Cahair O'Kane: Parkinson's brilliant Ali interviews underline how starved we are of debate

The late Michael Parkinson (left) interviewed Muhammad Ali four times between 1971 and '81. The host, who died last week, famously said he didn't really like Ali but their chats were television gold because they were honest debates.
The late Michael Parkinson (left) interviewed Muhammad Ali four times between 1971 and '81. The host, who died last week, famously said he didn't really like Ali but their chats were television gold because they were honest debates.

THERE is no rabbit hole like a YouTube rabbit hole.

It usually starts off the same, a link to a Kevin Bridges skit that you can’t not click on even if you’ve seen it a hundred times before.

Before you know it, you’re three hours deep with engorged pupils, bits of food stuck to your face with the blinds pulled for fear the neighbours might see you watching a tutorial on how to solve a Rubix cube and report you to social services.

My phone, clever piece of Chinese government engineering that it is, was able to inform me that on Sunday, I spent three hours and 16 minutes on YouTube.

A brief defence – for 90 per cent of that time I was driving to Cavan town and back, listening not looking.

But it was active listening, and it was worthwhile and constructive for once.

As a child of the 1990s, Michael Parkinson pretty much passed me by. He was well into the second run of his talk show by the time I was even at primary school and as he finished up around Christmas 2007, it was hardly your average 19-year-old’s behaviour to say to the lads ‘I’m not for the Glenavon tonight, I’m watching Parkinson’.

Following his death last week, it was down a Parky-shaped black hole I ended on Sunday.

Ali, bruising but brilliant in ’71. Spike Milligan. Billy Connolly. A stoked-up Ali in ’74. Michael Caine’s fascinating life. The unnecessarily elongated focus on Helen Mirren’s bosom. Then a pitiful, visibly damaged Ali in ’81 before some more Billy Connolly to lighten the drive through Tyrone.

There was also an hour spent listening to Parkinson’s interview with the Second Captains podcast from about a decade ago, where he delved into his own sporting interest and writing glowing reports about himself in the local paper as a young man in an attempt to make a career as a professional footballer before going on to play cricket to a high level.

It was evident that his greatness was owed to the rich life he led and his thirst for knowledge.

Rich not in the financial sense (although he became so), but in terms of the variation of what he was exposed to.

The son of a cricket-mad miner who in 1955 became the British Army’s youngest captain, his mother filled their house with books as a child and he devoured all he could.

He wrote for the Sunday Times and Daily Telegraph as a sports journalist, produced a series of children’s books, presented radio programmes on news and sport and even Desert Island Discs for a season.

In his autobiography he wrote of his two defining moments as a five-year-old: going to school and his father taking him to watch Barnsley for the first time.

Asked what he thought of his first day in formal education he replied: “It was alright but I don’t think I’ll bother any more”.

At half-time in Oakwell, his father enquired as to how he was enjoying it.

“It’s alright but can I go home now?”

He was in charge of the primary school library and by the time he was at Grammar school he’d discovered the great American novelists and was reading The Grapes of Wrath when a teacher took it off him, called it ‘filthy tripe’ and threw it in the bin.

For Parkinson, knowledge was power. When he broke into television and got his own talk show, it allowed him to choose between verbal combat and camaraderie with the greats of film and music and politics. Whatever was needed, he could deliver it.

The Late Late Show on RTÉ has never been any way regular Friday night viewing in our house.

Ryan Tubridy has been presenter for most of my adult life.

While undoubtedly talented, his absolute lack of any sporting knowledge undermined the whole show.

When a big sporting personality plonked themselves down on the sofa, the air hung thick with ‘let’s get this over with’ as he smiled awkwardly through the pre-prepared questions on his card, unable to deviate and make the most of the great opportunities presented to him.

That was a real pity in that it completely undermined the position sport holds in Irish life and society.

Patrick Kielty looks like an ideal replacement for Tubridy.

An All-Ireland minor winner with Down as sub goalkeeper in 1987, born and raised in the north, his father shot dead during the Troubles when he was just 16 years of age, a star of screen and stage, deeply aware of the politics on both sides of the border, there will be little about Irish life that troubles him conversationally.

There is no other programme on Irish television that gets 20 minutes of one-to-one, ready-to-talk Paul McGrath or Roy Keane or Martin O’Neill or Jonny Sexton. You hope those slots won’t be wasted from here on.

As deeply irrelevant as it is, sport is too important for The Late Late Show to get wrong.

Sports fans across Britain were so fortunate that their prime-time talk show host was so deeply immersed in it himself.

Parkinson famously said that he didn’t like Muhammad Ali because he “shouted a lot”, but the host’s understanding of sport allowed him to prod and poke at Ali. That was what made those interviews great.

Across a career that spanned half a century, of all the thousands of people he interviewed, it always comes back to Parkinson’s four meetings with this boxer who just so happened to be the most famous man in the world.

“I lost on points on just about every occasion,” the host wrote in his autobiography in which he devoted an entire chapter to the Ali interviews.

They discovered over the years that the only two guests that could add a couple of million viewers were Ali and Billy Connolly.

Parkinson was wrong to goad him in ’74 over Allah’s inability to help him win one fight over another but Ali seemed in the mood for a verbal joust.

By 1981, his voice was slowed and slurred, the life gone out of his eyes. The Parkinson’s disease that he’d confirm three years later was already evident on him.

When you watch it back, it’s remarkable he was allowed back into the ring months later for his last fight. Trevor Berbick’s name should never have been let take its place in every sports quiz.

Ali took principled stands in life, at great personal cost, but he wasn’t without fault.

Michael Parkinson picked at his flaws and then when it was done, they shook hands, sewed it all back up, went on not really liking each other and then did it another three times.

In that Second Captains podcast, Parky lamented the seriousness of it all, the money, the lack of relatability and the absolute absence of humour in modern sport. There is definitely something in that.

It’s often said that sport lacks for those big characters now.

But it’s not just sport. Society lacks for big characters and it suffers for the lack of real debate where people can be honest.

Everyone in public life is so terrified that it can be ripped away by just one wrong word. So it’s safer to just say nothing about anything, ever.

One man’s moral cowardice is another’s self-preservation in the face of nobody giving a damn what happens to them after social media’s storm clouds have cleared.

Sport has gotten a bit too full of itself, a bit too content in the pits of money to go rocking the boat.

Muhammad Ali was a boxer to take over the world and a man to take it on. He will have no successor to talk sport and politics and racial inequality and recite poetry and make people laugh and swoon and cry and rise up with anger.

And if there’s no Ali to answer, there’s no need for a Parkinson to ask.

That tells you something isn’t right.