People of Yorkshire Volume 18 – Michael Parkinson

Michael Parkinson is a familiar face on our TV screens, famous for his interviews, television shows and journalism. Over the course of a fifty-year career he has interviewed some of the biggest celebrities on the planet, from Muhammad Ali and Meg Ryan to David Beckham and John Lennon. These interviews were all conducted in an accent as gritty as the South Yorkshire mining towns of which he grew up in and has provided a refreshing change from the usual Received Pronunciation of others.

Michael Parkinson was born on 28th March 1935 in the town of Cudworth, a few miles North East of Barnsley. He was educated at Barnsley Grammar School and eventually started to play for the town’s cricket team, along with two other names more associated with the sport, Geoffrey Boycott and Dickie Bird. He famously scored a century to keep the younger Boycott out of the team. Although Parkinson has long remained a huge fan of the sport his calling came from another profession.

After completing National Service, where he was made a captain during the Suez crisis, aged just nineteen, he had a brief spell cutting his teeth in local newspapers before moving into television, working for both the BBC and Granada in Manchester.

He first appeared in front of camera on a late night film review show called “Cinema” in 1971. On one episode he landed his first celebrity interview, with Lawrence Olivier. This was the catalyst for a new show to be commissioned, this time on the BBC, which became known as “Parkinson.” Originally an eight-week summertime “filler”, the first run of chat shows began on 19th June that year.

The format was very simple. Each show would have three guests, of which Parkinson would chat to for around fifteen minutes. Afterwards they would remain present on set during the next person’s interview, only interjecting on request by the host. Over the years this has provided some interesting combinations of celebrities from completely different fields on set together, with Parkinson at its centre.

His interviewing style has won him many accolades. Starting with thorough research of his subject he would guide them and the viewer gently through a narrative. He learnt very early on in his career that it was important to listen to the subject and only interject when necessary. His relaxed, attentive manner enabled the interviewee to fully express themselves and the results could be very colourful indeed.

In the first series he interviewed heavyweight boxer, Muhammad Ali and his opening gambit was:
Parkinson: “I’m not going to argue with you.”
Ali: “You’re not as dumb as you look.”

The interview then took a more serious tone when Parkinson eased into the topic of the reasons behind Ali’s adoption of the Muslim faith, which led to a spectacular tirade against America. This is an example of how Parkinson in his interviews, using humour to put the subject at ease, before giving them the confidence and platform to give the audience their opinions.

Other highlights from the early Parkinson shows were his famous encounter with Rod Hull and Emu in 1976 and interviewing a rattled John Lennon when he was questioned about his musical “creative phase” at the time. The results were an angry Lennon lambasting the British Press over their supposed disapproval of his divorce and subsequent relationship with Yoko Ono.

The Parkinson show ended, for the time being in 1982 and so a controversial period in the broadcaster’s career ensued. He became involved with the troubled beginnings of TV-am in 1983, hosting the weekend edition of “Good Morning Britain” and briefly became a director of the TV franchise behind it. He also turned his hand to radio, becoming the presenter of Radio 4’s “Desert Island Discs” in 1986. The series was criticised for having too many guests who had associations with his native Yorkshire and was replaced by Sue Lawley in 1989. He also had a stint at hosting “Film ’85, briefly replacing Barry Norman.

Some Yorkshire folk will remember his return as a chat show host between 1987-88 on Yorkshire television called “Parkinson One on One” in which the format consisted of only one celebrity guest. This ended after only sixteen episodes.

The Nineties began slowly for Parkinson and his career seemed to have hit a dip. He still made the odd TV appearance, notably in “Ghostwatch” in 1992, a mockumentary screened on Halloween. Two years later he turned back to his sporting roots, hosting “Parkinson on Sport” on Radio Five until 1996 and then a morning show on Radio 2, “Parkinson’s Sunday Supplement, which he presented until his retirement in 2007.

The year 1998 saw the re-birth of the Parkinson chat show, with the now veteran broadcaster finding himself amongst a new world of celebrities, from Hollywood A-Listers, to Ali G. The second series maintained the same multi-guest format and also provided its fair share of controversial and memorable moments.

In 2003 he encountered possibly his most awkward subject, Meg Ryan, who simply refused to answer his questions and when asked “what would she do if she was in his shoes,” replied, “close the interview.” Thisencounter sparked a lot of controversy with the film star afterwards branding Parkinson “a nut,” and “behaving like a disapproving father.”

A more ebullient Victoria Beckham famously revealed that she nicknamed her husband, David, “Goldenballs,” during their appearance in 2001, while five years later he interviewed Tony Blair, who became the first serving prime minister to be interviewed on the show. He revealed that he would be “judged by God” over his decision to invade Iraq. By this time the show had controversially moved to ITV in 2004.

In 2007, Michael Parkinson took the decision to “retire” ending the second run of his chat show. He published his autobiography two years later. In retirement he has often been an outspoken commentator on the modern day media and the culture of celebrity saying in 2009 that he was “fed up with the rise of celebrities hosting shows, ridiculously titled documentaries and property shows.” He has also blasted modern day celebrities, such as the late Jade Goody and Russell Brand.

Micheal Parkinson signing autographs in the studio, Photo credit, Donkeybum, Wikipedia, GNU license

Parkinson has also proved to be a big hit in Australia, where the first series of his chat show was shown from 1979-82. He has also embarked on a theatre tour of the country and appeared in “Neighbours.”

Michael Parkinson though could not retire for long and in 2012 made yet another comeback in the shape of Sky Arts “Masterclass” series in which he interviews a range of artists at the top of their field about the techniques behind their craft. Guests so far have included singer, Jamie Cullum, magician, Dynamo and deaf musician Dame Evelyn Glennie.

In July 2013 it was announced that Michael Parkinson was suffering from prostate cancer of which he has made a full recovery and is now a prominent campaigner in the awareness of the disease. During his life so far Michael Parkinson has provided two generations of viewers with laughs, controversy, sadness and mirth from the 2,000 plus celebrities that he has interviewed. His relaxed, chatty style in his down to earth Yorkshire accent has made a great contribution to broadcasting over the past forty-three years.