Sad news today of the death of Nicholas Parsons, 96 years old and brilliant to the last as the ever-alert host of Just A Minute, having hosted it with barely a break since 1967. I never interviewed him but I did get to meet him last year at the Broadcasting Press Guild Awards, when he received the Harvey Lee award for his lifelong contribution to broadcasting.
As a very young boy I used to watch the Arthur Haynes Show that used to top the ITV ratings and Nicholas Parsons was always great value in countless sketches as the stuffed-shirt straight man opposite Arthur’s wily chancers.
Then I thought I might get to meet him in the 70s when, as an impoverished trainee-reporter on the Sleaford Standard, I thought I could ease financial pressures by getting on Sale of The Century, the popular quiz show he hosted “live from Norwich” for Anglia TV.
I shelled out for petrol to pilot my rusting Triumph Herald to Leeds for an audition that lasted very few minutes. I had to race to be first on the buzzer against two rivals – a housewife and a coalminer. I fancied my chances but was roundly trounced by the miner and trailed in a distant third after the housewife. Answering questions quickly under pressure proved much more difficult than sitting in an armchair at home and doing it. They also knew a lot more than I did.
So, no trip to Norwich or TV prizes for me that time. I had to wait until last year and couldn’t resist approaching Nicholas for a chat. He seemed rather frail and admitted his legs weren’t great. We also got off on slightly the wrong foot when he mistakenly assumed I’d be introducing him for his award. That settled, we reminisced a bit about the Arthur Haynes Show and the BPG even managed clips from it in their showreel, even though very few survive.
The revelation came when Nicholas took to the stage to receive his award and the years just dropped away from him as if by magic – the invigorating power of ‘Dr Theatre’ kicking in… Here’s what I wrote in my blog at the time:
Recalling his years presenting Sale of the Century, he posed an introductory £1 question to one set of contestants – “What should you not do when living in a glass house? And this woman pressed her buzzer and she said ‘Take a bath.”
Nicholas reeled off more amusing anecdotes from Just A Minute and, displaying his talent for mimicry and his command of regional accents, suddenly looked 20 years younger, Hoovering up the laughter with obvious relish. What a trooper! In one screen clip he was more actually than 50 years younger, playing straight man to top ’60s comedian Arthur Haynes. A heart-felt on-screen tribute from Paul Merton followed, and a standing ovation from the BPG members and guests.
We’ve also just lost Terry Jones too, of course. I first interviewed him (along with all the Pythons except Eric Idle, who was in America) when the first video collection of Python sketches was released in 1985. He gave the wittiest answers of the day on that occasion, though when I interviewed him again for his entertaining historical series Medieval Lives, in 2004, he didn’t seem to enjoy being reminded of this.
I will dig out that 2004 interview and post it on here very shortly.