RICHARD LITTLEJOHN: Parky was right, you meet a better class of person down Memory Lane

Michael Parkinson took another sip of Sancerre. ‘The best thing about our job, kid, is that you get paid to meet your heroes.’

The year was 1992, the venue Langan’s Brasserie, then one of London’s top celebrity restaurants, part owned by Michael Caine.

Parky was treating me to lunch, the week before I was about to inherit his flagship morning radio show on LBC. I’d been a regular panellist on the programme, which helped launch my broadcast career on the same station.

When Mike concluded he’d had enough of early starts, LBC’s bosses decided in their infinite wisdom to promote me from my own, recently-established lunchtime slot.

Truth be told, I was terrified. There hadn’t been such a misguided appointment since Frank O’Farrell was plucked from Leicester City to succeed the mighty Matt Busby at Manchester United. He lasted about five minutes.

Parky was treating me to lunch, the week before I was about to inherit his flagship morning radio show on LBC

Parky was right, you meet a better class of person down Memory Lane

Parky was right, you meet a better class of person down Memory Lane

I was convinced a similar fate awaited me. Mike took me to lunch to impart reassurance and some welcome avuncular advice. By then, he had earned his place in the pantheon of broadcasting greats.

But at heart, he remained a reporter who had left grammar school with a couple of O-levels and drifted into a job on his local rag in Barnsley. I could relate to that, having followed a similar career path in Peterborough.

When I started out in 1971, Parky was embarking on the next leg of a remarkable odyssey which would lead to fame and fortune — with the occasional self-inflicted hiccup — having been chosen to present his late-night BBC talk show that summer.

Originally it was a run of just eight, but ‘Parkinson’ soon became part of the Saturday night appointment-to-view furniture, along with stalwarts such as The Generation Game and Match Of The Day, regularly pulling in audiences of up to 12 million.

Talk about being paid to meet your heroes. Parky’s guests were a Who’s Who of 20th Century cultural giants, from Orson Welles and Fred Astaire to philosopher Jacob Bronowski and Muhammad Ali.

Mike made no secret of the fact that he was in awe of these people. But his relaxed, informed interviewing style brought out the best in them.

It helped that long before he became a talk show host, he had already built a solid foundation in proper journalism, first on newspapers and then on TV, covering everything from sport, to wars in the Middle East and Africa.

Those of us from my generation who aspired to follow uncertainly in his slipstream were treated to a weekly, hour-long Look and Learn masterclass.

‘Parkinson’ the programme has been frequently and incorrectly described as a ‘chat’ show. What Mike did wasn’t chat, it was grown-up, in-depth interviewing.

He cajoled, teased, probed his guests, with rewarding and often surprising results. Plus, he had a natural curiosity and genuine interest in them and what they had to say.

Parky did his homework, and brought real world experience to the party, unlike most of today’s TV ‘talent’, who are content to read out half a dozen trite questions prepared by a millennial researcher fresh off a worthless media studies course. (Yesterday, one pig-ignorant presenter actually referred to the actress Lauren Bacall as ‘Lauren Backle’. Give me strength.)

When I started out in 1971, Parky was embarking on the next leg of a remarkable odyssey which would lead to fame and fortune having been chosen to present his late night BBC talk show that summer

Mike also knew the value of silence, letting his interviewees fill the dead air. That’s easier to do on television than on the wireless, but somehow he managed to pull it off.

Obviously, I was keen to understand how he did it. Don’t worry, this isn’t one of those ‘the Michael Parkinson who knew me’ pieces. But I shall always be grateful for the generosity of spirit he showed me when I was having a crack at radio and TV.

Be yourself, was the best piece of advice. There was no point in me trying to ape Parky, any more than my attempting to write a column like the peerless Keith Waterhouse, late of this parish.

And Mike was his own man, a one-off. What you saw on TV was pretty much what you got. He could be warm, funny, clever and, yes, spiky and irascible at times. He was a perfectionist who didn’t suffer fools, not even lightly.

As he got older, he admitted that he had become a ‘curmudgeonly old bastard’.

A few of his pearls of wisdom have stuck with me over the years, and been oft quoted in this column. For instance, being a couple of decades his junior, I once teased him: ‘You spend a lot of time down Memory Lane these days, Mike.’ ‘You meet a better class of person down Memory Lane,’ he snapped back. The older I get, the more I realise he was right. There won’t be another Parkinson because the world has changed beyond recognition.

Yesterday, many of the ‘tributes’ honed in on an interview with Helen Mirren, in which he wondered out loud whether her ‘equipment’ had ever got in the way of her being taken seriously as an actress.

This was back in the Seventies, when feminism was in its infancy and burning your bra was all the rage. Even then, with Confessions Of A Window Cleaner still pulling in the crowds at the Odeon, it was a fairly crass observation. La Mirren and the Cosmo crowd were incandescent.

The fuss quickly passed, though. But in these days of trial by Twitter that single off-the-cuff remark could have ended his career. Can you imagine the modern BBC standing by him, with the social media lynch mob howling for his cancellation?

Still, can you also imagine Parky asking David Cameron if he masturbated over Margaret Thatcher, or ringing up Andrew Sachs so the repulsive Russell Brand could boast that he’d slept with his granddaughter?

That’s what one of Parky’s ‘successors’ Jonathan Ross was reduced to — and he’s still going strong. Years later, Mike remained troubled by the Helen Mirren incident, which doesn’t surprise me. Most of the best journalists I’ve known tend to obsess over their mistakes rather than their successes.

Millions will best remember him from his magnificent television shows, which will never be bettered

(He felt the same about the famous attack by Rod Hull’s Emu, worrying only half in jest that when he popped his clogs, the headlines would probably read: ‘Emu Man Dies’.)

Mike was a consummate journalist. I can still recall some of his brilliant sports columns for the Sunday Times in the dim and distant.

At his best he was up there with the very finest — our own, much missed Ian Wooldridge and the great Hughie McIlvanney.

His reminiscences of the Barnsley hardman Skinner Normanton, from the late Forties and early Fifties, were a particular joy. As were the heckles from the Barnsley crowd: ‘Tha’s about as much bloody use as a chocolate fireguard!’

That’s probably a hate crime in these woke days of knee-taking and rainbow laces. In one of his last interviews, Mike said he was more proud of his written work than anything he’d done as a TV presenter. I don’t believe that was false modesty.

But most people will, however, be unfamiliar with his newspaper columns. Millions will best remember him from his magnificent television shows, which will never be bettered.

After falling out with the BBC for a second (or was it third?) time, ‘Parkinson’ transferred to ITV, but it was never going to be the same. The game had moved on.

Parky was no Norma Desmond. But although he was still big, the ‘celebrity’ guests had got small. How do you go from Lauren Bacall to some dopey bird from Love Island, surrounded by stylists, agents and sticking to a script written by PR spivs?

He once asked me what all the successful stars he’d interviewed had in common.

Talent? I replied.

No, he said, they all work harder than everyone else.

And few worked harder than Mike Parkinson, a true polymath, equally at ease talking sport, politics, cinema, jazz, you name it.

Perhaps his greatest achievement in life was his six decades-long, rock solid marriage to the wonderful Mary — a rarity in showbiz circles — and the enduring closeness of his family.

I’m tempted to give him the ‘Emu Man Dies’ headline he half-feared. But he deserves better than that.

So instead I’ll raise a glass of Sancerre to one of my heroes. Cheers, Parky.

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