With a slow sideways glance I take in the silvering hair and craggy profile of the Yorkshireman sitting on my side of a round dining-table in the airy elegance of Bibendum in Chelsea. For several minutes I’ve been lost in my thoughts, imagining him propping up a bar in a working men’s club in Barnsley, and only vaguely listening to him on the theme of how t’ bloody presenters today don’t know they’re born, how you can’t find t’ bloody producers any more, and how t’ bloody guests aren’t up to much either.
I’ve been nodding distractedly, contributing in my head the odd ‘aye’ or ”appen, tha’s right’ whenever they’ve seemed appropriate. But now he’s talking about how there’s never been an interviewer to match old Parky. Now, he could ask a question. And listen to the answer. Knew the art of conversation, you see. A proper journalist. Not like these daft young buggers you get nowadays.
As he’s talking, I almost forget that the man is actually Michael Parkinson in person, and that he’s not wearing a donkey jacket and sipping Tetley’s but a blazer and Armani tie, and is sipping an agreeably crisp, perfectly chilled Premier Cru Chablis ’94.
The daydream is possibly only because of the way the 62-year-old puts you at ease by transporting you metaphysically to his home turf. As he talks, he leans toward you conspiratorially, inviting you to follow his eye in looking out over the other diners, as if it’s us against them, the rest of the world. And you find yourself agreeing with his things-aren’t-what-they-used-to-be prejudices; and laughing at his too-close-to-the-knuckle Bernard Manning impersonations; and glowing when he asks you about yourself and has the decency at least to sound as if he’s interested in your answer.
He makes you appreciate (in a manly, back-slapping, locker-room way, you understand) why television’s Mrs Merton was moved to break away from her prepared questions to him, chew her lip earnestly and blurt out, ‘Oh Parky, I think I love you.’ And this effect he has on people is the reason why 12 million viewers regularly watched the talk show he hosted from 1971 to 1982. It’s why his guests, lulled into a sense of intimacy despite the cameras, were always so keen to come back on, year after year (thereby, in the manner of Rembrandt, leaving behind a self-portrait of themselves growing old). And it’s why the long-awaited return of Parkinson, which begins a new, 20-week series in January, is being hailed as the television equivalent of Elvis Presley’s ‘Comeback Special’ in 1968.
But Parkinson’s relaxed, saloon-bar manner is only part of the appeal. The prospect of a glimpse of his dark underbelly is also what keeps you watching: the arrogance, the bluntness, the volatile nature that has our man weeping with laughter one moment and looking so angry he might grab a guest by the lapels the next. Over lunch he lays the coarse, bluff, speak-as-I-find Yorkshireman stuff on pretty thick – as you’d expect – but it’s only a slight exaggeration of what is really there. The word ‘bloody’ is used 14 times, ‘bugger’ eight (including two ‘daft buggers’) and ‘bollocks’ three. The easy and cynical explanation for why he does this – and the one he himself gives – is that being a professional northerner is how he makes his living. But he also does it, you suspect, because he genuinely does need to remind himself – and us – that he is Jack and Freda Parkinson’s lad, an only child who grew up in a council house in the Yorkshire pit village of Cudworth, near Barnsley. And his reasons for wanting to do this are altogether more Byzantine.
His father, who died in 1975, was one of 17 children. He went down the pit when he was 12 and, to discourage his son from doing the same, took him down in the Grimethorpe cage one Sunday. The sight of men working on their bellies in a three-foot-by-six seam, breathing in coal dust, terrified the young Michael Parkinson. When he mumbled that he didn’t fancy working there after all, his father, relieved, told him that if he ever changed his mind he’d kick his arse all the way home.
‘It was an awful bloody life,’ Parkinson says. ‘My father used to tip up and be given back half a crown a week from my mother. People talk about pressure today. I mean, you hear some frigging footballer complaining. Pressure? My father had to be up at four. You didn’t get paid till you reached the seam. You’d been walking for three bloody hours before you got there, then you’d spend the day on your hands and knees a mile underground.’
Such conditions may seem like the stuff of Monty Python parody today, but it is sobering to hear someone who actually knew that life reflect upon it. Parkinson went back to Grimethorpe this summer and found the mine had been concreted over and half the shops boarded up. The trip left him with mixed feelings. Mining is a brutish way to earn a living, he says, and if other employment had been found for the community he wouldn’t mourn its passing. But he has warm memories of waiting outside the Working Men’s Institute for his father, listening to the ‘bloody marvellous’ singing inside. His watery blue eyes crease at the sides and his whiskery eyebrows do a tango as he goes on to recall his father’s distinctive laugh. ‘He would embarrass me in movies by laughing so loud he would be asked to leave by the manager.’
