It’s quite clear that the pandemic has had a severe impact on all walks of life and it seems that nothing or nobody is unaffected by COVID-19. Television entertainment is one of the arenas which has been directly hampered by the enforcement of social distancing and in what has been labelled “the post pandemic era” it’s difficult to imagine how TV will recover from it. In these testing times, familiarity and nostalgia is desperately required to take the audience back to a world before lockdowns, face masks and fear. On Saturday night the BBC treated us to such celebratory nostalgia as the undisputed king of chat Michael Parkinson returned to prime time BBC1 to celebrate half a century of his iconic chat show which brightened up the schedule.
It had been seventeen years since Parkinson bid farewell to BBC1 as it swapped sides to ITV in a controversial move following the corporation reclaiming the rights to Premiership football in 2004. The proposed solution of moving the series to the Wednesday evening slot did not sit well with the production crew including Parky himself. Therefore ITV and Head of Entertainment Mark Welles saw an opportunity to poach the chat show heavyweight and offered him his normal Saturday night slot as it went up against the newly reinstated Match of the Day on his former channel. Parkinson survived on ITV for another three years, merely a year less than its decade anniversary of its second incarnation. Despite commercial popularity, the show never regained its former BBC supremacy and on Sunday 16th December 2007 a host of stars including Billy Connolly, Judi Dench, Michael Caine and Sir David Attenborough were amongst a stellar cast as Parky signed off from the show which had defined his career.
Ending such an iconic show in the history of British television somehow never felt right doing it on anything other than prime time BBC1. Despite ITV’s long successful history of Light Entertainment shows such as Blind Date, The South Bank Show and Des O’Connor Tonight, the network perhaps lacked the cultural integrity to preserve the show’s original mission. After all, it was Head of Light Entertainment Bill Cotton’s initial vision to see the interactions between three significant figures from the world of entertainment, sport and politics and give the watching audience the opportunity to see well known faces in a natural setting for the very first time. Producer Richard Drewitt, Cotton and Parkinson had a shared passion for the glitz and glamour of the great Hollywood era of the forties and fifties which formed the inspiration of the show’s calibre of guest. Therefore the first outing of the show was dominated by Hollywood’s hall of fame including John Wayne, Ingrid Bergman and James Cagney. In what became a somewhat bleak decade for Britain, Parkinson brought much needed glamour to our Saturday night and set the formula for the television interview.
Michael Parkinson had gone from the Daily Express to a researching role on an ITV cultural current affairs show entitled Scene At 6:30 where he reported on the days biggest talking points. As a reporter, it was his role to preside over a range of stories from entertainment to politics to local stories from the Manchester area. Boasting the first interview with Mick Jagger and charting the rise of The Beatles, Parkinson was in the perfect position to record the birth of Britain’s popular culture. This contribution suddenly put the young reporter on the radar of many TV executives and in 1968 he secured his first television vehicle Cinema which reviewed the biggest movies at the box office. The ITV equivalent to the BBC’s Film show, the programme saw Michael getting up close to the world’s biggest movie stars and reviewing the latest cinema releases. This helped to cultivate Parkinson’s laid back style which he would unknowingly hone in the succeeding years.
Talk shows and celebrity interviews weren’t anything new for the BBC; vehicles such as In Town Tonight and Face To Face had been a staple of fifties and sixties television entertainment. Everyone from Martin Luther King jr to Diana Rigg had been subjects of Face to Face presented by Jeremy Issacs from 1959 to 1962 which stripped a figure down to their foundations in a deeply concentrated and psychological conversation. The complete antidote to this interview style arrived in 1967 when the BBC plucked a young, brash DJ Simon Dee from the newly formed Radio 1 and gave him a prime time Saturday night talk show featuring some of the biggest names in entertainment. Dee Time was a product of its time: sassy, cheeky, irreverent and was aimed at the youth demographic. Yet a shift in management at the BBC as Bill Cotton was made Head of Light Entertainment meant that Dee Time’s days were numbered and was promptly cancelled in 1969.
