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Michael Parkinson: Man United legend George Best and me

Chat show legend Michael Parkinson tells Barry Egan about his memories of the mercurial Manchester United and Northern Ireland star, his own humble beginnings, a past drinking problem... and falling in love at first sight with his wife of 57 years, Mary

Michael Parkinson says he wouldn't have been a good miner. His late father, Jack, a good miner perhaps, once took him down the mine - where he worked all his life, hewing coal at Grimethorpe Colliery in South Yorkshire - when he was younger. It was all quite deliberate.

He gave him a tour of the colliery - "not the Hollywood job they gave to visitors". On the real tour, the young Michael saw men of all ages working in dirty clothes - virtually rags - in the heat and the dust and the noise (this "awful, creaking noise") and the soot and the stink of sulphur.

It "frightened the s*** out" of the young boy, who would go on to be the toast of the chat show and TV worlds (bar America).

Michael says he remembers his father's dignity in "dealing with this filthy job" in the heavy soot amid all the other poor workers waiting for various pulmonary diseases to lay claim to their health.

He remembers the colliery and the unmistakeable, horrible smell of the sulphur in the air - as unmistakable as the fact that his dad, above all else, did not want his young son to follow him down the mine.

Parkinson, who has a vivid, almost poetic, sense of memory, remembers his father's hands, too.

He says emotively that, in 1975 when Jack was dying from the miners' lung disease pneumoconiosis, he would sit with his dad and hold his hands in his and notice that "he had these extraordinary hands - calloused". "I always remember when I was a kid and had my hand in his that it was very reassuring," he adds.

"For some reason," Michael wrote in his 2008 autobiography, Parky, of his dad's work-hardened hands, "this memory filled my mind with the unbearable thought that his hands represented all he had done to enable me to enjoy a view of the river and an easy life."

In the best-selling book, he added that his father was a man "who had a talent for ignoring misery" and was "full of life and laughter".

For 90 minutes with me, Michael, born March 28, 1935, is just that: full of life and laughter, with tales of celebrities - where to begin? - and their appearances on Parkinson.

George Best (drunk); Peter Sellers (in full Gestapo uniform); Robert Mitchum (drunk); Oliver Reed (guess); Meg Ryan (rude and sulking). Then there was John Lennon (refusing to discuss The Beatles); Bob Hope; James Cagney; Billy Connolly... Oh, and Muhammad Ali. Four times.

In 1976, when Rod Hull's Emu mugged him on the by now world-famous eponymous BBC talk show - then attempted to do the same with Billy Connolly - the Big Yin told the bird he would literally break its "f****** neck" if it came near him and tried any funny business.

Not so funny was, as Parkinson recalls it, the minor problem with alcohol he went through for a few short years after his father died.

He drank heavily for a time. "My wife told me it made me ugly," he remembers. "That hit home."

Mary also suggested that he might like to try going to see a psychiatrist about it.

Apropos of his own visit to the shrink and what he learned from it - nothing - Parkinson tells a story about his late friend George Best's experience on a visit to his then-boss at Manchester United, Sir Matt Busby.

