Chat show king Michael Parkinson in the spotlight for Belfast appearance
He's been married to a ‘Mayo woman' for 58 years and considers Graham Norton one of the best chat show hosts in the world – and he should know. Jenny Lee speaks to Sir Michael Parkinson about his upcoming An audience with... event in Belfast based on his two decades on TV interviewing stars of the calibre of of George Best, Billy Connolly and Muhammad Ali
I MUST admit, the prospect of interviewing Sir Michael Parkinson, a man who spent his career quizzing the world's top celebrities, sports stars and political figures, was slightly daunting.
But years of being an interviewer – he interviewed over 2,000 people during his 20 years as a chat show host – has made Parkinson a good interviewee too.
Although he does keep you on your toes.
"I've been a journalist all my life – and you don't insult anyone by coming on stage without thoroughly doing your homework on them," he says of his success.
Thankfully, I had done my research: to my surprise, I even manage to stump him when I ask him to name five guests, living or dead, he would invite to a dinner party.
"Oh Christ, I hate questions like this! Billy [Connolly] would be there," he quickly replies, before conferring with his wife Mary and then 'passing'.
But, ever the professional, the next day in my inbox is a polite reply via his agent. Completing the Parkinson dinner party would be Peter Ustinov, Robin Williams, Dame Edna Everage and Sir David Attenborough.
You've got to forgive his hesitation – he's had encounters with a lot of famous people, including Nelson Mandela, John Wayne, Fred Astaire, John Lennon and David Beckham (he was the first to reveal the Manchester United star's nickname, 'Golden Balls') – to name but a few.
Born in Yorkshire, Parkinson's miner father actively discouraged him from following in his footsteps. He left school at the age of 16 and served as an apprentice on his local newspaper – something he now calls "a privilege".
"You can't serve apprenticeships as young journalists now which is very, very sad; it's the best training you can get."
Parkinson, although famed for being the king of chat shows, hates the term TV personality and prefers to call himself a journalist. He moved from local papers to the Manchester Guardian to the Daily Express and then to the BBC.
He covered the war in the Congo and the Arab-Israeli Six Day War.
He then went from presenting news reports to hosting the late-night review programme Cinema to, in 1971, hosting his eponymous Saturday night talk show.
Now 82, he still enjoys working. Next month he brings his stage show, An Audience with Sir Michael Parkinson, to Northern Ireland for the first time, when he plays Belfast's Grand Opera House.
"This show is a reminder that for a time I had the best job in the world. It's very nostalgic, it's got a lot of laughs in it and great music.
"To sit beside Paul McCartney and have him play Yesterday on guitar, to give Elton John a lyric my researchers had written and see him transform that into an extraordinary intimate piece of music live on air, was extraordinary.
"It's a reminder of a time in showbiz when it was a joy to do a talkshow."
Does he think we will ever get that golden era back?
"It's changed a lot. I did a journalistic chatshow, now they are more comedy led. But I'm a great admirer of Graham Norton, I think he's one of the best chatshow hosts I've seen in the world. We're lucky to have him."
An Evening with Michael Parkinson takes an intimate and entertaining look at 'Parky's' life story and will feature highlights from his TV show Parkinson which aired from 1971 to 1982 and from 1998 to 2007.
Asking the questions on stage is his son Mike, who heads up Parkinson Productions and is himself no stranger to the small screen – he started out as an actor, appearing on a number of shows including Brookside and Inspector Morse in the 1990s.
"I've been around the world with this show," Parkinson tells me.
"I'm 82 now and don't need to work, but I love doing these talkshows and engaging with the audiences. Of course, the last time I came over to Belfast Bestie was there.
"It's that long ago."
Parkinson has fond memories of soccer hero George Best.
"I interviewed him at least seven times. He was a good friend of mine and I still feel sad what happened to him. Sadly, there was an inevitability towards George's fate from the moment he arrived in Manchester and was greeted like the fifth Beatle."
While he says the highlight of his career is that it "lasted 60 odd years", Parkinson admits to a soft spot for two guests he has interviewed on multiple occasions.
"You won't find anyone more funny in the history of mankind than Billy Connolly," he says of the Scottish comedian.
"It's sad now he's not well, but he's struggling on and he's so beloved by the public that they will make concessions for him."
One of the most memorable episodes of Parkinson was when boxing giant Muhammad Ali couldn't fit into the on-set chair. His four interviews with Ali, at significantly different phases of the boxer's life, chart the rise and fall of one of the most enduring cultural figures of our age.
"He was the most remarkable man I've ever met and the only one I wrote a book about," adds Parkinson, in reference to Muhammad Ali: A Memoir, which is released in paperback on June 1.
A consummate professional, Parkinson admits he never mixed business with pleasure and didn't get involved in booking his guests.
"I never wanted to put people in a position where they couldn't say no."
One person he does regret not having on his show was Frank Sinatra.
"He was my hero. I got to meet him, but never interview him. People forget how big a star he was."
And how would he fancy interviewing Donald Trump?
"Donald Trump is the funniest man I've never met. Sadly, it's all got serious with Trump. The world is in a very dangerous situation, so we can't make jokes about him any more."
Through most of his career, Parkinson has had the support of his wife of 58 years, Mary, whose parents hail from Co Mayo.
So, what's his advice on a long happy marriage?
"It baffles me. It baffles Mary more. She could have done much better. We are lucky to have hung in there and I guess we've just never fallen out of love."
Parkinson was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2013 but got the all-clear after a two-year-battle.
"It's not an experience I would wish on anybody, but I got rid of the cancer and I've gained a lot from the experience," he tells me.
"It's slowed me down, for sure, but I can still walk on stage and have a few laughs with people."
:: An Audience with Sir Michael Parkinson is at Belfast's Grand Opera House on Wednesday May 17. For bookings call 028 90 241 919 or visit GOH.co.uk