Nicholas Parsons

It’s as if Nicholas Parsons has been fired into a pinball machine. As he bustles from one flowerbed to another, bouncing up a hillside here, ricocheting down into a secluded dell there, the bunch of flowers he is collecting grows in size – I can almost hear the bells registering the score. There is another sound in the mind’s ear: the theme tune from the Benny Hill Show, the reedy one which accompanies the speeded-up chase sequences. Inevitable really, this. Nicholas Parsons used to be Benny Hill’s straight man, and once this fact has been absorbed it does tend to haunt the imagination.

There are, too, actual noises disturbing the otherwise tranquil pastureland of the Cotswolds: a distant tractor; the raucous squawks from the rooks nesting in the gangly trees around Parsons’s mid-19th-century lodge; and that crisp and precisely modulated voice so familiar to Radio 4 listeners. It seems strangely disembodied as Parsons bends to pluck another stem: ‘Hello there,’ he shouts over his shoulder. ‘Be with you in a minute.’

My hilarious retort – ‘What? Just a minute!’ – falls flat as Parsons is too far away to hear it, crunching off across his gravelled drive toward another unsuspecting cluster of flowers.

It is one of those trippy English mornings when the colours are so vivid they seem to vibrate: the lime green of the leaf jigs against the pastel blue of the sky, and the glowing yellow of the blooms clashes spectacularly with the bright red of the Parsons v-neck jumper.

Although he is not actually wearing a cravat, the grey polo-neck under the red jumper, the tight grey flannels and the brown suede brogues with toecaps darkened by the dew, all suggest that Parsons is the cravat-wearing type. Probably a driving-glove man, too. It goes with his being tall, trim and dapper; with his wavy silvering hair and unlined pink skin and quite exhausting aura of sprightliness.

He has a distracted air about him, though, and a nervy, anxious way of talking. This becomes apparent when he launches, unsolicited, into a justification of why he still chooses to work at his age. One has a right to go on enjoying one’s success toward the end of one’s career if one had to struggle for success when one was starting out. That’s the flavour of it. Lots of ‘ones’ involved.

As we enter the house, Mrs Parsons – Annie – is just leaving to go shopping. She, warm and cheerful of disposition, follows us back in to make coffee. The couple were married in the Caribbean three years ago. Both had previously been divorced. Both have grown-up children. She, however, is quite a bit younger than he, 20 years maybe. Exactly how much younger is a bit of a mystery, as Parsons is notoriously absent-minded when it comes to his age. It’s 74ish, though he has been known to be about seven years shy of the real figure.

He has a justification for this, too: why should one be judged on one’s age, when one is clearly still young enough to do well all the things one does. It’s a good point. In his inimitable, graceful style – and without hesitation, repetition or deviation – Parsons has been chairing Just a Minute for 30 years now, and the programme is still one of the most popular on Radio 4. He still tours with his one-man comedy show, as well as the more serious show he wrote based on the life of Edward Lear. He still wears fishnets and stilettos when he compres for the Rocky Horror Show. And he still plays the Dame in panto. He is even about to star in a film, though he’s superstitious about elaborating on this until it happens.

But the forgetfulness about his exact date of birth sits oddly with the phenomenal powers of memory he has, though he says so himself, cultivated over the years. He has done this as a way of compensating for his dyslexia. As he sits to attention on a sofa, arms straight by his sides, he explains that, since he was five, following a visit to the circus, he has been driven by a desire to perform and, more importantly, to express himself. He didn’t speak until he was two and a half, and when at last he did, it was with a terrible stutter. He has learnt to control this through breathing techniques and has never suffered from it when performing – though he does succumb to a short bout of it as we talk. Curiously, it happens when he is talking about his stutter.

