I’m a tad nervous about interviewing Michael Parkinson. How do you go about interviewing a man who would do a much better job of interviewing himself? A man who had interviewed Muhammad Ali four times before I was even born. A man who by his own estimation has “interviewed 2,000 of the world’s most famous people” (and I reckon he rounded it down). Never mind nervous, I’m terrified. My preparation has consisted of mentally compiling my own autobiography, just in case he can’t adjust to the trade in roles. So it’s a relief when Parky’s first words to me are, “I like talking about myself”. Well, he probably wouldn’t have been that interested in my childhood caravanning holidays anyway.
It’s 10.30pm, he’s been at the Chelsea Flower Show all day and he’s just spent an hour and a half talking to a chamber full of eager Oxford Union members – and been thanked for it by being blinded by the flash of a hundred of cameras as they all clamour to get a picture afterwards. He looks weary, but plied with a pint of Guinness, he’s ready to do a bit more talking. And it seems my expectation of ‘once an interviewer, always an interviewer’ couldn’t be more wrong.
‘Meg Ryan called him a ‘nut’ and said she was ‘offended’ by his interview with her: easily one of TV’s most uncomfortable moments ever’
“I think that all that went as soon as I stopped doing the job. It took over my life in many ways but I always did other things at the same time. I mean I did radio as well as TV at the same time, I did writing at the same time, so I was never obsessive about the job at all.”
So did he really never feel the need to do a post-mortem on each show after filming ended? “It was amazing actually, I would go and do an interview, let’s say I’d interview Tom Cruise or someone like that, or Billy Connelly, and I’d go upstairs to the green room to have a drink, and somebody would say to me, who did you have on the show tonight? And I couldn’t tell them. I didn’t have a clue. And it used to be an automatic wipe like that. Because doing the number of shows I’ve done, reading the research I have to read, you have to clear your mind, you have to get rid of it, as soon as you’ve done it. Don’t linger. Don’t think, was that good, bad or whatever, wipe it out of your mind and start again.”
Parkinson’s eponymous chat show ran, on and off, from 1971 to 2007, so you would be forgiven for thinking that’s all he had ever done. But for the son of a miner, the path from a Yorkshire grammar school to a knighthood was not a direct one. Failing to carve a much longed-for career for himself in cricket, he left school with just two O-levels and began an apprenticeship at a local newspaper in Yorkshire. He would go on to report for the Manchester Guardian, before moving to Fleet Street. Met by a gaggle of budding journalists straight out of Oxbridge, Parkinson was intimidated, but found he knew a lot more about “reporting on a chip pan fire” from his hands-on work than they did from their degrees. Now, Parkinson is Chancellor of Nottingham Trent University and has an honorary doctorate from the University of Lincoln. I ask him whether he thinks that it’s possible for young people these days to break into journalism or television the way he did.
“Every career now, you need to have a university course for it,” he says. “My question would be, are there better ways into a job than that, than university, for certain things, and journalism would be one of them. It’s interesting, the best journalists that I worked with who came from university all read something other than the media, because in those days the media didn’t exist. So, Anthony Howard read English, Michael Frayn read Russian, and quite a few would have read History. That kind of degree is much more helpful to you than a media degree in a sense. I think that my advice to anybody, certainly going to Oxford, would be to do the kind of degree that you like doing. And then if you want to become a journalist , it doesn’t matter, it’s all preparation.”
His main message for other Parkys in the making is about perseverance. “You mustn’t give in. I mean if you want it bad enough there is something out there, just keep plugging away at it. It’s a strange kind of job these days. I don’t understand it like I used to.”
The style of television interviews might be changing, but I wonder whether it was ever possible to get people to open up under the glare of all the lights and cameras of the chat show set up. If reports are to be believed, Parkinson thinks the best way to get interviewees to relax and talk is by flirting with them (I don’t know if I should be disappointed, but it seems this is not a tactic he applies when the roles are reversed), but surely there’s more to the art of interviewing than that. Despite being famed for his probing questions (Meg Ryan called him a “nut” and said she was “offended” by his notorious interview with her, easily one of TV’s most uncomfortable moments ever), Parky claims the trick is not to push it too far.
“Well you’re not the inquisitioner, you’re not asking them their most darkest and intimate secrets. What you’re looking for in a talk show is entertainment. And if that entertainment can actually contain information, interesting information as well, that’s fine. Basically, it’s an entertainment programme. It’s a conversation, that’s what it is, that’s all it is.”
‘I want to walk into the Rovers Return with a flat cap and say, ‘Anyone here got a spanner?’ They can put that on my tombstone’
I wrack my brains to think of any interviewer on television these days who take the same stripped-back “conversation” approach. Not Graham Norton, whose show is filled with gimmicks and easy laughs, like ejecting audience members from their chairs as they speak. Nor Piers Morgan, who attracts wincingly mawkish answers from his guests, who seem to have a contractual obligation to cry. And certainly not Jonathon Ross, whose interviewees are always dwarfed by the host’s incredible ego. In the age of celebrity obsession, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of space for Parky’s trademark simplicity.
“I think that the conversation style of interview has gone,” he agrees. “The talk show now is best defined as a comedy show, basically. There’s nothing wrong with that, because that’s the way it’s always been, in America in particular. All their best and most successful TV hosts and talk show hosts have been comedians, and still are today. But I think there’s a gap if you don’t have that sort of conversational, straightforward talk show. I think there’s something missing there. Nowadays television is being commissioned differently than it ever was before, so it’s gone. But it will come back.”
As he nears the bottom of his pint glass, the time has come to ask him my most important question – how did it feel to appear on Neighbours? Surely a career highlight? The question is met with guffaws. You would have thought that having shared the screen with Dr Karl Kennedy, there would be very little left for one to achieve. But as we part he admits there’s one thing he’s yet to tick off the list.
“I’ve always wanted to appear in Coronation Street. I was promised a part there when I left television but they forgot about me. I want to break down in my car outside the Rovers Return, and go in there with a flat cap on and say, ‘Anyone here got a spanner?’ and walk out again, that’s all I want to do. They can put that on my tombstone.”