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Sir Michael Parkinson begins his new book, Like Father, Like Son, with an anecdote about appearing on Piers Morgan’s television show Life Stories in 2019. Asked by Morgan about the death of his beloved father John William in 1977, he described seeing his father’s lifeless body being carried down the stairs of the family home in a body bag, ‘like a parcel’.
Parkinson writes that he has never been renowned as a relationship counsellor. There was not much call for them in the Yorkshire mining village of Cudworth, where he grew up, ‘or indeed Yorkshire’. Nor, he writes, is he ‘very adept or comfortable with the touchy feely side of life’. Crying in public on a national television show is ‘a definite no-no’. And it was never his ambition as an interviewer to elicit what he calls sardonically ‘the Holy Grail of the celebrity sob’.
In his years as a chat-show host, by his own estimation, Parkinson interviewed more than 2,000 of the world’s most famous people, from Tina Turner to Sir David Attenborough, but he can recall only one occasion when a guest was reduced to tears – the comedian Bob Monkhouse, talking about his son Gary, who had cerebral palsy.
‘If I ever got to that stage where somebody broke down and cried,’ he tells me now, sitting in the lounge of a country-house hotel in Windsor, close to his home, ‘I’d be very embarrassed on their behalf. And I’d find a way of getting out of it as quickly as possible, because they aren’t going to make sense in that situation.’
So there was no one more taken aback than Parkinson that, in recalling his father’s death on Morgan’s show, he should have broken down in tears himself. ‘It surprised me,’ he says. ‘Because I knew what he [Morgan] was after, and being old to the game I’d prepared for it. What was fascinating to me, and still is, is that so many years after my father died there is still something lurking inside me, like some illness, that came out – and I don’t know from where.’
Like Father, Like Son goes some distance to answering that question. Cowritten with the youngest of his three sons, Mike, 53, the book was originally conceived as a collection of fond reminiscences by Parkinson about John William – coal miner, cricket fanatic and the object of his son’s abiding love and affection.
To put it bluntly, this is not a premise to set the pulse racing. Parkinson has written extensively in the past about growing up in a Yorkshire pit village, and his father’s hard life.
But Like Father, Like Son is much, much more interesting than that. Early on in the writing process, it was decided to broaden the scope of the book by employing the device of alternating voices, with Mike offering an illuminating background on a miner’s life, and on his own, as Michael Parkinson’s son. The result is an absorbing, and deeply revealing family history across three generations, which casts new light on Britain’s most celebrated chat-show host. ‘It surprised us both,’ Mike says. ‘And certainly surprised our publisher.’
Michael Parkinson is 85 – a leaner figure than appeared on TV screens in his heyday, dressed in a dark jacket and grey trousers, sprightly and genial, the Beatlesque hairstyle of the ’70s now snowy white and neatly trimmed. His son sits beside him, watchful, businesslike.
Parkinson spent lockdown at the house on the bank of the River Thames where he and Mary, his wife of 61 years, have lived for the past 45 years. ‘We’ve got old together,’ he says. ‘We’re a crusty couple now – get on each other’s nerves, but then we always did.’
He has filled his time bingeing on Netflix and Amazon Prime, and enjoying documentaries about old Hollywood actors, featuring clips of his interviews with them. He has eight grandchildren, ranging in age from 15 to 25, to whom he has been restricted to saying the occasional socially distanced ‘hello’.
‘I don’t think anyone’s coping well,’ he says. ‘It’s so bothersome and unpredictable – it’s like living through a bad dream. One wishes you had a feeling that the people in charge knew what they were doing – that doesn’t help. We’ve generally obeyed – no parties or anything like that. But we’re all going to get through it in the end by doing what we’re told basically.’
Asked to conjure a single image of his father, Parkinson settles on this: ‘He’d be sitting at a cricket match, a pint in his hand, the sun in his eyes, a truly happy man.’
