Back with his most revelatory chat show yet, Michael Parkinson tells how love, loss and depression have punctuated his career
22:30 GMT, 9 November 2012
Sir Michael Parkinson has a ‘huge’ fascination for other people’s stories. Grief. Joy. Trial. Triumph. Everybody has a hidden tale to tell.
‘Every human being – I don’t care who they are – there’s a story there somewhere if you can find it,’ he says. And his ‘Oh, I’ve always regarded myself as being a conduit,’ he insists, with the soft self-effacement that’s such a part of him.
But he is human. So, yes, of course there’s a story.
Sir Michael Parkinson has a huge fascination with other people's stories but he has one of his own too
Today Michael, 77, stands as the most brilliant television ‘conduit’ of his generation, after more than three decades of gently easing the stories that fascinated him and us from the likes of Jimmy Stewart, Orson Welles and Woody Allen; crying with laughter at Tommy Cooper, mesmerised by Muhammad Ali, wrestling with Rod Hull’s Emu.
Then, comedy killed the talk show star. Programmes like Wogan and Parkinson were tossed on the TV scrapheap to make way for a me-me-me generation of chat-show host: Jonathan Ross, Graham Norton, Alan Carr.
‘The talk shows I did, David Frost did, Russell Harty did, they didn’t want any more,’ he says. ‘It’s the comedy show now, not the interview programme.’
What about Piers Morgan’s Life Stories ‘Piers’s show is a hybrid. Once you allow other facets into an interview, it becomes a mixture of This Is Your Life and an interview. I think that spoils it. You break the spell. That said, Piers does it well. Though I could do without the waterworks.’
So Michael retired in 2007. Well, that’s what he meant to do but, as with so many good stories, there’s often a twist in the tale. Which is why we’re here in Michael’s stately offices in the countryside near Windsor where, in the fields, the horses have been put out to pasture. Not Michael. ‘You never retire,’ he says.
‘The job I did had disappeared. Television didn’t want it, but there’s always a hankering.’
So, this month he returns to TV after five years with his fascinating six-part series Parkinson: Masterclass, in which he interviews Chinese classical pianist Lang Lang, War Horse author Michael Morpurgo, jazz artist Jamie Cullum, Cuban ballet star Carlos Acosta, portrait artist Jonathan Yeo and war photographer Don McCullin, providing an insight into the talent and experiences that have propelled them to the very top of their fields.
Michael was born on a council estate and has worked very hard for where he is
‘When you talk to these people you understand how hard they work and how difficult it is to achieve anything,’ says Michael. ‘The starting point is not being famous.’
Michael worked ‘bloody hard’. He had no choice. Born on a council estate in Cudworth, a mining village in the South Yorkshire coalfield, the only child of Jack, a decent, selfless collier and his bright, ambitious wife Freda, he was the first in 100 years of Parkinson males not to go down the mines. His parents forbade it.
Instead, his mother stuffed his head with movies, literature and the dream of ‘another world’. The key to a door into this world after leaving grammar school with two O-levels was National Service.
‘I was engaged to a local girl and working on a local paper – I was quite happy in my little universe. Maybe I’d have stayed there and married that girl.
But I went in the Army and it utterly shaped me totally and utterly. I went on the Suez operation, where I was looking after journalists, proper journalists. I sat with them and listened. I was totally drunk on what they were talking about. I wanted to be them. I thought, “It’s no good going back home and covering local bingo winners.”’
He broke up with the fiance, met his wife Mary and began work on the Manchester Guardian. A job in Fleet Street soon followed. Television, he says, was ‘luck’, seizing ‘a chance’ and making sure he ‘didn’t cock it up’.
Which of course he rarely did. In fact, he was knighted in 2008 for services to broadcasting. So, it comes as a shock when cricket-mad Parky lobs in from left field that he wishes he’d stuck with the writing.
‘If I look back on my life I took the monetary option, when I often think I should have concentrated on my writing,’ he says. His autobiography, Parky, sold nearly a million copies worldwide. ‘If I had stuck with writing I’d have been far poorer but maybe more contented. There is maybe another book in me. Like Father Like Son would be a good title…’
From Will Smith to Simon Cowell, Parkinson has interviewed a host of A-list celebrities
This is Michael’s story. ‘Dad was an extraordinary man. He was a funny man too. He loved me and he was a selfless man. He was all the things you wish you are and you are not.’ Michael’s father died of the lung disease pneumoconiosis in 1974, 33 years before his feisty mother Freda’s death following several years of dementia.
He was cared for, during his final months, in Michael’s home. ‘I used to hold his hand and think how I envied him that working hand. My hand is like a woman’s hand. It’s never done any manual work. My father’s was scarred and calloused – it was a collier’s hand. That [he holds out his own hand] is a useless hand. His was a practical hand.’
Michael didn’t grieve for his father for many years. He drank instead. ‘I daren’t face up to it,’ he says. ‘I’d always been frightened of grief. I remember when he died they carried him downstairs in a body bag and it seemed so diminishing, my father coming down like a parcel. It took a long time to get rid of that image. I can still see it now.’ There are tears as he says this.
‘I think what I did was shove it to one side and think, “No, I’ll continue as if nothing’s happened.” But it doesn’t work like that. So you start dulling it. You start drinking. How do you account for depression I went to a shrink. It was a joke.
Sir Michael Parkinson receives his Knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace
'After about four times I said, “Right, this isn’t doing me any good at all. If I’m going to get this sorted out, I’m going to sort it out myself.” I cut down the drinking. I consolidated my life – but not before I’d grieved.
‘That just happened one day. I started crying at the memory of him. I was at home rummaging through a drawer and I came across a picture of him and me. I think we were playing cricket. I did what I should have done when he died. I just couldn’t imagine things without him in a sense.’
This sort of confessional isn’t Michael’s usual style. His candour and tears are deeply touching. ‘I was an only child for economic reasons. In the 30s they couldn’t afford more.
'My father at one point walked from Yorkshire to Oxford to get work on an assembly line at the new Morris motor works. He lasted four days and walked back because, he said, “It wasn’t the job for a man.”
‘My dad was baffled by TV,’ he continues. ‘He used to love coming to the show and always wanted me to invite old Hollywood actresses he’d lusted over on to it. But he’d say, “It’s not like playing cricket for Yorkshire, is it”, which would have been the pinnacle of success to him.’
Michael looks through the sash windows at those horses for a moment, before continuing. ‘I never met a man who loved a woman more than my father loved my mother. It used to amaze me, this devotion to my mother of my father.
'I once asked him, “Dad, have you ever looked at another woman” He said, “How many women worked down the pit” I said, “Not too many, Dad.” He said, “Well, there’s your answer.” My industry’s full of glamorous women… ’
'You know something I can never imagine
life without my Mary. I’m at an age now where you start imagining what
might happen to you'
Gosh, is he saying what I think he’s saying Michael has been married to Mary for 53 years, but at 77 remains a ridiculously fit, attractive man – slightly flirtatious too. Did any of those women catch his eye ‘Yes, of course you were tempted, but it doesn’t matter in the end,’ he says.
‘All that matters is that you and your partner and the family are together. The longer you live the more you understand that. You know something I can never imagine life without my Mary. I’m at an age now where you start imagining what might happen to you.
'I’m not frightened of dying. I’m frightened of her dying before I do. That’s the feeling, but it’s a very selfish thing to say, isn’t it’
He laughs. ‘I suppose my story is the wonder of getting to where I got to from where I started.’ Which it is – grief, joy, trial, triumph and the unerring support of a decent, selfless collier called Jack.
Parkinson: Masterclass, Tuesday, 9pm, Sky Arts 1.