Sir Michael Parkinson – The King of Chat

It feels almost surreal that I’m embarking on this retrospective tribute to a man who, for over half a century, profiled and celebrated some of the most prolific figures from the latter half of the twentieth century. Indeed, in recent times, Sir Michael Parkinson built something of an unrivalled reputation for being able to analyse and capture the absolute essence of people’s lives and careers and became an obvious trusted authority to deliver personal obituaries when significant figures passed away.. So therefore it seems somewhat unsettling to discover that the man, who for many, represented the very best in factual entertainment has sadly left us. Born in the small village of Cudworth in Yorkshire, the young Michael Parkinson had early dreams of playing cricket for his county which often provided the basis for some fascinating anecdotes but cricket’s loss ultimately became broadcasting’s gain..


Like most middle class men in northern England in the forties and fifties, Parkinson’s father Jack worked as a miner throughout his career but had more ambition for his son. Taking the young Michael down the pit on only one occasion proved a significant rite of passage and his father’s firm words stayed with him for the rest of his life and became a mantra to live by. Passing his eleven plus and progressing to Grammar School, Michael was adamant to make his father proud and spent the rest of his life, learning, educating and inspiring others. Despite his vast achievements in broadcasting and journalism, Michael Parkinson’s life was a long tribute to the selfless acts of his mother and father in what was frequently very challenging times. It was this grounded attitude that made him one of the greatest writers and journalists of our time.


Joining the Manchester Guardian in the era before the pop culture boom of the mid sixties, it was here that Parkinson really honed his craft as a writer and journalist. The 1950’s were a bleak time for Britain as the reminders of the Second World War still hung over society. But in the early sixties, something changed and journalists were eager to chart such a dramatic change in popular culture. Moving to the Daily Express shortly after offered him a taste of London’s infamous Fleet Street where he nurtured his craft as predominantly a sports writer. This was the first time that sport was considered as an offshoot of popular culture and athletes were slowly becoming stars in their own right. Matt Busby’s Manchester United were rebuilding following the devastation of the Munich air crash and a teenager from Northern Ireland was slowly gaining an unrivalled reputation. The first time Parkinson saw George Best at Old Trafford he realised that he was witnessing something very special and this appreciation became a staple of his journalistic career for over half a century.


Yet it wasn’t only sport that was changing. Securing a researcher role on Granada Television’s landmark cultural affairs series Scene At 6:30 catapulted the young journalist into the beating heart of popular culture as he found himself in the midst of the Merseybeat phenomenon. Yet it wasn’t long before his journalistic talents came to the forefront and as a reporter, he was sent all over the country in the search of stories. Whether it was reporting on current affairs or profiling public figures, Scene at 6:30 set the benchmark for cultural affairs broadcasting hereafter and elevated Michael Parkinson into a television personality. Early interviews with The Beatles gained him a reputation as a straight talking reporter but it was a short encounter with Mick Jagger which would gain Parkinson recognition amongst the broadcasting community. This clip has forever haunted Jagger as he merely gave The Stones just a few years of success which has since been the source of irony as the band approaches their sixth decade in music.


Recording such a significant change in popular culture brought Parkinson into contact with some of the most prominent entertainers of the decade as he continued to chart this boom in creativity. This proved absolutely crucial to where his career would ultimately take him throughout the succeeding decades. Being a journalist, he was regularly invited to the places where pop culture was taking place and encountering some of the biggest names in entertainment. He would regularly be found in the company of friends like Jimmy Tarbuck, Cilla Black and George Best which offered him a unique insight into these stars and how they lived. His analytical eye always made him aware of the world that he was living in and although he didn’t know it yet, this experience was absolutely vital to his success as a chat show host.


