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I could never survive without Mary; At 62, Parky is back in the chat show hot seat next week. BRIAN READE finds out what makes him run.

Show me a man over 40 who has never envied Michael Parkinson and I'll show you a born liar.

He is one of those effortlessly talented men, like Des Lynam, who takes lavish praise from peers and public in his stride, and maintains a street cred in a profession where smarminess and success go hand-in-hand.

Here is a man paid a small fortune to do jobs others would kill for, who has played a starring role in a couple of million female fantasies and who now, at 62, is swaggering back like the Sinatra of Chat to show the lesser talents how it's done ...

How you talk to the rich and famous in a way that entertains millions.

He sits opposite me looking tanned and relaxed after five weeks playing golf and with his two-year-old grandson James out in Australia, being totally blase about the awesome expectations that surround the return of Parkinson, confidently shrugging his shoulders and saying: "It ain't no great deal."

I can't contain my envy any longer. "You've had a disgustingly good life, haven't you?" I ask, and I don't need to look to his mouth for the answer. It's written in the deep laugh-lines that decorate his face.

"Oh yeah, I've had a really good life. I've never really had a proper job. I've just written about sport and interviewed the most famous people in the world. Basically, I've swanned my way through, and in 46 years as a hack I can honestly say I've never done anything that I haven't wanted to.

"My life has been like a wonderful movie."

The sickening thing is he means it. You learn very quickly that Parkinson values talk. That he believes in articulating his emotions.

It is why he is good at his job. He believes in the art of listening. And he knows that the listener deserves frankness.

So I ask him about his fears and my faith is restored in the theory of man as an imperfect animal.

Failed pretenders to Parky's crown take note and comfort. The man is haunted by a harrowing anxiety dream - about being a talk-show host.

"It is a terrible dream. I go into this studio, walk down the stairs and sit opposite a faceless person. I don't know who they are or what to ask them. It is dreadful.

"And then I hear these awful mumbles come up from the audience. I am literally petrified. And then it ends."

I POINT out that was a perfect description of a Gaby Roslin interview but he doesn't rise to the bait, preferring instead to analyse the dream.

It holds, he believes, the secret of his success. An indication that what drives him on is the pursuit of perfection and the fear of failure.

But there is another fear in his life which dwarfs all other emotions. The fear that after nearly 40 years of marriage to his wife Mary, he may soon lose her.

"For the first time in my life I am frightened," he says slowly, in a refined but still strong south Yorkshire accent.

"I am starting to think morbid things, even though we are both healthy, touch wood. It's not that I might die, but that she might. We have been so happy together and now suddenly I am getting this awful dread about losing her.

"The realisation has dawned that one day one of us won't be there.

"Over the years we have become like one person. Indispensable to each other. It's marvellous, but it's bloody frightening. Because if there is anything that is irreplaceable in my life, it is her.

"There just wouldn't be enough time left for me to find a similar relationship, even if I had the inclination."

Next year, the Parkinsons will have been married for 40 years. In a profession where lasting four years is seen as a rare achievement, theirs is spectacular. But it hasn't been easy.

"I don't honestly know how or why it's lasted, I just thank God it has. For all the possibilities that there were to walk away in the past 40 years - and there WERE possibilities - we didn't.

"I genuinely thank God we persevered. That we realised, like all other couples, the sublime truth, that your partner isn't perfect. I think only our sense of humour saw us through."

When they met in the Fifties, Michael was a local reporter in Doncaster and Mary was a teacher at a secondary modern school. Two decades later they would both become household names. It was the opposite of what the young Yorkshire couple had in mind.

"We thought I might become news editor of the Yorkshire Post and Mary might become a headmistress. "Then all of a sudden I moved to Fleet Street and then Granada Television and my career started to take off. It put an enormous strain on Mary, who was left behind.

"And it was then I learnt the marvellous truth about her. That she was this gutsy and adaptable person who was basically fearless.

"And it was because of her that we made this extraordinary journey from Doncaster to here. And made it without too much compromise about who we are, without breaking up, and rearing a family at the same time.

THAT'S been my real achievement. The rest, the professional stuff, doesn't really matter."

Well, the chat show stuff has certainly mattered to a generation of TV viewers brought up on what has deservedly been described as the best British talk show ever.

Parkinson ran for 361 editions between 1971 and 1982 and featured almost a thousand of the world's most famous people. Parky's encounters with the likes of Muhammed Ali, Shirley MacLaine, Orson Welles and Emu now sit easily in that BBC vault marked TV Classic.

The show returns on BBC1 this Friday with Sir Anthony Hopkins, Barry Manilow and Paul Merton in the seats.

In theory, it was the repeats of Parkinson last summer which finally convinced both Michael and the BBC that his return was long overdue.

But in truth, it was the glaring absence of any real successor to Parkinson over the past 15 years which made Britain realise he was the undisputed master.

So why is he putting his towering reputation on the line by coming back?