Parkinson was an only child, and John William was a loyal and dutiful provider, who never discussed his work at home. The constant fear in the family was of hearing the pit siren, sounding over the village, signalling that somebody had been badly injured, or killed. ‘And I’ll always remember my mother ironing, and the siren going, and her stopping – as I imagine every woman in the village did – and me thinking, “It might be my dad...”’
If, for John William, the mine was hell, cricket was heaven – a passion that he impressed upon his son. ‘The cricket pitch is where we grew to know and love each other, where I absorbed the part of him that became part of me,’ Parkinson writes.
It was his father’s greatest wish for his son, and later, his grandchildren, to play cricket for Yorkshire.
Neither Parkinson nor his three sons ended up doing so. Andrew, 60, is managing editor of a sports news agency, Nick, 56, is a restaurateur, while Mike worked as a producer on Parkinson’s chat show from 2003 to 2007, and since then has run their television production company, Parky Productions. But for John William cricket was not only a way to escape the pit; it was also, at times, a way to escape his wife.
Freda Rose Parkinson was a clever and determined woman who, Parkinson says, ‘was dissatisfied with her deal in life’. Her dream of going to university had been thwarted by family circumstance, and she channelled her frustration into pushing her husband to take a technical course and move up from the coal face to the job of underground supervisor – Parkinson remembers her at the kitchen table helping John William with his studies – and her son to follow his early ambition to be a journalist.
Rows were not infrequent. ‘But my father was the kind who fled the battlefield. He didn’t want to get involved in stuff like that. I don’t think I ever saw him lose his temper. My mother on the other hand was quite volatile, and could nurse a grudge. It wasn’t an unhappy house. But she was the boss, the gaffer. And she was the driving force of my father’s ambition, and mine too.’
After leaving school at 16, Parkinson worked for a local newspaper, before making his way firstly to Fleet Street and then into television, working on current affairs programmes before moving on to presenting his own chat show, Parkinson, in 1971. His father would sometimes visit the studio to watch Parkinson recording the show, insisting on it if he was interviewing an attractive Hollywood actress, and sit in the green room, charming them. ‘He was a great chatter-upper,’ Parkinson says. ‘He shared my lust for Ingrid Bergman. And he always asked me to try and get hold of [American actress] Alice Faye. He used to say she had the best legs in Hollywood.’ He laughs. ‘She’d have probably been in a wheelchair by then.
In his new book, Parkinson makes reference to an interview he gave to Club, a men’s magazine, in 1971, when he was 36 and had just started his show. In the course of the interview he mentioned that he was thinking of writing a novel about John William, to be called Like Father, Like Son. It’s a title, then, that has been waiting 49 years to find a book.
The interview provides a fascinating insight into the driven young Parkinson. ‘I’m not in this business to have my name engraved on a tombstone as a very good television performer,’ he told the journalist. ‘I’m in it for the money, and the way to make heavy bread in television is to get your own show.’ Heavy bread? Parkinson winces when I read that back to him. ‘The jargon of the day…’ he says stiffly.
You come across as rather... brash, I suggest. He bridles at the word. ‘Overtly ambitious might be a better way of putting it. I was determined to make a success of it and to change my life, and the life of people around me. I had no idea where I was going – I hadn’t got a clue.
‘Looking back on those years is like living in a whirlwind. I was a different person then.’
His father’s death in 1977 was, he says, ‘a terrible loss’. At the same time, he was growing frustrated in his career, spending more time away from his family, and had started drinking heavily.
In Like Father, Like Son, Mike, who was born in 1967, writes that for much of his childhood Parkinson was a figure who inspired ‘disquiet and anxiety’, and who would appear only at mealtimes, issuing ‘diktats and less-than-complimentary observations on length of hair, performance at school and sporting prowess’, creating ‘a charged and unpleasant atmosphere’ in the home. ‘I was not terrorised by him; I just found him forbidding and distant.’
How, I ask, did Parkinson feel on reading that? ‘I take it as Mike’s observations and therefore I respect it. I don’t discount it. I don’t deny it either. And I’m very sad that I caused such unhappiness and disquiet in the family.’
