“And on another occasion: 'Our romance is now the talk of the ping-pong club.’ She sent me her picture.” He chuckles. “My first wife Denise was worried that any moment she might show up – but, thank goodness, she never came.”
He refuses to call his fan crazy, even though she clearly was. And there was obviously no talk of a restraining order. “You can’t treat your fans like that,” he shakes his head, disapproving. “It may be old-school, but I think everyone deserves respect.”
He grows pink with pleasure when I suggest that these are the words of a real gentleman. “Oh darling, I would never say that. But my father, he was a typical English gentleman, who prized courtesy and respect, and maybe I take after him.”
Parsons will turn 90 on October 10. But in his dapper suit and cravat, with his white hair beautifully combed and not a Zimmer frame or stick in sight, the Just a Minute presenter looks far younger. Indeed, his schedule would exhaust a 50-year-old. Last month he hosted his comedy chat show, Nicholas Parsons’s Happy Hour, at the Edinburgh Festival – for the 13th year in a row. He’s just finished recording a new series of Just a Minute, which has been running on Radio 4 since 1967. And the evening after I meet him, he was entertaining guests at a charity dinner.
After 60 years as a presenter, actor and comedy performer, Parsons knows his profession is unforgiving and recently admitted that he tried to keep his age a secret for fear it would put off employers.
He’s kept other secrets along the way, too. For instance, he used to suffer from a bad stammer, which he overcame only with a huge effort and lots of practice. He also had dyslexia, over which he triumphed – “I couldn’t read the lines, but I’d memorise them.” And he hid, at the start of his career, his regular visits to a psychologist.
“When I was young, if you said you were seeing a psychiatrist or a psychologist, people would think you were a nutcase. You probably were a nutcase, that’s why you needed to go. You have to be a little bit mad to be in this world.”
In his autobiography, The Straight Man: My Life in Comedy, Parsons describes growing up as “the unconventional child” of conventional parents. His father was a GP, his mother an aspirational woman who regarded showbusiness as “fit for drunks and low-lifes”. Nicholas was the middle child, with an older brother and younger sister, and the family lived in Hampstead, north London. He attended St Paul’s School, though he had to leave in 1942, before completing his studies, because of the Second World War.
When young Nicholas talked of his ambition to act, his parents balked. As he was good with his hands, they decided that a career in mechanical engineering would be more suitable. Thanks to an uncle with connections in Glasgow, Nicholas went to work as an apprentice in a Clyde shipyard. It was the making of him. A posh boy, he had to win over his co-workers before they beat him up. His jokes and impersonations did the trick – and confirmed his thespian talents.
“I never looked back,” he smiles. His mother, who prized academic success, never seemed to accept his rebellion – and I wonder if her disapproval left him feeling insecure and in need of therapy.
He won’t be drawn: “I had issues. I knew what they were. I got help. No doubt about it, a lot of people can benefit from it. I think it’s a good thing that mental health is something that everyone now feels more comfortable with.” In fact, I suggest, performers such as Stephen Fry talk quite openly about their struggle with depression. “Oh, he goes too far. We don’t want to be like the Americans, who talk about therapy all the time.”
In a career spanning so many decades, and both theatre and broadcasting – throughout the 1990s, for instance, he appeared on stage in the The Rocky Horror Show – Parsons has known some of the biggest names in entertainment. Kenneth Williams was brilliant “but inhibited and tortured”; Clement Freud was “difficult but a wonderful brain”; Paul Merton, who as a panellist on Just a Minute spars regularly with Parsons, “is a genius. A lovely man. He’s become a friend.” As for Jimmy Savile: “A nasty piece of work. I never guessed what he was up to, but I did think he was damn odd.”
The BBC has emerged from the Savile scandal as a secretive institution with a debauched hinterland. Does this tally with Parsons’s own memory? “No. I never came across that. Not even rumours.” What of the corporation’s other scandal, regarding pay-offs and salaries? “The BBC I knew was not the same thing at all. When I was young, it was the creative people who ran it. Now it is the bureaucrats. Sadly, they don’t understand showbusiness. Production people in the Light Entertainment department are lovely. Yet, from what I read in the papers, the people above them are motivated by greed. It’s so sad. I love the BBC, I’ve worked here for more than 60 years… they risk destroying an incredible institution.”
The monarchy is another institution he loves. He had “the great privilege” of being invited to lunch at Buckingham Palace in 1968, with the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and Princess Anne. “She was still at school. She was off that day because she had a dentist appointment, and I got to sit next to her,” he tells me. “The Queen is wonderful and has an incredible sense of what people want. Prince Philip has helped her get that common touch – he was in the Navy and knew how to get along with people from all walks of life. Remember, he mixed with those in the lower decks. Oh, what a lovely man.”
Nicholas Parsons OBE – he was honoured 10 years ago – bubbles over with enthusiasm for people and life. The niceness is no façade, either. I happen to know one of the “hostesses” who worked with him on the TV hit Sale of the Century” in the 1970s.
Nikki Page was a stunning blonde in her twenties when, together with an equally attractive brunette, it was her job to point out the special features of the washing machine or sports car given as prizes to the winning contestant. “Nicholas was punctilious about politeness. He treated us with the same respect he gave the director and the TV bosses. He was so sweet – but also very careful about not sending out the wrong signals. He was a married star, and he made sure no one came near his dressing room, which would have got tongues wagging.”
In the hour and a half that I spend with him, Parsons speaks eloquently (no hesitation, deviation or repetition) and pulls out names and quotes from the recesses of his memory without any trouble. What is the secret to such happy longevity?
“Gardening. Keeping active. I stretch for 20 minutes every morning. If I miss a day, I do half an hour the next. And I’m blessed because I have my wife, Annie, without whom I couldn’t do a thing.” Annie, 73, is his second wife; he was amicably divorced in 1989 from his first, Denise, with whom he has a son and a daughter, and stresses that the two remain friends. “And then there are my children and grandchildren. They have kept me from ever taking myself too seriously. They have kept me steady.”
That last word suggests that Parsons’s well-being lies in having slain the demons of his early years. As, with a sprightly step, he approaches the big nine-o, the young dyslexic with a stammer and an unconventional ambition knows he has made good. That must be the best present of all.Also this BBC Five programme has a great interview with Nicholas.
I will try and update over the next two weeks as no doubt there will be plenty more on everyone's favourite chairman.