Michael Parkinson interview: ‘I just look back and reflect on how lucky I was’

To anyone over the age of 30, Sir Michael Parkinson defines the role of a television interviewer.

His two long stints with a self-titled chat show - from 1971 to 1982, and then from 1998 to 2007 - produced classic TV moments, from the time he sparred with Muhammad Ali to meetings with Nelson Mandela and Marlon Brando.

Michael Parkinson receiving an honorary doctorate from Sheffield Hallam University at Sheffield City Hall. Picture: Chris Etchells

Michael Parkinson receiving an honorary doctorate from Sheffield Hallam University at Sheffield City Hall. Picture: Chris Etchells

Even the occasions when things didn't go so well, such as a painfully difficult conversation with Meg Ryan or the night he was set upon by Rod Hull and Emu, have gone down in the annals of broadcasting history, and he was a go-to name for impressionists to boot - his gruff Northern accent and habit of creasing up with laughter at guests' anecdotes have made genial 'Parky' an easy figure to imitate.

And it all started here in South Yorkshire for Cudworth-born Parkinson, who left Barnsley Grammar School at 16 with two O-levels and went straight into journalism as a trainee on the town's Chronicle newspaper. On Friday he found himself close to home again, collecting an honorary doctorate from Sheffield Hallam University.

"They give them away, obviously," he jokes, talking on the phone the day before the ceremony.

He already holds a clutch of university awards. He was chancellor at Nottingham Trent for 10 years, and he has doctorates from Lincoln and Huddersfield, where he received his scroll alongside umpire Dickie Bird, his former opening partner at Barnsley Cricket Club - so why did he feel like accepting another?

Michael Parkinson in the 1960s working in regional TV.

Michael Parkinson in the 1960s working in regional TV.

"It's an honour to start with," he says. "And Sheffield played a part in my life when I was a young reporter. I spent some time at Sheffield Technical College learning about the law of libel and slander - it didn't do me any much bloody good, but I spent a lot of time there. I enjoyed it, I liked Sheffield."

He and his father, a miner, used to go to Hillsborough on alternate Saturdays to watch Sheffield Wednesday, and he was a fan of the Owlerton speedway track. "We used to go there and get covered in ashes. And Bramall Lane, of course, I played there with Barnsley. Also, one of the best concerts I ever saw in my life was at Sheffield City Hall with the Duke Ellington Orchestra way back in the 50s. That was wonderful."

Not that Parkinson was a university student - he took to the world of work immediately, quickly making it to Fleet Street after a break for National Service, during which he served during the Suez operation.

"I knew what I wanted to do and there wasn't a university course that was going to help me," he says. "If you're a journalist, all you need is a basic ability to write fairly simple English and to actually have the gall to ask questions of someone. I would have considered university a waste of time in my case. Not that it is a waste of time, but it wouldn't have improved me. Although, I have to say, what I would have liked to have done - had I had the time - was to be a mature student and read English Literature."

Michael Parkinson with Nelson Mandela.

Michael Parkinson with Nelson Mandela.

Hallam wants to become the world's foremost 'applied university', an institution that offers teaching and carries out studies with a practical purpose. As such, Parkinson says he would be interested to see how its media department works. "The problem is nowadays you can't serve an apprenticeship on a newspaper. They've either disappeared or become different altogether. What you need is something to replace that and if Sheffield Hallam University is doing that, then that's a very good thing."

Does it sadden him that journalism is so hard to get into?

"It's not that it's hard to get into, it's disappeared," he declares. "It's a lost world, as far as I'm concerned. If I were a young man today I would not know how to start a career in journalism. Nothing in it attracts me any more. I don't want to write for the internet, I don't want to write all that nonsense - I don't want to be that kind of person. I want to be part of a big newspaper; independent, outspoken and all those things. And have a good time. But you see, it's gone. The money's gone out of newspapers. I wouldn't have wanted to start in radio or television, because writing is the basis of all journalism."

He realises his opinions might be demoralising to anyone forging a career in the media today. "But the fact of the matter is, I had a better time and an easier time. There was more choice, all the way through. And also, we were able to drink on the job."

Michael Parkinson with Judi Dench on his show in 2004

Michael Parkinson with Judi Dench on his show in 2004

Ah yes, the long, boozy lunches - a practice consigned to the past along with the old Granada studios in Manchester where Parkinson was able to break into TV, securing Laurence Olivier as his first star interview. It sounds like a golden age.

"I think it was," Parkinson agrees. "I just look back and reflect on how lucky I was, basically."

He doesn't accept, however, that the art of a good TV interview is a tricky skill in and of itself.