Such obvious drawbacks to being a performer were cited by his parents when they tried to discourage him from taking to the stage. But there was also a degree of snobbery involved. Nicholas Parsons was born and raised in genteel Grantham, Lincolnshire, where his father, Paul, was a doctor with a rural practice. Lord Brownlow and Alderman Roberts were among the patients, and Dr Parsons almost certainly delivered the baby Margaret. And, as Nicholas’s nanny was good friends with the future Lady Thatcher’s nanny, the two children surely looked across at each other in their prams from time to time.

The Parsons family moved to London when Nicholas was ten and, at his new school, St Paul’s, he was soon nicknamed Shirley – after announcing that he wanted to be a child film star. But then, aged 17, he took an apprenticeship at a pump and turbine firm on the Clyde bank, before going on to read for a degree in engineering at Glasgow University, which he did not complete. All the while he was doing semi-professional acting jobs in his spare time. In 1945 he joined the Merchant Navy, but collapsed with pleurisy and was deemed unfit for action. Discharged after six months in hospital, he was then able to concentrate on his acting career. By the Fifties he had appeared on stage in the West End and on screen in minor roles, but mostly it was cabaret and, as he puts it, ‘wet, bloody juvenile leads’. It was not until 1960 when he appeared on television playing the upper-class foil to the comedian Arthur Haynes’s working man that he found stardom.

‘My parents did everything they could to stop me being an actor,’ Parsons recalls with an imperious look down his imperious nose. ‘They thought the life of an actor was decadent and indecent and full of sexual perversion. I once told my mother that she was being illogical because she loved Dame Edith Evans and Leslie Howard. I asked her if she thought they were like that and she said, ‘No. But isn’t it a pity that they have to work with people who are?’ I took the job on the Clyde to please my parents. It was tough and demanding, and I found myself working with some really rough diamonds. They used to send me up because I talked ‘like thet’ – but in the end they accepted me because I was a good mimic and I was able to take off the foreman with the loose dentures. Having had those five years on Clyde bank I have never been able to take myself too seriously.’

Oh no? Another legacy of his childhood struggle with dyslexia is that he has to order his thoughts in a strictly linear way. When he is asked a question that is lateral to the subject being discussed, he simply postpones answering it. ‘I’ve got one of those logical minds which means that once I’ve started on a line of thought I have to finish it,’ he explains, as if it is the Northern Irish Peace Talks he is discoursing upon. ‘Shall we finish the childhood background? I found my dyslexia left me with a good memory. I didn’t need to refer to my diaries or my scrapbook for dates or names when I was writing my autobiography.’

He can remember every detail from his time at prep school, he says. ‘It was a Dickensian place. Tenterton Hall, Hendon. Truly horrendous and miserable. It’s now been pulled down. It was very disciplined and insensitive. The ogre of the place was the matron who was just so utterly – well, I want to use the same word again and my training on Just a Minute is stopping me – but she was so insensitive. Dressed in the full regalia of a matron in the war. Forbidding. Mrs Blanch. Ruled the dormitories with a rod of iron. And because I suffered from migraine attacks I had to have certain foods. She was a cow. She slippered me and – it doesn’t really work to tell it like this, but it’s a good anecdote in my one-man show, where I do all the voices – she was obsessed with little boys’ bowels, and believed that as long as they opened every morning a boy would remain healthy. She would line us up and ask us about our movements for that day and if they weren’t up to scratch she would administer syrup of figs or castor oil.’

Inevitably, Parsons adds, when he started seeing a Freudian psychiatrist in the Fifties, the bowel theme was seized upon. At this point, in the sitting-room, two grandfather clocks start chiming in unison, either side of me. One of his great passions in life is assembling or repairing them. Anything mechanical will do, in fact. The room has a cosily cluttered feel to it: horse-brasses, corn dollies, silver heart-shaped picture-frames, hunting prints, and copper kettles full of acorns.

