Michael Parkinson obituary: era-defining broadcaster and talkshow host

With his laidback style and down-to-earth humour, Parkinson was an amiable but penetrating interviewer, becoming the British chatshow host against whom all others have been measured.

Michael Parkinson at BFI Southbank for an Alan Whicker centenary event in August 2021 © Tim Whitby/BFI

The chat show king of British television, Michael Parkinson, who has died aged 88, outdistanced rivals Russell Harty and David Frost and became a Saturday night fixture on BBC1 with his series Parkinson (1971 to 1982). Although he was not the first late-night TV chat show host on British television (The Eamonn Andrews Show had a popular following on ITV from 1964 to 1969), he helped pioneer the celebrity interview format, which few on UK TV have been so successful at since. 

Always regarding the chat show as far more than just a vehicle for entertainment, Parkinson’s great strength lay in his ability to engage with Hollywood stars, popular celebrities but also some of the greatest minds of our age, such as his interview with Professor Jacob Bronowski. He knew the great value of the unspoken spaces between his questions, and was able to draw out some of the most compelling and psychologically revealing interviews ever to have graced the small screen. 

Born in Cudworth, near Barnsley, South Yorkshire, in 1935, he left grammar school at the age of 16 with two O-levels and began his career at the Barnsley Chronicle. He did National Service, becoming the youngest captain in the Army, and eventually arrived in Fleet Street to join the Daily Express. His big break came in 1965 with a weekly sports column in The Sunday Times.

His work in television began when he was invited to join the production team of Granada TV’s regional current affairs programme Scene at 6.30 (1963 to 66) and as a reporter for other local Granada programmes. Producer Paul Fox brought him to the BBC to work on the late-night news review Twenty-Four Hours (1965 to 1972) with Cliff Michelmore. In 1969 he left television journalism to become the presenter of Granada’s perceptive film magazine series Cinema (1964 to 1975), following previous presenters Derek Granger and Michael Scott. He stayed with Cinema for two years before he was offered his own show by the BBC, Parkinson. 

It was in this television format that Parkinson excelled, projecting to the viewer his affable, commonsensical, plain-speaking Yorkshireman personality. During an era when celebrities were rarely seen to speak at length about themselves on television, Parkinson and its host soared in both the ratings and the viewers’ affections. Fiercely proud of his Yorkshire roots, he carried forward into his interviews a down-to-earth humour backed up by the journalistic integrity and immense research he had practised during his days as a Granada reporter. 

His famed encounters during the series’ 11-year run (on both BBC1 and BBC2) included Muhammad Ali (a torrent of Black Muslim power); the sultan-like Orson Welles; the mercurial Billy Connolly; the genial Hollywood actors David Niven, Jack Lemmon, James Stewart, Gene Kelly and James Cagney; the multiple visits of Kenneth Williams with his humorous but oddly slanted ideas on life and behaviour; and the intimidating Rod Hull and Emu in 1976.

Parkinson (1975)
© BBC

When the series came to an end in 1982, David Frost persuaded him to join a celebrity syndicate in a bid for the breakfast TV franchise. Known as ‘The Famous Five’, Parkinson, Frost, Angela Rippon, Anna Ford and Robert Kee formed TV-am. He co-presented the morning show Good Morning Britain (1983 to 92) in its early days, but when the station ran into trouble due to internal management difficulties he left to host a range of popular programmes, including Thames TV’s Give Us a Clue from 1984, LWT’s All Star Secrets (1985 to 1986) and Yorkshire TV’s Parkinson One-To-One (1987 to 1988).

The BBC revived their 1960s/70s antiques valuation series Going for a Song in 1995 with Parkinson as host, and he stayed with the daytime show for four years while also hosting a comeback of Parkinson from 1998 to 2004. At a time dominated by such youth culture platforms as The Jack Docherty Show and various Jonathan Ross interview programmes, Parkinson’s guests now reflected the new generation of celebrities: Geri Halliwell, Robbie Williams, Ewan McGregor and George Michael, among others.

However, this revised Parkinson series ended in a disagreement with the BBC in circumstances not unlike his previous departure from the corporation. In 1982, Parkinson had quit when his request for a five-nights-a-week format to the show was rejected; this time the row was over scheduling (his prime 10pm slot was to be given over to Premiership football highlights). Host and show were quickly snatched up by ITV and Parkinson, in its comfortably familiar format and fashion, continued as before until 2007.

He was the recipient of numerous awards and honours, including a Fellowship of the BFI (1997), the Variety Club’s media personality of the year (1998), the BAFTA for best light entertainment performance (1999); and his Parkinson show was ranked eighth in a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes drawn up by the BFI in 2000 from the votes of industry professionals. In 2001, the Parkinson series won the National Television Award for most popular talk show for the fourth time, and in 2008 he was knighted by the Queen at Buckingham Palace.

Parkinson leaves behind many stand-out moments in the public memory: his verbal sparring with Mohammed Ali; an awkward encounter with Meg Ryan; his evident delight in dealing with golden-age Hollywood and sporting legends; his equally evident discomfort with “that damn Emu!”; and the platform he gave Billy Connolly to demonstrate his considerable comic talents to a wider national audience. His contribution to broadcasting remains incalculable: he revolutionised the chat show on UK television, giving it a depth and reach never accomplished before.

  • Michael Parkinson, 28 March 1935 to 16 August 2023

Tise Vahimagi died in 2013.

BFI Player logo

All-you-can-watch access to 100s of films

A free trial, then just £4.99/month or £49/year.

Get free trial