Sir Michael Parkinson: the shock of cancer is worse for the other person

Sir Michael Parkinson tells Mark Nicholas how his battle has strengthened his marriage and family

Michael Parkinson and his wife Mary

Constant companion: Sir Michael Parkinson and Lady Mary, his wife of 54 years. Her devotion after his diagnosis shows ‘what a marriage or partnership is all about’  Photo: REX FEATURES

May 27 2009, Rome. It is a hot day and thousands of tourists flow in and out of the Colosseum. Many are dressed in red shirts, the colours of Manchester United. Others are in scarlet-and-blue stripes, the colours of FC Barcelona. Today, Rome hosts the final of the Champions League, Europe’s greatest sporting prize.

From the west side of the Colosseum, taking the short walk towards the Forum entrance are two familiar figures from the golden age of television, Sir David Frost and Sir Michael Parkinson. At first, the vast tribes are a concern to men past their 70th birthday, until those in the red shirts – hundreds, maybe thousands of them – stop, stare and begin to part as if Moses had demanded it.

“Thought you supported Arsenal, Frosty!” “Hey Parky, you a United man?” (Barnsley FC, actually.) “Parky, is Messi as good as George [Best]?” And so it went on: photographs, autographs, reverence, respect. National treasures, both.

“I don’t know about being a national treasure,” says Sir Michael over a late breakfast at Watsons Bay in Sydney. “Frankly, I’m terrified of the implication. And, anyway, it’s a cliché.” No, it’s not. It is not a cliché to be in the hearts of a nation that, after all, grew up with the rhythm of you on the box. Saturday was an appointment to view. Match of the Day followed by Parkinson, usually after a few beers and a curry. Which makes it sound like a man thing, but Parkinson was one show that crossed the family viewing divide. We all sat there, gripped, as a Barnsley boy – accent as strong today as it was then – introduced us to a world of which we could only dream. James Cagney, for goodness sake, and Ingrid Bergman! John Wayne and Jack Nicholson; John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Madonna; Muhammad Ali (four times); Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Bette Davis; David Bowie and the Beckhams; Orson Welles (who told him to bin the crib sheet: “Let’s just talk”); Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly; Billy Connolly and Peter Sellers.

He had to ring Sellers himself – “not something I liked to do; it was the producer’s job, not mine”. Sellers had pulled out, last-minute, after an approach that had taken four lunches. “It was Friday night, we had no show without him. We talked for hours and eventually he agreed to come on as that crazy Gestapo soldier in The Producers. He goose-stepped down the stairs and spent the first 10 minutes completely in character. An extraordinary, brilliant man, but tricky, a challenge.”

Parky looks better than of late. Mind you, he ricked his back on the golf course the week before and, at 78, might now have retired from the game that he once abhorred but that still consumes Lady Mary, his wife of 54 years.

Mary, the one consistent strand in his life. “A shock like cancer, and all that comes with it, defines a relationship. Mary’s devotion and care have been, well, the thing is, you take it for granted until you really need it and then you see what a marriage or partnership is all about. In many ways, the shock is worse for the other person.”

Sir Michael was diagnosed with prostate cancer eight months ago. “I closed off, didn’t let my mind explore the possibilities, just tried to take it step by step. When they are zapping you, yes, you are nervous – after all, it is the unknown. But the nerves were no worse than when I played sport or when I stood at the top of those steps before every show. Because I didn’t feel that ill, I thought it would be an inconvenience, nothing more. I got that wrong. I was lucky. My GP, Jeremy Wheeler, insisted on regular checks. It was his dedication which enabled an early intervention, so I have much to thank him for.” The news is good. “They are satisfied they have got rid of it, and I don’t speculate about it being anywhere else.”

He is unimpressed that the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) is restricting the use of the hormone-therapy drug enzalutamide, and is proactive in campaigning for a change of thinking.

“Prostate cancer is bloody serious. We should aim to be transparent. I’m a spokesman for Men United [Prostate Cancer UK’s new campaign], and since the PR campaign began a couple of weeks back, 60,000 men have joined, so we are moving forward.”

Parky left school at 16 with a couple of O-levels and, despite peer pressure, was the first to break the family line of miners to pursue journalism. “Life down the mine was a part of our DNA. There was no stigma attached to it; in fact, it was an honourable job and, given the lack of options, the people made the best of it. My father left school at 13 and off he went, frequently battling the winter snow to get there. And, of course, Dad taught me cricket, which was part of our soul.”

He played in the Yorkshire League with Geoffrey Boycott and Dickie Bird – “bare-knuckle cricket” – and briefly kept Boycott out of the Barnsley team. “Mind you, he was 15, I was 20.” Modestly, he doesn’t say that he was good enough to have trials with both Yorkshire and Hampshire. He refers back to his parents: “Dad only read the back pages; Mum was the bookish one. They were quite something. I was very lucky.”

