CHRISTOPHER STEVENS on TV: Peerless Parky, chat show king who could spar with the stars

Parkinson At 50


Chris And Meg’s Wild Summer


When alternative comedy exploded, it killed more than the mother-in-law joke.

The traditional chat show was skewered, too. Urbane, articulate conversation was left looking as old-fashioned as an evening round the piano. As comedians took over, the celebrity interview became a shrieking exhibition, shallow as a layer of make-up.

Cheap gags and sneering were their stock-in-trade — on display in When Ruby Wax Met . . . , a retrospective on BBC2 that proves her 1990s encounters with A-listers are as embarrassing and frustrating now as when they were first broadcast.

Michael Parkinson lured the biggest names in showbiz and sport to appear on his chat show. He is pictured interviewing Muhammad Ali and Freddie Starr

Michael Parkinson lured the biggest names in showbiz and sport to appear on his chat show. He is pictured interviewing Muhammad Ali and Freddie Starr

Compare that with the sheer glamour and intelligence of Michael Parkinson’s best shows.

Celebrated in Parkinson At 50 (BBC1), his formal but relaxed style lured the biggest names in showbiz and sport to appear. When Parky was king, Hollywood giants sat down to talk because they wanted to. Once chat shows turned into a festival of mockery, they became a reluctant obligation.

No wonder most actors loathe doing them, when Jonathan Ross or Graham Norton constantly interrupt their best anecdotes with snide asides and obscene quips.

This compilation, selected by Parky’s son, Mike, achieves a balance between those interviews he remembers most fondly and the ones he’d rather forget. The 1975 skirmish with Helen Mirren, when he took objection to her dress and asked if her ‘physical attributes’ detracted from her acting, becomes more excruciating over time.

‘Serious actresses can’t have big bosoms, is that what you mean?’ she groaned.

Years later, Dame Helen returned to the show and, when he remarked on their quarrel, told him frankly: ‘I hated you.’

But it was Bette Midler who eviscerated him most efficiently, when he declared, a little pompously, that he regarded himself as a journalist. ‘I thought you were in show business,’ she hooted. ‘I didn’t know you were a journalist. Oh, how dreary!’

It was his journalist’s training, though, that coaxed out the best stories, from stars who were so confident of their place in the firmament that they had nothing left to prove.

Work experience of the week:

Jake Quickenden was quick to grab an axe and start chopping logs in Celebrity SAS: Who Dares Wins (C4). ‘I played Gaston in panto,’ he boasted, harking back to his role as the Beauty And The Beast hunk. Slap that thigh!

Jimmy Stewart and James Cagney could both cheerfully have said nothing but, ‘Mmm’ and, ‘Uh-huh’, but Parky got them talking.

And he stood his ground with Muhammad Ali and Billy Connolly, when anyone else would be swept away by the tsunami of words.

When I talked to Sir Michael earlier this month, he said: ‘You can’t edit on air. Before you meet them, you’ve got to have done the interview in your head. I never lost the journalist’s training of how to shape an interview.’

And then he added: ‘I did a job I would have paid to do.’

Chris Packham would be doing his job for nothing, if he wasn’t fortunate enough — and expert enough — to be doing it for a living.

The naturalist reminisced with his step-daughter Megan McCubbin, on their Wild Summer (BBC2), about spending a fortnight in his teens as a volunteer, standing guard over a peregrine falcon’s nest in Wales.

He didn’t mind doing the work unpaid, but he still objected strongly to the state of the caravan where he’d stayed.

The duo motored through the Welsh countryside, he picking the soundtrack on the car stereo and she doing the voiceover. As they bickered amiably, Chris’s intense partialities were as entertaining as the wildlife they discovered.

Before a jaunt to watch puffins, they stopped for an ice cream on the beach. It’s hard to know which exasperated him more, the spectacle of holidaymakers or the virulent pink slushie Megan brought him.

‘I just wanted an ice cream,’ he wailed. At that moment, and quite often throughout the half-hour, she seemed more like his mum than his daughter.

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