Michael Parkinson: five best interviews by star presenter

Michael Parkinson, veteran British journalist and host of his own long-running TV chat show, has died aged 88. 

The national treasure affectionately nicknamed “Parky” passed away peacefully at home on Wednesday night following a brief illness, his agent said.

He became one of British TV’s most recognisable faces with “Parkinson”, which ran on the BBC from 1971 to 1982, relaunched in 1998 and then moved to ITV in 2004.

Parky finally hung up his interviewer boots in 2007, after more than 800 shows and 2,000 interviews with some of the world’s most high-profile figures, including Madonna, Tom Cruise and Sir Elton John. 

“He was the greatest interviewer of our age,” tweeted BBC Radio 4 presenter Nick Robinson, while the corporation’s director-general, Tim Davie, described him as “truly one of a kind”, the “king of the chat show” who “defined the format” for all presenters and shows to come.

“Nobody has replaced him” on British television, wrote Ed Cumming for The Independent. “The man talked to absolutely everyone,” including Dame Edna Everage, Marlon Brando, Lauren Bacall, Fred Astaire, Bette Midler and, notably, Miss Piggy. Even with “the glitziest Hollywood stars”, his style was “underpinned by a certain professional gravitas”. 

Although not all of his interviews went smoothly, noted The Associated Press. “His 2003 encounter with actor Meg Ryan was arguably his frostiest, after she took offense at a question about her risque film ‘In the Cut’.” When Parkinson asked “in desperation” what she would do if she were the interviewer, she snapped: “Wrap it up.”

He was also criticised for an interview with Helen Mirren in 1975, in which he asked whether her “equipment” distracted audiences and if serious actresses can have “big bosoms”. The Oscar-winner later called him “sexist” and described the interview as “enraging”, said the Daily Express. Parkinson said in 2019 that the interview was “of its time” but “embarrassing”.

By “common consent of viewers”, said The Guardian, Muhammad Ali’s first appearance on “Parkinson”, in 1971, “was the greatest chatshow guest British television has ever seen”.

Ali combined “the intelligent charm of Barack Obama with the comic timing and cheeky glances at the camera of Eric Morecambe”. At one point, he recites from memory “his own epic poem about Joe Frazier, his next opponent”, coming across, “unusually for a boxer, as entirely lovable”. 

The encounter was “a bruising affair” for Parkinson, said the Daily Mail, with Ali growing “confrontational and intimidating”. “I’m not just a boxer,” Ali said. “I can talk all week on millions of subjects and you do not have enough wisdom to corner me on television, you are too small mentally to tackle me on nothing I represent.” Parkinson interviewed the champion boxer four times – and, in his words, “lost on every occasion”.

Parkinson often joked that his long and glittering career would always be remembered for “that bloody bird”.

Rod Hull, a popular British comedian and entertainer, came on the show in the mid-1970s with Emu, his mute – and highly aggressive – arm-puppet sidekick. 

“Is it a male or female emu, this?” Parkinson asked.

“Why don’t you have a look for yourself?” retorted Hull, before directing Emu to viciously grab Parkinson’s leg. The “bird” repeatedly attacked Parkinson, eventually causing him to fall off his chair when Hull clambered onto him.

The clip would go on to be replayed multiple times throughout his career, and remains one of Parkinson’s most famous and widely enjoyed interview moments – perhaps to his chagrin. “Being attacked by a bloody emu – what an epitaph.”

Actor and comedian Billy Connolly was “an unknown making a living on the Scottish club circuit” in 1975, said the Press Association (PA), when Parkinson “gave him his big break”.

“Nobody had ever heard of him,” Parkinson later said, “and on he came, made one joke and it made him. It established him as a star.” 

It would turn out to be “a landmark moment in British television history”, said Glasgow Live. It propelled “the Big Yin to national stardom and quite literally made the former shipyard welder a household name overnight”.

Proceedings started off “innocently enough”, with the pair chatting about life in Glasgow and the discovery of North Sea oil. Then came Connolly’s “immortal words”: “I hope I can get away with this – it’s a beauty!”

Connolly told a “risqué” joke that would make him “the next big thing in UK comedy”. He would go on to appear on the show more than any other guest, and was, in Parkinson’s words, “the funniest guy I have ever interviewed”.

Parkinson met Paul McCartney way back in the early 1960s, but it wasn’t until 1999 that the music legend “fulfilled a 25-year-old promise” when he appeared on the talk show, said PA. 

The interview was a “coup”, the news agency said, being Macca’s “first major TV appearance” since the death of his wife, Linda McCartney, the previous year. 

The moving interview touched on the early days of the Beatles, his three-decade relationship with Linda, how the family struggled when she died, and how her illness reminded McCartney of his dying mother.

Parky had agreed to be photographed for the cover of “Band on the Run”, the 1973 album by McCartney’s band Wings on condition that the ex-Beatle appear on his chat show. In 1999 he honoured the promise. 

In another memorable puppet encounter, Parkinson was interviewing Kermit the Frog about his relationship with his fellow Muppet Miss Piggy when the lady herself made an appearance. She instantly began flirting with Parkinson, saying he had “bedroom eyes”.

Parkinson eventually confessed that he was “madly in love” with Miss Piggy, with the pair cuddling up together.

“What’s it like being a sex symbol?” he asked the porcine puppet.

To which she replied: “It’s a deep responsibility to be a taste-setter in fashion, to be a sex symbol and to be a pig superstar.”

He later described her in his 2009 autobiography “Parky” as a “man-eater”.