I'm 88 but I could go on for ever: After 45 years of Just A Minute, Nicholas Parsons wouldn’t hesitate to do it all again
01:17 GMT, 30 March 2012
Good times: Nicholas Parsons has no regrets
Nicholas Parsons’s fiercely protective wife Ann tells him time and again that he’s far too tolerant.
He was too tolerant of the late Clement Freud when he was being a ‘difficult b****r’ on Radio 4’s Just A Minute — celebrating its 45th birthday with a stretch on TV this week — and is too tolerant of the brilliantly talented panellist Paul Merton, who is forever sending Nicholas up with comments like: ‘If you weren’t here, I don’t know what we’d do. Train a budgerigar, perhaps’
Isn’t the game show’s famously genial host — who also presented TV’s Sale Of The Century for 12 years — ever tempted to boot him under the studio table
‘Oh no,’ he says. ‘Paul says the most outrageous things to me, but it’s the way it’s said. You know there’s no hidden agenda. You can only send somebody up if they’re a good friend.’
And Freud Allegedly, the two former school chums were at such loggerheads by the time of Clement’s death three years ago, he’d wanted to ban Nicholas from his funeral. ‘Clement was tricky because we were at school [St Paul’s in London] together, so there was huge, intense rivalry.
‘His wife Jill was a great friend of my first wife Denise and we used to go up to their house quite frequently. He was very charming to Denise. He found her very attractive as a person and responded to her. You could feel the competitiveness between us, which was very powerful. Latterly, he got very cantankerous.
‘It was a sort of one-upmanship between us. He resented the way I handled the show.
‘When Just A Minute started, it was a very laid-back, rather erudite show with four clever people showing off their knowledge. I instinctively knew if it was going to achieve any longevity it had to evolve, so I subtly changed the interpretation of the rules and sharpened up the challenges.
‘He didn’t want me to be entertaining. He wanted to force me to be a hard-nosed, impersonal, game-show host. So, he’d be subtly critical. I had to rise above it.’
Which must have taken huge, well, er . . . tolerance given Clement’s barbs such as: ‘I’ve known Nicholas Parsons for a fairly long time and his genuine pleasures are in rubber tubes, metal clips . . .’
‘He was not easy,’ says Nicholas. ‘But I was very fond of the difficult b****r. You can be fond of people but not always warm to the things they do and say. I understood where he was coming from, so I accepted what he was. He was absolutely brilliant with a far, far finer brain than I’ve got. He just didn’t want me to run the show the way I was.’
Well, they say the proof of the pudding is in the eating and we’ve been gobbling up huge dollops of Just A Minute — in which contestants have to speak for a minute without repetition, hesitation or deviation — for 45 years now, so Parsons was clearly right.
Hang on a minute: Parsons' panellist rival Clement Freud ridiculed him mercilessly
At 88, Nicholas is, as he says, ‘so old that I was young before the war’ and, with his cravat, walking cane and powdered nose — yes, that’s right, powdered — he looks like a throwback to 100 years ago.
Which is probably why my jaw’s on the table when he starts talking about ‘positive energies’ and ‘emotional intelligence’. Hang on Nicholas, aren’t you at that stage in life where you’re supposed to be having conversations with your Maker, not the shrink
‘Oh, I never think about age. I actually can’t believe I’m so old. If you exercise your brain, it helps keep you young mentally and physically.
‘You’ve got to keep going forward — finding new things. If you’re going to survive, you’ve got to stay in touch with changing styles and attitudes. But you’ve asked, so do I believe in God I don’t know is the answer. I want to but I haven’t made up my mind. I’d better make it up soon hadn’t I I did believe as a boy. Perhaps I still do. I love church and I go to church but I also realise how much our unconscious dictates our behaviour.
‘I’m fascinated by psychology and psychiatry. Because I was a bit of a crazy, mixed-up kid, I went and had psychiatric help. It was an emotional thing. I think I was too keen to succeed, probably because I felt I didn’t deserve to succeed because of what my mother said.’
He explains: ‘She always thought I was very ineffectual. I had a stutter and was dyslexic, although they didn’t know what it was then. I wanted to be an actor from the earliest days I could remember.
‘When I walked on stage and knew my lines and my part I didn’t stutter. My mother was horrified. She thought everyone in the entertainment industry was debauched or debased, alcoholic or something.’
Early days: Nicholas Parsons in 1977
Nicholas doesn’t usually speak about this. He’s worried people will ‘not understand’, or that he’s being disloyal to his parents.
‘Of course my parents loved me. They grew up in a different time and were very much of their period. They did their very best.’
Worried about his theatrical ambitions, they sent him at 16 to a shipyard in Clydebank near Glasgow to learn engineering, which was a bewildering place for a sheltered public school boy.
But, he got on with it ‘to please my parents’, and qualified as an engineer before pursuing a career on the stage where he pushed himself furiously.
Matters came to a head when, in his late thirties and married to his first wife Denise with two young children Sophie and Justin at school, he was appearing in a cameo role in Carry On Regardless. ‘I was always pushing and I became too tense. I was not being easy to work with and becoming a bit of a bore.’
A close friend asked Nicholas if he’d considered getting psychiatric help. ‘I did it for a long time but never mentioned it to a soul. In those days they’d have thought I was mad, disturbed and probably unbalanced. I’d not have worked again.
‘But for almost a year I’d take the children to school, then do that at 9am to 10am and then go to work.’
And, of course, when he stopped trying so hard his career went from strength to strength, on radio with Just A Minute, first broadcast in December 1967, and on telly with game show Sale of the Century, which ran from 1971 to 1983.
So were his parents ever proud of him
‘In the end, yes,’ he says. ‘My father was on his deathbed. I went to see him in hospital and he was fading. Suddenly he said, “Sale Of The Century’s on.” When it was finished he said: “I always thought it was very clever the way you speed up at the end to get a sense of drama and excitement into the show.”
‘I thought, “He’s been watching this but never able to say it.” It was a lovely compliment. He died the same day.’
Just A Minute’s Indian Adventure is on Radio 4 at 11.30am on Monday. The TV show continues on BBC2 at 6pm next Monday to Friday.