Parky’s departure ends an era

British talkshow host bows out

LONDON — From next month, Hollywood’s relationship with a corner of Saturday night British television will never be quite the same again.

For that is when the veteran U.K. talkshow host Michael Parkinson will present his final program.

Since “Parkinson” bowed on the BBC in 1971, this silver-tongued and latterly silver-haired Brit has interviewed dozens of Hollywood stars — and other cultural icons too — for a show unlike any other on British television.

“Michael Parkinson has defined the talkshow in British TV,” says Paul Jackson, the entertainment topper who has worked with Parky, as locals affectionately call him, at both the BBC and private web ITV, which bought the show three years ago.

To gauge the cultural sweep of “Parkinson” it is worth remembering that past guests have included Orson Welles, Bette Davis, Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire.

Famously he said that as far as bookings for the program went, his one regret was failing to get Frank Sinatra.

But his producers did persuade Muhammad Ali to do the show — in a memorable encounter in 1974.

Critics of Parkinson’s fireside approach to the talkshow interview claim he was reverential to the point of sycophancy.

Maybe he was, but over the years “Parkinson” saw off many a talkshow pretender and achieved the kind of longevity unusual in a medium always seeking the next big thing.

The show consistently got the big names and, crucially, had the intelligence to allow the stars and not Parkinson to hog the limelight.

His deceptively soft interviewing style could lead to more revelations from guests than the techniques of some harder-boiled inquisitors — and Parkinson never forget that he was there to entertain and not to grandstand.

In the U.K. today’s big TV talkshows revolve around the irreverence of their hosts.

Purists might argue that they don’t deserve to be called talkshows at all because the chatter is so consistently lightweight.

The archetype is Jonathan Ross’s Friday night show broadcast on BBC1.

No one tunes in expecting much in the way of a revealing interview as the banter flows fast and loose between Ross and his guests. It is a very funny show, but it is not a talkshow.

Sometimes the guest barely manages to get a word in edgeways. Humiliation is occasionally a few remarks away.

In a recent encounter between the sarcastic Ross and British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, a man’s man who can handle himself in the toughest of company, the cook was not so much lightly grilled as barbecued to a crisp.

By contrast, Parkinson’s modus operandi was to start from a position of respect and genuine curiosity. He began his career as a journalist.

This miner’s son from England’s less prosperous north had grown up during cinema’s golden age. In spite of his own growing celebrity, he still appeared genuinely thrilled to be meeting one of his heroes.

Of course, not every interview went smoothly. Parkinson’s talk with Meg Ryan in October 2003 was a testy encounter and led the actress to accuse him of acting like “a disapproving dad.”

For his final bow, scheduled for Dec. 15 on ITV1, the doyen of the British talkshow submitted a wish list of guests. Every one of them agreed to appear in the two-hour spesh.

David Beckham, Michael Caine and Judi Dench are among those who will grace this last edition of “Parkinson.”

They know they won’t see his like again.

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