Nicholas Parsons, no holds barred: In his own words before his death aged 96, the broadcast legend recounts an uproarious life, from a feud with Clement Freud to the raging boss who set him on the road to fame
Steve Wright, the veteran Radio 2 presenter, asked me on air not long ago how I kept going. Since I first appeared on stage as a teenager during World War II, I’ve been in showbiz for the best part of 80 years.
So many others, often much younger than me, burned out, Steve said, or turned to drink, or simply gave up.I told him: ‘My first job was as an apprentice engineer aged 16 in a factory in Clydebank, Glasgow.
‘I was a boy from an English public school with a posh voice, thrown in with these tough working men to do a physically exhausting job. And I survived — in fact, I prospered.
‘I’m more proud of that than almost anything in my career. Showbusiness is full of upsets, disappointments, frustrations and insults but, after what I went through on Clydebank, nothing could be so daunting or difficult again.’
All the world’s a stage: Nicholas Parsons in costume as the Narrator in The Rocky Horror Show in the West End, 1994
My father was a doctor, first in Grantham, Lincolnshire, where I was born in 1923 (he was Margaret Thatcher’s family GP) and later in North London. But in 1939 war was declared and most of my father’s wealthy patients in Hampstead moved away. The family finances were suddenly in a parlous state.
I had been blissfully happy at St Paul’s School and, despite my dyslexia, private education suited me so well that in December 1939 I passed my senior exams. Aged 16 and two months, I had qualified for university.
For the past year, after discovering amateur dramatics, I had been intent on being an actor. My mother was aghast: ‘You cannot do that as a profession. All actors are in some way debauched.
‘Someone like you, Nicholas, will just end up as an alcoholic or some kind of pervert. That is not going to happen to my son.’
I think my mother thought I would be incapable of resisting the ‘dreadful temptations’ of showbusiness. She looked upon me as being weak and ineffectual.
My father’s attitude was that you did not go into the weird world of showbusiness unless you were born to it.
My cause was not helped by their discovery that I had acquired the nickname ‘Shirley’, after Shirley Temple, from schoolfriends who thought my ambitions were hilarious.
I told my parents I wanted to be an actor and, if that was not possible because of the war, I would like to continue with my schooling and go to university. Their response was to the point: ‘Let’s be sensible. You have got to think about getting a job. A proper job.’
Portrait of presenter Nicholas Parsons (centre) holding a large stop watch, photographed with his guests (L-R) Aimi McDonald, Peter Jones, Kenneth Williams and Clement Freud for Radio Times, in connection with the BBC Radio 4 series ‘Just a Minute’, July 19th 1971
What was going through their minds, I found hard to fathom. I was barely 16 and, war or no war, I was not ready for a ‘proper job’.
But this was an age when you did not necessarily do what you wanted; you did what you were told. I was upset but accepted everything with depressed resignation. I think I was in shock.
All the joy of the last two years at school and the prospects I had dreamed about had been shattered.
My uncle Hugh, my father’s brother, to whom I was close, took a hand. He pointed out that I was very capable at making and repairing things, such as old clocks. Why not become an engineer?
Friends in Scotland spoke to relations who ran a pump and turbine firm on Clydebank called Drysdale’s. The next thing I knew, I had been accepted for an engineering apprenticeship by the company and was on a train to Glasgow to begin a new life on my own.
Parsons hosts ITV’s Sale of the Century, which ran from October 1971 to November 1983. He made his acting debut in 1947
On arrival in Glasgow, I found my way to the YMCA, arranged some lodgings, got myself a boiler suit, and on the Monday morning I was on a tramcar trundling down to Yoker near Clydebank.
The snow was on the ground; it was 8am and dark. I walked down Ferry Road to Drysdale’s and heard all these characters talking in broad, guttural Glaswegian. It seemed they were speaking a different language. I thought I had entered another world, and to my amazement I discovered they were using as adjectives words I had only ever seen written on lavatory walls.
I found the hours terribly demanding. I had never before stood for nearly nine hours with only one break, and my back ached. Sitting down was forbidden, except in the lunch break.
To begin with, I found it so difficult that I would sneak off for a little rest — and the only sanctuary in which this was possible was the toilet block.
