Belfast Telegraph

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.

"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

Daily News Headlines Newsletter

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox.


From Belfast Telegraph