Inside Michael Parkinson's legendary career – from guest that left him shoeless to 'disaster' chat | The Sun

HE could go toe-to-toe with Muhammad Ali or be attacked by the crazed puppet Emu live on TV – yet still always came out smiling. 

Sir Michael Parkinson, who has died aged 88, lit up millions of households with his easy, natural interviewing style with thousands of famous guests for four decades.

He once said: “When asked to define a talk show I said it was an unnatural act performed by consenting adults in public.

"That was at the beginning of my stint, and now looking back on more than 600 shows and 2,000 guests, I see no reason to change my mind.  

“It is a consensual act between host and guest and if one or the other won’t play, then the rest is a disaster, and I have had my fair share of those.

"You are mainly remembered for calamities than triumphs.” 


BBC chat show host Michael Parkinson dies aged 88 after ‘short illness’

Sir Michael Parkinson, 88, makes rare public appearance with cricket legend

In total he interviewed around 2,000 of the world’s famous stars on 650 talk shows – which drew up to 9million viewers a night on the BBC and latterly ITV – spanning 36 years.   

He described boxer Muhammad Ali as the most extraordinary person he’d ever met – pitched up against him four times but “losing on points” each time, he said. 

Of his interviewees, Parky said comic and pal Billy Connolly was the funniest, Tommy Cooper was “either the brightest or silliest”, David Beckham and George Clooney were “the best looking” while Joan Rivers produced “one of the funniest moments” he’d seen. 

Yet he was more than just a talk show host.  

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Michael and wife Mary met on the top deck of a double decker bus in Doncaster, and went on to have three sons togetherCredit: Getty – Contributor

Sir Michael was responsible for moments and revelations which become etched indelibly into British popular culture.

From former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s admission his faith in God was behind his controversial decision to invade Iraq in 2003 to Victoria Beckham letting slip her pet name for hubby David was “Goldenballs”. 

He was as comfortable speaking about the racism faced by Muhammad Ali as he was when being pecked violently by Rod Hull’s puppet Emu or being forced to wear a bag over his head just so John Lennon would agree to talk about The Beatles. 

Speaking about his interviewing style, he said: “It doesn’t really matter how famous the interviewee is because when you are talking to them you have to treat them as though they were simply the person next door.

"You had to ask very simple questions about what they do; people overcomplicate it but there’s really not much more to it than that.

"My timing was good in that the people who were available to be interviewed then were great and had had interesting lives”.  

Away from the spotlights he was given a knighthood in 2008, was once nominated for a BAFTA for a role during his brief acting career and at one point was the youngest captain in the British army aged 20.   

Parky was born in the pit village of Cudworth in South Yorks to a cricket-mad father John, who wanted to call him Melbourne – as England has just played there – Parkinson – and mum Freda who wanted to call him “Gershwin”.

The estate where they lived was humorously known as “debtors retreat” while his dad – who worked at Grimethorpe Colliery took him for a days ‘work experience’ to make sure he never took up his profession. He didn’t. 

After leaving school Barnsley Grammar School, which he “did not enjoy”, at 16 with two O Levels he took on his first job as an apprentice for his local newspaper. 

He worked his way up from the Manchester Guardian to the Daily Express in London.  

Around that time, he met his beloved wife Mary on the top deck of a double decker bus in Doncaster.

He was so shy the first he met her that a friend had to ask her out for him. 

He said of Mary, who was a journalist and presenter herself: “I remember thinking, ‘I could look at that face for a long, long time’ – and I have.’ 

They married in 1959, in a wedding dress she’d made herself.

They went on to have three children – Michael Jnr, Andrew and Nicholas. 

In the 1960s he moved into television and worked for the broadcaster Granada. Clips from his early years show him speaking in a posher accent than he does today.  

He said: “Granada, where I did my basic training, was a thriving, bustling, scrappy kind of environment.

"Looking back people might say I spoke in a different accent, but I was still palpably and obviously a Yorkshireman.” 

He interviewed bands like The Beatles and the Rolling Stones on their way up. 

He said: “On the very first appearance I also interviewed Mick Jagger.

"It was a wonderful piece of stilted chat. I asked how long he thought the band might last, and he said maybe a couple of years.

"He sounded quite posh at the time. I looked constipated.” 

But it was there he said he learned probably “the most important lessons I ever learned in all my years of television”. 

He said: “A producer called Bill Grundy took me to one side and told me to look at the camera and pretend I was telling a story to Mary.