There was one building in the middle of the works that was used by everyone on the shop floor. This had been designed with no thought for privacy: just two facing rows of white china toilets with no seats, each separated by a low partition.
Nicholas Parsons and Dame Esther Rantzen at his 90th birthday party at the Churchill Hotel in London on October 8, 2013
At the swing-door entrance was an elderly man in a little wooden cubicle with a shelf in front of him, who gave you a metal counter with a number on it, which entitled you to a seven-minute session.
The man’s name was Sam, known to everyone, inevitably, as ‘S***house Sam’. He ran the place like a boating pond, keeping a close eye on proceedings, regularly announcing: ‘Number five, your time is up, come on oot,’ or, ‘Number three, 30 seconds to go.’ He smoked a combination of what was described to me as ‘thick black and old shag’, which slightly relieved the other pungent odours.
Once you received your metal disc, you knew there was a vacant seat. You had to remember to take a newspaper: toilet paper was unheard of.
You went to the empty pan and joined the nine other men squatting in a row with their boiler suits round their ankles, arms on knees, holding copies of the Daily Mirror or Daily Record. Opposite was another row of men doing exactly the same.
Hygiene was maintained by an automatic flushing system, which was activated every two minutes, beginning at one end and rushing down the line. It generated a fair amount of power, so if you did not rise at the crucial moment you could get very wet.
Every flush would be heralded by a rumbling in the pipes. It was customary, therefore, for the man nearest the start of the flush, on hearing the warning noise, to shout down the line: ‘It’s on its way, lads. A***s up!’
The contestant who got more than he bargained for
Quiz shows today are a TV mainstay. But when I was presenting the quickfire quiz Sale Of The Century during the Seventies and early Eighties, newspaper columnists were pompous and condescending about quiz shows. They considered them downmarket entertainment.
Television companies shouldn’t be putting such things on our screens, they cried — TV’s role was to lift the aspirations of the public. Only quality shows should be aired. Quiz shows were naff and therefore so was I, for presenting one of the most popular ones.
And it really was popular. The Christmas 1978 edition drew more than 21 million viewers, an all-time record for an ITV quiz.
But I didn’t think about viewing figures when I was on camera. I was too busy dealing with nervous participants. Most of them had never been on television before, and it was my job to help them relax.
I always met the contestants beforehand, to get to know them so that they would not be inhibited when I put on the pressure later in the show. On one particular occasion, the three contestants were an attractive young woman, a quietly self-effacing, middle-aged man and a friendly, voluble cockney character.
I spoke to the woman first and discovered a little about her. I then turned to the Londoner and said: ‘On the card I have here, it says you are a pawnbroker . . .’
Before I could go any further, he jumped in to explain rapidly that, while he did that kind of work, his main source of income came from working off barrows in the market, where most of his money was earned in cash:
‘Mostly back-handers, you understand, Nicholas, nothing declared. What the eye don’t see, the heart don’t grieve over, if you get my meaning, Nicholas. I couldn’t put that down as my living for obvious reasons, Nicholas, so I thought pawnbroker covered a multitude of sins, without raising no suspicions . . .’
He carried on loquaciously for a time and then said: ‘Oh, look at me, I’m talking too much.’
Turning abruptly to the third contestant, who had been listening quietly, I asked: ‘And what do you do for a living?’
The man replied drily: ‘I’m an income tax inspector.’
I had never before seen anyone actually turn white in an instant.
Ten naked bums would then rise in unison to avoid a soaking. It may have been basic, but you can get used to anything if there is no alternative.
During one of my escapes to relieve my aching back muscles, the gaffer burst in and dragged me away, announcing at the top of his voice that my time was up and that it was also my second visit that day.
It is difficult to maintain any poise with your trousers and boiler suit round your ankles. Any awkward moments I have encountered in showbusiness since have been nothing compared with the embarrassment I felt then in front of that audience.
Perhaps I survived by instinct. One thing I have learned is that, if you are always yourself and accept others as they are, people will accept you. They may not warm to you, but they will accept you.
My weapon was humour. I did impersonations and took off the different foremen, which endeared me to my fellow apprentices.
The foreman of the pattern shop was an unforgettable individual called Jock Cunningham. He was a tough character with a temper on a short fuse, but he was not particularly frightening; it was mostly bluster.
