It's Good to Talk. but It's So Much Better to Listen; Parkinson on the Secret of His Success and Why He Hates Those Comedians Doing `Lazy' Chat Shows

Article excerpt

Byline: MARK ANSTEAD

ON the telly he seems such a nice, gentle man, but get Michael Parkinson on the subject of modern celebrity and he shows no mercy.

He detests reading biographies about today's young pop stars and can't abide reality shows such as Big Brother or I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out Of Here.

He says: "It should be called If I Am A Celebrity ... What On Earth Am I Doing Here?

"When it comes to fame, showbiz biographies are not worth the paper they're written on. A 23- year-old pop star writing their life story? I'm not interested - it's cheapskate.

"The same goes for sports books, the kind of Keane biography we read about. They are basically written for serialisation in the press ... it's trivial."

He may sound in grouchy mood, but he has a point. Hardly anyone can have read more biographies than him (he has to do it as part of his research into his guests). Perhaps it is this that leads him to an equally damning verdict on his rival chat show hosts.

He says: "Nowadays the hosts are given a script with all the questions and the producers say, `Go on out there and do it'.

"It's one of the great myths perpetuated ever since television started - that if you have a comedian who you don't know what to do with, or a celebrity who isn't quite working, the lazy thing is to say `Give him a talk show - it's easy'.

"But it's not easy. You're faced with the task of putting three singly disparate people into a conversational situation. It's no good having three guests and two just sitting there, doing nothing.

"They are there for a purpose and that's to bring them into a conversation so it looks as though you've been having dinner with them and they're talking after a brandy. Unless you're experienced at doing that, it is tough."

Clearly for Parky, the classical talk show is about talking heads and the basic format is not one that he would tamper with.

The fact that his own show was successfully revived four years ago tells him he is right - there is still a demand for it.

He says: "It's just a guy who sits down and introduces a guest and they talk for 20 minutes.

"What's the guest going to do - grow bananas out of their hair? Start tap dancing? Not unless I ask them.

"But television got frightened of conversation and producers kept asking `Are talking heads interesting?' Well, if they say interesting things, they are. Why gimmick it up?" He's equally cutting about the endless repeats some of his rivals' shows enjoy.

He adds: "A show should actually stand as it is, so I won't have any full repeats like the Jonathan Ross show and that's been a matter of policy.

"If you want to watch it, watch it on the night. After that moment it's gone into the ether."

His more commonly quoted gripe is that the guests should shine, not the host, which is clearly a criticism of shows hosted by comedians to get laughs, such as Frank Skinner's.

SO what does Parky think the future holds after he has gone? Could Louis Theroux's approach represent a new way forward - still putting the emphasis on the celebrity subject, but in a different way?

He says: "No, if you categorise Theroux's output you'd put it between a documentary and a comedy show. A doc.com maybe.

"It's not a talk show with interviews as such. It's got its place - it's fine. Do I approve? I don't care, frankly."

We can excuse the nonchalance. …