Ask Michael Parkinson which guest he was most thrilled to interview on his chat show, and he says without hesitation, ‘Jimmy Cagney.’ The actor revered for his tough-guy roles was long retired but, aged 81, was coaxed into making a rare appearance on Parkinson in 1981.
‘He summed up everything marvellous about my job. There I was, a movie fan who grew up watching my heroes at my local cinema in Yorkshire. And now I was interviewing them.’
He has little time for most of the current crop of chat hosts.
Michael Parkinson (pictured), who grew up in Yorkshire, reflected on his most memorable interviews to mark 50 years since Parkinson first aired
‘Today it’s quips and banter because the interviewers are not journalists. Graham Norton gets people chatting away, having a party. But too often the presenters cannot ask a question or listen to an answer.’
To mark 50 years since Parkinson first aired, his son Michael has put together a cavalcade of clips. There are even excruciating interviews like the one with Meg Ryan, who made it plain she didn’t want to be there, and that encounter with Rod Hull and Emu.
‘Those are the stories people talk about most,’ he groans. ‘Being attacked by a bloody emu – what an epitaph.’
But many memories still kindle a wicked twinkle. ‘My face made it clear when I fancied the woman opposite me. auren Bacall, Liz Taylor, Sophia Loren…’
And then there was his chemistry with Shirley MacLaine, who pointed out a missing button on his shirt as if she wanted to tear open all the rest. ‘We pop ’em off, wives sew ’em on,’ she rasped.
Parky chuckles. ‘I’ve had a ball. What a job to have. And they paid me too!’
How Joan made Cliff cringe
Michael Parkinson said Joan Rivers (pictured) had an extraordinary ability to feed into any conversation and make you laugh
Acerbic comedian Joan Rivers told what appeared to be a profoundly sad story, one that had Cliff Richard – who was sitting beside her on the show – listening open-mouthed in distress.
Parkinson touched on the suicide of Joan’s first husband, Edgar Rosenberg. He asked whether she had also contemplated killing herself, and Joan nodded.
‘It was just a very sad time,’ she said. ‘My daughter wasn’t talking to me, my career was gone and I actually took out a gun. I had this little dog and – it sounds so…’
She patted Cliff’s hand. ‘He crawled into my lap and I thought, somebody needs me.’
Then she stroked the fur lapels of her jacket. ‘And here he is!’ she crowed.
‘Poor Cliff,’ laughs Parky.
‘Wasn’t she cruel? She was the funniest woman I ever met. She was dangerous and forthright and upset people, but she had an extraordinary ability to feed into any conversation and make you laugh. People like that are so rare.’
Billy was keen, but not Barbra
Michael said he knew Billy Connolly (pictured) would be a wonderful guest, after hearing a recording of the comedian
The Big Yin, Billy Connolly, made his name with repeated appearances on the Parkinson show. He got his break after a Glasgow taxi driver gave the host a recording of the comedian.
‘I knew when I heard it that he’d be a wonderful guest,’ Parky says.
But not everyone could be lured on. ‘Barbra Streisand was willing to do an interview if we went to Paris but she wouldn’t come to London. And Frank Sinatra never did a TV interview of any length, for the BBC or anyone else. We tried very hard but just got a polite snub.’
When the Stones got on a roll
Michael admits that he was terrified when he conducted an interview with Mick Jagger (pictured), six years before his chat show launched
‘My first interview still sadly exists,’ jokes Parky. Six years before his chat show launched, in black-and-white footage with his back to the camera, he interviewed the young singer of a pop group called The Rolling Stones. Did they imagine their career could last much longer? he wondered.
‘I never thought we’d be doing it for two years even,’ says Mick Jagger. ‘I think we’re pretty well set up for at least another year.’ That was in 1965.
Though Parkinson admits now that he was terrified and looked ‘constipated’ on screen, the footage later made it into Shine A Light, Martin Scorsese’s documentary on the Stones.
‘When people ask what else I did apart from telly,’ Michael says, ‘I always say I was in a movie made by the director of Taxi Driver.’
Sorry Helen, I shouldn’t have
Michael said he doesn’t enjoy watching his 1975 interview with Helen Mirren (pictured), after he suggested that having big bosoms could detract from her performance
One notorious interview was with a 30-year-old Helen Mirren in 1975. She wore a low-cut black dress. ‘I thought she was not respecting the show by dressing in a certain way. That was a foolish attitude,’ he says now.
