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Over lunch in his own pub, chat-show king and man of the people Sir Michael Parkinson tells James Kidd about his rise from Humphrey Bogart wannabe to successful journalist and one of the country’s most iconic broadcasters
Interviewing Sir Michael Parkinson is like playing piano for Mozart or football with Pele. The godfather of the British chat show, Parky has talked to everyone from Fred Astaire to Gordon Ramsay in a career that spans some 60 years and 2,000 guests.
Parkinson began his career as a journalist, inspired by the hard-boiled persona of Humphrey Bogart in films like Deadline USA. ‘I was very attracted to the notion of Humphrey Bogart. I actually thought I was Humphrey Bogart as a young man, until a barman in Barnsley put me right.’
The barman worked at the Three Cranes Hotel, Barnsley’s only cocktail bar at the time. Dressed exactly like his Hollywood hero, a 17-year-old Parky chose this as the place to show off on a first date (‘I was really trying to get my leg over’).
I asked for a vodka martini and a Manhattan – I had seen Bogart order them. The barman said, “You what?”’ Parkinson was served two half-pints of what looked like sump oil, with a stick of celery and an umbrella in each. He begins his trademark giggles: ‘The girl passed out on the bus going home, and was sick over my shoes.’
Sir Michael Parkinson has come a long way since then. For one thing, he is now the proprietor of his own pub-restaurant, The Royal Oak, near Maidenhead, which he co-owns with his son Nick. ‘Nick’s been in the business a long time – trained at the Savoy, and then worked in hotels in France and Australia.’
Owning a pub fulfils a long-held ambition, but when he bought The Royal Oak seven years ago he might have been forgiven for running the other way. ‘It was a shambles. Awful.’ The pair tried several schemes to kick-start the business. They hung photographs of old Parkinson shows. ‘That worked until a guy said, “It’s like eating in a bloody tomb.” He called it a reverential wank, or something similar.’ Then Parkinson used his musical contacts to entice acts, including Jamie Cullum, Chris Rea and Amy Winehouse, to perform there.
The real turning point, however, was the arrival of chef Dominic Chapman, who previously worked for Heston Blumenthal at The Hinds Head in Bray. Parkinson samples everything Chapman makes, reserving special praise for his pies and fish. Today, however, he chooses the Old Spot pork belly with mushy peas and braised onions, accompanied by a Pinot Noir from Alsace.
Food and drink have not always loomed so large in Parkinson’s life. Growing up, his diet consisted mainly of Yorkshire pudding: with gravy to start, with meat for main course, and with strawberry jam and treacle for dessert.
Journalism brought him into contact with Indian food, when he worked for The Guardian in Manchester, but mostly with alcohol, especially on Fleet Street in the 1960s. ‘Journalism in those days was very much a pub life, full of drunken characters.’
Television came by chance, he says, and chance was central to Parkinson’s career in television. Asked to produce a current affairs show with music for Granada, he booked The Beatles in his first week. ‘We had no idea who they were. They had no idea who they were.’
John Lennon was also important when Parkinson began in 1971, appearing alongside Yoko Ono to guarantee large ratings. The breakthrough came when Orson Welles was persuaded to appear. ‘In those days, he stood atop everybody else in the industry. Mad bugger but an extraordinary man.’
Welles arrived ‘looking like John the Baptist’, then visited Parkinson’s dressing room. ‘He looked over my questions and said, “How many talk shows have you done, Mr Parkinson?” I said, “Eight.” Welles replied, “I have done rather more than that. Do you mind if we just talk?”
Parkinson’s favourite guests are a diverse bunch. His ‘perfect’ interview was with Professor Jacob Bronowski, who helped develop the atomic bomb and presented The Ascent of Man. For sheer fun, he goes for comedians, reserving special praise for Billy Connolly, Jimmy Tarbuck and Robin Williams. The show allowed him to meet personal heroes such as Welles, Muhammad Ali and George Best, whom he describes as like a ‘fourth son’.
Parkinson is more tactful when naming his least favourite guests. So I mention Meg Ryan, whose sulky appearance promoting In the Cut transformed the usually avuncular Parky into a mildly angry Paxman. ‘She was an unhappy lady. I think I would have been unhappy had I made the film she’d made,’ he says wryly.
What annoyed him most was Ryan’s lack of manners. As she followed Trinny and Susannah, Parkinson began with a question about fashion. ‘Ryan turned around and said, “Oh, you do fashion?” Well, she knew that. She was just being rude.’
He has no regrets about ending Parkinson in 2007 and is happy to leave the chat show to Jonathan Ross and Graham Norton, who choose levity over depth. ‘It’s sad in a way because Jonathan can interview when he puts his mind to it. He’s clever and bright, but has gone with the jokey thing. What’s missing is the kind of show I did, which was more conversational.’
Parkinson himself has moved on. Made a knight of the realm in 2008, he has just published his autobiography, releases a CD of his favourite music this autumn and is creating a website to archive footage of the Parkinson show down the years.
The Royal Oak goes from strength to strength: both the restaurant and Dominic Chapman have won a host of industry awards this year. For Parkinson, it is a place for his family to meet – his three sons and eight grandchildren all live in the vicinity. Next year is his and wife, Mary’s, fiftieth wedding anniversary.
‘We’ll do something here,’ Parkinson says, smiling. ‘That’s the least she deserves.’
Photos: Dan Stevens