Football legend George Best pictured in January 1964
Football legend George Best pictured in January 1964
Books:GEORGE BEST: The Legend - In Pictures, Ivan Martin, Appletree Press
George Best and his dad, Dickie
George Best advertising Cookstown Sausages
Manchester United footballer George Best with manager Tommy Docherty.
George Best with Gerald Black
George Best leading the teams out with mascot
George Best relaxes with a cup of coffee as he waits for the action in Bulgaria to begin
John Chaffetz, an official of the Los Angeles Aztecs, points the way for soccer star George Best. Best was attending a press conference after joing the Aztecs in 1976
George Best in action
George Best
George Best with the Portadown football team and mascot before they played Glenavon in 1981
Football legend George Best pictured in January 1964
George Best: Manchester United and Northern Ireland Legend
Memories: George Best trudges off the pitch after being sent off against Scotland
George Best larks around in his kitchen with Angie in 1976
George Best footballer in Manchester United kit
Alex with George Best in 1995
The birth certificate
George Best has a drink in a Belfast bar
Belfast boy: George Best is the most heralded Northern Ireland sports star... but Rory McIlroy can close in
George Best is regarded by everyone as one of the greatest footballers of all time, and by many, including Brazilian icon Pele, as THE best of the lot. The Belfast boy, who lived a rock and roll life, had staggering skill and balance, which he used to score for Man United in their 1968 European Cup final victory, one of 179 goals for the club. A breathtaking talent.
George Best in a Glentoran shirt with another ex Northern Ireland international Norman Whiteside - and a young Stephen Chick
George Best, during the Northern Ireland v England match in October 1966
Manchester United legend George Best
George Best. Football. Manchester United and Northern Ireland. Ireland v England Oct. 1966. Best and Parke outwitted by a headless Charlton as Englend mount an attack.
HEALTH Best 11...Library filer dated 08/03/1969 of legendary footballer George Best who is "coming to the end of the long road of his ill-health", his doctor Professor Roger Williams said Thursday November 24, 2005. See PA story HEALTH Best. PRESS ASSOCIATION photo. Photo Credit should read: PA...A
Benfica's Goalkeeper Jose Henrique (left) races back to his goal in a vain attempt to stop George Best (right) of Manchester United from scoring his team's second goal in the the European Cup final at Wembley, 29th May 1968. United eventually won 4-3 after extra time.
George Best pictured with Pat Jennings
Football legend George Best pictured at Windsor Park
Best man: George Best (c) shows off the 1968 European Footballer of the Year award, which journalist Max Urbini (l) presented to him before the match, as team-mates Bobby Charlton (second l, 1966 winner) and Denis Law (r, 1964 winner), and manager Matt Busby (second r) look on
Simply the Best: George Best shows off some of his wide range of skills during his time at Manchester United, where he became a worldwide star
George Best playing at the stadium
George Best in training for Manchester United
Football legend George Best
George shakes hands with the Glenavon captain Alan Frazer and referee Malcolm Moffatt
George Best's wife Angie hands out balls during the game
Angie Best with the referees
Excited young fans mob George at the game
Angie is greeted by fans
The Bests having fun on the pitch during the game
On the ball: George’s wife Angie on the pitch
Fond memories: mascot Stuart McKinley aged six
Style icon George Best outside his Manchester Boutique in the 1970s
George Best in action for Manchester United
George Best puts pressure on Gordon Banks as he prepares to clear the ball from the England penalty area in the 1971 international at Windsor Park.
George Best with Lawrie Sanchez
George Best
George Best and his mother Annie
Molly meets soccer star George Best
Football legend George Best, pictured with Pat Jennings (left) and Billy Bingham (right).
Lining up: George Best joins the rest of the Tobermore United squad for a team photo before the Irish Cup tie against Ballymena United in 1984
The late George Best with then wife Alex Best is pictured with family and friends outside his boyhood Burren Way home after he received Castlereagh's Freedom of the Borough
Close friends George Best and Mike Summerbee at 1966 World Cup Final
George Best in April 2002 at the house in Burren Way, where he unveiled a plaque after being awarded the freedom of Castlereagh
George Best with son Calum
George Best with his former wife Angie and son Calum
George Best with his former wife Angie and son Calum
George Best and Calum Best
Football legend George Best pictured in 1990
Football legend George Best with his wife Angie, brother Ian, father Dickie and baby son Calum
George Best with his sister Barbara McNarry
George Best at home in Belfast with his father Dicki
George Best, ex-Manchester United footballer, smiling with bruised eye
H&H auctioneer James Wheeler polishes up the Jaguar once owned by George Best
George Best