In 1970 newly appointed Head of Light Entertainment Bill Cotton was looking ahead to the following summer when he realised an eight week gap in the Saturday night schedule. For this, Bill Cotton desired a chat show similar to the 1960’s series Dee Time presented by the out of favour presenter Simon Dee. Cotton wanted a show which would indulge his passion for Hollywood’s golden age and would be an excuse to welcome some of the world’s most famous stars to walk through those famous double doors of Television Centre. Still under contract at Granada, Parkinson had never dreamed of ever fronting a Saturday night chat show. He wasn’t a comedian or entertainer who had the overwhelming desire to entertain an audience. News and current affairs were very much his world and never considered moving into Light Entertainment. Yet Bill Cotton was a genius at fitting TV formats to individual people and with the help of producer Richard Drewitt, they were able to create a robust format which would become one of the most important formats in TV history.


First broadcast on Saturday 19th June 1971 the chat show Parkinson was the first of its kind in the UK but wasn’t without its fair share of teething problems. Despite agreeing with Bill Cotton’s vision of showcasing the biggest international stars, Parkinson and Drewitt had the desire to place celebrities or noteworthy individuals with personalities who they wouldn’t otherwise meet and just observe the conversation between them. In terms of entertainment, this was revolutionary and in the age before reality television, this was the first time that stars from across the whole spectrum could come together and have a simple conversation. This aspect is frequently overlooked when it comes to the evolution of entertainment but this was absolutely revolutionary for its time and gave Parkinson a unique charm.


Whether it was Dr. Jacob Bronowski, Peter Ustinov or Muhammad Ali, Parkinson treated each guest as a revered subject and always approached every interview with the same trepidation. These moments with the aforementioned figures have since become part of the fabric of British television and remained among his personal favourite moments. Yet being a showbiz figure since the early 1960’s, he developed enduring rapports with some of the leading comedians of the time. Billy Connolly made his British television debut in 1974 who told a joke which got the headlines of the following day’s newspapers. This made Connolly into a star and was the catalyst to his remarkable career in comedy: something that he forever proudly cites which began a friendship which would last for over five decades. Throughout the years, Connolly would go on to appear on the show a staggering fifteen times over a thirty year period and made him into one of the best loved comedians in the world.


This was the era before PR companies had full control over the exposure of a star and had specific agendas to uphold surrounding selling a product. Parkinson never approved of the brash nature of contemporary PR campaigns and celebrities using platforms to promote and sell merchandise. The 1970’s Parkinson was devoid of such brash marketing and instead was a simple, intellectual, entertaining conversation between two people. It rarely seemed to matter what the subject was doing next because the conversation could go to places that no one expected with this subservient, knowledgeable ringleader who could effortlessly throw up subjects for his guests to catch. This wasn’t just an interview, it was an exhibition of talent and this was what made everyone from Bob Hope to Helen Mirren want to sit opposite Parkinson.


The 1970’s proved an incredibly successful time for BBC Light Entertainment with Bill Cotton carefully creating a formidable Saturday night lineup that couldn’t be rivalled. Parkinson was the ultimate, trusted climax to a fool proof smorgasbord of entertainment which began with Bruce Forsyth’s Generation Game and would feature Morecambe and Wise, The Two Ronnies and Match Of The Day. Although Michael used his journalistic talents to draw insightful gems from his guests who occasionally saw an opportunity to open up, it always remained clear that Parkinson was a Light Entertainment show with all the glamour of a Saturday night shiny floor spectacle. Therefore Kenneth Williams’ songs or Bruce Forsyth’s hat and cane routine were treated with the same reverence as Jacob Bronowski’s account of the atrocities of the German concentration camp. This was the absolute epitome of those great Reithian principles of the BBC to inform, educate and entertain and Michael Parkinson never lost this innate ability to frequently simultaneously juggle all three elements. 


Frequently criticised by a small section of the media for perhaps not asking the cutting questions, Parkinson was devoid of political agenda or click bait. There were occasions where he realised that he was required to push his questioning in order to entice his subject to open up. However, he wasn’t after the scoop or exclusive on what would be on the front of the newspapers because that wasn’t his style. To be a great interviewer, you need to gain the trust of your guests and failure to do so will result in a flawed interview. The reason why Parky developed an unrivalled reputation for being the best in the business was because his subjects trusted him and they knew that on Parkinson they would always get fair representation.


