Stuart Appleby interviews arguably the greatest interviewer and chat show host of all time, Sir Michael Parkinson.
“Nothing is worse, and I know when I’ve been interviewed myself, when somebody asks me a stupid question,” something Sir Michael Parkinson told me firmly, in his distinguishable Yorkshire accent, during our recent interview. Fortunately for me, the man who’s known for questioning, quizzing and often interrogating many of the world’s most famous people, wasn’t referring to my question, or at least I like to think so.
The task of interviewing ‘Parky’, arguably Britain’s best-loved talk show host ever, was a genuine privilege and the opportunity to speak to such a respected journalist was a real treat. I had, when time allowed, swatted up on Sir Michael’s career, re-watched some of his best-remembered interviews and ‘did my homework’ before I met him. Although, he had always been a hero of mine.
But, truth be told, and in a situation I often find myself in, I hadn’t arranged an interview with Parky before I met him, nor did I know whether he would speak to me.
As it happened, I went along to a special screening of the 1960s cult British film, Billy Liar, which Sir Michael introduced to celebrate its 50th anniversary and the work of its creator and his great friend, the late Keith Waterhouse.
After the short film had concluded, I walked into the Green Room and introduced myself, rather hurriedly, to the famed journalistic interrogator. ‘Hello, I’m Stuart Appleby, a journalist who admires your work greatly and would like to follow in your footsteps one day,’ I said. ‘That’s nice of you to say so,’ the 78-year-old replied.
I’m not too sure what type of response I expected from my rhetorical statement, but Parky was as approachable as anyone I’ve ever met and I asked him if we could chat about his career as a journalist, and he agreed.
Parkinson began his ‘journey to the top’ in local papers before becoming a features writer for the Daily Express and Manchester Guardian. Although his first foray into television didn’t come immediately, he did eventually end up working for Granada Television and then the BBC.
He told me his tough journalistic roots and the lessons he learned in the early stages of his career helped him iron out the mistakes in his make-up and graft at his trade.
“Listen, listen. That’s what you’re being paid to do (as a journalist). Don’t invent it, listen,” he tells me when I ask him about memorable advice he has received down the years.
He continued, quoting Ernest Hemingway’s book ‘The Sun Also Rises’, which is about bullfighting: “The trick with journalism is to write when you know, never before and not too damn much after – I think that’s very good advice too.”
With the advent of the digital age pushing journalism into various social media-led directions, Parky admitted that the industry has changed enormously and is continuing to do so.
“I think it’s more difficult for young journalists today than it was for me. I could walk into a job, straight from school, at the age of 16. I got a job as an apprentice and then I walked into the Guardian. I walked into Fleet Street and if I didn’t like a paper in Fleet Street I could walk away and go to another paper. Young people can’t do that today. They don’t have that kind of freedom of choice that I had, so I was very lucky. I find it very difficult to talk about my career in journalism to any young person today because the industry is so different, the technology is so different,” he says, passionately.
“The one thing that does remain the same is if you really truly like the job you’re doing, and you’ll soon find that out, that you really want to do it, then just keep on doing it. Keep on following your nose. In the end if you work hard, and the one thing I’ve learned in all these years I’ve been interviewing people, very successful people, is that the very successful ones have one thing in common – they work harder than the other person – and that’s a really good lesson to learn.”
Of course, Parkinson’s career was, in most cases, as successful as the people he was interviewing on his talk show ‘Parkinson’, which launched in 1971 and ran until 1982. Although later Parkinson series and a host of other media credits followed over the course of the next two decades, it is perhaps his first stint on national television that made him such a respected and valued figure.
Having interviewed guests like Muhammad Ali and John Lennon, among so many others, did he have a special secret when conducting these high-profile interviews? Parky admits that he didn’t and relied on typical interview techniques.
“You have to do more research than you would ever need. You need to go into that interview knowing more about that person than he or she knows knows about themselves. You might only use 20 per cent of the interview but again you have to have the rest prepared. The other advice too, mainly for people working in television particularly, is to think in terms of writing a story.
“Give the interview a beginning, give it a middle, give it an end. Give it shape, don’t go all over the place – have the shape in your mind that you’re going there and then listen. Sometimes, of course, you get taken away if someone says something interesting, listen and go that way. But you’ve got to have that basic shape in your head in case everything doesn’t go right,” he added.
When it comes to making a career out of interviewing some of the most intriguing characters to have graced the realms of entertainment, sport and politics, Parky has done it all. It’s hard not to be inspired by his words of wisdom.
At the end of our interview, he adds, rather appropriately: “What you’re aiming for is a situation where the interview becomes a conversation – and that’s it”.