Manchester United and Northern Ireland football legend George Best
A bus stop on the Cregagh Road on the morning of George Best's funeral.
Flags at George Best funeral at Stormont. Saturday 3rd December 2005
The garden of the Best family home in Burren Way, Cregagh, on the day of George's funeral.
The George Best funeral cortege on the Ballygowan Road.
New stamp depicting George Best
Calum Best in the funeral cortege.
Calum Best shakes hands with well-wishers as George Best's funeral cortege leaves the Best family home
The George Best funeral cortege on the Ballygowan Road.
Calum and Dickie Best at George Best's funeral
The crowd on the Cregagh Road waiting for George Best's funeral cortege.
Crowds gather at Stormont for the funeral of George Best
A view from the balcony of Parliament Buildings in Stormont
Crowds gather at Stormont for the funeral of George Best
George Best's coffin is carried up the steps to the Stormont buildings
George Best's coffin is draped with the Northern Ireland flag
George Best's agent Phil Hughes (centre) with Eamonn Holmes next to George Best's coffin in the Parliament buildings in Stormont, Belfast, Saturday December 3, 2005. The world of football was today paying its last respects as George Best, one of the greatest ever players, was laid to rest. Best, 59, died last Friday in London's Cromwell Hospital.
The Best family at the George Best funeral at Stormont
Billy Bingham at George Best's funeral
Robert Dunlop at George Best's funeral
Dickie and Calum Best at the funeral of George Best funeral at Stormont.
Terry Neill at George Best's funeral
Paddy Kielty and Gerry Armstrong at George Best's funeral
Frank McLintock at George Best's funeral
Mike England at George Best's funeral
Derek Dougan at George Best's funeral
Milan Manderic at George Best's funeral
Pat Jennings at George Best's funeral
Phil Taylor, George Best's agent and Jackie Fullerton at George Best's funeral
Alex Higgans at George Best's funeral
Bobby Jameson at George Best's funeral
Barry McGuigan and his wife at George Best's funeral
Rodney Marsh at George Best's funeral
Dennis Law (centre) at George Best's funeral
Martin O'Neill at George Best's funeral
Callum Best and mum Angie at George Best's funeral
George Best's grave
George Best Belfast City Airport handled more than 2.5 million passengers last year
A mural of George Best and David Healy on the wall of the Times Bar, York Road. Brian Little/ Presseye
The Best family plot at Roselawn on the day before George's funeral.
Some of the Best memorabilia up for grabs at Wilsons Auction house today. Pictured a silver Benfica letter opener, dated 1966, given to George which marks Man Utd's 5-1 European Cup defeat of Benfica in Lisbon. There are 110 lots of George Best memorabilia available, collected by Dickie Best over a period of 40 years
Best Fan - 7 year old Luke McMullan from Dungannon holding a replica European Champions Manchester United Trophy presented to Dickie Best when George Best died. There are 110 lots of George Best memorabilia available, collected by Dickie Best over a period of 40 years.
Some of the Best memorabilia up for grabs at Wilsons Auction house today. There are 110 lots of George Best memorabilia available, collected by Dickie Best over a period of 40 years.
Some of the Best memorabilia up for grabs at Wilsons Auction house today. There are 110 lots of George Best memorabilia available, collected by Dickie Best over a period of 40 years.
Best Fans - Mark McIlwaine (13, left) and David McCracken (13), both from Lurgan Junior High admiring some of the Best memorabilia up for grabs at Wilsons Auction house today. There are 110 lots of George Best memorabilia available, collected by Dickie Best over a period of 40 years.
Best Fan - 7 year old Luke McMullan from Dungannon (dressed in his school rugby kit) holding a cast from George Best's original match worn boots, pictured amongst Best memorabilia at Wilsons Auction house today. There are 110 lots of George Best memorabilia available, collected by Dickie Best over a period of 40 years.
Items on sale of the Dickie Best collection which will go on public auction on the 19th march at the Wilsons premises in Mallusk with 110 lots of George Best memorabillia available which was collected by Dickie over a 40 year period.
Family Portrait (left to right): Carol Best - Lisa Hogg; Julie Best (Twin) - Catherine Quinn; Ann Best - Michelle Fairley; George Best - Tom Payne; Dickie Best - Lorcan Cranitch; Grace Best (Twin) - Amy Quinn; Barbara Best - Laura Donnelly
George Best played by Tom Payne
Ann Best played by Michelle Fairley
George Best played by Tom Payne
Ann Best played by Michelle Fairley
Ann Best played by Michelle Fairley
George Best played by Tom Payne
George Best played by Tom Payne
Richard (Dickie) Best with a picture of his son, footballer George Best pictured at his home in Belfast. October 2005
Visiting George Best’s grave yesterday were Michelle McBride with Lyn Smyth
Visiting George Best’s grave yesterday was Ivan Little
Fans of the late football superstar regularly visit the grave to leave mementoes
Fans of the late football superstar regularly visit the grave to leave mementoes

