On Wednesday 28th January 2020 the nation woke to the sad news of the death of the legendary actor turned radio and television presenter Nicholas Parsons who passed away at age of 96. Paul Merton led the tributes to the man who was a star for seven decades. In January 2016 I had the enormous pleasure to meet and interview the great man at the Marriott Hotel on the outskirts of London for his contributions to my radio documentary surrounding theatrical agents. So me and my PA Will made our way to the said hotel to meet the entertainment legend at the place where he did the majority of his press. Meeting Nicholas Parsons was a complete revelation as he shuffled into the main hotel lounge aided by a substantial walking stick which was far removed from his slick and smooth screen persona. It was here I realised that I was in the presence of a born actor and an extremely fascinating character. This interview is from my own archives from a previous project and doesn’t follow the modern format of my other interviews for Beyond The Title. As you’ll hear in the clip below, it is much more conversational as I had sent the questions ahead and allowed preparation time for the interview. Nevertheless it is still a brilliantly honest insight into the industry and the career of a modern entertainment legend.
Press play, below, to listen to the full interview
Ever astute and business minded, Nicholas became concerned as to the purpose of the interview and it took a while for me to assure him that I would look after the interview and would always respect his wishes. It was clear that behind the suave elegance there was a vulnerable soul who just wanted everything to be fair and above board. Unfortunately I couldn’t use the audio for my documentary yet it was just a fantastic honour to have the opportunity to quiz this entertainment titan on his remarkable career in comedy. Obviously my questions were heavily tailored to themes surrounding the history of theatrical agents but I’m so thankful that I got such an insight into one of the most fascinating and versatile performers in showbiz.
Making his theatrical debut as Kiwi in The Hasty Heart at the Aldwych Theatre in 1945, the young actor was quick to make waves amongst the acting fraternity and was quick to secure supporting roles in a host of successful productions throughout the country. It was here that he honed his archetypal English gentlemen persona which would dominate the rest of his career. On 21 February 1956, ATV aired the first episode of Strike a New Note starring radio comedian Arthur Haynes. As a straight actor who had appeared in more than twenty films including Doctor In Love, The Wrong Box and Carry On Regardless. Yet it was his work with Arthur Haynes which was to transform Parsons from jobbing actor into a household name.
The combination of Parsons’ superior English gentlemen persona together with Haynes’ lower middle class attitude provided the perfect chemistry making Strike a New Note one of the most popular series on the newly formed ATV. Almost forgotten in today’s disposable era, Strike a New Note then later The Arthur Haynes Show helped to lay the foundations for television comedy. With sketches written by the legendary Johnny Speight who later went on to create the wonderfully flawed Alf Garnet in ‘Till Death Us Do Part, the series was well received by audiences and critics. Yet by the early sixties, Haynes began to resent the fame that Parsons had welcomed due to the success of the series and decided to drop him from the show in a highly controversial move. Despite this, Nicholas always cited Arthur Haynes as a pivotal figure in the direction of his career and was frequently on hand to celebrate his legacy. In 2011 BBC Four broadcast Nicholas Parsons: Arthur Haynes And Me in which Paul Merton quizzed the performer on his memories of working with Haynes and his recollections of the series which reminded the public of the magic of the show It was clear that he remained extremely thankful and proud to have this grounding and this spurred him to enjoy the remarkable career which he did.
In 1971 the newly created Anglian Television bought the rights to a popular US game show entitled Sale Of The Century. The first series was merely broadcast to the Anglian region before being exported across the whole ITV network as its popularity grew. Before long, the regular continuity announcement “Live From Norwich” became synonymous with half an hour of teatime indulgence as Nicholas was at the helm of TV’s biggest financial giveaway. Beginning with the nominal figure of £10, contestants answered questions for different cash prizes ranging from £1 to £5. Devoid of TV fashions or fads (or even inflation!), Sale Of The Century reigned supreme on ITV and made Nicholas one of the leading presenters on the box.
Of course Sale Of The Century wasn’t the first long running success which Nicholas enjoyed. In 1967 he was put forward to chair a radio panel show which pitted Britain’s sharpest comedy minds against each other in a game of eloquence and wit as they individually attempted to speak on a particular subject for sixty seconds, avoiding deviation, abbreviation or repetition. Just a Minute was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on the 22nd December 1967, just three months after the creation of the station. With a stellar lineup of panellists including Dereck Nimmo and Clement Freud, the show was quick to generate a following and soon welcomed the cream of British comedy to put their improvisational skills to the test. Unbeknown to both cast and crew Just a Minute became a firm fixture of the Radio Four schedule for over half a century, entering Nicholas into the Guineas World Records as Britain’s longest serving broadcaster.
Never frightened to move with the times, in 1988 Nicholas made a cameo performance in The Comic Strip: Mr Jolly Lives Next Door as himself alongside Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders. It was obvious that here was a performer who didn’t take himself too seriously and always possessed the unique ability to send himself up. This may be a contributing factor as to why new generations of comedians were always queuing up to collaborate with him and over the next thirty years Parsons remained on the cutting edge of comedy. As the nineties dawned, Nicholas returned to the stage featuring as the narrator in the he original London cast of the Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods at the Phoenix Theatre.
By the nineties, Nicholas Parsons had reached legendary status and was free to select the projects which he felt passionate about. Continuing the renaissance of his theatrical career, he appeared in the 21st anniversary revival of the stage musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Duke of York’s Theatre in 1994. With a consistent presence on television, Parsons was among a few performers to be triumphant on three different mediums. Yet of course one show remained its popularity throughout, constantly delighting new audiences and welcoming the next generation of performers. Despite his vast achievements, Just a Minute remained Nicholas’s passion project and as soon as the red light was on, there was never any doubt as to who was in charge.
To celebrate the forty-fifth anniversary of Just a Minute in 2012, BBC2 broadcast a series of special episodes bringing the magic of the radio panel show to a television format. Accompanied by regular Paul Merton, Parsons guided three of Britain’s best loved faces through the normal rules of the game which became the perfect teatime companion. This led to the rediscovery of the now legendary panel show and cemented its status as a radio institution. Everyone from Julian Clarey to Jack Dee attempted the spoken word challenge overseen by Parsons firm but fair leadership: a fitting tribute to a radio titan.
Nicholas Parsons continued to chair the popular panel show right up until the summer of 2019 when he was forced to step down due to ill health. It was clear that despite his maturity in years, as soon as he stepped foot out on the stage of the BBC Theatre, the sparkle appeared in his eyes and he felt much younger than his years. There was never any doubt that entertainment was in his blood and was one of the key components in maintaining his youth. This may be the closest thing to uncovering the secret to his success and longevity.
Beyond his entertainment and broadcasting credentials, Parsons always insisted that he remained an actor and this informed everything he did. His versatility as a performer allowed him to cross the border into other disciplines. Not many entertainers are able become giants in more than one from over seven decades but Nicholas Parsons was unphased by new challenges and constantly reinvented himself for new generations. His death in January 2020 possibly marked the end of an era for versatile performers who were able to make the seamless transition from one discipline to another, making him one of the most enduring artists of his generation. I shall always be thankful for this opportunity and will forever hold this interview very dear to my heart. From the outpouring of love and tributes which have been displayed in the media over the last few days, it’s clear that Nicholas Parsons may be gone but never forgotten.