The death of Sir Michael Parkinson at the grand age of 88 is a reminder of a lost art-form – or at least (if you disagree with 'art') then a lost aspect of premier journalism. He was the doyen of the TV 'chat-show': a true successor and refiner of the art of the television interview, previously pioneered on America's The Dick Cavett Show and, in Britain, on John Freeman's Face to Face.
'Chat-show' is too trivial a term for Parkinson's achievement as telly's Torquemada. It's true that 'Parky, as he was affectionately referred to be legion of viewers, was a man with the sharply honed mind of a seasoned inquisitor, but his mode of torture was invariably tempered with a genuine fascination with (and, often, admiration for) his 'victims'!. Above all, he was more intent on exploring the thoughts and views of his interviewees than in promoting his own; more determined to showcase his subjects than in ever pushing his own ego.
We worked together, for a few years, when I was a regular TV/Radio critic on his Sunday morning Radio 2 programme. I loved our easy, warm conversations and an annual joy for our group of reviewers (news, sport, film, TV etc) was to be invited to a delightful, intimate Christmas lunch hosted by Michael and where we each received an 'Award' for our work over the preceding year – all with wonderfully absurd category titles and, on at least one occasion, the opportunity to form an impromptu orchestra with kazoos and swanee whistles!
Not so long ago, I wrote to Michael to congratulate him on the BBC's then recent Parkinson at 50 series: an anthology of memorable moments (and there were so many!) from fifty years of the show: hilarious chats with Peter Ustinov, Dudley Moore, Kenneth Williams and Billy Connolly; delightful exchanges with James Cagney, David Niven and Ingrid Bergman; unforgettable encounters with Orson Welles, Muhammad Ali and Kermit and Miss Piggy; and, in what was his all-time favourite interviewee, an intense and incisive intellectual conversation with mathematician and philosopher, Jacob Bronowski.
Responding to my email, Michael replied:
Many thanks for your charming letter which stirred lots of wonderful memories. It served as a reminder of how much I enjoyed doing our show on Radio 2. It was a very happy time for me made more so by a group of colleagues, including yourself, who just happened to be very good at what they did.
I am glad you enjoyed PARKINSON AT 50. We had a lot of great reactions and if I am allowed an opinion I think it was a marvellous reminder of a great team I worked with through the years and of the time when you were allowed to do a talk show without performing like a halfwit.
With every best wish
"A reminder of ... the time when you were allowed to do a talk show without performing like a halfwit."
Yes, Michael that just about sums it up! I won't say, in Hamlet's words: "I shall not look upon his like again", because I hope I may, but to reflect on Parky's career is to look with unqualified admiration on the absolute gold-standard for what being a chat-show host should be: a person who is on top of his research; not bound by pre-planned questions, but always open to seizing the opportunity of the moment and – above all – not just an 'asker' but a 'listener'.
Art: 'Parky', a pastel portrait of Sir Michael Parkinson by Glyn Overton. Check her other artwork HERE