Interview: showbiz legend Nicholas Parsons eager to please

Nicholas Parsons will perform in Berwick next week
Nicholas Parsons will perform in Berwick next week

HE’S been a permanent fixture on the small screen and on the airwaves for over half a century now and this weekend he’s arriving in Berwick promising ‘A Laugh A Minute’.

Nicholas Parsons is a real diamond of showbusiness and a real gent, having delighted audiences with appearances on a wide 
variety of shows including ‘Benny Hill’, ‘Boeing Boeing’, ‘Sale Of The Century’ and even ‘The Rocky Horror Show’.

Most people retire in their 60s, but not Nicholas. At the age of 89, he is still going strong and his appearance in Berwick is part of a nationwide comedy tour.

But the length of his career hasn’t come as that much of a surprise to the man himself, who was very grateful for his break when it came, having been itching to entertain from a very young age.

“When I was a small boy I used to fool about in nursery and then at school. I just used to love entertaining people and making them laugh,” he recalled.

“I knew I wanted to do something in showbiz or theatre, but like many parents who want their children to have what they saw as a proper vocation in life, my mother and father pushed me into engineering so I lost out on the career in theatre I wanted so badly.

“I was still a relatively young boy when the Second World War broke out, but I spent five years in Clydebank.

“Even then I used to love to make my crewmates laugh and tried to get away to do amateur entertainment whenever and wherever I could.”

Nicholas’s foray into the entertainment industry, like many others of his generation, wasn’t a smooth one, an experience he says is lost on some of the wannabe stars of the present day. “I fought and I struggled to get my foot in the door,” he explained.

“I got there bit by bit, and I think it’s important you get the disappointments you get early in your career as it inspires you to keep getting better and trying again.

“A lot of the people you see trying to get a break on reality television shows don’t have that kind of experience behind them and even if they have some initial success they tend to fade away.

“There is nothing like hard work to make you app-reciate your success if and when it comes.”

Although his audiences love to hear stories of his glittering showbiz career and the household names he’s rubbed shoulders with, it’s the tales of Nicholas’s earlier life that seem to generate the most interest.

“For my show, I regale anecdotes of things that have happened right through my life, but the ones that seem to strike a chord with audiences are the tales of my time on the banks of the Clyde,” he said.

“What I like about coming to places like Berwick, which although a beautiful and fascinating town, isn’t one I’d normally perform in, is that the people who come along seem genuinely appreciative that you’ve made the effort to come.

“I do notice a subtle difference in audience reaction depending on where I’m on stage. Some things will get a bigger laugh in a particular area of the country, but at the same time I’m very much of the opinion that if something’s funny it will get a laugh wherever you are, and if it’s not it won’t.”

Radio 4 listeners of all ages have taken Nicholas to their hearts as presenter of ‘Just A Minute’, a role he has held for 40 years. But the show nearly didn’t make it past its first day.

“The BBC thought the pilot episode we did was very mediocre,” Nicholas recalled. “They weren’t keen on it at all and very nearly pulled the plug, but thankfully we had a very enterprising producer who fought long and hard for us. ‘Just A Minute’ is a fantastic show to be involved in and I’m thrilled that it’s still getting a fantastic response from fans from the ages of nine to 90.

“As presenter I can never rest on my laurels, I have to have the knowledge to know whether an answer can be challenged or not, so it’s just as well that I read a lot of newspapers and absorb knowledge all the time.”

In many ways, little has changed. It is still the smiles he brings to his audience that get him behind the mic or onto the stage.

“For me it’s all about the pleasure I get from bringing joy to others,” he says. “Rather than feeling proud about what I’ve done I continue to think ‘aren’t I lucky to be doing what I’m doing?’

“My attempts at being an actor in the theatre were thwarted, so I’m immensely grateful to be in showbusiness. I often go into schools and it depresses me that a lot of children just want to be famous by any means necessary.

“Things get more challenging as you get older but I still get huge enjoyment from walking out onto a stage to an audience, particularly in places I don’t often get to, like Berwick.”

Nicholas Parsons will appear at The Maltings, Berwick, from 6pm on Saturday, March 2.