You didn’t realise it at the time? ‘No, I was too drunk to realise. When you’re drinking, where are you? You’re not right. You’re somebody else.’ He pauses. ‘I never thought that would happen to me, because I didn’t come from a drinking family – my dad hardly drank at all.’
The heavy drinking was short-lived ‘What was it made me unhappy? I don’t know what it was about that period of time that turned me to drink with Dad gone. But I found it very easy to stop. There was no trauma involved. You look back on those periods and thank God you survive them.’
He still enjoys the occasional glass of wine. ‘I’ve possibly had four or five since lockdown. But it doesn’t bother me. If I had a longing for it, if I missed it, that would be a different thing, but I don’t think about it.’
On reflection, Mike says now, he was very aware of how unhappy his father was.
‘I think like all people who drink too much, he was numbing himself against what he was trying to avoid, the catastrophic effect his father’s death had on him, and the frustration he was feeling in his professional career. Because unlike myself, my father was very driven by his success. For him to professionally achieve is very important. And if he feels it’s not going the way it should, it does have an effect on him.’
That particular problem was resolved in 1979, when Parkinson was invited to host a parallel chat-show series on Australian television. ‘I went there and got rid of all the angst,’ says Parkinson now.
Alienated from his father, Mike turned to his mother for love and support – an interesting inversion of how Parkinson had once turned to his father to escape the powerful force of his mother.
I ask Parkinson, did your father ever tell you he loved you.
He shoots me a look. ‘Not in those terms. Not with a string quartet playing in the background. But I knew he loved me. He didn’t need to tell me that really. I never doubted that for a moment.’
And, Mike, did your father tell you he loved you? ‘No.’ He pauses. ‘Later in life he’s become much more...’ Parkinson interjects with a laugh. ‘Amorous…’ ‘Much more comfortable in his own ability to express his emotions. He came from a working-class background – he left school with two O levels. And to drive himself by his own ability through national newspapers, full of Oxbridge graduates, and get into television… He was part of that generation that kicked over the barricades. And they all carried around a chip on both shoulders, and that sense of looking around waiting for someone to tap them on the shoulder saying, “You don’t belong here.” He felt he had to be better than everybody else. He’s become much more mellow.’
In the ’60s the pre-eminent interviewer on television was John Freeman, who in his programme Face to Face adopted a mercilessly forensic approach, which once reduced the famously irascible broadcaster Gilbert Harding to tears (the Holy Grail!). But the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s – and even the beginning of the noughties – belonged to Parky.
He was a journalist, not an entertainer, but made journalists’ questions entertaining, and in the process built a bridge between earnest enquiry and the kind of celebrity banter that passes for chat shows today. Parkinson says that what he was always looking for was ‘a story, a life’.
Among all the movie stars, entertainers, sportsmen and public figures who appeared on his shows, he singles out his interview in 1974 with Dr Jacob Bronowski, the writer and presenter of the documentary series The Ascent of Man, as the best of his career, ‘because he had such an extraordinary mind and had led such a rich and full life’. That interview ran for an hour – inconceivable today, he says.
The pendulum has swung completely towards light entertainment. ‘It’s all laughs now. But that’s the way television has gone. It’s a joke factory basically.’
Which is not all bad. Graham Norton, he says, has done something ‘very clever’ in reinventing what Parkinson calls ‘the four on a sofa talk show’. ‘The interview goes out of the window, in a sense, and the skill is in getting the four people to join and have a party and I think he does it very well. He’s got that gregarious, impolite quality that brings people together and makes them laugh.’
Looking back, it is extraordinary to consider the purchase that Parkinson held on the public imagination in its heyday. His interviews made news. To watch his exchanges with, say, Muhammad Ali over Ali’s belief in racial separatism, is to see a master at work. But in the light of how much the culture has changed, other encounters leave an uneasy feeling.
The most infamous is his 1975 interview with the young Helen Mirren, the mention of which causes a cloud of impatience to pass over Parkinson’s otherwise sunny countenance. He’s clearly grown tired of having to address an interview that dwelt at embarrassing length on Mirren appearing in the nude, and questioned whether as ‘in quotes, a serious actress’ her ‘equipment’ had undermined her credibility. ‘Serious actresses can’t have big bosoms, is that what you mean?’ a clearly irritated Mirren replied. It’s a line of questioning that today, I suggest, would see him strung up.
