Nicholas Parsons looks in the mirror. He adjusts his cravat, pats his hair into place as if preparing to go on stage, and walks over to introduce himself. He now has a stick for support, but, at 94, he is as immaculate as ever, his voice as plummy and his brain as sharp.
We meet at a hotel in central London to celebrate his golden anniversary. In December, Parsons will notch up 50 years presenting Just a Minute, the BBC Radio 4 panel show in which guests try to talk on a given subject for 60 seconds “without hesitation, repetition or deviation”.
Parsons only agreed to chair the first show on the understanding that, if it succeeded, he would join the panel. He says the pilot, created by Ian Messiter, was terrible. “Ian was a great inventor, but he hadn’t thought it through. It had all kinds of inhibiting factors. It’s a fiendishly difficult game to play anyway, but he had rounds when you couldn’t use the definite article and another round when you couldn’t have plurals. It just fell apart. It was a disaster.”
But, somehow, the producer David Hatch managed to persuade the BBC bosses to give it a go. “Then he came to me and said: ‘Nicholas, I’ve had to fight to get this series, but I’ve got a problem because the one thing they quite liked in the pilot was your chairmanship.’ And I said: ‘But, David, I was awful.’ And he said: ‘I know, but so was everybody else.’ Anyway, you don’t turn down a good job in show business, so I said OK. And, as I say in my one-man comedy show, which I do all around the country, I must have done something right because I’m still doing that job after 50 years.”
Does that astonish him? “Yes, utterly. And it’s not in the Guinness Book of Records for the simple reason that, when the fanclub phoned them up saying they should put it in, they said that other shows have run longer. And the fans said: ‘Yes, other shows have run longer, such as Desert Island Discs, but not with the same person presenting it from the word go.’ But they hadn’t got a category for that.”
What a travesty, I say – we should campaign for your rightful place in Guinness World Records. “Well, it would be a nice little accolade, but I’m not concerned about it.”
While we’re at it, how come Parsons, one of the greatest British institutions, has not been ennobled? “Again, because I haven’t pushed for these things. But if you want to write in. Ha ha!” Would you fancy it? “It would be lovely idea.” What do you prefer – sir or lord? “Oh I don’t want lord. That’s a bit pompous isn’t it? Sir would be nice.”
Then a terrible thought hits him: “I’m not going to ask for it. I wouldn’t dream of it. Please make that quite clear. I push for jobs in my profession because I want to keep working. But I would never push for a knighthood.”
Parsons made his name as an actor in West End productions such as Boeing-Boeing and as the straight man in a TV double act with Arthur Haynes in the 50s and 60s. In the 70s and 80s, he presented Sale of the Century, a hugely successful TV gameshow that had viewing figures of 20 million. But, after 50 years in the hot seat, he is now best known for Just a Minute.
Why does he think it has lasted? “It was a clever idea, we’ve had wonderful personalities in it, we’ve evolved with the recent addition to the show of people like Paul Merton and Gyles Brandreth. Bringing in all these wonderful new performers has enabled us to improve it.” (Brandreth first appeared on the panel 29 years ago, Merton 28 years ago.)
At times, critics said Just a Minute became too clever-clever for its own good (Freud, particularly, enjoyed showing off his cleverness). Does Parsons agree?
“Yes, slightly. It’s the fun that keeps it going. Gyles has got a brilliant brain. Paul is a great comedian and he has found a way to play the game that is clever and entertaining. Also, Paul is very generous. If he feels he is dominating the show, he will hold back and let others have a go. Most people just want to show off and get all the glory they can.”
Do you have to be a showoff to be good at Just a Minute? “Yes, you do!” he says enthusiastically. “To be in show business you need to be a bit of a showoff. Literally. Why’s it called show business? Because it’s about showing off.” He smiles, pleased with himself. “I haven’t thought about that before. I’ll suggest that as a subject – showing off.”
Parsons says he was a terrible showoff as a child. “I irritated my family because they didn’t like showoffs. My father was a doctor and I was brought up in a very conventional family at a very conventional time. I was told to behave myself and not try to be funny. I have an older brother and they thought he was marvellous – and he was a very brilliant boy. And I had a younger sister who was the adored young sister. I was in the middle – and the middle child does suffer sometimes.”
Neither of his parents approved when he told them he wanted to be an actor. His mother was particularly distressed. “Although she loved going to the theatre, she did think everybody in the theatre was debauched. I said: ‘Mother, I don’t understand your attitude. You admire people like Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier. Do you think they’re like all those people you describe, and she said: ‘No. But isn’t it a pity that they have to work with those sort of people?’” He gets the giggles thinking about it.
His family packed him off to Glasgow to train as an engineer and have some sense knocked into him. “I went straight from the English public school – St Paul’s – into working-class Clydeside, and it was frightfully pompous, how I used to speak. I’d never heard the F-word and they were using it as an adjective. It was another world. I realised that I would be crucified by these tough characters if I didn’t make them my friends.”
Did he grow to like that world? “Hated it. Still do.” He’s still thinking of the swearing. “It’s not the way you’re brought up. They use a lot of it on television now and it jars. I just don’t think you need it.”
In Glasgow, he was an engineer by day and a performer by night. He worked himself into the ground and his system gave way. He spent five months in hospital and, when he returned home, his parents asked what he was going to do now.
“I said: ‘I’m going to be an actor,’ and they said: ‘But you’re a qualified engineer now.’ I said: ‘No, I did that to please you – now I’m going to please myself.’”
