloated of feature.
“[That interview] was my favourite but also the saddest because I knew, when he walked on, that he was…”
“He fought twice more after that when he shouldn’t have been in a ring with a ballet dancer, never mind with 15-stone guys trying to kill him. And I just saw the inevitable conclusion of his life being a terrible, terrible tragedy for all that he achieved.
“I sort of think he was misunderstood. He played his own part in his own downfall – of course he did, as we all do. But he was a very interesting man and he had very nice instincts sometimes. Sometimes he was a bully and sometimes he was a racist.”
[“I know whites and blacks cannot get along; this is nature,” Ali once said, along with pronouncements that mixed race marriages were against the laws of God.]
“But nonetheless, he was a fascinating man; I liked him and I think he liked me. I think we got on.”
It sets me wondering, this synergy with Ali (and something similar with George Best – we’ll come on to him shortly) whether it was to do with their backgrounds. Odd, I know, when on paper Parkinson and Ali couldn’t be more different.
But both had escaped their destinies. Both had talents that allowed them to divert from the path their ancestors trod and move on to greater things.
Ali, descended from slaves in the American South, bobbed and weaved away from a life of semi-literacy; a world where segregation robbed his people of opportunity.
Sir Michael climbed out of Cudworth, a mining village in South Yorkshire, (he could see the pit from his bedroom window), where the blackness of coal seams was rarely washed out. Even in a weekly tub in front of a council-house fire.
“Blacker than a crow’s arse,” his dad laconically described life below sea-level.
“I was the first male Parkinson in a hundred years not to go down the pit,” he tells me. “My parents were determined that I wouldn’t go down; I didn’t need much persuading, I have to tell you. My father took me down and it frightened the hell out of me.”
Outside of work, his dad, John, gave a new meaning to the phrase ‘sports mad’ – cricket being his true passion; Yorkshire being the world’s only justifiable county.
(Is it true that his dad was proud of him achieving television fame, but deeply disappointed he didn’t end up playing professional cricket for the county?
“A kernel of truth. He didn’t think that when I was meeting Ginger Rogers, though, I tell you!)
Every week, a man from the local newspaper would turn up on his Raleigh bike to collect match reports from the Parkinson household.
Michael wanted his job.
“I was lucky that I always knew what I wanted to do; and I was equally lucky in that, in those days, you could actually walk into a local newspaper office at 16, as I did and say, “Gis a job! “ and they gave me one. From that point on, I became a journalist.
He couldn’t do that today, he muses. Too much university; too little opportunity.
He was, I suggest, born at exactly the right time; the stars (pun intended) in perfect alignment.
Not just because there was opportunity for a lad with little interest in O levels to walk into a hack’s job. But because newspapers had space for eccentricity. I love the tales in his autobiography, Parky, about Express editors like Howard Keble, who would lay out a page with a headline such as The Glory of Love? “Great!” a reporter would say: “What’s the story?”
“That’s for you to find out,” Keble would reply.
Or Derrick Amoore at Granada, who’d spend the morning firing an air pistol at a dartboard in his office, before saying – mid conversation about football – “Tunisia. Why don’t we hear about Tunisia?” and duly dispatching a film crew.
Sir Michael chuckles at the memory.
“What I enjoyed about Fleet Street – I use that as a generic term for journalism - was it was full of life; an abundance of life. It was drunken, yes – not many drugs; it was mad, yes; it was barmy. It was silly; it was sexist. All those things piled in. But I tell you what: it was very, very enjoyable, if you were at the centre of it. I can’t work out why.”
But even amongst those hacks, Michael Parkinson was a visionary. For he was one of the few to embrace television in an era when Fleet Street – he included, at first – was convinced this new-fangled phenomenon would simply go away.
“In 1962, I joined Granada - the best of the independent companies, ever. The cultural revolution started up there. The 50s and 40s were bloody awful; it was like living in a black-out – the smog. Then, all of a sudden in the 60s, somebody switched the light on. And it became technicolour.
“People like us at Granada – young and vigorous; we didn’t decide to change the world but the world changed around us. The music particularly. We had the Beatles on our show – the resident group. Mick Jagger was my first celebrity interview. All that changed everything and, from that point on, it spun on its axis.”
I’ve not gone full Bette Davis yet. There’s another product: a new book on George Best out in November: a memoir Michael and his son have written about this footballing legend, who was also a family friend.
The public – if not the world – got George 180 degrees wrong. They thought he didn’t want to give up football. He did. They thought he wanted to give up drinking. He didn’t.
“When he was on the run from the media, he used to come and stay with us. And my three boys, of course, who love sport, used to play football with him on the lawn. He liked kids – they didn’t bother him; it was adults that bothered George. And so it’s a fond reminder of a real tragedy.”
Sir Michael wrote his first book on George in 73; even then George was on a downhill slope. “You could tell, in a sense, rereading the book that it was about a pending tragedy – it was all going to end in tears, and it did.”
Interesting that George once told him he didn’t regret a thing. Was that right?
“No, I don’t think that’s right at all. That’s the defence of a man who might pretend he’s had a great time; but he knows better than anybody that he’s dying. That he’s killing himself - and that was George. You know, he killed himself in the end. Here he was, a fit, young athlete and wonderful player: gifted, bright, intelligent – all those things.
“And he drank himself to death. Why? Well, his mother was an alcoholic; so, if you believe that there are genes that are transferable, that might be a reason. But he didn’t have the protection. When David Beckham came along 20 years later, it was different. It was a big scene. There were PR people and there were agents who knew the game. When George arrived from Ireland – a little peasant lad, aged 16; like a matchstick, he was – he had none of that protection. The first time I met him, he was living in a council house with Mrs Fullaway, his landlady, and he had 10,000 letters unanswered on his bedroom floor.”
It was overwhelming.
“Overwhelming; precisely. I always had that great feeling that, had he arrived a bit later, it might have been different. But, as it was, he was the founder – the hub of the turning point of football: a game into show business.”
So people today. Who would he kill to get on a show?
“Ooh, I think Mr Trump might be rather interesting.”
“Really? I thought you’d run a mile.”
“I don’t think so.”
“How would you handle him?”
“Well, I don’t know. I’d have to do a lot more research than I’ve done on him. I’d have to think of a way of getting through all that bluster. I’m not lauding him as a citizen who’s up for a medal - of course not. And I think his reign might well end in tragic circumstances, But he has turned the world on its head. As an interviewer, you couldn’t possibly turn that gift down.
“He doesn’t know what it is to tell the truth in many cases, obviously. What do you do with that? You say, ‘Well, that’s a lie. Why do you tell lies?’”
I’ve had 20 minutes 21 seconds of my (pretty generous) 20-minute allocation. I’m pushing my luck now.
“What would be your ideal dinner party?”
“Oh god. It would have to be Billy Connolly. There would have to be Peter Kay there. There would have to be Dame Edith Evans. There would have to be…”
He laughs. “What was she called?”
We pronounce her title in unison.
“The Ranee of Sarawak!”
One of the great English eccentrics of a kind he delighted in interviewing.
“That’s right. The woman who used to pee over the balcony.” (Actually, it was her husband, the Rajah, who led guests to think the rainy season had come early when he peed over the verandah of their Sarawak Palace.)
Michael Parkinson tee-hees.
“Shirley MacLaine was due to come on and talk to her. But she backed out because she saw me do the interview with the Ranee and said, ‘I ain’t going on with her! She’d kill me.’”
He’s off again. And I could listen for as long as he’d let me.