With no talk show in his Light Entertainment department, Bill Cotton began to assess his options. After toying with the possibility of giving the format to an eager Bruce Forsyth, Cotton realised that a straight talking chat show wouldn’t serve an accomplished entertainer or comedian in the same way as Johnny Carson in America and therefore he’d been looking in the completely wrong place for his perfect candidate. He wanted the glitz and glamour of Hollywood but with the class and integrity of a broadsheet newspaper. Such a clear vision made him determined to find the right candidate and the recruitment of producer Richard Drewitt assisted in this process. This resulted in a trip to Granada to see the young journalist on the set of Scene At 6:30 and pitched the show to an eager Michael Parkinson and the rest is history.
Parkinson was first broadcast on Saturday 19th June 1971 and was part of BBC1 brand new stellar lineup consisting of: Bruce Forsyth’s Generation Game, Morecambe and Wise, The Two Ronnies and Match of the Day. These were halcyon days for the corporation who dominated the Saturday night schedule for almost a decade, providing a slice of entertainment for all. Bill Cotton had the strong belief that he could deliver a better night staying in than going out and with staggeringly high unemployment, this seemed a viable option. A simpler time with just three channels made for mass viewing figures and while a remote control was still a futuristic concept, once the audience had been enticed in, they remained so for the entire evening. Parkinson proved the perfect climax to such a feast of entertainment and rightfully earned its place alongside the great formats of this era.
Originally intended for an eight week summer filler, the first series of Parkinson featured among others; John Lennon and Yoko Ono, George Best, Orson Welles and Michael Caine. Unfortunately due to the BBC’s oversight for cultural preservation, this series was disposed of promptly after its transmission, leaving little record of its existence. When asked to comment on the subject by Radio Times, Parkinson stated “The BBC had a committee that sat down and decided what they would get rid of. They thought, ‘Nobody wants to watch that.’ I mean, why would you do that?” (Radio Times, 28/0821). Irrespective of motives, actions or the value of the lost first series, the show was an overnight hit with the audience and what began as a schedule filler was slowly becoming one of the most popular shows on television.
Perhaps the secret of its popularity was that it provided the opportunity to showcase what the corporation could deliver. Unlike other BBC Light Entertainment shows of the day, it didn’t benefit from colourful sets, extravagant opening titles or excitable audiences. Michael Parkinson was himself very understated, modest and elegant and the show echoed this. Actor Henry Kissinger played to an empty studio apart from production crew and entourage yet as a viewer, we didn’t know any different as in almost every context, the studio audience are merely passengers to the unfolding dialogue between Parkinson and his guest. Nevertheless, the audience was still an extremely vital part of the show and added to the magical awe of seeing these figures in a natural setting for the first time. The show promised big stars, insightful dialogue and shiny floor entertainment and time after time we weren’t let down.
Beyond the glamorous side of the show, Parkinson was also in the perfect position to chart the rise and fall of a star. The most obvious example of this was the great Mohammed Ali who made his debut on the show in 1971 following his first professional defeat to Joe Frazier. Through his four interviews with the international cultural icon between 1971 and 1982, Parkinson was able to chart the entirety of his professional boxing career from being crowned the undefeated heavyweight champion of the world to the beginning of his devastating illness which would first rob him of his charismatic persona and eventually lead to his death in 2016. Ali was not just a boxer, he was an entertainer, comedian, poet and ardent civil rights activist. This, combined with his soaring passion for the things he believed in together with Parkinson’s analytical line of interviewing, made for appointment to view television. Never frightened to ask emotive questions to the deeply passionate and gifted individual, Parkinson and Ali enjoyed a turbulent relationship through their four encounters and touched upon everything from religion to what perhaps might be known today as mental health. These moments didn’t just move the chat show format to uncharted territory but helped to extend our understanding of popular culture.
