William Cook discovers that the clue to Nicholas Parsons’s enduring success lies in his ability to laugh at himself
When I was a kid, watching Sale of the Century on my grandma’s colour telly, Nicholas Parsons used to seem like the smartest man in show business. Meeting him half a lifetime later, in a rooftop restaurant in Kensington, I’m pleased to find that he still looks just as dapper. His blue blazer is neatly pressed, his white shirt is crisply ironed and his bright eyes sparkle like a schoolboy’s. You’d never guess he was in his eighties, with more than 60 years in showbiz behind him. He’s worked with Tony Hancock, Kenneth Williams — all the greats, and he’s outlived the lot of them. He’s a living marvel. They should have him stuffed.
Parsons has reinvented himself countless times, from leading man to pantomime dame, from Radio 4 stalwart to undergraduate icon. Today, he’s beloved by modern comics as much as by the Variety old guard. He’s hosted Have I Got News for You as well as Just a Minute, which he’s chaired for more than 40 years. Paul Merton, star of both, is both friend and fan. ‘He has a wonderful comic brain,’ he says of Merton. ‘He lets others take the limelight.’ Parsons could almost be talking about himself.
The son of a doctor and a nurse, Nicholas Parsons was raised in a ‘well-to-do, professional, middle-class family’. His parents weren’t rich, but before the war a GP’s wage went a lot further than it does today. His father could afford a butler, a cook, a maid and a nanny. Nicholas was educated at Colet Court and St Paul’s but when war broke out money became tight, and instead of staying on at school he was sent up to Glasgow to learn a trade, in an engineering firm called Drysdale’s.
‘I don’t know what my parents were thinking,’ he chuckles. ‘I don’t know how I survived.’ What saved him was his sense of humour. ‘I could laugh at myself,’ he says. Here on the factory floor he became a comic, and a man. As he recalls those days, he slips into a broad Clydebank brogue (he’s a brilliant mimic) and you realise what charm — and strength of character — it must have taken for this clean-cut Englishman to be accepted in such a fierce and unfamiliar world. ‘They could have crucified me,’ he says. ‘In retrospect, I realise that was probably one of the biggest achievements of my life.’
Alongside his engineering apprenticeship, Parsons learnt the rudiments of theatre in local rep, which was wonderfully ironic (‘my parents actually sent me to Glasgow to knock any idea of acting out of my head’) and when he returned to London after the war, he embarked on a precarious career as a jobbing actor. His parents weren’t best pleased, but Parsons persevered. ‘I wrote to people. I knocked on doors. I wouldn’t take no for an answer.’ His subsequent CV reads like a Who’s Who of Light Entertainment: Joyce Grenfell, Beryl Reid, Terry-Thomas, Norman Wisdom...
In The Arthur Haynes Show, which ran on ATV from 1956 to 1966, he played the straight man to Haynes, but talking to him today he doesn’t seem terribly interested in reliving those lost years — and, to be honest, I don’t blame him. He’s far more interesting than Haynes, and, deep down, I suspect he knows it. Parsons always seemed like Haynes’s foil, but now I wonder if it wasn’t his deadpan wit that made Haynes seem so funny. ‘I don’t want to say this because I was very fond of him and we had a wonderful partnership, but basically he became unsettled by the fact that I was getting as much recognition as he was,’ says Parsons, with sad civility. ‘Certain comedians like to feel they don’t owe it to anyone.’
Modestly, he ascribes the show’s success to Johnny Speight’s writing — but watching the new DVD of the old series I’m reminded of great straight men such as Ernie Wise. Like Eric Morecambe, Haynes was a lot less amusing without his other half. After Haynes broke up their double act, he was dead within a year — from a heart attack, like Eric Morecambe and so many other comics. He was only 52.
Parsons worked with posh thesps like Richard Attenborough and clowns such as Benny Hill. He had a brief spell in the Carry Ons; he played the Windmill, notorious for its nude revues. With his elegant good looks he could have been a matinée idol — if it wasn’t for that cheeky twinkle in the corner of his eye. ‘Comedy is an instinct,’ he says. You can tell he was born with funny bones.
He surely could have played an even wider range, if it wasn’t for the English suspicion of all-rounders. ‘In America, if you show you have a diverse talent and can do lots of different things, they have respect for your ability and encourage you to do more and broaden your range. In England, they try to confine you.’
This typecasting reached its nadir with Sale of the Century, which saw him pigeonholed as a game-show host, even though it was only ever one aspect of his work. It paid his children’s school fees — (amicably) divorced and (happily) remarried, he has a son and daughter with his first wife — but there was another price to pay. ‘It gave me a different public image, and I’m still struggling against it to some extent.’ When that show finally finished in 1983, after 11 years, at the height of the Alternative Comedy boom, he seemed to personify a slick aesthetic whose time had passed.
A lot of performers might have packed it in, but Parsons hadn’t forgotten the lessons he’d learnt on the Clyde. ‘I had to struggle so hard to get into the profession, to establish myself and let people know I could do it. You don’t suddenly give all that up and say, “You were right and I was wrong.”’ His ability to send himself up made him the unlikely darling of a new generation, epitomised by his self-deprecating performance in Stephen Frears’s black comedy, Mr Jolly Lives Next Door. ‘Maybe that’s the true test of a sense of humour — whether you can take a joke against yourself.’
Now the wheel of fashion has come full circle. Alternative Comedy looks like old hat beside his timeless humour. Nowadays, aspiring performers come to him for advice. ‘If you are prepared to put up with all the indignities, disappointments, frustrations and insults — if you can accept them and come back fighting — then go ahead and do it,’ he tells young hopefuls; ‘but if you’re going to crumble the first time you get a disappointment of some kind, you mustn’t start.’
I wish I could travel back in time, and tell his well-meaning mum and dad that they had nothing to worry about. Clearly, a public school education followed by five years in the Clydebank shipyards is the best possible preparation for a successful show business career.
The Arthur Haynes Show is released by Network DVD, price £19.99.