Interview: Chat show king Parkinson heads to Harrogate's Royal Hall with many tales to tell
At the age of 86 Michael Parkinson isn’t merely just as gloriously sharp as when he first launched his legendary BBC TV chat show 50 years ago, he’s still got the same sense of humour.
Talking to the Harrogate Advertiser just before his live tour hits Harrogate early next week, Britain’s most famous interviewer says he’s looking forward to taking to the stage amid the golden heritage of the historic Royal Hall.
“I like Harrogate. It’s beautiful and it’s different to other towns,” Michael Parkinson says..
“I’m looking forward to seeing a real audience after lockdown.
“The show is myself in conversation with my son and producer Mike who takes me through my life and career with some classic clips from the archives.
“We’ve been doing the tours together for a long time.
“Mike interviews first me before I take over hosting but he’s no good at it!”
The PR team had warned me in advance of my allotted time with the legendary broadcaster to focus on the tour details and not to go on about all the world class celebrities the great man had sat face-to-face with on his TV show, which was akin to be invited to meet the late Neil Armstrong without mentioning the moon.
But, still boasting that winning blend of Yorkshire grit and wit, the veteran former journalist is happy to talk about anything, albeit with a little of that bite which helped him deal with the likes of Muhammad Ali and Orson Welles on an even footing.
He is still close friends with - and very fond of - Billy Connolly, the comedian whose career he helped launch with a famous appearance in 1975.
“Billy is the funniest man I’ve ever known. He is the best comedian I’ve come across.
“We’ve become very dear friends over the years. It’s very sad what is happening to him now with Parkinson’s disease. I wish him well.”
Known for his love of laughter but lack of tolerance for fools, Parkinson is happy to admit the charm, intelligence and occasional flirtiness with which he approached his encounters with the likes of Lauren Bacall, Sir David Attenborough, Sir Michael Caine, Eartha Kitt and Dame Edna Everage was learned partly at the feet of two broadcasting heroes he worked with in his early days of TV after leaving what was then called the Manchester Guardian - David Frost and Alan Whicker.
“The 1960s were a great time to start in broadcasting. I learnt from all the greats.
“Characters like David Frost and Alan Whicker were the best. We all nick stuff, the trick is to nick the best of it.
“I was lucky that people like David became dear friends.
“I always did my research and thought deeply about my interviewee in advance because I genuinely wanted to talk to them. Today’s interviewers all want to be comedians or are comedians. It’s all showbiz now.”
Not that all his expertise or acknowledged status as the king of the chat show helped him much during a car crash of an interview with Hollywood’s Meg Ryan in 2003.
“I don’t look back with much pride on that interview. Meg was really awkward to talk to. I wasn’t flirting with her, that’s for sure.
“I got a bit pompous and a bit silly. If I met her tomorrow I would say I’m sorry.”
During his many years on, firstly the BBC, and then ITV with the Parkinson Show between 1971 and 2007, this son of West Riding met the lot, from Fred Astaire to Henry Kissinger, John Lennon to Raquel Welch, Duke Ellington to Ingrid Bergman, Amy Winehouse to Madonna.
There’s one legend he never managed to snare, however.
“Frank Sinatra was the greatest singer of songs there’s ever been but I didn’t even get close to getting him on the show.
“He didn’t do chat shows. He didn’t even do the Johnny Carson show in the USA.
“He was a fascinating man but he just didn’t need the publicity.”
Born a miner’s son in the village of Cudworth near Barnsley, Parkinson was a talented cricketer as a young man, playing alongside Dickie Bird and even keeping Geoffrey Boycott out of his side for a while.
That resolve in the face of tricky bowling played its part in his success over the decades as the greatest TV chat show host, lending a serious edge to what has become, he regrets, a fluffy profession in the years since he retired.
“I remember when I interviewed Kenneth Williams from the Carry On films. He was an awkward man. He would either be God’s gift or the biggest bore in the world. In his autobiography he wrote early on that he couldn’t stand me.
“By the end of the book he said he was in love with me.”
An Audience with Sir Michael Parkinson, the Royal Hall, Harrogate, Tuesday, October 26, 7.30pm.
For tickets, visit www.harrogatetheatre.co.uk