There is something steely about you isn’t there? “No. I’m very soft really, but there is a steel core when it comes to the entertainment industry. To survive on Clydebank – that took some resilience.”
The public took notice of Parsons when he teamed up with Haynes for their sketch show. Although they played scripted characters, they remained true to type – Haynes a working-class chancer (most memorably a tramp), Parsons a suave toff. After 10 successful years, Haynes dumped Parsons. And he still sounds sore about it today … “Suddenly he said: ‘I think we should separate.’ He thought I was getting too many laughs. He took a very good performer with him to America, but the public had got used to Haynes and Parsons and they didn’t want him and the other chap. Then he did another summer season at Blackpool where we’d broken the record and it didn’t do well. I think the stress was too much. He died [in 1966] at 52. Very sad. Very fond of him.” He stops abruptly. “Oh, God, I’m talking to a journalist. You’ll put that bloody well down!”
Parsons, who has two children from his marriage to his first wife, the actor Denise Bryer (they divorced in 1989), says many British comedians are less secure than their US counterparts. “In America, Jack Benny is a good example. He was surrounded by the very best performers, the ones who got the biggest laughs in the show, but it was still the Jack Benny show. British comedians don’t like support that is too good. They prefer modest support. Now darling Benny Hill – who I worked with for three years – Benny was the loveliest man you could ever meet and he used to say to me: ‘Nicky, just say the line as it is written. Don’t try to make it funny.’”
Does he share that insecurity? “Oh, yes. Everybody in show business is a bit insecure. And comedians more so. A lot of people in our business are really quite shy and therefore insecure. My wife is very social. She’ll walk into a crowded room and she’s got a real flair for talking to people. I’m a little anxious – meeting strangers for the first time and not knowing what to say. My father was a shy man. Maybe I got it from him.”
Did his father ever tell him he was proud of his success? “On his deathbed he did. He paid me the most beautiful compliment in hospital when he was very near the end. Last thing he said to me, actually. I was sitting by the side of his bed and he was very fragile … touch and go.” Parsons begins to well up. “Obviously, gets me so emotional,” he says apologetically. “And he said to me: ‘Sale of the Century’s on.’ I didn’t know it was on, but he was aware of it. I said: ‘Do you mind if I put it on, Dad?’ and he was dozing. When it finished, he opened his eyes and said: ‘I’ve always thought you were so clever the way you did that wonderful speeding up of the questions at the end.’ He was watching my shows regularly and was very proud of it all. It’s very touching. I knew he enjoyed it, but he never really came out with a verbal compliment. But that is the way he was brought up.”
What makes Parsons so fascinating is that, in his mid-90s, he still has the anxieties of a twentysomething – he constantly analyses what he has just said, for fear of being misinterpreted. A moment ago, he was on the verge of tears. Now he turns spiky. “Don’t you, for God’s sake, say it was the only compliment he paid me. It wasn’t. I know you’ve got to look for a bloody angle haven’t you? A headline. Once I was successful, my parents were a great support. My father loved Just a Minute.” The show is so well-loved that Radio 4 even has its own spoof – Just a Minim on I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, in which Jack Dee’s version of Parsons repeatedly tells us the game is fiendishly difficult to play and loved worldwide. What does he think of Dee’s parody? “Well, it’s ridiculous, isn’t it? It’s very funny, but it’s not very accurate.”
Parsons has always prided himself on accuracy and being a good mimic. As we talk, he segues from industrial Glaswegian to the middle-class tones of his father, forever performing. In the end, he says, acting has shaped everything he has done. In the 70s, he considered going into politics and was invited to stand as a Liberal in Yeovil, the seat eventually won by Paddy Ashdown. “I would have liked that because I enjoy the theatrical atmosphere of the House of Commons, but I would have had to give up being an actor, so I turned it down.”
Would he go into politics now? “No, it’s too late now.” Anyway, he says, at his age he must focus on his performing career.
Parsons tells me he comes from good genes – his parents lived to a ripe age and his older brother, a successful businessman, is still going strong. Do many of his contemporaries still work? “I’m not saying this with any sense of conceit, I’m saying it as a fact: I think I’m the oldest person in our profession who is actively performing all the time. I met darling June Whitfield the other day and she does little bits and pieces. She’s 92. I don’t think there’s anybody quite as old as me.” But why all the talk about age, he asks. “I never ask people their age. Ever. I’m not interested in age. I couldn’t care bloody less. I treat everybody just as they are.”
As for retirement, why would he even contemplate it? I tell him I read that he was affronted when one interviewer asked him to nominate his successor for Just a Minute, replying: “I don’t want to think about it, and how dare you ask that bloody question!”
“I would never speak to anybody like that!” he replies, equally affronted. You were being funny, I say. “That wasn’t very funny. That was autocratic. I’m not autocratic. But, no, I have never considered retiring. I will endeavour to keep going as long as I’ve got the mental stamina and the ability to perform.”
Parsons’ wife, Ann, who is only in her mid-70s, arrives at the hotel. He credits her, Just a Minute and gardening with keeping him young. He introduces me to Ann. “This is the lovely journalist. He’s asking all the most provocative questions.”
He stands up. “Oh, God, there’s the leg you see. My legs are very wobbly. Fortunately, I say, my brain is younger than my years, but in my legs I’m a lot older. My dear friend Paul Merton made a lovely joke about this on the show – he said well it’s better than being the other way round, otherwise you could go on a good walk and you wouldn’t know where the hell you were.” He giggles – and with that he’s off.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010