The trends of television entertainment have always interpreted a show’s longevity and by 1982 Parkinson could see the TV landscape changing and the BBC’s decision not to honour his request to take the show five nights per week ultimately cost them one of their biggest stars. It’s clear that the American television industry has the capacity to run talk shows in a way that British companies might struggle as a result of the massive advertising investment. However, both Parkinson and Drewitt obviously saw potential in the concept and it’s a shame that the corporation couldn’t give them the backing they deserved. He said farewell to the much loved Saturday night ratings winner for what many expected to be the final time with a stellar lineup including: Spike Milligan, Kenneth Williams, Billy Connolly and Jimmy Tarbuck as an era of British television came to an end. Yet as he said goodbye, another opportunity was just around the corner.


The phenomenon of breakfast television had now hit the UK and legendary maverick David Frost had his sights firmly set on this new TV trend. For this, he assembled an all star lineup of Angela Rippon, Anna Ford, Anne Diamond and Nick Owen to front an early morning live entertainment show five mornings per week. Parkinson joined the illustrious cast, becoming the main anchor. Yet the lack of format together with the show’s high profile anticipation ultimately led to its downfall and for the first time in his career Parkinson was the subject of criticism. Following his departure, Parkinson returned to the chat show format fronting ITV’s One To One where he profiled some of the most popular entertainers in the country from Elton John to Billy Connolly. By this time, Parkinson’s reputation within the chat show format was unrivaled and could entice the biggest names in entertainment to join any show. Even the anti establishment attitude of Spike Milligan struggled to turn down the opportunity to join Parky for a non threatening chat which gave an insight into the esteem which he was held in amongst the showbiz elite.


In 1984 on a hiatus from the Parkinson show, Michael inherited the keys to ITV’s parlour based panel game Give Us a Clue alongside team captains Lionel Blair and Una Stubbs then later Liza Goddard. For this, he presided over the administrative responsibilities of the game while frequently being the reluctant voice of reason in events where a panelist took the game too seriously. His laidback, straight talking, journalistic style made him the perfect stooge for the anarchic chaos to unfold and being such a prolific figure in showbiz meant that he had a lively rapport with almost every guest who played the game. For eight years Michael became the incomparable chairman of Give Us a Clue and escaped from his chat show host shadow. Yet his next career move was certainly out of left field.


In 1992 the BBC had the idea of adapting writer Stephen Volk’s award winning stage play which had originally been planned for a six part drama series but producer Ruth Baumgarten thought it lacked commercial viability. Volk then repackaged it as a 90 minute television extravaganza which appealed to the BBC and with actors Sarah Greene and Mike Smith on board, it was crying out for a trusted broadcaster to be at the helm. It was quite clear Michael Parkinson wasn’t an actor but as one of the most trusted broadcasters in Britain, he added legitimacy to proceedings which contributed to the hype surrounding the show. Ghostwatch was broadcast on prime time BBC1 and has since been criticised for misleading the audience which may have contributed to the suicide of some viewers. Yet it was still a feat of broadcasting which pushed the boundaries of television which arguably has never been beaten.


By this time Parkinson had returned to the BBC and was fronting his own Radio 2 programme celebrating the very best of the great American Songbook. This also offered the opportunity to do a weekly interview with a celebrity guest and review that week’s news and television alongside an array of journalistic experts including Gillian Reynolds, Quentin Cooper and Eve Pollard. Parkinson’s Sunday Supplement ran for two decades on Radio 2 and offered a platform to rising musical stars such as Jamie Cullum and Katie Melua. Two hours on a Sunday morning doesn’t sound like the most taxing of jobs but under Parkinson’s stewardship, the show gained a reputation for insightful conversation and the very best music. It also reunited him with the current affairs platform which returned him to his journalistic roots. Memorable moments included Spike Milligan’s impromptu interruption following escaping from the mental hospital in which he was currently residing. So much was Milligan’s admiration for Parky, he just wanted to be with him and return to normality and the loose formula of this show allowed for it.


