Wednesday, 26 September 2018

From merchant navy to laughing every minute

FAME didn’t come easily for Nicholas Parsons.

FAME didn’t come easily for Nicholas Parsons.

The 91-year-old actor and radio presenter set his sights on a performing career at a young age but his parents had other ideas.

Instead they pushed him towards a marine engineering apprenticeship on the Clydebank in Glasgow, where he worked for five years while acting in his spare time.

But although he would go on to greater things, these early efforts at breaking into showbiz provided him with a rich source of anecdotes.

Parsons, best known for hosting BBC Radio 4’s long-running comedy show Just A Minute, is sharing his recollections at Norden Farm in Maidenhead next Saturday.



The evening, called A Laugh A Minute, will cover every aspect of his career from his days as a repertory actor to the present day.

He said: “It’s a general reflection on my life but it is a comedy show rather than anything too serious.

“I take the theme of my life and highlight all the amusing, interesting, challenging and disturbing things that have happened to me.

“Strangely enough, my time on the Clydebank gets some of the biggest laughs of the evening.

“I think it’s because people find it so incongruous compared with the image I present now.

“They find it funny that I mingled with the people in that environment and made friends with them but I had to do that or they would have absolutely crucified me.

“I was born at a time when you didn’t do what you wanted — you did what you were told.

“People didn’t just go into showbiz because back then we didn’t have all these reality shows that encouraged you to think anyone could be famous.

“My parents thought the idea was ridiculous and told me I had to get a proper job. They steered me towards a career in engineering because I was good with my hands.”

At the end of his apprenticeship he accepted a place in the Merchant Navy as a marine mechanic. However, he only lasted a week before he collapsed with a lung infection brought on by overwork. He spent five months in hospital recovering and doctors feared it might develop into tuberculosis.

He said: “It was very demanding to get up at 6.30am and do a hard day’s manual work before hurrying back home, cleaning up then heading off out again.

“It wasn’t every night because the work wasn’t there every night but I was striking out all the time. It all took its toll and after about four or five years of rushing about I just collapsed.

“Rationing was very severe at the time and I just wasn’t getting enough nourishing food for a young man.

“I believe I hold the unique distinction of having only been in the Merchant Navy for seven days.”

Parsons became a full-time actor in the late Forties and spent two years in repertory at several towns in the South-East. He said: “You’re under-rehearsed and all sorts of things go wrong so a lot of the stories from that period are pretty memorable.

“I worked with Kenneth Williams when he was guesting and he was meant to shoot someone with a gun but it didn’t go off.

“Another time we were meant to enter the stage through a door but that got stuck so we had to find another way on.

“Showbiz throws up all kinds of situations which can be very funny. I can always find the humour in them.”

Following several supporting roles in films during the Fifties, Parsons’ profile grew when he joined the regular cast of comedian Arthur Haynes’ television shows.

Haynes died suddenly in 1966 but the following year Parsons was invited to host the first episode of Just A Minute. The show is now in its 68th series and has featured more than 160 panellists including regulars Clement Freud, Derek Nimmo, Kenneth Williams and Paul Merton.

It has also made sporadic appearances on television and won a Sony Radio Academy Gold Award in 2003.

Parsons said: “We had no idea how huge it was going to become. The pilot was a complete disaster and the BBC didn’t want it.

“It was well thought out and I think Ian [Messiter, the creator] was a fantastic inventor but initially it had some rounds that slowed it down.

“I remember there was one where you couldn’t use plurals or the definite article.

“However, there was a young producer called David Hatch who saw the potential and pleaded with them to give us a series.

“They made various adjustments and experimented with different things and it gradually evolved into the programme that it is today.

“It’s one of those great romantic showbiz stories — they said it was never going to happen and now it’s one of the most successful shows on the radio, or indeed ever.

“I’ve done more than 900 episodes and have never missed a single one, which is an incredible record considering its humble beginnings.”

Parsons also presented the first run of ITV’s Sale of the Century, which began in 1971 and finished in 1983.

It was one of the most consistently popular quiz shows of the shows of the Seventies, with one episode in 1978 attracting a record 21 million viewers.

While some have expressed concerns that modern reality television is too cruel, Parsons said there was still an appetite for more innocent fare.

He said: “I don’t believe say Sale of the Century wouldn’t be commissioned now.

“There are still some wonderfully inventive quizzes on television now like The Chase or Pointless and people still want to watch them.

“A quiz show isn’t the same as a reality show. People’s tastes vary and there are lots of different programmes to cater for them, which is sensible broadcasting.”

Last year, as well as receiving a CBE for services to charity, Parsons published his autobiography My Life In Comedy.

But while he may be in a more reflective mood, he has no plans to bow out from the limelight.

He said: “I just enjoy performing. It’s always highly satisfying at my age to walk out on stage in front of an audience and make them laugh.

“I’m hugely fond of my profession and because I was frustrated getting into it in the early days I see every job I get as a bonus.

“When people ask if I’m considering retirement I explain that I’m in a profession that retires you.

“I’ll still be working for as long as the audiences want me and people keep coming to see my shows.”

The show starts at 8pm and tickets are £17.50. For the box office visit www.nordenfarm.org or ring 01628 788997.

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