The reason he did not command complete respect was due to his dentures. Like many Scots of his generation, he had false teeth, which the Glaswegians blamed on their soft water.
Jock’s dentures did not fit properly, and he never bothered to have them fixed. You could see them sliding around his mouth when he spoke, and it made his speech sound rather slurred.
In fact, when he became very angry and was struggling to get his words out, he was known to spit his dentures into his hand so that he could swear more freely.
Smoking was forbidden in the pattern shop because of the wood all around. There were two small lavatories at the rear of the buildings, often used by one or two apprentices sneaking off to have a smoke or, as they called it, a ‘wee drag’.
This became my concert hall. The lads crowded in there and urged me to do film stars such as Charles Boyer, Jimmy Stewart and W.C. Fields, or comics like Max Miller.
One day, I launched into an impromptu speech in Winston Churchill’s voice — ‘We will fight them in the lavatories! By the washbasins!’ — when there was an almighty banging on the door. Jock Cunningham, minus teeth, was purple with rage at this unforgivable waste of the firm’s time.
He directed an almost continuous string of expletives at me and finished with: ‘Get back to yer bench, ye big impersonator!’
I plucked up the courage to go backstage at the Glasgow Empire one night and asked to speak to the star turn, a Canadian showman called Carroll Levis.
He liked my impressions, better than Jock did at any rate, and invited me to do some two-minute slots on his radio show, Carroll Levis Carries On.
Parsons with hostesses (from left) Caro Greenwood, Sophie Batchelor, Laura Beaumont, Christine Owen and Eunice Derry in the long-running ITV game show Sale Of The Century in June 1978
Nicholas Parsons celebrates his 96th birthday with his second wife, Ann, at Grosvenor House in London in October 2019
This meant overnight dashes down to London to record at the BBC studios in Lower Regent Street, or to North Wales, at the recording facilities in Bangor.
While I was working at the pattern shop, Carroll sometimes invited me to appear on his bill at the Empire, playing to a packed audience. I was billed as ‘Glasgow’s BBC Impressionist’.
One memorable night, a party of workmates from Drysdale’s came to support me. I stepped out on stage and received a rapturous reception, particularly from the upper circle.
The Glasgow Empire is notorious for being the graveyard of many comedians, especially those with an English accent. For me, however, it holds nothing but happy memories. I was about to finish with my Winston Churchill, when a voice shouted down from the gallery: ‘Nick, gie’ us Jock Cunningham.’
Immediately, a high-pitched, excited voice came back: ‘Ye’re no gonna impersonate me, no on that stage. If ye do, I’ll come roond and put one in yer teeth.’
It wasn’t Jock the foreman who put a halt to my variety career at the Empire, not to mention my ambitions of wartime service in the Merchant Navy. I contracted pleurisy and spent five months in hospital.
Months of reclusive living at my parents’ London home followed, as I avoided crowded places for fear that my weakened lungs would succumb to tuberculosis.
By the time I was well, the war was over. The time had come for my parents to ask the question that had been looming over us all since my return from Glasgow: ‘You are a mechanical engineer. What are you going to do with your qualification?’
‘I am going to forget it,’ I said. ‘I qualified to please you. Now I am going to follow the path I have always wanted. I am going to become a professional actor.’
The first recording of Just A Minute was made at the Playhouse Theatre on Northumberland Avenue, on a Sunday evening in July 1967. It was so bad that the BBC refused to commission a series — and only changed their minds when the producer David Hatch threatened to resign if they didn’t.
The arrival of Kenneth Williams after the first series probably saved the show. He was one of the most humorous, gifted men I have ever known, combining strange characters, wonderful voices and outrageous stories.
His best friend was his mother, Louisa, who lived next door to him at his London flat and who came to every recording of Just A Minute, sitting in the front row. On many recordings you can hear her distinctive laugh.
Peter Jones also joined us for the second series, and the classic panel of Williams, Jones, Derek Nimmo and Clement Freud provided the show with a wonderful blend of intellect and humour.
Parsons is made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire by the Queen during an Investiture ceremony at Windsor Castle in Berkshire on April 15, 2014
I settled into my role and soon realised I needed to adopt a slightly different approach for each panellist.
I especially had to have my wits about me when dealing with Clement. He loved to try to put me down by making facetious comments designed to get a laugh at my expense.
