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Culture: Just who does Sir Michael Parkinson think he really is?

Michael Parkinson
Michael Parkinson

July 1962, aged just 27 years, a young, unknown journalist by the name of Michael Parkinson has published his first piece for the Sunday Times in their colour section magazine.

That article was to be a four-page feature about the Suffolk village of Lavenham, the description of which states ‘Lavenham, in Suffolk, is one of the most perfectly presented old towns in the UK. But this doesn’t make it everybody’s idea of paradise.’

Michael Parkinson
Michael Parkinson

Personally, having visited Lavenham myself 44 years later, it’s safe to say that it is one of the most beautiful, friendly villages in the UK, steeped in history, and it’s easy to see why someone of Michael’s journalistic character would choose somewhere like Lavenham as their first journalistic feature.

It’s little wonder that, 46 years on, and now a ‘Sir’, Michael Parkinson returns to the sleepy, idyllic Suffolk paradise to bring his Our Kind of Music tour to Bury St Edmunds’ Apex theatre.

The passion and love he has for music in all forms is thus realised in his live, theatrical shows where Parky, in conversation with long-term producer, collaborator and son, Mike Parkinson Jnr, uses clips from an extensive archive while featuring live performances by the multi-talented Joe Stilgoe.

Music, therefore, alongside sport, have been the mainstay of Parky’s stellar career in the media, a career which has spanned near 60 years taking in print, television, radio, as well as literature and stage, he’s been the infernal juggernaut that knows no bounds.

Michael Parkinson
Michael Parkinson

But where did it all begin? What’s his story? Who is Sir Michael Parkinson?

Beginning as a journalist in the Sixties, ‘Parky,’ as he’s more famously known, was a reporter for a number of newspapers before accidentally falling into television with the induction of Granada TV.

It was to be a period he so eloquently put as being when “a little band called The Beatles were in the background and a skinny little lad called George Best joined Manchester United”.

Suddenly Parky was following a dream which his mother had had for him many years before, although if his life had gone how it should, then he could just as easily have worked down the mines like his father had before him.

It would be Parky’s father who put paid to all that very early on, taking a young Michael there and, quite literally, terrifying him before uttering the words: “If I ever see you at these gates, I’ll personally kick your backside.”

His mother therefore took it upon herself to rise above her station, creating ambitions for a young Michael through her own passion for music, stories and literature, ambitions that would go on to consume the next six decades yof his life.

“I wanted the fame; I wanted to be Humphrey Bogart and I lusted after Lauren Bacall,” began Michael.

“Everything back then was done through talent and drive so it was easy to move into journalism in the Sixties, and that’s all I ever wanted to do.

“Then up came the small matter of television and I would join Granada TV, not really knowing what it was I was doing and I stumbled into that career in the most unlikeliest way.”

It was to be a young Parky’s lightbulb moment that first ever television interview, when, in 1963, he would interview Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones as an overnight, and the unlikeliest of sensations, was born.

“I suddenly became a household name, I was hot property, although it probably helped being sandwiched between two episodes of Coronation Street,” he continued.

“Then along comes the BBC which, at the start, when I moved there, I was used more as a journalist and war correspondent (although the British Army’s youngest ever captain during his National Service during the 50s, being a war correspondent was far from the top of his list, as his passions lay in sport and music).

“Parkinson (the chat show) again only happened by chance and it was actually only supposed to be a 10-week run (it ended up being 540 episodes over three spells between 1971 and 2007, the last episodes being broadcast in the December that year).

“We wanted, even needed, a big name to kick-start the show,

so we went for Orson Welles and was made to jump through hoops before finally getting him on – after that all the big names wanted to come and suddenly it became the show that everybody wanted to watch.”

Over the ensuing four decades, and thousands of interviews, there have been many highlights, and several lowlights, as well as those that got away.

However, although publicised as being Parky’s favourite interview, the great Muhammad Ali is joined on that pedestal by Professor Jacob Bronowski (a member of the team that developed the atom bomb and presented the documentary, The Ascent of Man) and Catherine Bramwell-Booth (an officer in the Salvation Army who lived to 104), they being the two specific encounters Parky looks back on the most.

“I never got close to Ali, he never wanted that,” recalls Parky.

“We noticed that in the book we released last year (Muhammad Ali: A Memoir) about the four interviews I did, not only was he a remarkable man but he was also terribly conflicted – he is probably the greatest fighter that ever lived, and will live though.”

Interviewing individuals from all walks of life became a passion for him and it is testament to all he has done when people like Sir Billy Connolly, who appeared a record 15 times, and Peter Kay (Parky would appear alongside him on the 2005 hit single, Is This The Way To Amarillo) are now classed in the friendship bracket.

A series of special programmes would see off ‘Parkinson’ with, in the November of his final year, the BBC running a stunning, spectacular, music special, an episode which saw Sir Elton John playing pub classics on a pub piano, Peter Ustinov and Dudley Moore singing opera, ad Sir Michael in a duet with non other than Bing Crosby.

Other stars to perform that evening were Annie Lennox, Jamie Cullum (himself a regular in those final years), Joe Cocker, Rod Stewart and Michael Bublé, with Parky, speaking of his love for sound ahead of what, in effect, is two consecutive tours, added: “Music has been a massively important part of my life and is something that everyone can relate to.

“My world opened up when I listened to Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, among others, many years ago.

“This music tour means a lot to me and focuses on the two periods of my life that I am really passionate about.”

A month later, December 16, 2007, a decade ago now, the last regular show of ‘Parkinson’ was broadcast on the BBC and featured both Billy Connolly and Peter Kay alongside Sir Michael Caine, Sir David Attenborough, Dame Judi Dench, David Beckham OBE, Jamie Cullum and Dame Edna Everage – not a bad closing act from such an iconic personality himself.

“I left at the right time and when I wanted to,” admitted Parky.

“It’s very difficult in the media world now but I’ve managed to keep myself busy for when you’re on that rolling road you don’t get the time to take stock.

“Although I’m most associated with Parkinson, it was a phase I did and loved, I never really stopped doing other things though.

“I have been very much a gun for hire and never been defined by just the one thing.”

The proudest moment of Parky’s career, of which there have been many, came in 2008 when he received his knighthood.

“I was very proud to be knighted and that mum got the chance to see it. Although she nearly missed it as she only went and lost her ticket, so the guards wouldn’t let her through.

“‘But I’m Michael Parkinson’s mum’, she explained. “That’s what they all say,” the guard replied.

“Fortunately, she found the ticket and we got to share an extremely proud moment.”

Parkinson: Our Kind of Music, Saturday, April 7, 7.30pm, The Apex, Bury St Edmunds, Call 01284 758000 or visit theapex.co.uk

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