PUBLISHED: 11:17 24 April 2013 | UPDATED: 11:17 24 April 2013
Cultural icon Nicholas Parsons will be speaking about his life and work at a special Lords of the Manor dinner in Upper Slaughter this month. Katie Jarvis caught up with him for just a minute
“Cotswold Life magazine?” asks Nicholas Parsons, without hesitation. “In that case, I need to start by saying how much I love the Cotswolds! I have such affection for that part of the country. I think it’s genuinely unique.”
It’s a good start to our interview. Except that I have to challenge him almost immediately. Deviation: he’s moved to Buckinghamshire.
“It was simply because the roads were getting more and more congested and we realised we’d have to move nearer to London; I couldn’t fulfil all my work, otherwise. When we first moved to Windrush, we could steam along the A40 to pick up the M40 without worries but, latterly, it got so stressful.”
Still deviation. He’s not in the Cotswolds. Correct challenge?
“But you haven’t lost me because, emotionally, you still have me there.”
Bonus points, because we all enjoyed that but, in any case, he repeated ‘40’, so it’s my turn. I’ll take 60 seconds to explain why I love Nicholas Parsons. Deep breath:
And now from Norwich the Sale of the Century though he should never have been pigeon-holed ground-breaking straight man in comic sketches stand-up comedian consummate actor quiz and chat-show host all-round nice chap survivor err…
Bother. It’s not as easy as it sounds.
“The whole rules of Just a Minute are the antithesis of normal conversation,” Nicholas Parsons confirms, sympathetically. “Certainly, for an actor in comedy, they’re contrary to the way you deliver normally: you pause for effect and you hesitate for emphasis and you deviate in order to create an atmosphere.”
Just a Minute, of course, is the radio show he’s been fronting for 46 years, and probably my favourite ever. It’s amazing, within such tight rules, just how different panellists’ styles have been over the decades. We’ve had Kenneth Williams’s tantrums: “I came all the way from Great Portland Street!”; Peter Jones’s understated wit; Wendy Richards’s disgruntledness; Clement Freud’s utterly lugubrious brilliance, often played out in the form of interminable lists (whose memorable lines include, “I used to ask women to come upstairs and have sex, but now it has to be one or the other.”)
“Ah – Clement Freud. Very shrewd and intellectual. There was always that frisson between us when he was challenged. I had to be very strong and handle Clement with kid gloves because he was a very bright and brilliant human being.”
As Nicholas describes in his rather fine memoirs, With Just a Touch of Hesitation, Repetition or Deviation, Clement once spent a day brooding over one of the chairman’s decisions. “He continued to argue until we reached the hotel and then stormed off, calling me a crude name.” It’s an odd anecdote because, while it doesn’t reflect well on the great man, it’s also slightly endearing that somebody who’d served as a politician, broadcaster, writer and chef, should care so much about a panel game.
“If you’re in show business, you have to be competitive, otherwise you wouldn’t get anywhere,” Nicholas points out. “But they have to have an overall sense of the show and that’s why Paul Merton is so brilliant. Because he enjoys playing it and he recognises the show is more important than his success.”
Paul, like so many of the panellists, has become a friend. “The question I often get is: Who is your favourite contestant? I don’t have a favourite. I can’t! I have to be utterly impartial.”
(He may be friends with them, but that hasn’t stopped him becoming the butt of the jokes. Viz, Derek Nimmo explaining that Nicholas Parsons was so old, the last woman he’d been intimate with had been a suffragette. “And that was only because she was tied to the railings at the time,” added Peter Jones.)
When Nicholas refers to the competitive toughness that show business demands, it’s not empty talk. It’s easy to picture him - the debonair host of long-lived quiz show Sale of the Century; the urbane, smooth-voiced, unruffled radio presenter – as a man who’s had it all handed to him on a plate. “I can see that the image I project is of the bland, rather well-connected Englishman,” he admits. (Though he’s at pains to point out he has both Scottish and Welsh blood in him.) “But I believe that, in life, you must never succumb and go under. That’s probably why I’m still working at my advanced age. It’s so easy to say, ‘I can’t do it; it’s not fair’. Life isn’t fair! I’ve had some very fortunate breaks in my professional life and I’ve had some very tough challenges, which I’ve faced up to and accepted.”