"He advised me to lean into the camera as if I was engaging it in conversation.”

This was one of engaging characteristics of Parky’s style which made him such a household name. 

In 1971, his big break came as he joined the BBC. 

He recalled: “I was 36 when I walked into Television Centre in 1971 and never imagine the show I was about to do would define my working life for the next 36 years.

"No evidence remains of that first series.

"The BBC decided ours was expendable and wiped the lot, which included interviews with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Orson Wells, Peter Ustinov and Spike Milligan and a double act featuring Fred Trueman and Harold Pinter.” 

That year he landed his first of four big interviews Muhammad Ali, who he and producers discovered was in the UK working for a soft drink firm and snuck him into the studios to film the infamous interview unbeknown to his employers at the time.

It was on that show he revealed he had thrown his Olympic medal in a river after being the victim of racist abuse. 

He said: “I’m asked who was the most remarkable human being that I’ve ever encountered it would have to be Muhammad Ali.

"I interviewed him a number of times and lost on points on just about every occasion.”  

Despite interviewing some of the biggest names in the world, it is an interview with a little-known professor called Dr Jacob Bronowski, who made 1974 television documentary making, The Ascent of Man, which he said was his favourite of all time 

In one particularly moving episode in the 13-part series, the Polish-British academic visits Auschwitz concentration camp, where a number of his family members lost their lives to the Nazi regime. 

Speaking in 2020, Parky said: “I almost dare not say what I have to say that this is my favourite interview. 

“Of course, I can only watch it now and feel the tears.

"It was one man’s account of the horror of what Nazi Germany did to the Jews, and it is profoundly moving because he is such an extraordinary man.” 

But another star who was synonymous with ‘Parkinson’ was the host’s close friend and comic Billy Connolly. 

He interviewed him first in 1975 after he was given a tape of the comic by a Glasgow taxi driver in 1975.

He would go on to appear 15 times on Parkinson, including on the very last one. 

Parky said: “I always say Billy Connolly is many fascinating men, worth knowing. 

"On one trip to Australia I was staying at the same hotel as Harry Secombe, Spike Milligan and Billy Connolly.

We all arrange lunch. Spike and Billy hit it off was seen swapping routines.

"After a couple of hours I was literally exhausted with laughter and could take no more.

"I went to the gents, where I found Harry Secombe, leaning against the stool tears streaming down his face.” 

In the first stint of his show on the BBC, which lasted until 1882, Parky interviewed some of his all time heroes. 

He said crooner Bing Crosby was “the most relaxed and laid back of them all”.

He confessed to Parky he always took black cabs in London because they would never make him pay and that on the odd occasion they didn’t know him would wind down the glass partition and sing White Christmas. 

Interviewing John Lennon with Yoko Ono in the early 1970s he told how "the singer would only talk about the Beatles if I sat in a sack…For a great part of our conversation I played the part of a talking sack while John reminisced about the Fab Four.” 

He once fell from the top stair to the bottom on the famous Parkinson steps after trying to put a nervous Fred Astaire at ease – resulting in another take and the dancer being in fits of laughter. 

He was once forced to interview acting legend Kirk Douglas in his driver’s jacket and tie after the star turned up in exactly the same suit – a trick by the tailor they shared. 

On one show Oliver Reed, who had had “a drink or two” punched a hole in the set, Jane Fonda cried after Parky had told her something her late father said about her she didn’t know, while he had to encourage football manager Brian Clough to sober up before appearing on one programme. 

Speaking about interviewing Bette Davis on a show in 1975, he tried to recreate the romantic last scene from Now, Voyager.

Putting two cigarettes in his mouth and lighting them, he gave one to her.

He recalled: “Her cigarette had stuck in my mouth and in disengaging it I had managed to pull off the greater part of my lower lip.

"Ms Davis regarded my bloody offering and instead of her declaration of undying love, remarked disdainfully, ‘I don’t think so.’” 

He enjoyed being toyed with by some of the funniest men in the comedy business. 

Of Tommy Cooper, who appeared in the mid 1970s, he said: “With most comedians you can detect the difference between the man and the performer.

"I could never work out if he was one of the brightest men I ever met or the silliest. "

Dudley Moore, who he called “the most talented entertainer” he interviewed, once persuaded him to sing ‘Moon River’ on stage at a function they were both at while Moore changed the key constantly so Parky was constantly out of tune. 