The room and its homely touches remind you why the appeal of Nicholas Parsons is so enduring, and why his career in comedy has had a renaissance, especially on the university circuit. Contrary to his claims, though, he doesn’t really go in for self-parody. He is the eternal straight man, the ingénu lost outside his own world. If we thought he was in on the joke, it wouldn’t be funny any more. He once played to an audience of just four, for the full 90 minutes of his one-man show. ‘Of course, we all crave the reaction of an audience as compensation for a perceived lack of affection in our private lives,’ he says. ‘I think all of us have insecurities about which we are seeking reassurance from our audience. I’ve been a straight man to more living and dead comics than anyone else. I have seen the desire to go out and hear that audience reaction and the distress when it doesn’t occur.’

Intellectual insecurity seems to be Parsons’s biggest problem. He is keen to point out that he was Rector of St Andrews University, for instance, and that he was awarded an honorary doctorate. This insecurity really comes to light, though, when he is talking about Kenneth Williams, for many years the petulant, flamboyant, quixotic star turn of Just a Minute. ‘Kenneth liked to show off his erudition,’ Parsons says.

‘It’s something I understand actually, because here was a chap who had a great gift for entertainment and enjoyed making people laugh but who found that people in this country are suspicious of those who have that gift. They always want to put labels on you and I find it irritating. I’ve been described variously as a light comedian, a game-show host, a voice-over man, a variety artist, a West End actor, and yet I’m all these things. It’s rather dogged me and only now, at my age, have I been accepted as an all-rounder. Kenneth found he enjoyed the arts and literature later in life and started to educate himself. He enjoyed making the Carry On films, but I don’t think he was proud of them. When I do my Edward Lear show you could say that it’s a cultured show. When I was in Ireland doing it – and I don’t say this out of conceit – but this man came up to me afterwards and said he thought I was a closet intellectual. He said this because he recognised I have aspirations to give vent to a more intellectual side.’

A raw nerve is touched when it is mentioned that the successful quiz show Sale of the Century, which was broadcast ‘live from Norwich’, is the thing for which he is best remembered. After all, it did run for 14 years and in 1976 had the highest viewing figures of anything on television. It even inspired a legendary piece of graffiti in letters six feet tall on a London bridge: NICHOLAS PARSONS IS THE OPIUM OF THE MASSES. As the unctuous host with the fixed smile, Parsons had to ask questions such as, ‘What shouldn’t you do if you live in a glass house?’ A typical prize was a washing-machine.

‘I’m not most famous for that,’ Parsons now says. ‘It’s only because it ran for so many years that it lingers in the memory. The people who have seen me doing a Stephen Sondheim in the West End remember me more for that. Sale of the Century was not a way of life. It was just a good job that paid a good salary, and subsidised a lot of other things I was doing at the time.’

Another exposed nerve is touched when Parsons is asked whether his late father – whom he describes as a distant, cerebral Victorian figure who had difficulty in communicating his emotions – was proud of his son’s fame as a quiz master. ‘I’m sure my father would have been proud if I had succeeded in a more cultural area. It was difficult for him to give out affection. When he was dying from Parkinson’s disease in hospital, he became very weak and his mind began to wander. Then he suddenly said, ‘Sale of the Century is on.’ And he was right. We watched it and he said, ‘I always thought it was very clever the way you speeded up at the end of the show and built up all that excitement and drama.’ I knew he had occasionally watched the show but here he was on his death-bed paying me this beautiful compliment, and I was very touched and moved. I said, ‘Thank you, Dad, that’s very sweet of you. I think you should have a nice sleep now.’ I went out for a few minutes and when I came back I kissed him on the forehead and realised he had gone into his death sleep.’

At the memory of this, Nicholas Parsons falters and tears well up in his eyes. ‘I’m sorry,’ he says with a trembling smile when he recovers. ‘This is the actor in me. Our emotions are very close to the surface.’

The clocks chime in unison again, I swallow the lump in my throat and change the subject back to his love of fixing mechanical things. We do not dwell upon it for too long before Parsons jumps to his feet and asks if I would like to come outside to see the barn he has converted into an office. He has a collection of photographs of himself posing with his celebrity chums there. Would I like to see them?

Of course, I would.