That was part of Clement’s natural, instinctive, bullying attitude, which could be funny, within the terms of the game, but I had to be very strong and, if necessary, come back at him.
I should point out that I had been at school with Clement. I worked in his restaurant many times performing my cabaret act and we were once good friends, often having dinner together.
All that suddenly stopped around the year 2000. Something a journalist wrote about the show did not please him, and he blamed me for it.
I never really fathomed his reasoning, but from then on there was definitely a distance between us.
Clement was an intellectual. He achieved so much during his life as a writer, politician, restaurateur and broadcaster. He expected success in everything he set out to do. I remember him taking part in a challenge to get from the Post Office Tower in London to the top of the Empire State Building in New York in the shortest possible time.
He researched every aspect of the journey and discovered there were two lifts to the top of the Empire State Building. One stopped on the way up; the other went straight to the top. He arranged for someone in a uniform to be at the bottom of the lifts and tell anyone who arrived there before him to take the stopping lift.
Clement arrived, took the non-stop lift and beat his opponents with seconds to spare. That was Clement Freud: he had to win.
Parsons with the Duke of Edinburgh at the opening of the new Lord Taverners headquarters in London in May 1999
Showbiz royalty praise the life of Nicholas Parsons
‘The sound of the final whistle. Nicholas Parsons was truly the kindest and most generous person I’ve ever worked with’
‘RIP Nicholas Parsons, 96. A wonderful man who brought so much fun, charm, wit & pleasure to so many millions of people over so many decades. What a life’
‘Very few people have done so much to entertain audiences over the decades, and no one deserves to be called a broadcasting legend more than Nicholas Parsons’
‘So sad to learn of the death of Nicholas Parsons, though at 96 it was a pretty impressive innings’
‘Without hesitation, deviation or repetition I’d like to say that Nicholas Parsons was a broadcasting giant who proved that the straight man could be the real star of comedy’
‘Oh no. Nicholas Parsons gone? He ruled Just a Minute for Just a Lifetime. A stunning achievement: never scripted, always immaculate’
‘RIP Nicholas Parsons. You were an inspiration’
‘The end of an era. Nicholas Parsons was such a lovely man – and so versatile: actor, entertainer, writer, TV star and radio host without equal, but for me, most of all, friend’
‘The only mystery is why he was never knighted but friends and admirers like me always thought of him as Sir Nicholas Parsons’
Dame Esther Rantzen
This applied particularly to Just A Minute. One incident demonstrates how he could react when he didn’t win.
The team and I were staying in Edinburgh, where we recorded two episodes each year at the Festival Fringe. As the team relaxed afterwards, Clement was even more silent and moody than normal.
He was brooding over a decision I had made against him during one of the games. Any other player would have let it go, but he let his feelings fester until he was in the taxi back to the Balmoral Hotel with Peter Jones and myself, and then exploded:
‘Why did you take the subject away from me? That challenge for deviation? It was totally ridiculous!’
I calmly tried to explain my reasons, as I had already done during the show, but he was having none of it, and when we reached the hotel he stormed off, calling me a crude name. I was naturally upset, which is probably what Clement wanted. I do not like confrontation.
Peter Jones, one of my closest friends, was concerned and over a drink reassured me that what I had done in the show was perfectly professional.
Later, he knocked on my door, stuck his head around and said: ‘I’ve been thinking . . . you have to realise that Clement has achieved so much in his life that there is now only one thing left to him, and that is to win points in Just A Minute.’
What a lovely man, and what a witty way to try to put my mind at rest.
A lot of people used to say Peter Jones was their favourite player. He was a great comedian whose timing was brilliant.
Derek Nimmo was another highly competitive player, but he did not have the same edge as Clement. He simply had his own way of playing the game, which drew upon the fact that he was a great traveller.
We developed a close rapport, and I was fond of all his family. We knew each other well, and he delighted in making jokes about my age.
On one occasion, he illustrated how old I was by explaining that it had been many years since I had been intimate with a woman, so much so that the last one had been a suffragette.
Peter Jones was there at the time, and quick as a flash he added: ‘Yes, and that was only because she was tied to the railings at the time.’
n Adapted from My Life In Comedy by Nicholas Parsons © Nicholas Parsons 2010. The ebook is available from Amazon at £3.99.
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