When asked whether he thinks his personality would have been the same if he had followed his father down the pit, Parkinson broods for a moment. ‘I don’t know,’ he concludes. ‘Never thought about it. I look at some of my friends, though, when I go back to Barnsley, and I think I wouldn’t have minded being them. They’re a bright lot. I’d have still voted the way I do. I’d have still thought the same about the MCC. I would still not have believed in the honours system. I’d have hated rudeness. And causing offence. All the fundamental things that I learned on my father’s knee would still be there.’
With a wry look around the restaurant, Parkinson muses that whenever he took his father to such a place he would never dare show him a menu with the prices on or let him see the bill. ‘But he wouldn’t be bothered by it. We were once in a place like this and he came out of the toilet and said, “Ay up, there’s a lad in there who knows you.” And it turned out he’d been standing next to a stranger at the urinal and just came out and asked, “Do you know my lad, Michael Parkinson?” He was very proud. He used to love the fact that I would meet all these old birds he had fancied on the silver screen. I’ve just started dreaming about him, as it happens. Nice pleasant dreams, where he’s part of the family still. But the awful thing is, when I wake up it comes as a shock that he’s not alive.’
For the son, the family sin of pride seems to have evolved into an attitude to the effect that, however much those effete southerners tried to patronise him, he knew he was just as good as them, if not better. This would account for his stubborn refusal to go native. Despite the urbane media world Parkinson has inhabited for much of his adult life, he has never succumbed to liberal correctness. At one point he says the reason there hasn’t been a successful women talk-show host is that they find it difficult to unhook their corsets and let the cellulite out. Imagine his fellow professional northerner Melvyn Bragg saying that. Later, to illustrate why the timing of a joke is more important than its content, Parkinson repeats a Bernard Manning joke about racial minorities, knowing how provocative it will seem in print but not really caring. He then laughs so hard, while banging the table with the flat of his hand, that flecks of spittle appear at the corners of his mouth.
It is telling, too, that, despite living in the south for most of his life, Parkinson’s flat northern vowels have never really softened much. ‘I kept my accent because it was economically viable to do so,’ he says. ‘No sense in changing it. When I started at Granada TV in the Sixties everyone had a northern accent. It was the same time as the Beatles and all the northern playwrights and actors. Tom Courtenay. Albert Finney. People who spoke posh were trying to affect Yorkshire accents. Before that I would have been lucky to get a job as a doorman at the BBC. There was a new hierarchy. Jack was becoming as good as his master.’
Keeping the accent, then, seems to have required conscious effort. And the determination not to assimilate seems to have been fuelled by a very Yorkshire trait which southerners are wont to misinterpret as chippiness: a superiority complex. This reveals itself in the way that Parkinson refers to his famous guess by their surnames alone. Welles. Burton. Ali. Lennon. And in this he reminds you of Frank ‘Oi! No!’ Doberman, the thuggish Harry Enfield character who sits in a pub proving he’s just as good as the celebrities he rants about by refusing to use the first names they’re always known by – as in ‘Black’ rather than ‘Cilla Black’. At one stage, the similarity becomes too much for me and I nearly choke on my Chablis. ‘I’m a great admirer of Harris,’ Parkinson says of Rolf Harris. ‘He’s talented, energetic and kind. And I’m delighted that he is considered hip now. And he’s a great friend. But. There was one time when he came on to my show and…’ Your imagination finishes the sentence: Oi! Harris! No!
‘But if you’re asking would I have been different brought up in genteel Surbiton the answer would be yes. Very different indeed. Down here is still in my mind where the fat cats are. And it’s good to succeed and become a fat cat. Why not? I don’t trample on people. I’ve never been a jealous type. But I’m competitive and I have encountered snobbery about my background from people at the BBC.’
This reached its peak when Parkinson took over Desert Island Discs, from 1986 to 1988, after the death of Roy Plomley. ‘The fact that Plomley was the worst bloody interviewer in the world had nothing to do with it,’ he says. ‘The worst thing was that his widow began a one-woman campaign to preserve the memory of her husband and she started complaining, “What is this crude northern oik doing walking on my husband’s grave? The accent is too common.” I was too wily to respond then. But she was… nasty.’
He doesn’t need to say so directly, but Parkinson clearly believes he is the ‘best bloody interviewer in the world’ because of his background in journalism. After leaving Barnsley Grammar School at the age of 16 he began work as a reporter on the Yorkshire Evening Post. He soon made it down to Fleet Street, via the Manchester Guardian, and recalls how, callow and wide-eyed, he would sit at the back in pubs getting silently drunk as he listened to the big-name journalists he had hero-worshipped since childhood regale everyone at the crowded bar with their anecdotes. Since 1991 he has been writing a sports column for the Daily Telegraph. And even journalists not interested in sport would have to acknowledge that as an example of how to write vividly, evocatively and unpretentiously it takes some beating.
