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Sir Michael Parkinson: A Life in Television

Find out more about Sir Michael Parkinson’s fascinating career in television. 

Sir Michael Parkinson joined Kirsty Young and an audience at BAFTA's London headquarters for an insightful and humorous look at his iconic career. BAFTA’s Eleanor Pickering looks at some of the highlights for the evening.

Event: A Life in Television: Sir Michael ParkinsonDate: 23rd November 2016Venue: BAFTA, 195 Piccadilly Host: Kirsty YoungBAFTA/Jamie Simonds

The biggest concern with hosting a Life in Television interview with Sir Michael Parkinson is how do you approach interviewing someone who has spent their whole career mastering that exact craft? “When programming the event, we knew that a crucial part of the evening would be the person asking the questions – to have the interaction of one brilliant interviewer in conversation with another  –  and we felt we had to have Kirsty Young to achieve this exact on-stage chemistry,” said BAFTA’s Julia Carruthers.

On welcoming her interviewee to the stage, Young introduced him as someone who “define(s) an entire genre of television”, a statement many would support. Parkinson’s name is synonymous with what audiences of the past 40 years have come to know as ‘the chat show’. His style of interviewing is entirely distinct, unlike anything which came before or has arrived since he first appeared on TV screens, and his all-star cast of interviewees across the decades – from Muhammed Ali to John Lennon, George Best to Dame Judi Dench, Nelson Mandela to David and Victoria Beckham – is unparalleled. 

He told the audience that it all began when he was working at Granada and was approached by Bill Cotton, the then BBC Head of Light Entertainment, to host a variety talk show to be transmitted during the summer lull. But he didn’t want to do that kind of show, and neither did his producer, Richard Drewitt. Together, they devised a new kind of programme that mixed comedy and entertainment with serious interview, which was first broadcast in 1971.

Parkinson challenged the prevailing format of traditional American chat shows, doing away with the desks used by hosts and gaining a degree of physical proximity and intimacy, which he admitted was key to his craft. “The more you lean in," he said, "the more you engage the eyes, the more chance you have of getting something said and done.” The great American talk show hosts, such as Johnny Carson, didn’t mind having a desk between them and the guest because they were comedians, and not interviewers. The desk was, in fact, somewhere they could conveniently put their script, he joked. 

Listen to Sir Michael Parkinson's A Life in Television interview in full

But breaking with convention and creating something new wasn’t easy. “If you don’t have the ratings,” Parkinson reflected, “you don’t get the big Yanks.” It was decided that if they could land Orson Welles, other guests of equal calibre would follow. Sure enough, after a bit of arm twisting, a vast amount of money and a mattress onboard a BA plane (Welles stipulated that he needed to lie horizontally on the flight over), the deal was sealed. On their first meeting, Welles, a great hero of Parkinson's, enquired into how many talk shows he had done (three) and proceeded to drop his carefully prepared question sheet into the waste paper bin.

However, that sheet of paper was the culmination of three years’ worth of preparation (courtesy of his journalistic training), leading Parkinson onto a key element to his craft: research. “The entire basis of the interview is what you do beforehand”, he noted, even though you might only use 10 per cent of this in the interview itself. For Parkinson, when you’re trawling through every corner of someone’s past, you want a person who can edit the research for you, and for this reason, his researchers have always been chosen “as much for what they could write as what they uncovered.”

Event: A Life in Television: Sir Michael ParkinsonDate: 23rd November 2016Venue: BAFTA, 195 Piccadilly Host: Kirsty Young

Event: A Life in Television: Sir Michael ParkinsonDate: 23rd November 2016Venue: BAFTA, 195 Piccadilly Host: Kirsty Young

Watching his 2006 interview with Noel Gallagher, the audience saw the moment when Parkinson’s prior knowledge of the musician's upbringing prompted the guest to ask the pertinent question: ‘How do you know all this?” As Kirsty Young described it, this was surely “the moment that every interviewer lives for, when they feel they have reached originality.”

Research is crucial, but the great moments, Parkinson reflected, come when the interview goes into unchartered territory.  Tony Blair’s loquaciousness allowed the interview to take an unscripted steer towards his religious beliefs, with the Prime Minister famously conceding on our television screens that God would judge him for the Iraq War. When interviewing such comedians as Billy Connolly, a personal highlight of his career, the script almost always went out the window, as “it was the unexpected quality of Billy which made him wonderful.” 

Moving from his fondest memories to his less comfortable moments, Parkinson revisited his famed 1999 interview with Woody Allen, when he persisted in asking about Allen’s acrimonious split with Mia Farrow. Allen attacked him for a taking a "morbid interest" in his love life, but Parkinson insisted that the line of questioning was legitimate. “You had to ask the question,” Parkinson insisted. In these situations, the key is to find a journalistic reason that justifies the line of questioning. Parkinson insisted that in this case there was: “The preamble had been, you know [Allen's] career in America has suffered because of this, so let’s talk about the reasons why.” Subsequently, he revealed, Allen did not stick around for a drink after the show. 

Of course, when talking about the awkward moments, it would be wrong not to mention Meg Ryan, who was uncooperative and, Parkinson admits, simply got under his skin. There was also his infamous encounter with Helen Mirren in 1975, where he admitted he had been rude, but confirmed that they had thankfully made up in 2006 when she returned to the show.

With a career in television spanning more than 50 years, Parkinson is uniquely placed to comment on changes to the industry. So how does the landscape differ between then and now? Television, he joked, was a broken-down bus when he started out in the 1960s and nobody really knew what they were doing, but he maintains that he had joined at the best possible time. Granada, he reflected, was at the epicentre of the cultural revolution taking place in Britain at the time: “The world tipped on its head and there we were, bang in the middle of it.”  It was at Granada in 1965 that Parkinson did his very first showbiz interview with Mick Jagger, but before the audience could see this for themselves, Parkinson insisted on properly setting the scene. It was at this point that Young joked to the audience: “Never try to interview an interviewer.”

In terms of what’s changed between then and now, according to Parkinson celebrities aren’t shrouded in the same mystique as they once were, noting “everybody’s famous and nobody’s got a private life”. Although respectful towards the talk shows we see today, Parkinson is adamant that they are an entirely different beast to what he produced – they are hosted by comedians, almost going back to where it all started in America, and he thinks are best described as entertainment rather than chat shows.

Throughout the evening, it became clear that Michael Parkinson’s career is characterised by genuine enthusiasm. He stressed at various points during the interview how luck had played a huge part in his success, describing his work as nothing less than a privilege. His only real regret, he confessed, was never getting Frank Sinatra on the show. Revisiting his upbringing towards the end of the evening, Parkinson reflected on how his working-class background has perhaps coloured his view of things: “You never lose that sense that you know, why them and why me?… That is to say, you don’t quite believe your luck.” And is that sense of disbelief still there? “I hope it remains.”

Read the trainscript in full