‘Without a doubt. But I could flirt outrageously with people who came on the show, and it was all part of the fun, and they would take it like that. You could see in the show with Shirley MacLaine both of us were behaving outrageously. You’re more constricted now,’ he says. ‘I don’t know what you could talk about without fear of upsetting someone or some organisation.’
Interviewed in 2018 by GQ magazine, Parkinson was asked if he would like to interview the disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, replying that, ‘You would have to stop yourself from punching him first.’ In the same interview he revealed that his wife Mary had once been the victim of inappropriate behaviour at a gathering in their own home, when a newspaper editor exposed himself. Asked if he had thrown him out, Parkinson replied, ‘No. I should have, shouldn’t I?
It’s a wonderful thing, hindsight, isn’t it?’ The daughter of a miner, Mary was seven when her younger brother was run down and killed by a local doctor. Mary was holding her brother’s wrist, waiting to cross the road, when he broke from her grasp. The doctor was given a caution. Three years later, her father died, from an injury sustained in the pit. Her mother died shortly afterwards, and Mary was raised by relatives. She and Parkinson met on the top deck of a bus in Doncaster. ‘As soon as I saw her I fell in love with her. And I think she was the same.’
Both were engaged to other people at the time. ‘So it must have been a strong feeling, to get rid of where we were heading.’
Sixty-one years, he muses, is ‘a long time. There’s been ups and down and all that sort of thing. But I can’t imagine being married to anyone else,’ he says.
In the 1970s, Mary worked in television herself, presenting a magazine programme, Good Afternoon!, and appearing as a guest on numerous shows. ‘She’s a very good interviewer,’ Parkinson says. ‘And she’s a much better golfer than I am or ever will be. She’s a remarkable person. She’s overcome great difficulties in her life to become the stylish, brilliant and funny woman that she is. My life has been a walk in the park compared to hers.’
He thinks about this. ‘Perhaps that should be the next book.’
His son raises an eyebrow, ‘I don’t think so.’
Six of Parky's most memorable moments
1971 - Shirley Maclaine
The pair flirted outrageously – MacLaine reached out for his trouser fly. Parkinson says today: ‘Her brother [Warren Beatty] came on the show later and said, “You’re the guy that was trying to make out with my sister?” But it was all fun, silly. [MacLaine] was a great flirt herself.’
1974 - Richard Burton
The interview was recorded early in the day and with no booze as Burton, an alcoholic, had just been in a clinic for treatment. When a request was put out for people to join the audience, most of those who turned up were canteen staff in their kitchen whites. ‘Christ,’ remarked Burton later. ‘I thought I was back at the bloody clinic.’
1975 - Helen Mirren
Questions included whether Mirren, then 30, found that her ‘equipment’ hindered her pursuit of becoming a ‘serious actress’. ‘Because serious actresses can’t have big bosoms, is that what you mean?’ she responded. Years later Mirren said of the interview: ‘He was such a f—king sexist old fart.’
1976 - Rod Hull
The one where Parky was attacked by a giant puppet called Emu – it wrestled him to the ground and started eating his shoes. Years later, Parky is said to have complained: ‘The only thing I am ever remembered for was being attacked by a f—king emu.
2001 - Victoria and David Beckham
The Spice Girl let it slip that she calls David ‘goldenballs’ at home – a nickname that has stuck for two decades and counting.
2003 - Meg Ryan
The most excruciating interview in chat-show history. Parky suggested Ryan was a ‘slightly bruised person’ and ‘wary’ of journalists, while the When Harry Met Sally actor gave one-word answers. At one point he asked, ‘What would you do now if you were me?’ To which she replied: ‘Why not wrap it up?’
Like Father, Like Son: A Family Story, by Michael Parkinson, is out now (Hodder & Stoughton, £20); buy a copy at books.telegraph.co.uk