He asked her if her ‘equipment’, her ‘physical attributes’, hindered her desire to be considered a ‘serious actress’.
‘You mean my fingers?’ replied the actress. ‘Come on, spit it out. Serious actresses can’t have big bosoms, is that what you mean?’
‘Well,’ he said, ‘they might detract from the performance.’
Today, he winces to remember it. ‘I was my most pompous self. By today’s standards, I plead guilty to being sexist.
‘We both lost our tempers. I don’t enjoy watching it back, because I reveal an unattractive side.’
Orson and his awesome demands
The BBC agreed to Orson Welles’s (pictured) demands for his interview, including his fee in cash and having three seats removed from the first-class cabin
Before his interview with the imposing actor and director Orson Welles, who made Citizen Kane when he was just 25, Parkinson was making notes for the show at his dressing room desk when the guest walked in… ‘an enormous figure, dressed entirely in black, including a black shirt, black bow tie and a large black fedora’.
Welles looked over his shoulder and, seeing the host’s list of questions, asked to see them. Then he dropped the papers into the waste basket. ‘Let’s just talk,’ he said.
Parky had an opportunity to see the star ‘just talking’ later, in the green room at the studios. On discovering that one of the staff was Portuguese, Welles launched into a discussion with her of the country’s customs and traditions.
The show was such a success that the BBC was eager to have him back – so eager that they offered to quadruple his fee, from £500 to £2,000. On the day of this recording, Welles phoned from Madrid airport to announce he was not getting on the plane until two conditions were met.
Firstly, he wanted his fee in cash, waiting for him at Heathrow. Secondly, he wanted three seats to be removed from the first-class cabin, so that with his great girth he could travel in comfort. The Beeb agreed to both demands.
Dad told me I should have thumped Ali
Michael said you couldn’t predict Muhammad Ali’s mood and they could never be friends. Pictured: Muhammad, with Freddie Starr
Parky’s first encounter with a man many regard as the greatest sportsman in history was a bruising affair. Muhammad Ali was far from his witty, playful persona – he was confrontational and intimidating.
‘I’m not just a boxer,’ he snarled. ‘I can talk all week on millions of subjects and you do not have enough wisdom to corner me on television, you are too small mentally to tackle me on nothing [sic] I represent.’
After the show, Michael’s father Jack came to commiserate, and offered his advice: ‘You should have thumped him!’
‘Ali was a man of varying and whimsical moods,’ says Parky, ‘you were never sure what mood he’d be in and you couldn’t control him.
‘We could never be friends. But the options of a riposte are limited when the man facing you is the heavyweight champion of the world.’
Bette really had bite
Michael said anyone who couldn’t get entertaining stories out of Bette Midler (pictured) wasn’t doing their job properly
Bette Midler had a lethal line in put-downs. When Parky remarked, perhaps a little pompously, that he regarded himself as a journalist, the entertainer retorted, ‘I thought you were in showbusiness. I didn’t know you were a journalist. Oh, how dreary!’
‘She did not countenance fools and did not take prisoners,’ he says, chastened.
‘She was a one woman cabaret, weaving her way through the interview – but anyone who couldn’t get entertaining stories out of her wasn’t doing his job properly.’
John had a laugh, but Yoko? Oh no
Michael revealed Yoko wasn’t as approachable as John (pictured) in their 1971 interview, which was once believed to be lost
Footage of an interview with John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono from 1971 surfaced after it was believed lost. It’s a spiky encounter, with Yoko sitting in silence while the ex-Beatle fires off barbed quips.
The interview took a bizarre turn when Lennon insisted Parky put his head and shoulders into a black cotton bag – a mocking reference to the interviews with the press that John and Yoko had conducted, cocooned in a bag themselves.
‘Getting in the bag was fine,’ Michael says. ‘You knew the audience would love it – if they are laughing, anything is worth it.
‘John could be wonderful and funny. Yoko didn’t say very much. But she was a lot more friendly than the interview would indicate. She wasn’t approachable like John, though.’
Parkinson At 50, later this month, BBC1.