When Sir Michael Parkinson died last month, tributes poured in for a titan of British broadcasting. Obituary writers had rich pickings from a career spanning seven decades, Parkinson's fellow journalists reflected on his ability to steer his interviewees on to fruitful topics of conversation, while devotees of Parkinson
remembered memorable moments with Muhammad Ali and Orson Welles as well as Parkinson's frostier encounters with Helen Mirren and Meg Ryan.
– which ran on several channels between 1971 and 2014, most notably on BBC One from 1971 to 1982, again from 1998 to 2004, before showing on ITV between 2004 to 2007 – was the gold-standard of Saturday night TV. Particularly in its heyday in the mid-to-late 1970s when TV and film stars were more mysterious, watching Parkinson interview the likes of John Wayne, James Stewart and David Niven felt like listening in on an after-dinner tête-à-tête between two old friends. As Gyles Brandreth tweeted, they were 'truly engaging conversations that brought out the best in his guests'.
While its host could be long-winded and, to today's ears, occasionally pompous – he was once branded a 'sexist old fart' by Helen Mirren after an awkward exchange about how her 'equipment' affected her acting – Parkinson
possessed, as Niall Gooch wrote in The Spectator
, a 'seriousness and calm that is missing from almost any modern television show'. As Melvyn Bragg wrote in his Foreword
to Peter Hennessy's The Complete Reflections
, an interview at its best gives 'a portrait of its subject in a way which carries greater authority than anything previously attempted' in which the 'subject is not an object but an equal, and that brings a unique veracity'.
Rather than adding to the many assessments of his life and career, I would like to share some of my favourite interviews with you, which show, as Sir David Attenborough put it on Radio 4's World at One
on 17 August, how Parkinson 'always wanted the interviewee to shine'.
Parkinson's boyhood love of American culture meant that many of his most memorable encounters were with 'A Listers' including James Stewart, Bob Hope, Lauren Bacall and, on this occasion in October 1975, with the incomparable David Niven.
Niven's final appearance in 1981 is remembered for being the first time that he appeared on TV after seeing the first symptoms of Motor Neurone Disease, but he was on top form during this appearance in 1975. Filmed shortly after the release of Bring on the Empty Horses
(his memoir of 'ancient Hollywood'), Niven charts the life of the celebrity writer. From spending the publisher's advance and forgetting all about the book, to his inability to write when it's sunny ('something else to do') or when it's raining ('much too dreary to write') and writing his previous best-seller The Moon's a Balloon
for 'a few chums for Christmas', Niven is warm and witty, charming and typically life-enhancing throughout.
programme's heyday in the 1970s perfectly coincided with Peter Ustinov's time as a towering presence on the British cultural and TV landscape. While the first two (and arguably the best) of his six Poirot movies were released during his 11 years as a Parkinson
regular, this true all-rounder (who was an actor, writer, director and UNICEF ambassador) was one of Parkinson's most fluent guests.
Dubbed 'God's gift to the talk-show host' by Parkinson himself, Ustinov reflected on his cosmopolitan upbringing and his Europeanism – he delighted in being 'the best-bred mongrel in European' – being the elected dictator of his own imaginary country, and his desire to 'go into battle sitting down' with the Royal Sussex Regiment in World War Two. His skills as a raconteur are best demonstrated by two stories about sex – the first about being a witness to his childhood nanny's love life and another about the headmaster at Rugby who told his charges that 'if you touch it, it will fall off'.
Kenneth Williams and Jimmy Reid
In February 1973, a year after the success of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders' celebrated Work In, Parkinson hosted a head-to-head debate between Kenneth Williams and Jimmy Reid. A week earlier, receiving rapturous applause from an audience that Williams had been doing his best to cultivate, Parkinson had told the Carry On
star that his belief that 'you don't do a job just for what you get' was 'crap'.
While Parkinson appears tense throughout the hour-long programme which saw Reid – who also appeared with Ustinov in June 1973 – and Williams take questions from the audience, it gives a fascinating insight into the politics of industrial action at the tail-end of the Heath Government and Reid's moving explanation of how working-class children find themselves at a cultural and social disadvantage.
Billy Connolly and Jimmy Reid
Six years later, Reid appeared again – this time with Billy Connolly who he had encouraged Parkinson to have on his show after he supported the Work In. While this is not one of the most memorable Parkinson
moments, it drifts from a light-hearted question about Reid's thoughts on Burns Suppers into fascinating assessment from Reid and Connolly about Robert Burns' legacy, 'Porridge in your Sporran tartanalia', and Reid's fury at the 'distorting jingoisms that do a disservice to my people'. Required watching for anyone interested in Scotland's post-war history, its culture and sense of humour, and how these two titanic Glaswegians shaped Scotland's sense of itself in the 1970s.
Dr Jacob Bronowski
In early 1976, Parkinson
broadcast the full recording of Parkinson's encounter with Dr Jacob Bronowski (the writer and presenter of The Ascent of Man
, the last of the 'personal view' trio that David Attenborough commissioned for BBC Two – following Civilisation
and Alistair Cooke's America
) which had been recorded two years earlier.
A remarkable window into 'a mind that could see round corners' as Bronowski's wife, Rita, said, this interview gave viewers four minutes of the most affecting television that has ever been broadcast when Bronowski reflected on visiting Auschwitz, where many of his Polish family members died. Look out for both the length of Bronowski's pauses before his considered and fluent answers and Parkinson's cough when he struggles to contain his emotion at his guest's account of his famous piece to camera at the Birkenau Ash Pond.
It is easy to see why Parkinson later wrote that of all the thousands of interviews he had done, this would be the one that he would save from the waves.
Tom Chidwick is a contemporary historian, who splits his time between London and Edinburgh