This obviously wasn’t his first brush with radio as in 1985 his journalistic pedigree made Parkinson the obvious replacement for the great Roy Plumley on the Radio 4 chat show juggernaut Desert Island Discs. His first castaway was the writer and director Alan Parker which began a three year tenure on the show where he welcomed in the range of one hundred significant figures to pick their favourite tracks. Most famously Elton John who selected tracks by Pink Floyd, Nina Simone and Music For The Millions. Remaining on the show for just three years offered Parkinson a vital grounding in the medium which he would later refine. However, just as he was enjoying his radio dominance, television came calling once again.


The world of antiques and game shows are concepts that don’t tend to sit together in harmony but in 1995 Parkinson returned to BBC1 to revive the 1970’s gameshow Going For a Song. Each contestant was partnered by a celebrated antiques expert as they guessed the price of items which went under the hammer. This was brand new territory for Parky who was still synonymous with the iconic chat show and a lunchtime game show seemed far removed from his Saturday night showbiz pedigree. However, for four years, Parky gently presided over the lighthearted quiz which rekindled his relationship with the BBC1 audience. Yet as popular as Going For a Song was, the corporation realised the appetite for revisiting Parkinson’s chat show pedigree.


In 1996 he embarked on a retrospective series revisiting interviews with six icons of entertainment and providing his own analysis on the real people behind the headlines. Parkinson was among just a handful of people to be an authority on these significant personalities and how they behaved as in the purest form, despite his television dominance, he always remained a highly skilled journalist. Therefore this show wasn’t merely a compilation of clips carelessly put together by an egotistical host, it was six delicately crafted character studies of some of the most famous people in the world led by an incredibly intelligent journalist right at the top of his game. Simply entitled Parkinson: The Interviews, the series featured episodes on: Peter Ustinov, Mohammed Ali, Dustin Hoffman and David Niven. The series pulled in extraordinary ratings and such popularity gave the BBC an idea.


On Friday 9th June 1998 a landmark in British television occurred as a sixty-two year old Michael Parkinson walked down those famous stairs for the first time in over fifteen years. His trademark brown mop may have now transformed into silver but his propensity to lead a flawless conversation hadn’t gone away. Now in the PR dominated age where the concept of celebrity had derived itself from the pure nature of the celebrity interview, Parkinson always strove to uphold the integrity of the original talk show format while simultaneously complying with modern PR standards. The tiresome demands of the PR commercial train often became the subject of his high profile rants but he still understood that this was the byproduct of the evolution of the industry.


Irrespective of the political nature of the celebrity interview, Parkinson returned to prime time BBC1 with a whole new generation of stars to encounter. Britain had seen many changes while he’d been away: Thatcher, The Falklands, Alternative Comedy and Britpop had each left their mark on British culture and the country was totally different from the Britain he left in 1982. His first guest was the writer and comedian Paul Merton who was currently riding high on the BBC2 satirical panel show Have I Got News For You. The only significant change with the brand new series was the strong affection which stars had for the show. An appearance on Parkinson was now a way for stars to measure their own success and became a significant rite of passage. It was also a way to gauge public and critical interest in a celebrity and a candid conversation with Parky now had the power to make or break a public figure.


Beyond showcasing contemporary talent, Parky never forgot his pop culture roots and in 1999 delivered an interview which had been thirty years in the making. Appearing in the photo shoot for Wing’s 1973 album Band On The Run, Parkinson appeared alongside a host of prominent public figures including Kenny Lynch dressed in grey boiler suits looking at a big spotlight. An afternoon’s work for a group of 1970’s celebrities resulted in one of the most iconic album covers of all time. Yet it would be over a quarter of a century before Paul McCartney repaid the favour by being the subject of a one man Parkinson show but it was well worth the wait.