He said: “He nodded toward the nearby tables. Still singing “Moon River”, I looked where he was indicating and there sat Andy Williams with his head in his hands.” 

But the interviews didn’t always go right.  

In 1976, ventriloquist Rod Hull appeared on the show with his puppet Ostrich Emu.

Parky was left “shoeless, jacketless and without a shred of dignity, scrabbling round the studio floor”.  

He added: “Ever since I have been reminded of the catastrophe on a fairly regular basis.”  

This was a theme that continued with interviewing things and people who weren’t real.

He had a rather stilted interaction with Ali G in 2002 and admitted in his autobiography that his meeting with Al Murray’s Pub Landlord in the early 2000s “didn’t really work”. 

Frosty interviews with Meg Ryan and Helen Mirren were also regarded as some of his worst. 

He said: “If I am to list my disasters in terms of those that provoke most street reaction, then it would be the Emu in the first place, followed closely by Meg Ryan.” 

The first stint of Parkinson ended in 1982 before returning in 1998 and running until 2007.

Its last four years were enjoyed at ITV after the BBC put Match of the Day in his previous spot. 

Parky held some of the best jobs in showbiz.

He was the presenter of Desert Island Discs in the early 1970s, appeared in Richard Curtis’ Love Actually and even got a BAFTA nomination for his role in Stephen Volk’s Ghost Watch. 

In 2000, he received an MBE from Prince Charles and seven years later he was knighted by the Queen. 

He recalled: “I told the family. Felix my four-year-old grandson, asked, ‘will you wear suits of armour?’.”  

On meeting the Queen, he said: “She asked how long I had been on television. I told her about 50 years she laughed sympathetically.” 

Part of the knighthood was for Parkinsons’ second coming. 

In 1998, George Michael – fresh from the scandal of being arrested for flashing a policeman – was a guest and joked, “Just think, I had to flash a policeman to get on” the show. 

Victoria Beckham told the world hubby David was called “Goldenballs” privately at home. 

He recalled: “The moment she said it I looked at David and he gave me your I smile as if to say: ‘for the next 20 years or more.’” 

That episode in 2001 with the Beckhams alongside George Best, a close friend of Parky who would often stay at his house, and Elton John, was the shows most watched programme with almost 10million viewers. 

It was in Parky’s second stint on the box that saw what he described as one of his “all-time favourite comedy moments” – and it featured comic Joan Rivers. 

He said: “She was sitting next to Cliff Richard and was describing how at a particular depressing moment in her life when she took a revolver and was about to blow her brains out when her pet dog jumped on her lap and nuzzled her.

"She paused in the telling but I didn't fall for it. Cliff, being nice, offered her a reassuring hand and asked sympathetically, ‘what did you do?’. 

“‘I shot the dog,’ said Ms Rivers, indicating her fur collar, she added, ‘Look, I'm wearing him now.’” 

But it was not only moments of levity. Tony Blair when quizzed by Parky in 2006, said of his decision to invade Iraq was influenced by his faith. 

He said: “(A) decision has to be taken and has to be lived with, and in the end there is a judgement that, well, you have faith about these things then you realise that judgement is made by other people.”

It was the frankest admission Mr Blair has yet made about how his religious beliefs influenced his actions as Prime Minister. 

In 2002, he also interviewed Nelson Mandela in South Africa.

When he told Parky he was slightly deaf, the presenter said “I hope you will be able to hear my questions”. 

Parky remembered in his autobiography: “He looks at me directly and smiles. ‘I will hear the ones I want to answer.’” 

His last ever show aired on December 22 2007. 

He recalled: “The line-up for the final TV show with Billy Connolly, Dame Judi Dench, Sir David Attenborough, Sir Michael Caine, Peter Kay, Dame Edna Everage and David Beckham they all had their own particular place in history of the show and it contributed greatly to its success and my enjoyment.  

“Peter Kay decided to wear a tie for the occasion but didn't know how to tie a proper knot.

"I obliged with large and flamboyant Windsor. Dame Judi sing me a song and Dame Edna seemed smitten by David Beckham.” 

Parky always managed to stay on the side of the one asking the questions – keen not to “become the interviewed” and having “no interest in being in showbiz”. 

Speaking in 2020, he said of his greatest achievement: “To have the longevity to have lasted all these years and to have had a great career.  

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“I’ve never been to bankruptcy court or had people sue me and I’ve avoided the real pitfalls of life, thank God.

"I’ve had a charmed life, I’ve been very lucky.” 

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