"If you can't interview, forget being a journalist, no matter what the medium. In many ways the only problem with television interviewing is that it's more condensed and is fraught with more possible difficulties than just sitting down with a newspaperman and having a nice chat with someone in a pub, or wherever. There are all kinds of technical problems that can get in the way. But the basic thing of asking questions and looking for the answer is actually the same."

He might be being modest. Rigorous with his research, he always prepared well and made sure interviews had a beginning, middle and an end. He thinks he spoke to more than 2,000 guests over the years.

Parkinson brought the curtain down on his chat show in 2007. Having traditionally been shown on the BBC, it finished up on ITV where he fell out with management. 

Sir Elton John plays for Michael Parkinson in 2000.

Sir Elton John plays for Michael Parkinson in 2000.

What sustained the series for so long?

"It was the only thing I could do, and also it was very well paid," he says. "And it led to other things - I worked in Australia for many years and had a wonderful time out there doing interviews. Now I tour the country with my son Michael who asks me questions. It's much easier."

Michael Jr is one of his three children with wife Mary, a fellow broadcaster from Doncaster. The father and son duo tour venues screening clips and sharing memories. "I can pick out all the gems and show them to people again. They remember them and they're nostalgic about them."

His favourite guest, he says, was not an entertainment giant but the polymath Jacob Bronowski - not the kind of guest that would be booked on Graham Norton.

"Well, no," he splutters. "Mr Norton does a very good show but it's a different kind of show than mine. Very cleverly he constructs a party, and he has a good time with his guests. It's not an interview as such, it's just a gathering and he has this wonderful talent to actually bring people together. I'm a great fan of his. The talk show that I did exists no more. People remember the big film stars but very few remember my other guests who weren't famous for being an actor, or whatever."

People were genuinely fond of being quizzed by Parkinson. His pal Sir Billy Connolly was virtually the resident comedian and the late George Michael was a repeat visitor, using the airtime to 'set the record straight' after tabloid scandals.

"It was an act of self-justification," Parkinson says of Michael. "He came on having exposed himself to an American police officer and having his collar felt, so to speak, and he wanted to explain exactly what happened. That was the start of it. When he came on the show he enjoyed the way I interviewed him. We got on quite well, I liked him."

Nevertheless, relations with Dame Helen Mirren remain frosty more than 40 years after an encounter in which he called her the Royal Shakespeare Company's 'sex queen' and spoke of her 'equipment' - meaning her figure. 

The Meg Ryan controversy, meanwhile, came about in 2003 when the film actor appeared to promote the erotic thriller In The Cut. She refused to answer questions about her departure from romantic comedies, leading Parkinson to ask: "What would you do if you were me?" to which Ryan replied: "Why not wrap it up?"

An interview, Parkinson says, has to be 'consensual'. "If one person doesn't want to do it, you may as well abandon ship. That's what happened and that's what we did."

What can be learned from an experience like that?

"Oh, nothing. You know about it, you know about the possibility and you can see it coming. If you get depressed by it you're foolish, because it's a game only two can play. If one's not playing, there's nothing you can do, you can't force them to do it. And I didn't want to in any case."

Parkinson has had some health battles in recent years - he overcame prostate cancer, and learned to walk again after surgery on his back - but is still sharp at 83. Knighted in 2008, he lives near Windsor and says he 'very much' enjoys his life today. 

"I don't know the word 'retiring'. I can't understand that concept at all."

‘George Best book is my way of saying goodbye’

Michael Parkinson has just had a book published about George Best - but he says the biography isn't an attempt to make sense of his friend's life.

"You just couldn't," he says of the  footballer, who died in 2005 after a long struggle with alcoholism. "Like anybody whose life was dictated by drugs, or booze like George's was, it doesn't make sense. All you can understand is that in George's case it was an illness and there was very little he or anybody else could do about it ultimately."

The troubled sportsman faced Parkinson many times as an interviewee. The book, called George Best: A Memoir, contains recollections of the player's heyday with Manchester United. 

"I knew him all his life, from the age of 16 when he arrived in Manchester and I was doing my first gig in television with Granada, up to the point he died. Sadly I wasn't with him when he died. I wasn't even in the country, I was in Australia. I suppose the book is my way of saying goodbye."

Talking to ITV's Good Morning Britain last week, Parkinson admitted he was unable to help Best with his problems in the 1970s as he was drinking heavily himself in the wake of his father's death. But there was a distinction between them, he stresses.

"In the early days in Manchester, having a wonderful time, we didn't want to think about the possibility we might all end up drunks. But most of us pulled back, got sensible, grew out of that silly stage, re-ordered our lives and stopped drinking that heavily. George didn't. We weren't ill, we weren't alcoholics."

Michael Parkinson with George Best in 1975

Michael Parkinson with George Best in 1975