No one in the history of showbiz has attracted more abuse or suffered more insults than Nicholas Parsons, the urbane radio presenter who died yesterday aged 96 after a short illness. And the extraordinary fact is, he loved the mockery.
That was the essence of his stage persona, as the butt of everyone’s jokes — whether as the straight man in an early TV double act, the smarmy gameshow host in a silver lamé suit at his peak, or as the chairman of a parlour game for the airwaves that became a national institution, Just A Minute.
‘Call yourself a chairman?’ panellist Kenneth Williams would shriek at him. ‘You’re not a chairman! You’re a nitwit! An ignoramus!’
Another regular on the show, Paul Merton, routinely cut across Parsons mid-sentence. Whenever the aggrieved host protested that he was trying to speak, Merton would retort: ‘Yeah, so I just assumed you’d be talking rubbish, as always.’
No one in the history of showbiz has attracted more abuse or suffered more insults than Nicholas Parsons, the urbane radio presenter who died yesterday aged 96 after a short illness. Pictured: Nicholas Parsons on the ITV hit Sale Of The Century in 1978
And yet at the end of the half-hour, the chairman had control of the microphone again as he dispensed unctuous thanks to all the players and especially to us, the audience, for listening.
To hear his blithe, self-satisfied tones, you’d think he had never had to endure a harsh word in his life.
Perhaps the only straight man in comic history who played the part so well was Ernie Wise, whose air-brained self-regard survived every slap and insult. But Little Ern only had to put up with one assailant, Eric Morecambe. Nicholas Parsons was humiliated, mocked, berated and belittled by everyone.
It’s a part he played so consistently for so long that to meet him and discover his real, very different personality could come as quite a surprise. In private, he was analytical, careful of his dignity, well-informed and sometimes introspective, with a streak of melancholy.
Above all, he had an insatiable need to perform. It sustained a career stretching back to his 20s when, improbably, he was an engineering apprentice on Clydebank in Glasgow.
It was still very much there when I attended a recording of Just A Minute at the Hippodrome in Bristol in 2008.
Parsons was 84, and I was delighted to see how he made the most of his applause, shuffling off the stage to prolonged cheers as if the old trouper was determined to keep going until his legs gave out.
That was a shameless act. I’d interviewed him the evening before and knew there was nothing wrong with his legs. He had the energy and acuity of a man 30 years younger.
He also had great generosity, far more than many others in the business. I’d written to him, explaining that I had begun work on the authorised biography of his old friend Kenneth Williams.
To hear his blithe, self-satisfied tones, you’d think he had never had to endure a harsh word in his life. Pictured: Nicholas Parsons as host of Just A Minute
Parsons rang me immediately, to arrange a date to talk. He needed no prompting and expected no favours in return: he simply wanted to help, and to honour the memory of a man he loved and admired.
The stage persona was completely absent when we met. He was sharp at first, testing my intentions, and then opened up. Whenever he suspected that I wanted to put words in his mouth, he resisted firmly. On the radio, players could lead him round in circles — it was a different story in real life.
He revealed a deep knowledge of psychology, partly based, he revealed to me personally, on years of therapy.
The end of his first marriage to wife Denise in 1989 after 35 years had shaken him, as did the idea that he might ever have to stop working.
His family, especially his two children and his second wife Ann, had kept him sane throughout his later career. Without them, he might have been swallowed up by depression like Kenneth.
‘I miss him,’ he told me in tears at the end of our interview. ‘I miss him very much.’ He then wondered out loud how much time he had left to keep enjoying the thrill of performing — until Ann told him to stop being so silly.
His face broke into a grin, as he saw the funny side. ‘You don’t have a sense of humour,’ he liked to say, ‘unless you can laugh at yourself.’
Ever the straight man, he was happy to let others have the last laugh — and happiest of all when the joke was on him
While we now know him best for Just A Minute, Parsons was catapulted to sudden fame as a teatime gameshow host on Sale Of The Century, which was first broadcast on Anglia TV in 1971.
Parsons made the show his own from the start. In his bow-tie and glittery silver jacket, his hair pomaded in waves and his teeth shining, he was beyond parody.
Surrounded by glamorous ‘dolly birds’ in bikinis, to emphasise the show’s faux glamour, he made double-glazing reps look sincere and circus ringmasters seem underdressed.
The game’s format, based on an American hit, seems familiar today, but at the time it was innovative, addictive family viewing: contestants faced a series of questions that got successively harder and could opt to bail out at any time with a smaller prize or hang on for the grand prize of a new car.
The questions were written on cards, but Parsons, who was dyslexic, preferred to improvise his patter rather than read it from an autocue. That proved part of the show’s success: no scriptwriter could have captured the earnest, urgent yet utterly shallow style that he perfected.
Overdoing the superficial charm so vigorously left many convinced he was sending himself up — which only added to the fun.
Parsons quickly became a housewives’ favourite, and by Christmas 1978 Sale Of The Century was netting 21.2 million viewers — the best ratings for an ITV gameshow ever.
But it was on radio where his success made him a national treasure, as the perennial chairman of Just A Minute — a game in which players are challenged to speak for 60 seconds without repeating themselves, pausing for thought or straying from the subject: ‘Without repetition, hesitation or deviation’.
The invention of radio producer Ian Messiter, who sat in silently at each recording as the time-keeper, the game was originally called One Minute Please. But the pilot episode went badly and, in an effort to salvage it, Parsons was cast as the master of ceremonies.
It was the arrival of Kenneth Williams in 1968, and later the actors Peter Jones and Derek Nimmo, that transformed the game into a duel of high camp and rapier wit. Tempers sizzled, repartee flew like daggers and above the fray floated Nicholas Parsons like a pompous cherub, vainly attempting to soothe the combatants.
