Michael Parkinson, popular British talk-show host, dies at 88


Before John Lennon made his entrance on Michael Parkinson’s BBC TV talk show in 1971, he warned the host not to ask about his years with the Beatles. Lennon said he was there to promote his wife, avant-garde artist and musician Yoko Ono, not to discuss his own career.

With a hint of mischief, Lennon threatened that if Mr. Parkinson disobeyed, the host would have to continue the interview from “inside a bag.”

Mr. Parkinson, who knew what made for good TV, chatted with Ono for 10 minutes — and then asked Lennon what hundreds of millions of Beatles fans wanted to know: Why did the most popular band in the world split up a year earlier?

Lennon stood up and declared, “I want you in the bag.”

He had brought with him a large black sack, and, to the delight of the studio audience, Mr. Parkinson agreed to cover himself in it before resuming his questions.

In one of his most revealing interviews, Lennon explained that the Beatles had become creatively stifled and that a rift had opened between him and bandmate Paul McCartney.

“Can I come out now?” Mr. Parkinson asked.

Lennon pulled off the sack and, grinning, lit a cigarette for him.

Mr. Parkinson, 88, affectionately known to viewers as Parky and arguably Britain’s most popular talk show host, died Aug. 16 at his home in the village of Bray, on the Thames River 30 miles west of London. The family announced the death but did not provide a specific cause.

Mr. Parkinson had two celebrated runs with his BBC show “Parkinson,” first from 1971 to 1982 and then from 1998 to 2004. In addition, he hosted programs for Yorkshire Television, ITV and other BBC competitors and had a popular chat show in Australia.

His programs became regular stopping points for entertainers, athletes, politicians and other international newsmakers from Madonna to Nelson Mandela to Woody Allen. Celebrities who came to plug a new film or enterprise found themselves instead revealing glimpses of their private lives. In many ways, Mr. Parkinson was a British version of Larry King mixed with Barbara Walters, casually disarming in his demeanor but ready with enough research to pin down his guests.

“He was a terrific TV interviewer, but it was only years after his program came off air that his critics realized how good he had been,” said Roy Greenslade, one of Britain’s leading media commentators.

When he first launched his show, Mr. Parkinson stood out on British television for his accent. “Auntie BBC,” as the public broadcaster is nicknamed in the United Kingdom, traditionally used presenters and newsreaders with what the British call “posh,” “plummy” or “Oxbridge” (Oxford or Cambridge university) accents.

Mr. Parkinson was from Yorkshire, in northern England, a county with expressions and even vowels all its own. His accent made him sound more homely, honest and down-to-earth. Other talk show hosts with regional English accents tried to emulate him but no one quite succeeded.

Mr. Parkinson’s first guest was English comic actor Terry-Thomas — “hardly likely to bring the American producers flocking to your door,” he later said. He then found out that Orson Welles, the director of “Citizen Kane,” was filming in Spain at the time. Welles agreed to show up, for a hefty fee.

But it was worth the price, Mr. Parkinson told the Independent newspaper. “If we can get Orson Welles,” he recalled thinking, “the rest will follow — bill it and they will come. And we were right.”

Welles, who tossed the host’s notes into a trash can, reminisced about bullfighting (“it is indefensible and irresistible”) and his physical altercation with author Ernest Hemingway before they become friends. Overnight, “Parkinson” was a sensation — a draw for international stars such as Ingrid Bergman, Fred Astaire, Shirley MacLaine and Robert Mitchum.

Mr. Parkinson interviewed boxer Muhammad Ali four times and went on to write a book about the champ. In one of his rare forays on American TV, Mr. Parkinson appeared on Dick Cavett’s talk show with Ali and heavyweight rival Joe Frazier in 1974. True to form, Ali relentlessly taunted Frazier until Mr. Parkinson asked, “What happens if you lose?”

Ali, dismissing the question, replied that he would “catch the next jet for the closest communist country to America.” As his rhetoric heated up, he and Frazier rose as if preparing to fight. Mr. Parkinson and Cavett readied to break them up. Ali demonstrated his mesmerizing footwork — and Mr. Parkinson displayed his talent for creating mesmerizing television moments.

He was sometimes accused of sexism in his interviews with women. In 1975, he described Helen Mirren as the “sex queen” of the Royal Shakespeare Company and asked if her “equipment” was preventing her from being recognized as a serious dramatic artist.

“Serious actresses can’t have big bosoms, is that what you mean?” she replied, with Mr. Parkinson visibly squirming.

Their frosty exchange paled in comparison with the Arctic response he elicited in 2003 from American actress Meg Ryan, when Mr. Parkinson doubled down on her professional and personal reversals of fortune and Ryan tried to deflect and finally suggest they end the segment. The Guardian ranked the Parkinson/Ryan exchange as one of the “most excruciating interviews of all time.”

(Their mutual dis-appreciation spilled over for years, with Ryan calling Mr. Parkinson “a nut” in the magazine Marie Claire, and he replied in the Daily Mirror that “she was the most boring bore I’ve met.”)

He preferred raconteurs who needed little prompting to engage — Ali, actors Peter Sellers and Oliver Reed, Scottish comedian Billy Connolly — or who seemed unguarded about their private lives. In the latter category was singer and designer Victoria Beckham, who revealed a salacious pet name for her husband, soccer star David Beckham.

In 2007, Mr. Parkinson told the Yorkshire Post that the proliferation of “instant celebrities” from social media and reality TV shows did not capture his interest. “I’m not interested in people being cast away on a desert island,” he quipped. “They’re not stars.”

The only son of a second-generation coal miner, Michael Parkinson was born in Cudworth on March 28, 1935. He recalled going on a school excursion to the mines and regaling his father with his impressions of how “very clean and bright” the environment seemed.

“So he took me down to where the men worked,” Mr. Parkinson told the Melbourne Age newspaper. “Down the real mine, into the shafts and tunnels. Not the sanitized version of what they wanted us to see. I was very frightened.” As they emerged, his father threatened to beat him if he ever again came near the mines.

Mr. Parkinson’s mother was of a literary bent. She gave him books to read, notably the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Dos Passos. He showed an early talent for writing and charged sixpence to craft essays for classmates, making what he later called a small fortune doing five a night.

He left school at 16 to pursue journalism (“I had seen reporters in the movies, I thought it looked great”) and was hired as a cub reporter at a local paper, the Barnsley Chronicle. After service in the British Army, he found work in London, first with the Daily Express and later as a sportswriter for the Sunday Times.

Believing TV could be his future, he got a job in the early 1960s as a current affairs producer with Granada TV in northwest England, before joining BBC TV as a reporter on the respected current affairs program “24 Hours.” In 1971, he was offered the first iteration of “Parkinson.”

In 1959, he married Mary Heneghan, who he said helped him through a struggle with alcohol addiction. In addition to his wife, survivors include three sons.

Mr. Parkinson was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2008 for his services to broadcasting. In an interview a few years earlier with the Melbourne Age, he articulated his belief in his inquisitive style of hosting.

“If you try and impose yourself as the interviewer, you’re not doing the right job,” he said. “The new generation has grown up with the [David] Lettermans and the [Jay] Lenos. But they’re not interviewers. They’re stand-up comics. If their life depended on doing one decent interview, they’d be shot at dawn. I believe softly-softly is the best approach. Once you get going, there’s nothing you can’t ask a person.”


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