Parky: knighted for services to sycophancy

When ‘chat show king’ Michael Parkinson gets his gong from the Queen, it won’t be the first time he’s bowed and scraped before a famous person.

Patrick West

Patrick West

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‘Chat king Michael Parkinson is to be knighted in the New Year’s honours’, declared the Sun on Boxing Day. ‘Telly legend Michael Parkinson will become a Sir after chatting his way through thousands of interviews with some of the world’s biggest stars. Guests on his long-running show ranged from sporting greats like Mohammed Ali and George Best to political giants like Nelson Mandela. His easy and relaxed style of questioning made him the top choice of interviewer among a host of global mega-stars during more than three-and-a-half decades of TV.’

This is, of course, a load of old rubbish. Michael Parkinson didn’t chat ‘his way through thousands’ of guests. What he did was to get Billy Connolly on perennially to say the same old jokes about people parking bicycles up other people’s bums, or invite an increasingly incoherent and literally demented Muhammad Ali every other year to ramble on about his rumble in the jungle. Then there was the attack by Rod Hull and Emu, and George Best getting drunk and being simultaneously embarrassing and contemptuously self-pitying – every year. This is what people really remember Parkinson for.

Also, Parkinson was not ‘easy and relaxed’. Speaking less euphemistically, we would call him ‘deferential and thoroughly sycophantic’. Parky’s heyday in the 1970s, you must remember, was before the days of agents – agents who now demand that interviewers not ask any potentially embarrassing questions. So why didn’t Parkinson ask Best: ‘So, is it true that you’re still a bit of a pisshead?’ Or say to Connolly: ‘Don’t you reckon your wife is a bit of a controlling mentalist?’ Or to Ali: ‘Do you think boxing has fucked your head up or what?’ It’s not like we expected him to give his guests a grilling in the style of Jeremy Paxman, but at least a bit of probing would have been welcome.

But what of Parkinson’s ‘famous’ difficult interviews with Marlon Brando and Meg Ryan, you say, in which his apparently interrogating questions met with silence or sarcasm? The problem here was not with Parky being rude or intrusive – he was merely asking quite gentle, straightforward questions – but with his interviewee material. Brando was a fat narcissist and Meg Ryan has strangely become a moody old mare.

The weird thing is that Parkinson reminds me of Tony Blair. He’s the kind of person I would like to know as a friend, or a kindly uncle, because he has always seemed quite genial and avuncular. It’s just that, like Blair, he wasn’t good at his job and I hate seeing him on television.

To be fair, the problem with Michael Parkinson is that he ended up working in the wrong medium. The television chat show is a fundamentally flawed concept. Either you get the host being eulogistic, in the case of Parky, Terry Wogan or Terry Christian from The Word (remember him?); or being unbearably narcissistic, such as Jonathan Ross, Chris Evans, Jay Leno, David Letterman; or smarmy, like Baddiel and Skinner; or simply pathetic, like the late Russell Harty, famously savaged by Grace Jones.

Chat shows are locked in an eternal conflict as to whether the host or the guest is the star, the centre of attention. This is why they never really work. Whenever you watch them, you can feel the tension between those doing the talking. It’s like an unspoken jousting match, in which both parties are unsure as to whether the person who is speaking, or the person who is being spoken to, is the focus of the event.

There is that undercurrent of ambiguity which, for instance, you don’t get in radio phone-in shows, when those who call in understand that they are beneath those to whom they are talking, and generally speak moronic rubbish just to prove it. How many times on BBC Radio Five Live on Saturday afternoon must we hear the expressions ‘the ref today was a joke’ and ‘the ball wasn’t over the line. We should introduce goal-line cameras. After all, we’ve got the technology’? This is why Jerry Springer or Jeremy Kyle’s confessional-style television shows do not have the ambiguity of the talk show: those who appear on these programmes, as stupid as they appear to be, do appreciate that they are part of a freak show, and are not celebrities.

This is why the chat show, or the one-to-one interview, is so easy to satirise or parody. Chris Morris did it in The Day Today; so did Steve Coogan with Alan Partridge (which sprung from The Day Today), and Sacha Baron Cohen with Borat. They did so because the television interview is an inherently ridiculous and fraught format, and because most humour is based on tension and nervousness – which can be perceived manifestly in television interviews.

Parky certainly wasn’t the worst. Can you think of a talk show host you do actually like? They will always be flawed in different ways. Parkinson’s vice was in being too nice. Thus I suppose Parky being awarded a knighthood is actually quite fitting. He has been the master of servitude and of obsequiousness. I can imagine him receiving his knighthood from the Queen, and then putting forward some questions of his own.

‘So what’s it like to be Queen?’

‘It’s rather nice’

‘Ha ha ha! That’s very funny! It reminds me of the time I met Billy Connolly the other day…’

Oh shut up.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV reviewer. Visit his blog here.

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