Michael Parkinson – the secrets of his success

We remember Sir Michael Parkinson, ever-professional journalist, TV chat show legend and Yorkshireman to the core.

The announcement of the death of Sir Michael Parkinson at the age of 88 will evoke sadness, certainly, but also a degree of fond nostalgia for a bygone age of broadcasting, and one of its finest practitioners.

The era of three television channels, no streaming platforms and no social media seems like it happened in a different world. In many respects, it did. The big entertainment shows used to pull in audiences of 15 to 20 million. Today, they’ll be lucky to get a quarter of that.

Michael Parkinson presenting Desert Island Discs in 1985Credit: Brian Harris / Alamy Stock Photo
Michael Parkinson presenting Desert Island Discs in 1985

The shows didn’t come much bigger than Parkinson. His was the blue riband of chat shows, the one that everyone wanted to do. Across more than 500 programmes, Parky (as he was affectionately known) interviewed over 2000 celebrities, including (almost) all of the biggest names in showbiz – the ones who got away being Don Bradman, Katharine Hepburn and Frank Sinatra, in his eyes.

The stars were drawn to Parkinson because he was the best in the business. His show would go on to be ranked eighth in a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes of all time, chosen by industry professionals in 2000.

So what made him the outstanding broadcaster of his era? What were the events that shaped him, and gave him the tools, the skills and the drive to maintain such a degree of excellence for so many years?  

Humble beginnings

Part of the secret to having such a successful TV career was a background as far removed from the pampered world of celebrity as it’s possible to get. 

The young Michael Parkinson was indelibly shaped by his upbringing, the son (and grandson) of coal miners. When he was a teenager, he was taken down to one of the narrowest seams of Grimethorpe colliery by his father, keen to discourage his only child from following in his footsteps.

It worked. Decades later, Parkinson would tell the Irish Independent that the filthy, dangerous, stinking conditions and this “awful, creaking noise”… “frightened the shit” out of him.  

He resolved there and then to make his living above ground. It was his National Service that took him away from what he described as his ‘parochial’ existence in South Yorkshire. Parkinson’s intelligence and diligence led him to become the youngest captain in the British Army, seeing active service during the Suez crisis. 

Journalistic rigour

If his background and life experiences helped create a well-rounded, down-to-earth personality to which TV audiences would later relate, it was his stint in journalism that really prepared him for his later career.

Upon leaving the army, he worked as a journalist on the Manchester Guardian (now simply The Guardian), later moving to the Daily Express in London.  

His work imbued in him a lifelong dedication to research and journalistic rigour that stayed with him in his later career. Melvyn Bragg said that one of Parkinson’s secrets as an interviewer was that he knew his subjects inside out.

“He made questions seem like conversation: that meant he’d done a great deal of homework.”  

His journalistic approach also gave him a keen idea of which questions to ask, and what interested the public. Sir David Attenborough remarked in a tribute on Radio 4: “He always did his homework, he always knew what the interesting bits were, and he steered you through. As a viewer, you knew if Michael was asking the questions there were going to be good questions, they would elicit good answers.” 

The skill of listening

But when Parkinson started out as a TV interviewer, he still had to learn many of his skills on the job. He often cited his encounter with the great Orson Welles as one of his most valuable lessons.

Chatting backstage to Welles during the first series of his show, he was surprised when the great director snatched Parkinson’s list of carefully prepared questions out of his hands and screwed it up.

It was, Parkinson later reflected, an object lesson in developing the art of a conversational interview, listening, and giving his subjects the space to talk. 

He came to abhor the modern style of interviewing, remarking: “People like Graham Norton and Jonathan Ross don’t do talk shows. Theirs are comedy shows, which they are very good at, but their guests are foils for their humour. I don’t see anybody coming up to do my kind of show.” 

A fan’s enthusiasm

His ability to listen came naturally to him – not least because he made sure his shows featured guests he wanted to hear from. Parkinson had a natural love of cinema, music and sport, and approached his interviews with the unmistakable eagerness of a fan. 

His lifelong friend Sir Geoffrey Boycott remarked: “He was the best chat show host because he listened to people. He not only asked questions but he listened to them and he actually liked them. In fact, he didn’t have them on his show unless he really wanted to have them.”  

Parkinson wasn’t interested in the showbiz merry-go-round of having stars on the show just to promote their latest blockbuster. If he wanted you on, you were on – which is why he featured repeat guests like Muhammad Ali and Billy Connolly so frequently – and was always rewarded with moments of TV gold 

Some people denigrated this approach as being too fawning, to which Parkinson himself responded, not unreasonably: “It’s not bloodsport and I am not interviewing war criminals or paedophiles. I am interviewing people whose only crime is to entertain people.” Melvyn Bragg pointed out that the approach bore fruit. “He played to people’s strengths – he didn’t try and catch them out.” 

Not that he was afraid to ask pointed questions. He had notable run-ins with guests including John Wayne (about his role in the McCarthyite witch hunts for Communists in postwar Hollywood); Woody Allen (about his marriage to his step-daughter); Tony Blair (about the Iraq war); and the controversial talk with Helen Mirren, among other points questioning whether she was too attractive to be taken seriously as an actress.  

The latter interview sparked a debate about sexism, but Parkinson was unrepentant. Over 40 years later, he acknowledged in the Daily Mail’s Event magazine that “maybe I was a bit over-reactive to Ms Mirren,” but he felt no need to apologise. “I don’t want to. Nor does she. I don’t regard what happened as being anything other than good television.” 

An authentic Yorkshireman

Michael Parkinson was a Yorkshireman to his core. If his plain speaking occasionally got him into trouble, his very Yorkshire-ness was also his superpower. In an era when so many on TV were of the received-pronunciation, Oxbridge-educated ilk, his gruff Yorkshire tones gave him an avuncular approachability that both audiences and guests warmed to.  

Fellow Yorkshireman Boycott said: “He never lost his Yorkshire roots. Michael was Yorkshire in every way and he was the soul of Yorkshire… He never lost his humour, his warmth, his Yorkshire in him that made him great.” 

The famous Yorkshire lack of pretence and airs and graces allowed Parkinson to remain unapologetically true to his personality. In another of the myriad tributes to the presenter, Stephen Fry said: “The genius of Parky was that unlike most people (and most of his guests, me included) he was always 100% himself. On camera and off. ‘Authentic’ is the word I suppose.” 

A healthy sense of gratitude

Parkinson never lost his enthusiasm for his work or took it for granted. He once remarked: “I have the best job in the world and once you have a show named after yourself, where else do you go?” 

He was not unaware of his own talents and abilities, but still expressed gratitude that life had dealt him such a favourable hand. In his last ever interview, published in the New Statesman in March of this year, the writer Kate Mossman wrote of her subject: “Parkinson uses the word “lucky” nine times in our interview – of his 36-year career in television, but about every stage of his life before that, too.” 

Just not cricket

Therein lies perhaps the most important facet of Parkinson’s six-decade career. He continued to regard his job as a privilege. One final story gives an insight into his family’s attitudes to his work, and how they helped keep his feet on the ground. At the end of the final Parkinson show he spoke of his late father: 

“Father loved coming to the show but he was never sure his son was doing a proper job. ‘You’ve made a bob or two without breaking sweat,’ he once told me. ‘But, think on. It’s not like playing for Yorkshire, is it?’” 

Michael Parkinson took a beat, and concluded: “Of course, it wasn’t. But, once or twice, it got pretty damned close.” 

Written by Benjie Goodhart