Nicholas interviewed at Edinburgh
For The News Of The World
SHOWBIZ veteran Nicholas, 85, began his career in Glasgow's theatres during the 1940s before becoming a TV favourite. This week, alongside his popular Happy Hour variety show, the recently anointed "icon of cool" brought his ever-popular radio programme Just A Minute to the Edinburgh Festival. "It just gets better and better," he reckons . . .
You realise we'll be asking you to answer these questions without hesitation, repetition or deviation . . .
You recorded two special editions of Just A Minute at the Festival this week. After 40 years at the helm, is it still entertaining?
Oh yes, probably more so. I often think it's funnier than when it started. It's much more free-wheeling and I've opened up the challenges to some extent. The rules are less rigid too, so comics like Paul Merton have much more scope to be spontaneous and entertaining.
What's the secret of its success?
It's a lot of very bright people with great comedy minds, having fun and trying to do the impossible task of speaking without repetition, hesitation or deviation. When things go wrong, as they often do, we capitalise on that. Of course they pull my leg about my decisions but they're always just and fair. Having fun is important. Life can be stressful and the great thing about Just A Minute is that you can relax, enjoy it and - to use a modern phrase - chill out.
For the eighth year in a row, The Nicholas Parsons Happy Hour is a Fringe highlight. Tell us about the make-up of the show.
It's a mixture of comedy and celebrity guests and often there'll be a musical guest too. I like to find someone who's up and coming to give them a break.
You're very conscientious about doing your research . . .
Well, I call it being professional actually. When I interview people, I always go and see their shows beforehand so we can talk about it properly. Sometimes it means seeing three shows a day, as well as doing my own, so I'm busy. I survive, at my age, by treating myself to a little siesta in the afternoon.
What keeps bringing you back?
There is a wonderful buzz in the air during the Festival. There's a magic to it that has built up over the years. It's a fantastic atmosphere and you get caught up in it. It's a very special time.
What's the funniest thing that's happened to you at the Festival?
I was appearing at a cabaret bar and by the time I'd arrived, there was already a long queue. Normally I liked to greet the customers coming in but just as I got to the front door, this tough-looking guy shouts, 'Here, no skipping the queue'. I explained, 'Actually my name is Nicholas Parsons and I'm working here'. Quick as a flash he shot back, 'I don't give a bugger who you are, you'll go to the back of the queue like everyone bloody else'. I always wondered who he thought he was coming to see.
You're almost a naturalised Scot. You lived here for five years didn't you?
I have a lot of Scots blood in me thanks to my ancestry but I feel like I'm an adopted Glaswegian because I spent my most formative years - between the 16 and 22 - living there. I love the place and the people. I was an apprentice at Drysdale's engineering works next door to John Brown's shipyard in Yoker. I had quite a posh English accent when I got there and the foreman told me, 'You're OK but we'll teach you how to get yer effing hands dirty and by the time you leave here, you'll be a man'. He was as good as his word. It was a really great preparation for life.
Billy Connolly had a similar start to his career. Is it the Clydeside air?
I definitely think there might be something. I once did a show for Radio 4 called Clyde Comics that was all about the phenomenon. We looked at all the great performers who came out of there - Billy of course, Jimmy Logan, Chic Murray and music hall star Tommy Morgan. So many of them started on Clydeside.
You began your showbiz career in the theatres of Glasgow. What was that like?
The actress Molly Urquhart had a theatre in Rutherglen and I'd finish work and rush for the train up there to play one of the parts in the little dramas she'd put on. I'd be up until midnight then back up at 6am for work. It was tough but I didn't mind because I was getting theatrical experience.
Were the crowds as notoriously unforgiving as they're made out to be?
Well, yes. They were a tough old lot but if you were good then they were the best audience in the world. Even after all these years, Glasgow has very special associations for me and I feel a debt of gratitude to the people of the city. In my Happy Hour show you'll often hear me trying out my Glaswegian accent because it still comes very naturally to me.
Yet your parents were dead-set against you treading the boards . . .
They did everything they could to stop me. In fact, I only became an engineer to please them. I proved to myself I could do it but, once the war was over, I decided to pack in the engineering and go for entertainment.
Fame came calling in the '50s when you teamed up with comic Arthur Haynes.
It didn't start auspiciously! In 1956, Arthur and I were working on a show called Strike A New Note. But it was a disaster and after a few, the producer said he wanted to scrap it and asked Arthur and I to stay on and do sketches together. That evolved into a series called Get Happy and eventually The Arthur Haynes Show With Nicholas Parsons. It became the most successful comedy show on ITV, up against Hancock's Half Hour on the BBC. We ended up going to America in 1961 and doing the Ed Sullivan Show too. We went our separate ways soon after.
You also worked on The Benny Hill Show but Sale Of The Century made you a household name. Was there ever a downside?
Yes. It was incredibly successful but I got so pigeonholed as a quiz show host that people stopped looking at me as an actor and entertainer. I was so identified with that show that, while it was wonderful to have the success, it did become an albatross round my neck. Bob Monkhouse suffered from the same thing. He was a fine actor but, after a certain point, wasn't allowed to show it.
Yet now you're considered "an icon of post-modern cool" - has the penny finally dropped about Nicholas Parsons?
Ha ha! I hope that it's a sign that I'm no longer considered a bland game show host and recognised as a good all- rounder who can act, do comedy and more besides.
Your father was a doctor in Grantham, Lincolnshire, and Margaret Thatcher's parents were among his patients. Do you ever feel he missed out on the opportunity to tell them to emigrate?
No. Why should I? My father was a professional and she was just a little girl he happened to look after . . .