Parkinson was once again riding high in the BBC schedules and was deemed the obvious choice to anchor the corporation’s coverage of the millennium celebrations. This coverage was unlike any broadcast which had gone before. Twenty eight hours of continuous broadcasting as significant places around the world brought in the new millennium alongside an unprecedented smorgasbord of entertainment. Heading up an elite broadcasting team that included: Gaby Roslin, Michael Buerk, David Attenborough, Lenny Henry and Jamie Theakston, Parkinson acted as chairman, guiding viewers through proceedings. There was even time for a special edition of the chat show featuring David Attenborough and Dame Edna Everage before counting down to that all important time.


Parkinson had now regained his place as one of the most popular faces on television and his universal admiration for talent made him the dream booking for entertainment shows. In 2001 he guest starred in the chat show/sitcom spoof The Kumars At Number 42 where Meera Syal’s grandmother character referred to him as “a silver haired mongoose’, a name which seemed to stick. This began a long association with Sanjeev Bhaskar and Meera Syal who became regulars on the chat show. This association resulted in the 2003 return of the legendary Christmas Night With The Stars where Michael introduced an all star lineup including The Kumars, Emma Bunton, Ricky Tomlinson and his good friend Ronnie Corbett. With a very special Christmas special of Parkinson featuring the hilariously unpredictable Dame Edna, 2003 had been a successful year for the veteran broadcaster who had now been in entertainment for over four decades. Yet he has never predicted what would happen next.


In August 2003 the BBC discovered that it had won the rights to broadcast Premier League highlights from the following season which heralded the long awaited return of Match Of The Day. It had been a long time since Parkinson and Match Of The Day had co-existed in the same Saturday night lineup and the two had grown and changed dramatically since Bill Cotton’s stewardship of the 1970’s. In a world where there is only enough room for one Saturday night headliner, the corporation had left it very late to find a suitable solution to this scheduling dilemma. The suggestion of moving Parkinson to a Wednesday evening didn’t sit well with the undisputed king of chat who began to look for alternatives avenues and Mark Welles at ITV seemed to have the perfect answer.


First broadcast on Saturday 4th September 2004 with guests Billy Connolly, Tom Cruise and Kelly Holmes, Parkinson on ITV almost immediately felt the same reliable, cosy style. However, Welles’s vision to book left field individuals to receive the Parky magic ultimately backfired and unsettled the trusted formula. The overly elaborate Hollywood set somehow failed to match its basic, journalistic roots and although there were moments of TV gold, couldn’t compete with the magnitude of its former standing within the corporation. Parkinson on BBC always acted as an ardent showcase of everything that they stood for and remained a vibrant carnival of entertainment for thinkers. It didn’t revel in how big the star was or how popular their new song or TV show could be because the fact that they were in the chair talking to Parky was enough to cement their purpose.


After just three years at ITV, Parky decided to call time on the show who had defined his career. On 22nd December 2007, a stellar lineup of Billy Connolly, Sir Michael Caine, Sir David Attenborough, David Beckham, Dame Judi Dench, Dame Edna Everage and Peter Kay, joined Michael for a feature length send off. Judi Dench performed a personal tribute written by Michael Ball and arranged by Laurie Holloway while Dame Edna delivered a very special message. For someone who had spent a lifetime profiling others, Parkinson was never good at taking praise or receiving plaudits. Yet arguably his contribution to broadcasting warranted much more than a single two hour tribute.


Now it was time for Parkinson to turn the tables and join the chat show circuit as a guest when he released his long awaited autobiography Parky in 2009. This prompted an appearance on the in depth BBC interview series Mark Lawson Talks To where he revealed a dispute with ITV over their attitude towards the series which ultimately resulted in its premature ending. By this time he had been knighted by The Queen in her 2008 birthday honours list and was starting to enjoy the slower pace of life. Yet in 2012 when Sky Arts came calling with an idea for a new spin on the TV talk show, he couldn’t say no.