If he had tried to beat the wits, or even play for the occasional laugh, the format would have collapsed.
It worked because he was intent only on compering the game, and ready to soak up whatever abuse was hurled at him —defenceless but invulnerable, humourless but good-humoured.
Over the decades, the cast changed, but the chairman never did. He never missed a show, either, until, much to his chagrin, a bout of flu forced him to skip a recording in 2018. He was 94.
Born in 1923, the son of a Grantham doctor — his father’s patients included Margaret Thatcher’s family — he knew from the first time he appeared in a school play that he wanted to be an actor.
His parents were appalled, all the more when they discovered that his nickname at school was ‘Shirley’ — after the child star of the 1930s, Shirley Temple.
His mother’s disdain for him was provoked partly by his dyslexia. He said: ‘She thought I was slow. I also stammered.’ But she also despised the theatre.
Sent to learn a trade in wartime at the Drysdales works, manufacturing marine pumps, he honed his acting talents by putting on impromptu shows for the other apprentices during breaks. When they sneaked away to the toilets for a cigarette, he would try out his impressions: Winston Churchill was a favourite.
The factory foreman was another — a big man with a fiery temper who would spit his false teeth into his hand before bellowing in a terrified trainee’s face.
When Nicholas was caught doing voices, the scolding he got was so heated that afterwards he could remember only ‘a continuous stream of expletives’ culminating in the order, ‘Get back to yer bench, ye big . . . impersonator!’
A week later he got his revenge. The Glasgow Empire gave him a short spot, low on the bill, to try his routines on stage. All his workmates were in the cheap seats, and they howled with laughter as he sent up the apoplectic foreman, waving a pair of dentures in his hand.
These skits went down well with wartime concert parties too. Parsons was ruled medically unfit for active service, following five months in hospital with pleurisy. After the war, the BBC spotted his talent, hiring him to do impressions of comedians such as Max Miller, Tommy Trinder and W.C. Fields on the radio variety show Happy-Go-Lucky Hour.
He was so eager for success that he would take the night train after work from Glasgow to the BBC’s studios in North Wales, making the long haul every week to record his two-minute segment.
After the war, he tried every kind of job in the theatre — performing middle-class melodramas, doing ‘character’ cameos in West End productions, braving derisive audiences as a stand-up comedian at the Windmill, and doing impressions as a nightclub comic.
When the act went badly, it could be dangerous. One night at the Royal Court Theatre Club, run by Clement Freud (a future star of Just A Minute), Parsons imagined Churchill as a celebrity chef.
One drunk in the audience was so outraged that he roared, ‘How dare you, sir!’ and stormed the stage. Parsons, who had boxed as a teenager, dodged a wild punch, and the man fell on his face.
He found his metier in the late-1950s as the posh twit to TV comedian Arthur Haynes’s working-class braggart. Haynes called him ‘Mr Nichol-arss’, dragging out the last syllable, and loved to make him splutter with laughter.
The partnership lasted until 1966, when Parsons switched to be the foil of another television funnyman, Benny Hill. Hill was jealous about laughs, and hated to see his partner get them.
When Sale Of The Century started, Hill broke up their double act in a fit of spite, and then recorded a savage sketch called Sale Of The Half Century. It included a crude impersonation of Parsons, mocking him as oily and ingratiating.
Instead of feeling insulted (as Hill meant him to be), Parsons was delighted. He thought it was hilarious. ‘I rang him up,’ he remembered, ‘and said, ‘Benny, you should take over my show!’ ‘
Ever the straight man, he was happy to let others have the last laugh — and happiest of all when the joke was on him.
My 11-hour agony with the master
By Gyles Brandreth
Nicholas Parsons wasn’t just my friend. He was my hero and role model.
I first met him more than 50 years ago at a Christmas party hosted by the TV chef Fanny Cradock when I was still a student at Oxford. From that day in December 1969 to last Saturday when I called him in hospital, he was my mentor and my guide.
In half a century of friendship we never had a cross word, though in 1978 we came quite close to it when, for charity, we took part in a competition to see which of us could make the longest-ever after-dinner speech.
After 11 hours of non-stop talking in adjacent rooms —we each attached a rubber tube with a four-pint capacity to ourselves so we didn’t have to pop to the loo — we agreed to share the record.
Nicholas was competitive and ambitious. He always strove to be the best at whatever he was doing. And he always succeeded.
Nicholas was competitive and ambitious. He always strove to be the best at whatever he was doing. And he always succeeded. Pictured: Gyles enjoying a drink with Nicholas Parsons
We think of him now as the smooth-talking, silver-tongued chairman of the world’s longest-running radio panel show, Just A Minute. But — as he would very much want me to remind you — there was so much more to him than that.
He had half a dozen careers and he revelled in all of them. As an actor, he appeared in several of the films made in the 1950s and 1960s by the celebrated Boulting Brothers, as well as in a couple of Carry Ons.
He starred in the West End in Boeing Boeing. He was a knock-out in stockings and suspenders in The Rocky Horror Show. And right up until last year he was touring the country in his one-man show celebrating the life and nonsense verse of poet and painter Edward Lear.
He wrote several books. He collected antique clocks. He never stopped.
A couple of years ago, when we took part in Celebrity Antiques Road Trip, travelling around the country looking for bargains, he insisted on driving. ‘You’ve got to keep going,’ he insisted. He did just that — right to the end, with courtesy and good humour.
He was a friend who never let me down. Whenever I published a book, he praised it. Whenever I appeared in a show, he came to see it. When I stood in for him on Just A Minute in 2018, he called and said, with a chuckle: ‘You were too good.’
I wasn’t, of course. He was the master. He was just the best. Thank you, old friend.