If you are at all interested in the cultural history of the English-speaking world and are a person with access to the internet, your research has probably at some point led you to Sir Michael Parkinson, the British television interviewer who died at 5pm on Wednesday aged 88 .
In the American media, Dick Cavett would be his closest match due to the breadth and depth of his interviews, even if their attitudes differ, as Parkinson had a background in print journalism and Cavett came from writing comedy. And while Cavett had a sort of exquisite taste in his time, at least compared to other late-night interviewers, Parkinson, the son and grandson of miners, was a prime-time institution and a national treasure, certified by a CBE and knighting. The thousands of interviews he conducted throughout his career form an encyclopedia of his most interesting times.
Characters who appeared on the Parkinson’s talk shows that came and went from 1971 to 2007 include: Kirk Douglas, James Stewart, Bing CrosbyOrson Wells, Fred Astairerobin williams, Kenneth Williams (those who know, know) PeterCookPeter Sellers, Spike MilliganJohn Cleese, Stephen Fry, Barry Humphries (as Dame Edna Everage), Richard BurtonPeter O’Toole, Paul McCartney“Sunshine Boys” co-stars George Burns and Walter Matthau, Peter Ustinov, Billy Connolly, old friends James Cagney and Pat O’Brien, David BowieElton John, Noel Gallagher, Madonna and a 96-year-old Major in the Salvation Army. American subjects sometimes seemed to speak more freely when faced with a different audience.
We are in an age of gossip; The podcast boom has spawned countless hours of conversation on everything from celebrities to politics to vintage amps. Nevertheless, a special degree of impartiality is required to sit with famous people in front of the camera and in front of an audience and just… talk.
“You can’t rehearse an interview,” Parkinson said on “Good morning BritainAt the end of last year he was promoting his book “My Sporting Life”. “That’s the joy of it all, that’s the uncertainty of it all. It takes some effort to actually be candid in an interview, to get the questions right and not try to be picky about certain issues… It’s not just about reading the research.”
Parkinson once called a chat show “an unnatural act between consenting adults in public.” But while American talk shows have largely limited themselves to loose, well-run, and obviously promotional talk shows with obliging questions and low-key answers, the hope on a show like Parkinson was that something real could happen, that we could learn something, rather than just be entertained to become – even if we are entertained. And it was also important that the interviewer himself was interested.
There were notoriously tense interviews between a confrontational Muhammad Ali (who returned over the years and dubbed Parkinson’s “the most extraordinary human being I’ve ever met”) in 1971, the first year of his first BBC series, and an uneasy Meg Ryan in 2003, for which he later apologized. But these were exceptions. Parkinson seemed immensely amused and always present. He laughed lightly, but not in a showy or submissive way. Unlike some hosts, he hasn’t flaunted himself – although he’s not averse to putting on a show when it’s appropriate.
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In one unforgettable segment, he interviews Kermit the Frog about his relationship with Miss Piggy, to whom he confesses his own love (“You’re in big trouble,” says Kermit). It leads to a nose-to-nose scene between the human host and the pig muppet.
“May I just ask you a deeply personal question,” asks Miss Piggy, turning the tables. “Is that a toupee?”
“If everything goes well,” Parkinson replies, “you might learn the truth later.”