Sir Michael Parkinson: A gentle Yorkshire accent and razor-sharp wit – the host that A-listers wanted to share their secrets with | Ents & Arts News

Aug 17, 2023 | Uncategorized

A Barnsley-born lad, who through interviewing the world’s biggest stars, became a household name himself.

Sir Michael Parkinson’s illustrious career spanned five decades, during which he chatted to the likes of John Wayne, Fred Astaire, Orson Wells, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Muhammad Ali (four times), Bette Davis, Lauren Becall and Tommy Cooper.

More recent A-listers to grace his comfy chat show chairs included Tom Cruise, Madonna, and the Beckhams. His career saw him at the helm of more than 600 shows and 2,000 interviews.

‘Greatest interviewer of our time’ – reaction as Parky dies

Michael Parkinson and Muhammad Ali in 1979
Sir Michael and Muhammad Ali in 1979

Despite having talked to almost every celebrity worth their salt, he once described Frank Sinatra as “the one who got away” – having never got the chance to sit down with “Ol’ Blue Eyes”.

Known to many simply as “Parky”, his gentle Yorkshire accent, warm tone and razor-sharp mind combined to make him the host every celebrity wanted to share their secrets with – with a few notable exceptions.

His 2003 interview with American actress Meg Ryan went down in history as one of the most awkward TV chat show moments of all time. When he asked the monosyllabic star what she would do in his place, she snapped: “Why not wrap it up?”

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Ryan later compared the tone of his questions about her erotic thriller In The Cut – a departure from her more usual romcoms – to that of a “disapproving dad”.

Twenty years after the interview, Parkinson called it his “most difficult TV moment,” offering up an apology to the actress and admitting neither of them were on “top form”.

Actress Helen Mirren also famously called him out during his 1975 interview with her, when he asked the then 30-year-old star if her physical attributes had “hindered” her in her career. Parkinson later referred to it as just “good television”.

Another interviewee who gave as good as they got was Rod Hull’s Emu the following year, who wrestled Parkinson to the ground during their chat. Parkinson went on to jokingly bemoaned the fact that despite a wealth of perfectly crafted interviews to his name, “I’ll probably be remembered for that bloody bird”. He was, in part, right.

Sir Michael Parkinson and Tom Cruise. Pic: ITV/Shutterstock
Sir Michael Parkinson with Tom Cruise. Pic: ITV/Shutterstock

From a family of miners

Sir Michael was born on 28 March 1935, in Cudworth, near Barnsley, in what was then the West Riding of Yorkshire.

Far from being born into showbiz, his father and grandfather before him were miners, and a young Parkinson left school with dreams of becoming a professional cricketer.

He once opened the batting for his local club alongside legendary cricketing umpire Dickie Bird, and underwent trials with Geoffrey Boycott.

But when a cricketing career didn’t work out, Parkinson turned to journalism, writing first for local newspapers before moving to London to work for the Daily Express.

Completing his national service in 1955, he was made a captain (the youngest in the British Army at the time) and saw active service in Egypt during the Suez Crisis.

After learning his trade in Fleet Street, he swapped print journalism for TV in the 1960s, first appearing on BBC nightly current affairs show Twenty-Four Hours, before fronting Granada’s late night film review show Cinema.

His hard work paid off, and in 1971 he was offered his own chat show – Parkinson – which ran until 1982.

Early in the show’s first run, when chatting to his interviewee Orson Welles ahead of filming, the director screwed up his list of carefully prepared questions. It was a moment Parkinson later cited as teaching him his craft, making him fully appreciate the art of giving his subjects space to talk.

Sir Michael Parkinson receives his Knighthood from Britain's Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace.
Sir Michael received his Knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace in 2008

A spooky Halloween trick

Sir Michael followed up his late-night chat with morning shifts, becoming one of the original TV-AM line-up in 1983, alongside Angela Rippon, Anna Ford, David Frost and Robert Kee.

Other TV credits include Parkinson One To One – with each show giving an in-depth chat with one celebrity, Give Us A Clue, and Going For A Song.

On Halloween night of 1992, he hosted controversial pseudo-documentary Ghostwatch, alongside presenters Sarah Greene and Mike Smith. The show garnered much press attention, with the BBC receiving tens of thousands of complaints from viewers unsure if the programme was real.

A music lover (he once called listening to music his “greatest joy in life,” adding, “I don’t know how people exist without [it]”), he presented Desert Island Discs from 1986 to 1989. He also presented a Sunday morning show on Radio 2 between 1996 and 2007, credited with bringing jazz to a more mainstream audience.

His eponymous BBC chat show was successfully revived in 1998, defecting to ITV in 2004 (due to a difference in opinion over scheduling), where it ran until 2007.

Sir Michael received a standing ovation after his final episode, later commenting that the conclusion of his show marked the end of “polite conversation,” citing more recent hosts – including Jonathan Ross and Graham Norton – as being more about the comedy than the chat, and their shows more a vehicle for the interviewer than their subject.

He went on to form his own production company, Parkinson Productions, along with his eldest son Michael Parkinson Jr.

In 2012, a Sky Arts show – Parkinson: Masterclass – saw Parkinson able to speak in depth with musicians and artists about their craft, with the show running for two years.

Michael Parkinson and football legend George Best
Sir Michael with George Best

‘I don’t see the point of him’

Never afraid to voice his opinions on fellow celebrities or the TV industry as a whole, Parkinson’s bluntness sometimes caused offence. His comments in a Radio Times article that the late Jade Goody represented “all that’s paltry and wretched about Britain today,” led to criticism from the bishop who had married her.

The One Show (which he said was an example of the decline in TV), female comedians (not as funny as men) and Russell Brand (unfunny and creatively dull) were also on the receiving end of Parkinson’s sharp tongue, with him declaring of the latter: “I don’t see the point of him.”

However, he wasn’t afraid of a bit of celebrity stardust himself, popping up in a few surprising cameos, including the Christmas romcom Love Actually and the much-loved Australian soap Neighbours, when he bumped into Karl and Susan during their trip to London.

He also made a baffling appearance on the front cover of the 1973 Wings album Band On The Run, along with several other well-known figures and of course the band themselves.

Sir Michael wrote various books over the course of his career, including memoirs on Ali and footballer George Best, several sporting books centred around his love of cricket and golf, his family story in Like Father, Like Son and his 2009 autobiography Parky.

Like any self-respecting celebrity, he also wrote a series of children’s books – The Woofits – about a family of cuddly hat-loving dogs set in the fictional Yorkshire coal-mining village of Grimeworth, leading to a TV series which he narrated.

Sir Michael with Billy Connolly in 2016
Sir Michael with Billy Connolly in 2016

‘I have the best job in the world’

Knighted for services to broadcasting in 2008, following his CBE in 2000, Parkinson joked he was “not the type to get a knighthood,” adding, “they give it to anyone nowadays”.

As well as interviewing celebrities in a professional capacity, he also counted many as close personal friends, including chef Michel Roux and comedian Billy Connolly.

Known as an interviewer, Parkinson admitted he actually enjoyed it when the tables were turned and he himself was interviewed. A man who reached the top of his game, he recognised his own good fortune, saying: “I have the best job in the world and once you have a show named after yourself, where else do you go?”

A life-long lover of cricket, Parkinson described playing the sport as “compulsory” for anyone born in Yorkshire. Adopting golf in later life, he was eventually forced to give up the sport due to back troubles.

In 2013, Parkinson revealed he was being treated for prostate cancer, and in 2017 he underwent a serious back operation.

He leaves behind his wife of 64 years Mary, three sons – Michael Jr, Andrew and Nicholas – and eight grandchildren.

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