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Michael Parkinson’s intellectual early interviews show how low British TV has sunk

Those were the days: Michael Parkinson, Anthony Burgess and Donald Sinden
Those were the days: Michael Parkinson, Anthony Burgess and Donald Sinden - BBC Archive video

If you want a sense of how very different British television – and Britain itself – were 50 years ago, reflect that in the 1970s pubs would empty early on Saturday nights as people rushed home to watch writers and intellectuals being interviewed on television by the late Michael Parkinson.

Of course, it is true that the pub-goers might not have looked at it in quite that light themselves. Nevertheless, when the great British public dashed home in their millions to catch the Parkinson chat show, heavyweight authors such as WH Auden, Harold Pinter, Kenneth Tynan and Edna O’Brien could often be seen rubbing shoulders with the comics, singers, sports stars and Hollywood legends.

“In the early days of the talk show, we could accommodate Auden and Max Wall, Enoch Powell and Tommy Cooper, Jacob Bronowski and Bing Crosby,” Parkinson recalled, a touch wistfully, in his 2010 book Parky’s People. “What is more, millions would tune in.” Parky and his producers did not think that programmes devoted wholly to writers would scare viewers away. In one early show the two guests were John Mortimer and Bernard Levin; another was devoted entirely to Malcolm Muggeridge.

I suspect the shows were even more fun when the brainboxes were mixed in with the celebs. One edition in 1972 had the historian AJP Taylor alongside Fanny Cradock and Bernard Manning. And I’d love to know how the peppery Shakespearean scholar AL Rowse got on with the Generation Game hostess Isla St Clair in 1980.

There is something noble about the schizophrenic quality of the early Parkinson shows, a heartening belief that the people who enjoyed Derek Nimmo’s appearance in September 1972 would be just as happy to listen to an abstruse and challenging poet like Auden the following week. In fact, the Auden interview, as transcribed in Parky’s People, is delightful. (Like most of these early shows the actual programme has been lost, the BBC seeing no reason to preserve one of the rare interviews with the greatest British poet of his era).

Magnificently gnarled: poet WH Auden
Magnificently gnarled: poet WH Auden - John Summers

Auden spoke to Parkinson about serious matters, with charm and eloquence: he is as quotable here as in his essays. Explaining his preference for traditional verse forms, he declared: “I’m a passionate formalist on hedonistic grounds. After all, everyone knows if you play a game, you can’t play it without rules. You can make the rules what you like, but your whole fun and freedom comes from working within them. Why should poetry be any different?” And on the importance of art: “[It’s] our chief means of communication with the dead. Homer is dead but we can still read The Iliad with relevance, and I personally think, without communication with the dead, a fully human life’s not possible.”

The programme’s original viewers would also have had the pleasure of looking at Auden’s awesomely craggy face. (Parky himself recalled: “Whenever people ask what Auden was like I say: ‘He was the only person I met who had dust in his wrinkles.’”) It is difficult to remember in these days of BookTok and booming literary festivals that a lot of people would have had no idea what their favourite authors looked or sounded like and would have relished the chance to see them on TV.

For the same reason I’m grateful for the opportunity to watch vintage Parkinson interviews online: goggling at Anthony Burgess’s extraordinary combover (or what you can see of it behind a fug of cigarette smoke) is as much a part of the experience as listening to what he’s saying.

Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine anybody on a prime time chat show today being allowed to be as interesting and original as, say, Burgess on the advantages and disadvantages of the British character: “The British have never been very good at thinking [and] in consequence they’re a bit scared of people who write books… In a way it’s a kind of wisdom… In 1940 the French thought intellectually about the War – they saw they couldn’t defeat the Germans, they’d better yield and give in. But in England we didn’t think about that, we just went on fighting. This is a tremendous virtue.” Despite his recherché vocabulary, Burgess proved a chat show natural, even becoming a regular on the more lowbrow Wogan show.

Anthony Burgess proved a chat show natural
Anthony Burgess proved a chat show natural - BBC Archives

Parkinson once declared that if he “could save one interview from the thousands I had done”, it would be his 1974 programme with the scientist and philosopher Jacob Bronowski. Again, this was chat with an intellectual charge (“My life has been happy because… I’ve never had any uncertainty about the meaning of the word ‘good’, the meaning of the word ‘true’, the meaning of the word ‘beautiful’.”)

One notes, however, that Parky was also happy to welcome more popular writers: the novelists Frederick “Day of the Jackal” Forsyth and Leslie “The Virgin Soldiers” Thomas; the ancient comic playwright Ben Travers, who could recall seeing WG Grace make a century.

The Parkinson show ended in 1982, after which Parky got the chance to interview more writers, including Beryl Bainbridge and Maya Angelou, during his stint as host of Desert Island Discs. But when the Parkinson TV show was revived in the 1990s, the line-up was unremittingly showbizzy: the writers and thinkers were dropped, unless they doubled up as comics, like Clive James and Jonathan Miller.

Is there really no room for the odd novelist or poet on the primetime chat show any more? In fact, plenty of novels are promoted on Graham Norton’s chat show and the like, but they are written by Tom Hanks, Dawn French, Richard Osman – people who are already famous for other reasons.

Frederick Forsyth was another Parkinson favourite
Frederick Forsyth was another Parkinson favourite - John Mahler

It seems such a shame that Norton, who does a lot for literature elsewhere with his book club, cannot give a few authors a boost by letting them on his chat show. It may not be a forum for great thinkers – I’m not advocating Slavoj Žižek on the sofa – but why not Ian Rankin or Marian Keyes, who are great raconteurs? And I bet more of Norton’s viewers have bought their books than have bothered to see a good number of the films promoted on his show.

In Parkinson’s heyday the worlds of literature and light entertainment could collide, and people lapped it up. Fluffy panel games such as Call My Bluff saw such eminent authors as Quentin Bell, Victoria Glendinning and Lord David Cecil unbending. (Although Anthony Burgess was not invited back after complaining that everybody ought to already know the obscure words they were asked to define.)

Now, never the twain shall meet. But do we really think viewers would rather see, say, reality TV stars on such shows than writers? Wouldn’t Zadie Smith or Yuval Noah Harari be great on Would I Lie To You? It seems a bit odd, when you think of some of the Z-listers who have been on Strictly Come Dancing, that the show has never had a novelist as a contestant (Though at least the Swedish version of the show once had the crime writer Camilla Läckberg taking part).

British people are actually still quite interested in books, as it happens. But it seems, today’s television commissioners think books and authors should be fenced off from anything aimed at a popular audience.

I suppose that means we’re never likely to see again such a perfect fusion of literature and entertainment as the magical moment on the Parkinson show when Kenneth Williams and Maggie Smith – coming across more than ever like twins separated at birth – read Sir John Betjeman’s beautiful poem Death In Leamington, in the delighted presence of the poet himself. Michael Parkinson’s death reminds us that his glory days – an era in which you could see the Poet Laureate on BBC1 on a Saturday night – are starting to look as remote as the 19th Century.