So let’s take a minute to examine those challenges. He was certainly born into a prosperous household in Grantham, where his GP father counted among his patients a certain Thatcher family. His childhood had profound influences on his future, both positive and negative. He tells a story of his utter fascination, as a five-year-old, at seeing circus elephants parade down the high street, followed by a trip to the show itself. The experience prompted a yearning to perform, which manifested itself in a clown routine he performed incessantly with his brother and sister. Tellingly, he ends the anecdote with his mother, driven half-mad by the constant antics, telling him to stop being stupid and threatening to send him to his room. There’s no real sense of grievance in the story; if anything, he seems to sympathise with his mother, who undoubtedly was at her wits’ end. But, interestingly, later on he tells me, “One very shrewd journalist once said to me, ‘Every child looks for appreciation from parents and others when they’re young. Maybe as you didn’t get enough of it, you’re still struggling for it.’”
There were certainly hardships to come for the young lad. Naturally left-handed, he was made to write with his right – a consequence of which might well have been the stutter he developed. On top of that, his dyslexia meant he was considered slow. (Though, positive as ever, he attributes to it the acquisition of a fantastic memory, which stands him in good stead for his Just a Minute chairmanship.) But any unhappiness at school was mitigated by making his friends laugh – even if teachers didn’t appreciate his comic impersonations – and his acting, both in school productions and with amateur groups.
His sense of humour was once again a life-saver during one of the most difficult periods of his life. Realising her son was serious about making the stage his profession, his mother was horrified: “All actors are in some way debauched. Someone like you, Nicholas, will just end up as an alcoholic or some kind of pervert,” she told him. Instead, in 1939, aged barely 16, he was sent from public school up to a turbine firm on the Clydebank, to learn to be an engineer.
In the one-man comedy show he takes to the Edinburgh Fringe each year, he describes the toilet system, which a chap known as ‘S***house Sam’ ran like a boating lake: “Number five, your time is up, come on oot”. Once, after overstaying his welcome, Nicholas himself was dragged out, boiler suit around his ankles. “I was a real oddity there. A fish out of water. I don’t know how I did it – I suppose it’s the old thing of humour – but I eventually found I could relate to them and they became my mates. It was tough, though. If you can survive that, nothing that show business will throw at you will ever be too demanding.”
He carried on with stage and radio work during his spare time, while studying to be an engineer. But it was after qualifying – plus five months’ hospitalisation for a debilitating bout of pleurisy – that he finally plucked up the courage to tell his parents he was never going to be an engineer. His destiny was acting. Indeed, if you ask him to this day what his profession is, he’ll tell you ‘actor’.
His career has been more varied than he’s often given credit for. As the straight man in the old Arthur Haynes comedy sketches (and it’s a mystery as to why, unlike Hancock, they were never repeated), he brought his acting skills to bear. “I took the role that was then termed ‘the straight man’ in a different direction. Up until then, he’d just been a cypher. Because I am an actor, I became what was required – either an MP, doctor, lawyer, policeman or vicar.” (If you want to see a prime example, watch the barber sketch on YouTube.)
Funnily enough, it was one of his most successful roles – as host of ITV’s phenomenally popular Sale of the Century – that almost proved his downfall. “Suddenly, the employers said, well, he’s a quiz-show host. It was almost as if you’d lost the ability to act. I really had to fight to get back the recognition I’d had before.”
And all credit to him that he has – he’s never been one to accept the inevitable. That’s as true today as it was when he was a struggling schoolboy. He may be (mumbled age; genuinely unbelievable) not as young as he was but he’s still doing the lot – stand-up, his show about Edward Lear whom he loves, the Fringe again, and writing a (as yet under wraps) BBC book. He gently mourns the fact that he can’t waterski, play rugby or squash any more, or garden for long periods, but, honestly! “I’m going to celebrate a very special birthday this year but I don’t want to talk about that yet because they’ll think I’m dying,” he jokes.
There can’t be many such youthful and undiminished (mumbled)-year-olds. Without hesitation or deviation, I’m happy to put on record that Nicholas Parsons is a delight to interview. And I don’t, in the least, mind repeating that.
• Nicholas Parsons OBE will be speaking at Lords of the Manor, Upper Slaughter, on Friday, April 19. The evening, including a champagne reception and four-course dinner with wine, costs £90 per person; www.lordsofthemanor.com