Parkinson: Masterclass brought together the interview style show and a showcase of a performance packed into a forty-five minute episode. This appealed to his passion for analytical insight alongside exhibiting talent. It was an idea that he originally developed in the 1970’s but failed to entice interest from a broadcaster. Yet now he could utilise his unrivalled reputation as one of Britain’s most trusted presenters to get such an idea off the ground. Over two series, Parky profiled everyone from Ellie Goulding to Eddie Izzard in this unique interview setting and forged friendships in the award winning ballet dancer Carlos Acosta. Sadly, this was to be Parkinson’s final television vehicle but his reputation still gained him new opportunities.


After a lifetime of watching and reviewing the very best in live entertainment, with the help of his son of his namesake, Parkinson embarked on a series of live theatre shows celebrating his long career in television. Playing to packed out theatres throughout the country proved that there was still a soaring appetite for the slightly more analytical side of entertainment and while he was no longer a frequent fixture on our television screens, people still cared for what he had to say. I attended his live stage show three times and was always amazed by his precise recounting of events from over half a century ago. His innate ability to read and analyse human behaviour was fascinating and even well into his eighties, this gift never left him.


I fulfilled a lifetime ambition earlier this year when I had the absolute honour to meet Sir Michael Parkinson at the Hay Festival in May. Obviously frail and overcoming a recent illness, he took to the stage alongside his son as they profiled his new book My Sporting Life. For this, he went back to the beginning and revisited his written interviews and articles penned in his tenure as a sports journalist first for the Manchester Guardian and then the Sunday Express. In a way, it seemed that Parkinson had gone full circle and was now back where it all began over sixty years ago. At the end of the interview, his son concluded the event which was met by a resounding standing ovation from the whole audience which brought a tear to the eye of the broadcasting legend. The hairs on the back of my neck stood rigid and I recognised that I was now experiencing a significant moment in entertainment history.


Straight after his show, Parkinson entered the book shop tent where he commenced a signing session. A long queue instantly formed and I knew that this was my moment to meet my hero. For over an hour and a half we waited as the line gradually became smaller and smaller until I found myself face to face with the broadcasting legend, merely separated by a portable table. This was one of the most defining moments of my life and had been over a quarter of a century in the making and now I was there, talking to my hero. Extremely frail and struggling with his mobility, I was very mindful not to take too much of his time but when his son offered a photo opportunity, there was no way I could decline. My photo of me and Sir Michael Parkinson now is the centrepiece on the worktop in my study. What better inspiration for me to use to enhance my own interview platform than the legendary king of chat himself.


The sad death of Sir Michael Parkinson in August 2023 brings to an end a wonderful era of pioneering entertainment which possibly will never be beaten. The talk show format is one which has proven extremely difficult to perfect as television networks continue to struggle with finding the perfect balance between individuality and marketability. In an era where chat shows are used as an entertainment platform for media propaganda, Michael Parkinson had both the talent and integrity to burst through this bureaucratic red tape and always got to the heart of people and their lives. Yet above all, he was arguably one of Britain’s greatest broadcasters and that should forever be his legacy.


There is no doubt that the broadcasting fraternity will continue to thrive irrespective of the absence of Sir Michael Parkinson and his generous offering to the next generation. But for future generations who have a desire to learn about the origins of popular culture, they will surely need to look no farther than the Parkinson archive. The only broadcaster who realised and understood the future historical significance of the cultural interview, Michael Parkinson remains arguably the most important figure in the history of television’s cultural awakening and became an ever-present narrator of showbiz’s ever-changing landscape. Yet above all he was the best presenter in the history of television proving that Parkinson may be gone but with the outstanding legacy he created, it would be entirely impossible for him to be forgotten. Long live British television!