Interview: Parky’s a legend but he doesn’t tweet

Michael Parkinson who is appearing at the Theatre Royal Bury.
Michael Parkinson who is appearing at the Theatre Royal Bury.
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How do you interview Sir Michael Parkinson - the TV chat show legend who gently grilled just about every famous name worth mentioning for decades?

Four rounds with Muhammad Ali, a pair of blockbuster tete-a-tetes with Orson Welles, flirtatious banter with Shirley MacLaine and headline snaring disclosures from Tony Blair. Not to mention THAT beak-pronged fracas with Rod Hull and Emu.

Sir Michael - or simply Parky to legions of viewers - chronicled popular culture’s conveyor belt of changing faces with a relaxed, grounded and respectful Yorkshire charm on his eponymous show from 1971 to 2007.

So what does he consider to be the ingredients of a good interview?

“Listen very hard and work it out in your head beforehand. You can’t just waffle on and recall for two hours for a 45 minute show. You’ve got to be disciplined. The rest of it is experience. For that kind of show, it isn’t so much an interview more a conversation,” he reveals.

The 78-year-old has granted one of those conversations with the Bury Free Press ahead of his fund-raising appearance next month (May 10) at the Theatre Royal, where the sell out audience can savour a one to one chat between Sir Michael and Suffolk writer Roger Hermiston.

It follows a similar show by the broadcaster at the historic playhouse in the late 1970s and will benefit the theatre’s community and education programme.

As the Coalition Government’s austerity driven axe hacks away at arts budgets across the country, Sir Michael prefers the venues that ‘go it alone and are self sufficient’.

“I don’t know what the situation is with the Theatre Royal but it’s unique. It’s the only regency theatre in Britain and that’s a special cause. What you’re looking at there is a national treasure so it’s important because it’s part of our heritage.”

The arts were a potent influence on the working class son of a miner who escaped the ‘make do and mend’ era in the pit village of Cudworth through the back row of his local cinema.

There he would dream of marrying Lauren Bacall - he would share an onscreen kiss with her many years later - and was lured into journalism by the beguiling Hollywood glamour of men like Humphrey Bogart resplendent in trilby hats and belted raincoats with epaulettes.

The avid cricketer left Barnsley Grammar School with two O-levels to become a junior reporter at the South Yorkshire Times.

He rose through the ranks from the Barnsley Chronicle to the Yorkshire Evening Post, Manchester Guardian and Daily Express before television enticed him.

Following the success of review show Cinema, he was offered a talk show at the BBC and it was an interview with godfather of the silver screen Orson Welles which impressed agents and cemented the programme’s enduring success.

“He was my hero and he lived up to and exceeded my expectations. He was a brilliant talker who could talk about the manners of the Catalonian people for 25 minutes as well as Citizen Kane. He was one of those gifted conversationalists like Peter Ustinov and Jonathan Miller who were the gold dust of the talk show,” he explains.

Another career defining guest was ‘The Greatest’ world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali. Sir Michael interviewed him four times over 11 years and collectively they make for a fascinating rise and fall tragedy of a one-of-a-kind icon now crippled by Parkinson’s Disease.

“I tell the story of this downhill of this great athlete. One of the luckiest things was to do a talk show when Ali was going through his career. He was heaven sent for me who loves sport. I admired him tremendously and it’s very sad to see what’s happened to him.”

A tired question is who was his favourite guest - he can’t single just one out - but was there one that made a real impact or he learnt something from?

“I learnt from every interview I ever did. The most important lesson is that if you interview successful people, the best in their job, you begin to understand that you can have all the talent in the world but what you must do is work hard at it.

“There’s a cheapness about modern celebrity that bothers me - that young people are seduced into thinking they walk down the stairs of some crappy TV show and they’re famous. It isn’t like that. If you want to really have a proper career you’ve got to work hard.”

Arguably some of the more interesting guests were older people such as Salvation Army officer Commissioner Catherine Bramwell-Booth and actress Dame Edith Evans.

“Older people like that wouldn’t get a chance on a modern show,” Sir Michael says. “It’s aimed at the youth market. Like music, when you aim at the youth market it goes downhill, the ambition of the show dips and you’re appealing to half formed people because they’re not grown up.

“When you talk to grown up people who have for years done important and extraordinary work you’re then talking to a brain, a story.”

But there were the disasters - notably a surly daggers drawn exchange from Meg Ryan, which will go down as one of the most awkward TV interviews of all time.

“For whatever reason she wasn’t on top form,” he remembers. “What people who want to be famous have to understand is no matter how long you work at the business what people remember about you are your disasters. That’s the levelling thing about TV.”

Of course fame has shifted dramatically - the discourse with audiences has changed and barriers broken in the digital age with social networking sites such as Twitter. It’s a medium Sir Michael has no time for.

“Someone asked me why don’t I Twitter and I said ‘I stopped writing on toilet walls a long time ago’. That’s what it is. From what I read was written about Maggie Thatcher it seems to me it brings out the most banal and stupid aspects of a lot of people.”

With more comedic talk shows now such as those steered by Graham Norton and Jonathan Ross, is there still space for a Parkinson-style show?

“Graham’s very good and he’s very clever. He pulls people in together and does an event around them.

“The talk show I did is dead as a dodo. They don’t want that anymore. Television has changed, we live in an entirely different world than the one I grew up in. It demands different things now. I think what I did was of its time.”

After the Parkinson show finished in 2007, he penned several books, toured a one man show in Australia and New Zealand and interviewed more stars on his ‘Masterclass’ series for Sky Arts.

What’s next for him?

“Next year I would like to take stock, spend time abroad and go back to Australia where I’ve lived and worked for many years, watch a bit more cricket and watch my side Barnsley (football club) slide down the divisions,” he jokes.