‘I find writing the most satisfying thing I do,’ he says. ‘I hate watching myself on television. And I never listen to a broadcast I’ve done on radio. But I always reread everything I’ve written. Over and over and over again. And every time I do I always say, “You daft bugger, why did you use that word there?” Sub-editors hate me. But in the end you’ve signed that document and it’s going to be around for ever. All that tomorrow’s chip-paper stuff is nonsense.’
With characteristic frankness he says the main reason he was tempted into television is that it pays so well. ‘I can earn more from one TV show, Antique Quiz, than I can in six months of writing that column. I’m not making a judgement. But that’s the proposition put to you. The reason I have stayed in newspapers anyway is because that’s what I am. My passport says journalist. I’m proud to be one. I know how to do it.’
That said, he believes one advantage which the television interview has over the newspaper one is that the viewers can make their own minds up. ‘They can sit there watching a guest and think, “You lying shit.”’ He thinks for instance that the many interviews he did with Kenneth Williams revealed the comedian’s true cold side. ‘I didn’t like Williams and he didn’t like me. And it showed. I wouldn’t be so rude as to say that if he was alive, but it’s true. Towards the end, we were like two sniffing dogs. The first time we met he wrote in his diary that I was a vulgar North Country nit. The trick was to get him with good company, like Maggie Smith, so that he would show off.’
With a characteristic lack of modesty, Parkinson goes on to admit that he was no slouch when it came to getting the best out of his female guest, too. The man who has been described as having the sexiest eyes in television says, ‘I used to flirt outrageously with Shirley Maclean and she with me. Outrageously. And with Raquel Welch.’
He says that if he worked in television in America he would have to have plastic surgery, but you know he knows that he’s still in pretty good shape and still has that twinkle in his eye. He has been married for 18 years to Mary. They live at Bray, by the Thames in Berkshire, in the house where they brought up their three sons (now in their late twenties and early thirties, they work in publishing, radio and the food and beverage industry). Mary Parkinson once described how Michael would splash aftershave on his face, adjust his tie, wink at the mirror and say ‘By gum, you’re a handsome bugger, Parky.’ It was intended as a tease to his wife – who would retaliate that he was ‘a miserable bugger, more like’ – but it is, you suspect, what he really thinks.
In marriage, he says, you have to expect choppy water. ‘All this bollocks that you can live together without ever having a cross word. You muddle through.’ He has said that whenever he rows with his wife he is always the first to make up. When his wife also took a job as a presenter on television, he said, he couldn’t help feeling a twinge of resentment. And there have been times when, like all journalists, he’s drunk too much and become maudlin, but on such occasions he has tended to explode and then feel remorseful immediately afterwards.
He chuckles when he’s asked how, at the height of his fame in the Seventies, he resisted carnal temptation. ‘I used to think of Barnsley football club,’ he says. He believes that if he had been younger when his talk show was running his fidelity might have been tested more than it was. ‘I would have had a far different lifestyle,’ he says. ‘Fame is a strange thing to deal with. No one tells you about it. You have to learn. It helped that I was in a stable marriage with three kids. I’d seen first-hand how people could be affected by fame. George Best. The Beatles. Elton John. I never went to druggy pop-star parties, though. And Mary came to all my shows, so did my father and mother.’
His mother, now 86, lives in a thatched cottage near Oxford, where she was born. He sees her regularly and says she is in ‘good nick’ (she delivered ‘meals on wheels’ until recently and served only one person older than herself). To help with the housekeeping she used to design knitwear and her son learned to type by having his mother dictate knitting patterns to him. ‘Knit two, tog, knit one, purl one,’ Parkinson says with a grin as he mimes tapping out the keys, his hands dappled in the silvery blond light from the large windows in the restaurant.
Parkinson is scathing about Channel Five’s Jack Docherty, the latest pretender to his throne. ‘His show looks like it’s been shot in a shoe cupboard,’ he says. ‘And he’s not a proper journalist. They always say so-and-so is going to be the next Parkinson, but how can they be when they don’t understand what I understand about the talk show? I’m not being arrogant here. It’s like expecting me to be the next Yehudi Menuhin when I can’t play a violin. Don’t be daft. It’s like Bernard Manning. Is he funny or is he not?’ He thumps the table for emphasis, suspending a fork momentarily in the air. ‘All that counts is whether I can interview, whether I can do my job. If I can’t, then go home.’
This appeared in December 1997. A few days later a letter arrived at the Sunday Telegraph: ‘In his interview with me Nigel Farndale quotes me as saying “I am the best bloody interviewer in the world”. This is news to me. I will give £1000 to charity if Mr Farndale can prove I said that or indeed anything remotely like it. For one thing I don’t regard interviewing as an Olympic event, but most importantly of all I am not that daft…. He has a lot of explaining to do.
I replied: ‘The article said ‘He doesn’t need to say so directly, but Parkinson clearly believes he is the best bloody interviewer in the world because of his background in journalism.’ This was intended as a light-hearted observation, picking up what Mr Parkinson said about Roy Plomley being “the worst bloody interviewer in the world.”‘