An Evening With Sir Michael Parkinson BIG INTERVIEW; ‘The show is a lovely nostalgic trip down memory lane’ 

Sir Michael Parkinson is coming to The Kings Theatre in Southsea on February 21
Sir Michael Parkinson is coming to The Kings Theatre in Southsea on February 21
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Visiting his father’s workplace was a bit different for Michael Parkinson Jr to most children’s experiences.

For more than a decade his father, Michael Snr, had his own Saturday night talkshow on BBC1 – he was the undisputed king of chat.

But for his son, it didn't get better than the day he met The Muppets.

He tells The Guide: ‘I used to go down to the set quite a lot, it’s just very interesting when you’re a kid to go to your dad’s work. The strongest memory I have is from when The Muppets were on the show, they were huge, and I was only a tiny little kid.

‘I remember walking on set and there were these very tall American guys carrying these cases, obviously it was Frank Oz and the others, and they all sloped on looking like extras from Scooby Doo.

‘They turned and saw me and said: “No man, you’ve got to turn around.” So I did, and when I turned back there was Kermit, there was Miss Piggy, and there was Fozzy. It was extraordinary.’

Michael Parkinson Jr. Picture by Jenny Birchmore

Michael Parkinson Jr. Picture by Jenny Birchmore

The original show ran from 1971 to 1982, and returned in 1998 for a further decade. It’s reckoned Sir Michael, as he has been since 2008, has interviewed more than 2,000 cultural figures of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Now Mike is helping celebrate his father’s career in An Evening with Sir Michael Parkinson – an opportunity to get an intimate, entertaining and informative look at his remarkable journey from a pit village in Yorkshire to the top of those famous stairs while reliving the best moments from that iconic show.

Mike explains how this stage show came about: ‘It started in 2009, he’d released his autobiography and we developed a one-man show which was literally just him on the stage talking about his life, about his parents, about his upbringing, about his career, and we’d tour that around, but as he got a bit older he was like, frankly it’s too tiring.

‘But he loved doing it because he loved the reaction of the audience, so he suggested we redevelop it. I’ve been working with him for nearly 20 years in various ways now, so I know his story intimately as well, so it’s a conversation between me and him, starting at the very beginning, about his childhood in the coalfields and all that, and how he avoided going down the pits and the route to Parkinson.

‘It really does concentrate on his career as the host of Parkinson, because we have all the great archive and it would be a shame not to show it. It’s a conversation about his life and career interspersed with all of these wonderful clips – it’s a lovely nostalgic trip down memory lane with this show that everyone watched.’

But before they could put the show together, they had to trawl back through those archives.

‘No-one had really looked at the archives – and it wasn’t just the BBC, there were three years in Australia, there was a series for Yorkshire Television, ITV stuff – there was loads of disparate bits of archive and they’d never been properly looked at. We brokered a deal with the BBC where we frankly each had carte blanche to do what we wanted with it as long as we asked each other and didn’t do anything silly with it.

‘We got hold of every existing Parkinson show, and then for about 18 months-two years there was a team of us reviewing about 700 shows and just logging them, seeing what was in them. A lot of it was of its time, people who are no longer relevant now, but I would say 60-70 per cent of it was absolute gold.

‘There’s things we uncovered that I remember because I was around at the time, but they hadn’t been widely seen since.

‘So for the last few years we’ve really been celebrating that archive, because if we don’t do it, no-one else will, and in a sense he’ll end up being remembered for being attacked by an emu!’

One of the more memorable incidents, to Sir Michael’s apparent chagrin, is the time in 1976 when entertainer Rod Hull’s puppet, Emu, attacked the host.

‘It’s true,’ says Mike, ‘in the end people will remember The Parkinson Show for are the clips they can see on YouTube and there’s a lot more to it.’

Archival gems that stood out for Mike include appearances by Catherine Bramwell-Booth, the granddaughter of the founder of the Salvation Army, running rings around Michael when she was in her nineties, and crooner Val Doonican revealing how his dad had tried to cure his cancer by boiling blackberry briars. 

‘It was this extraordinary moment of television that wasn’t in the research, it only came out in the show,’ recalls Mike. ‘There’s loads of little things like that which we found.

‘And I guess the reason they’re not really shown is because you have to explain almost the person before you show it, rather than with Muhammad Ali or Billy Connolly, who are immediately recognisable and can be shown without any kind of context.’

Growing up with such a famous father, Mike reckons it would be different now.

‘I wasn’t really aware of it, he always carried his fame very lightly, he’s never been that way - he’s not interested in going to big parties.

‘And because there wasn’t any social media and you couldn’t Google people. I went to a regular comprehensive, the other kids didn’t care who my dad was, or even know who he was. It was a lot easier for me - I would hate to grow up now. It would be awful. You wouldn’t have any privacy, everyone would know everything about you.

‘For me, it was just like having this very nice playground, to go the old TV Centre.’

Perhaps almost inevitably, Michael has also intended up in television, as a director and producer.

He acknowledges: ‘It’s always difficult as a son of someone as phenomenally successful as my father was – how are you going to outgrow their shadow? I tried to go down other avenues, but essentially you get drawn back into what you know.

‘People forget that my father wasn’t always a performer, first and foremost he was a journalist and then a producer, which is essentially the same route I took.

‘Then 15 years later, you think, oh, how did I find myself here?’

Of course times have changed since Parky’s ubiquity, and Sir Michael’s style of chat has become a dying art.

‘I think it’s difficult for talkshow hosts now,’ says Mike.

‘When he was doing it, it wasn’t just that there was an air of mystery about the people – there was mystery! No-one knew who they were, they didn’t know the stories about these people’s lives – it was practically virgin territory.

‘Now when someone walks down the stairs, they’re a click away – they’re a Wikipedia page, they’re on Twitter, so in a sense you can’t do a “life and times” because everyone knows that, so they go down the tried and tested route, which had worked for years before in America, of making it a comedy show.

‘I think there is an area for a more considered talk show, but I don’t think it’s on terrestrial television any more.’

With Sir Michael now 83, what keeps him doing this show?

‘He wouldn’t do it if he didn’t want to, but what he enjoys most of all is getting the reaction of the audience and reminding them of a time when they would all sit down together on a Saturday nights and watch television together – and it’s a type of television that’s no longer there, which is sad.’

An Evening With Michael Parkinson is at The Kings in Southsea on Thursday, February 21, doors 7.30pm. Tickets £25/28.50. Go to kingsportsmouth.co.uk.