At 19, he was appointed the youngest captain in the Army during the Suez crisis. “Daft… I was running press liaison, born to be a serf not an officer, and I remember jumping from the landing craft, typewriter pressed close to my chest. Imagine the epitaph: ‘He died defending his typewriter!’ Daft. Though having said that, the sound of live gunfire lives with you for ever.”

He is fond and proud of his work as a journalist, which began at the South Yorkshire Times and The Manchester Guardian, before the Daily Express offered a whopping 2,000 guineas per annum back in 1960, “when it was still glamorous in Fleet Street”. The television breakthrough came three years later on Granada’s Cinema, where he interviewed Laurence Olivier “in a hut on the building site that was to be the National Theatre. I was so tense, but he sat back, smiled and twanged his braces. We were away.” What did he most remember about Lord Larry? “A slightly camp manner and his fabulous memories of Marilyn Monroe, whom he came to adore. ‘Mind you, she was more a model than an actress, Michael!’”

From Cinema came Parkinson, which was initially commissioned as an eight-week summer filler. The show ran from 1971 to 1982, during an age when warmth and conversation were considered winners. He is famously critical of much of today’s broadcasting standards, “but I’m alienated from television now. After 50 years in a radically changed business, I’m not likely to approve of much of what passes for entertainment anymore.”

What has been his trick? “Research, thorough research. You must know more about your subject than they have forgotten about themselves. You might only use 10 per cent of it, but that 10 can make the difference. Obviously enough, you need an ego to appear on TV, a certain confidence, but once you hear ‘Cue Michael’, the ego has to go out of the window. It’s the guest that matters, not you.”

Quite why the Beeb took him off air for 16 years is a mystery. The hiatus, or Hinterland, as he calls it, had periods of darkness that included booze – “I came home one day and Mary said I had become ugly, so that pretty much sorted it” – and a splendid foray into TV-am with Frost, among others, that fell flat on its face. On the upside, he got back to writing, mainly on sport for The Daily Telegraph, and won myriad awards.

After a few trial runs with hit shows featuring the best of Parkinson, the BBC asked him back in 1998. There he was, at the top of those same stairs, in pretty much the same, familiar studio, when the much-loved theme music struck up and the audience roared its approval. “As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted…” – and Parkinson was back. “Some of the best shows we have ever done,” he maintains, “because I had got over the conceit that I was a trained journo who should be covering wars and made peace with being in showbiz.”

After breakfast, we walked across the park at Watsons Bay and talked about his knighthood. “Who would have thought! Though I don’t use it professionally, I am immensely proud to have been recognised, and my father would have been overjoyed and baffled.” He added that he hoped it had come as much for charity work as for television.

He is passionate about the school for orphans he supports outside Alexandria in South Africa. “Aids killed the parents of these children, and the voluntary women we met on a Comic Relief visit desperately needed help with saving them, so we guaranteed tenure and raised funding. These are stateless children with no benefits. I’m satisfied we are making a difference, however small.”

There is a school in Sydney for severely deaf and blind children that adopted Michael’s storybook character Rockie Woofit as its mascot. “Yes, well, we went to see them initially because of a profoundly deaf child in our own family. Their support and advice was remarkable, so it is a privilege to stay involved.” And closest to home, and heart, is the Alexander Devine Charity, which is raising money for a school for terminally ill children in Berkshire.

Michael calls Australia his second home. “I always knew I’d be happy here. My father used to dream of sitting on the hill at the Sydney Cricket Ground.” He first brought his shows to the ABC in 1978, and has been a piece of the summer furniture since. “One of the nicest things that ever happened to me was being asked to give the Australia Day speech. That, and the Bradman Oration – a memorable double.”

What else; what is left to do? “Well, there’s the pub for a start.” The Royal Oak at Paley Street in Berkshire, with its Michelin star and catalogue of jaw-dropping reviews. “It was a long-standing ambition of mine to own a pub. It is a quintessentially British thing, and Nick, my son, runs it brilliantly. It has become a centre point for the family. We all live within three miles of each other, and Sundays there are a treat.

“I have had an extraordinary, at times unaccountable, life, but it’s not a miracle or anything like that. I’ve just been bloody lucky. I have a fascination about people, so I shall keep pursuing that. Let’s face it, I was a cub reporter who dreamt of meeting Bogart, marrying Bergman and living with her next door to Barnsley Football Club. Now I’m here, inexplicable really.”

And off he went, silver-haired beneath the mid-morning Sydney sun, a national treasure in one land and a favourite adopted son of another.

A new series of ‘Parkinson: Masterclass’ begins on Tuesday on Sky Arts, 8pm