Remembering Michael Parkinson, a popular history of the 20th century


Michael Parkinson, the legendary UK TV talk-show host who died last week at age 88 was “the king of the chat show,” said BBC director general Tim Davie, in one of the many tributes that poured in over the weekend.Parkinson, who according to his own estimate had interviewed some 2,000 people from pop stars to politicians, writers, and intellectuals, dominated Saturday night programming during the 1970s-2000s.

UK Office of Communications chairman and former TV executive Lord Michael Grade paid tribute to Parkinson saying that his “library of interviews” was “a popular history of the 20th century.”

Mourning the king of the chat show

He “always wanted the interviewee to shine,” said David Attenborough in a tribute on BBC 4 Radio.

Actor Michael Caine said he was “irreplaceable, he was charming, always wanted to have a good laugh. He brought out the best in everyone he met. Always looked forward to being interviewed by him.”

During the “golden age” of television and decades before social media, appearing on Parkinson was key to breaking into the big time for many of “the biggest stars of the 20th century,” said the BBC head, adding that Parkinson interviewed his guests in a way “that enthralled the public.”

Tennis – Wimbledon – All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club, Wimbledon, England – 4/7/12 England manager Roy Hodgson (R) with Television Personality Sir Michael Parkinson (C) in the stands. (credit: Action Images / Andrew Couldridge Livepic)

He was “not only brilliant at asking questions, he was also a wonderful listener,” Davie said. These sentiments would be continuously echoed throughout the hundreds of posthumous tributes he received over the weekend.

The Beatles appeared several times on Parkinson, which was aired on the BBC from 1971-1982 (and on ITV from 1998-2007). Muhammad Ali, who appeared 15 times on the show, was one of his favorite (Parky described him as “an extraordinary human being”) and had a great sense of humor. Will Smith also appeared on Parkinson after starring in Ali, confiding that the champion boxer had okayed him for the part since he considered Smith “almost as pretty” as himself!

Famous interviewees are too numerous to name, but include Mick Jagger, Elton John, David Bowie, Helen Mirren, David and Victoria Beckham, David Attenborough, Madonna, Paul McCartney, Bette Midler, legendary footballer George Best (they were close friends for 30 years), Olivia Newton John, Shirley MacLaine, Peter Sellers, Lauren Bacall, Fred Astaire, Orson Welles, James Stewart, John Wayne, Miss Piggy, and Raquel Welsh. 

The hilarious character Australian Dame Edna Everage, incarnated by comedian Barry Humphries, was another oft-returning guest on his show, together with Scottish comedian Billy Connolly – who got his big break after appearing on Parkinson

PARKINSON WAS “loved by all the biggest stars in the world and they were all desperate to be interviewed by him,” said popular UK TV presenter Davina McCall. In 1973, he was featured on the cover of Paul McCartney and Wings’ album Band on the Run.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono agreed to be his guests in 1975, although Lennon warned Parkinson that if he brought up the Beatles’ split, he would have to don a large black silk sack that the singer-songwriter had brought along.

In the course of the conversation, Parkinson addressed Ono: “Of course, you’ve become known… as the woman who broke up the Beatles,” asking if she had possibly “alienated” the people who originally loved John. 

Lennon carried out his threat and “Parky” (as he was affectionately known) conducted the next part of the interview covered head-to-toe (face included) in black silk, but not before Lennon explained: “The alienation started when I met Yoko – people do not seem to like people getting a divorce,” adding, “all I did was fall in love like a lot of people do who are already married.”

Lennon also told Parky that the Beatles broke up because each had become more interested in making his own music.

Parkinson always said that although he didn’t have a favorite interview, he would “forever remember” the mathematician, scientist, intellectual, and poet Jacob Bronowski who had reported from Auschwitz for the BBC program The Ascent of Man; Bronowski had lost many relatives to its gas chambers. 

Describing his visit to the death camp, Bronowski told Parkinson: “There would be whole areas which contained nothing but old spectacles… an area full entirely of human hair… a terrible area full of wooden legs and crutches and artificial limbs, and the most pathetic area of all was just full of little tin chamber pots, which the children had brought with them to the camp.”

The two also discussed the morality of dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima; and Nagasaki, where Bronowski was sent as an observer for the UK immediately after the devastating explosion.

While Parkinson was a gentleman and a humble person and did his best to make all his guests feel respected and comfortable, from today’s perspective there are of course aspects of some of his shows that are not in keeping with current “woke” standards, as the 1970s-2000s was a time of sexual revolution and politically incorrect jokes.

Elton John called him “a TV legend who was one of the greats,” and “a real icon” who “brought out the very best in his guests.” David Beckham said in a written tribute: “We say goodbye to the best.” Judi Dench told BBC Radio 4 that Sir Michael was “a one-off.” Being interviewed by him, she said, “was just like talking to a really good friend.”

In Parkinson’s obituary in The Guardian, journalist Stephen Bates wrote that he “was the most durable and versatile, largely because he saw himself as a journalist rather than a broadcasting personality.”

BORN IN South Yorkshire (in Cudworth) in 1935, Parkinson was the son of a coal miner – a very dangerous and underpaid profession. He would recount that he was the first in his village not to “go down the mine” and when he told his father his decision, the reply was “Thank God!” 

Parkinson began working as a local journalist at about age 17 and then, after two years in the British army, he became a journalist for The Manchester Guardian and later the Daily Express in London. Before transitioning to talk show host, he worked as a producer for Granada Television (now ITV Granada) and for the BBC as a current affairs host and reporter.

“He was the greatest interviewer of our age who owned Saturday night TV for year after year,” BBC journalist Nick Robinson said in a post on messaging platform X, formerly known as Twitter. 

Comedian and travel presenter Michael Palin told BBC’s The World At One: “He wanted to get people on his show who entertained him and therefore who he thought would entertain the audience.” 

Palin said that Parkinson “was not trying to diss anybody. He was an enthusiast and he was very positive. It didn’t always work,” he said. (Meg Ryan was an example of an interview that didn’t flow, in which, after getting her to admit that she did not like to be interviewed, Parkinson finally asked her “What would you do in my case?” She answered, “Wrap it up.”) 

Parkinson was also known for his die hard support of his local Yorkshire football team, Barnsley. Match of the Day host Gary Lineker described him as “a truly brilliant broadcaster and wonderful interviewer.” Presenter Dermot O’Leary said “above all else he listened… in a world full of noise,” adding “RIP Michael, thanks for the education.” 

Parkinson was obsessed with cricket, and leaves behind his close friend cricket legend Dickie Bird, 90, who told the BBC: “He always had a smile on his face,” and broke into tears recalling how Parkinson had told him he was coming to his end in their last conversation the morning before his death.

Former UK prime minister Theresa May called him “a remarkable man and an outstanding broadcaster,” whom she knew “through his charitable work in my constituency and our mutual passion for cricket.” 

His legacy is enormous, said presenter McCall, who defined him best: “Funny, self-deprecating, sharp, charming, strong, honest, and a fantastic listener. ”

Parkinson is survived by the love of his life, Mary Ann nee Heneghan, his wife of 60 years (there is currently a photo circulating of the two of them at a cricket match last year), their three sons, and eight grandchildren.

Reuters contributed to this report

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