"Mainly because of the success of the repeats. I needed a reason to prove to myself why I should come back and the repeats were that reason. Had I had the kind of reviews I got last summer back in the early Eighties I would never have left the BBC.

"I did take a lot of persuasion. I mean, why do I need it in a sense? But there was one specific moment that clinched it. The BBC asked me to do its 60th anniversary show.

"I hadn't worked for the BBC for 15 years and it was a huge compliment.

"It was live show and there was a big band, and I stood at the top of a staircase on the set and I felt a kind of buzz that I'd not felt since the talk shows. It was almost like a junkie going back to a fix.

"I thought `Ooh, I like this.' I should have been terrified. But I had this huge surge of confidence. That was a defining moment. I realised I'd missed the buzz."

Parkinson is a wise and experienced man. So surely he is preparing himself for the most British of traditions: the backlash?

"I'm taking nothing for granted. I was never nervous in the Seventies. I was too daft to be nervous. Now I am. Not from my reputation's point of view. That doesn't matter any more. It can't be altered. I just wonder if I have the energy to do it.

"Then there is this inordinate expectation about what is only a talk show. It's not rocket science. It would be wrong to expect too much."

SO HOW does he assess himself? Does he fear he may have lost it or his style may even appear dated?

"Not at all. I know I'm a better interviewer now than I was then. I'm older, more mature, and interviewing is one of the things you get better at as you get older.

"And I know it's just a job and I've devised a way of doing it. I'm proud of it. But I don't think I am anything special. It ain't no big deal.

"I'm just a hack working away in a strange business.

"Everybody's tried every which way with the talk show - underwater, upside down, with daft gimmicks - and it seems to me they have come full circle and thought: `Let's go back to where we started from'.

"In the end the classic principles apply and that's why I'm back. I may be wrong. Maybe it's changed and people don't want that. But I think they do."

A brief glimpse at the list of greats Parkinson attracted on to his show fills me with a certain fear. I wonder if there are the characters out there today to ignite the flame that makes classic television. Parky disagrees.

"Oh there are a lot of people out there. Look, this show has come back because people want a straightforward interview show.

"I am going to resist the temptation to bring on the huge American la- di-das and actually go back to what made the show work.

"People who are interesting sure, but first and foremost, people who are up to the job. People who are capable of talking about themselves.

"I intend to get people on the show who I know can do the job. It would be wrong to say `Let's get Clint Eastwood in'. We've had all that. There is no mystique any more about the great stars. The strength must be the quality of the talk."

But hasn't anyone who is half-decent been done to death, I ask?

"No this is the point," he says, warming to his theme. "There are people who have been on chat shows who haven't been treated the way they were treated on my show.

"I've watched interviews and thought: `Don't ask him that question, ask this'."

Here is a man who is clearly itching to get back to his craft and pump life into a dying art. To talk intelligently on television. An art he describes as "an unnatural act between consenting adults in public".

He has always insisted his particular talent is in being a good listener. But it is only when you get him on his favourite breed of person, comedians, that you realise how seriously he takes his job.

"Comedians do the most important job of all in our society and we shamelessly under-acknowledge them.

"When you get the best, the Les Dawsons, Jimmy Tarbucks and Billy Connollys, their talent is remorseless. I just became their stooge.

"The secret of working with comics is to find out what their timing is. And to know you must never tread on their ground. They are the star. I just let them perform."

I ask if he thinks, at 62, he will stay on the air longer than his beloved Barnsley will stay in the Carling Premiership, and he exercises those laugh lines again and says he hopes so.

"A couple of years will suit me fine. Then I'll write my memoirs. We've signed to do 20 shows, which should be enough to tell us if we made the right decision in coming back."

So is he looking at 65 as a retirement age?

"No way. I temporarily retired when I was 50, then 55, then 60. And I've now realised I'll never retire as long as I can hold a pen.

"I took time off a few years back and discovered the great truth that golf is not a way of life. I'll just keep on going.

"My true ambition is to still be working on television when I'm as old and randy as George Burns."

I think he's in with a good shout.

THE RISE AND RISE

1935: Born in Cudworth, near Barnsley. At 14, he played in same Barnsley cricket team as future Test umpire Dickie Bird. Worked on school magazine before joining local papers. Then broke into TV, working for Granada as a current affairs producer.

1969: Took over presenting Cinema series.

1971: Hosted regular afternoon show Teabreak. Same year he started his talk show Parkinson while his wife took over Teabreak. Parkinson ran for 11 years until 1982.

1992: Nominated for a BAFTA after playing the lead role in a BBC play Ghostwatch.

1995: Presented three parts of Parkinson ... The Interview, tributes to some of the all- time greats he had on his show.

Last Autumn hosted BBC's 60th Anniversary Gala, Auntie's All Time Greats watched by 12.5m viewers.
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Reade, Brian
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jan 3, 1998
Words:2138
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