"Bestie told me once that, when Matt Busby used to call him in to give him a dressing-down, he used to count the birds on the wallpaper behind Busby.

"So, I went to the psychiatrist once, stared over his left shoulder, counted patterns on the wallpaper and nodded."

In November 2005, when Best went to that great football stadium in the sky, his old mucker Parky penned an obituary of sorts.

"I last saw him a couple of months ago, when I persuaded him to attend a reunion of the players who were at Old Trafford with him," he wrote.

"He sat all evening without a drink and reminisced. He said to me later that it was one of the most enjoyable occasions he could remember. I said, 'That's because you were sober.' George said, 'Whatever. I was certainly very happy.'

"I thought - not for the first time - that maybe, just maybe, we'd got him back. A week later, he was drinking again and the final spiral of his life had begun."

Parkinson adds that, when Manchester United beat Benfica in the final of the European Cup in 1968, when Matt Busby fulfilled his final ambition, "George remembered the game, but little else".

"There was a reception, a banquet and a trip to a nightclub, but he had no recollection of the celebrations," he says. "His friends told him he had the meal, but afterwards nipped off to spend the night with a girlfriend.

"Looking back, he thought it might have been the moment when his life went into free-fall, when Bacchus replaced Busby."

For many of us, Parkinson replaced nearly everything on the TV on Saturday nights with his eponymous chat-show from 1971 until 1982, and then from 1998 until June 2007, when he retired the show for ever.

Indeed, many of us probably feel that we have been looking at Michael Parkinson's face for a large percentage of our adult lives. Parky had a similar connection - much more profound - with another face in his own life.

"I fell in love the first time I saw my wife, Mary, on a bus. I remember thinking, 'I could look at that face for a long, long time', and I have," he says, referring to his cherished soulmate, Mary Heneghan, whom he married in 1959 and with whom he has three grown-up children, Andrew, Nick and Mike, as well as eight grandchildren.

In marriage, he also believes, there is nothing you can't sort out if you still fundamentally love each other.

He lives with the love of his life in the hamlet of Bray in Berkshire. He eats in his local restaurant, The Fat Duck, Heston Blumenthal's renowned cathedral to ultramodern cuisine.

As food critic Xanthe Clay exclaimed of one of Heston's more mad creations: "Who could forget the seven-foot boiled egg on his TV show Fantastical Food?"

The kind of stuff Parkinson's mother used to serve up to him as a child in Cudworth, the Yorkshire mining village he grew up in, I joke?

"Hardly!" he laughs. "He makes Yorkshire pud, but his was certainly nothing like my mother's."

He adds that his precious mother, Freda, "visited all her ambition on me" - she fed him with books and movies and plays and culture and made him the man he is.

He talks fondly of Sydney Bernstein, the Granada Television founder who gave him a job in the early 1960s, and Bernstein's idea - revolutionary at the time - "that you could have people on television who spoke like I did," Parkinson says, never having lost his Yorkshire accent.

After this interview, Parky is off to the pub with Michael jnr to watch his other team, after Barnsley FC, Jose's Manchester United, play on the telly.

The last time we met eight years ago, an article appeared in that day's paper proclaiming that Parkinson has reached that stage of silvery eminence where "to be old - or even old-fashioned - is a matter of pride mixed with amusement". He was certainly amused.

"It is a wonderfully fascinating subject," he said over lunch that day. "Billy Connolly, who has the bus pass now, observes that the first indication you are getting on is when your pubic hairs go grey."

I don't feel up to asking the one-time king of chat whether his gruaige down there is of a colour intermediate between black and white.

So instead I ask him at his age in life, does he have any regrets.

He shakes his head.

"No. No regrets.

"I've been blessed, basically. I've had a wonderful life."

Belfast Telegraph


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