Following being declined the opportunity to take the series to the American style five nights per week chat show, Parkinson ended the first incarnation of the show in 1982 when he joined forces with David Frost, Angeles Rippon and Anna Ford for the short-lived TV-AM. Anchoring the BBC panel show Give Us a Clue from 1984 until 1992 and inheriting Radio 4’a flagship Desert Island Discs maintained Michael Parkinson’s presence in the world of broadcasting. He also made two series of Parkinson for ITV between 1987 and 1988 interviewing the likes of Elton John, Billy Connolly and Toyah Wilcox. As one of Britain’s leading television presenters, he was regularly the obvious choice to preside over entertainment specials such as the death of Eric Morecambe and The British Comedy Awards. Despite television and radio success in the succeeding years, Michael Parkinson was still synonymous with the chat show format and his seventies TV series was now being celebrated as landmark vintage British television at its very best.
Such a resurgence in popularity inspired the BBC to commission a retrospective series in which Parky looked back at iconic moments with memorable interviews from the eleven year run. The show was a hit which prompted the BBC to consider the possibility of reviving the iconic chat show for a twenty-first century reboot. On the evening of Saturday 9th January 1998, following a sixteen year hiatus, a sixty-two year old Michael Parkinson walked down those famous stairs to an extravagant vibrant studio and made his way to the famous chair. The benefits of both his age and now vast television experience made him extra confident in his ability to deliver a feast of entertainment and the calibre of his guests echoed this. Many of his younger subjects who had grown up watching the early incarnation of the show, now saw an appearance on Parkinson as a tangible indication of success and were more overwhelmed by appearing on the show than talking about themselves or their latest project. Therefore Parkinson took on a whole new dimension as it became a rite of passage not just for the watching public but for his guests as well. This was a watershed moment for Light Entertainment and the television interview never looked back.
To reprise a twenty five year old format and make it relevant to the viewing audience of today is a task which very few have achieved. Forever one step ahead of the zeitgeist, television has a responsibility to echo the fashion and fads of the time in order to stay relevant to its audience. This was the era of celebrity gossip, lad magazines and the birth of reality television and in the preceding decade before social media, the public demanded to have access to their favourite stars like never before. A softer approach than Jonathan Ross,subtler in style than Clive Anderson and with more integrity than Ruby Wax, Parkinson’s individuality was his journalistic straight talking approach to his interviews which was a welcome relief from the anarchic presentation of his nineties contemporaries.
Despite welcoming new and emerging talent to the famous blue chair, Parkinson always maintained a healthy relationship with the original clientele of the 1970’s show and cultivated a fascinating way of continuing this throughout the series. As both a friend and huge fan of David Attenborough, it was interesting to see the show chart not just the various landmarks of the broadcaster’s career but his individual contribution to our shared understanding of the natural world. There’s not many concepts that are able to record a figure’s reactions to witnessing the seemingly endless wonders of life but between 1971 and 2007, Attenborough recounted his endless experiences with wild animals, rare plants and the emerging threat of global warming to civilisation. Such an extensive list of fascinating topics for stimulating conversation made David Attenborough one of the series’ recurring figures and too one of Parkinson’s favourite guests.
Indeed, personally this relationship with Britain’s homegrown stars was what made Parkinson unique and whether he was partaking in friendly banter with Jimmy Tarbuck, talking sex with John Cleese or reminiscing about the sixties with Cilla Black, the audience always felt part of the conversation. It’s difficult to find another broadcaster with such deep insight and connections with some of the biggest names in entertainment and maybe that’s what made Parkinson so unique and successful for generations. Irrespective of his many iconic interviews with Mohammed Ali, Rod Hull, Meg Ryan and George Best, what is evident through all of it is a man who the audience likes and trusts. There’s no doubt that the talk show format has evolved and changed since he bowed out in 2007. Yet the standard in which he set for future generations remains as visible as ever. Therefore he might not have followed his father’s proposed career path and played cricket for Yorkshire but arguably Michael Parkinson’s contribution to public service broadcasting remains as significant as any Ashes win.