Nicholas Parsons: "I Remember..."

As told to Jack Watkins

Nicholas Parsons is a presenter and actor. He has hosted Just a Minute, BBC Radio 4’s longest-running comedy, for nearly 50 years. He continues to tread the boards, performing at the Edinburgh Fringe each year.

…Seeing a travelling circus when I was four years old

Nicholas Parsons as a child
A family holiday in Scotland when Nicholas (far right) was 13

The sight of elephants walking single-file down the high street, followed by clowns and acrobats, captivated me. I think it instilled me with the ambition to become a performer. 

The circus was parading through Grantham, where I was born. My father was a doctor and his patients included Mr and Mrs Roberts, who owned the grocer’s shop. I was told it was my father who brought their daughter Margaret—the future Mrs Thatcher—into the world.

 

 

…My first play

My father moved his practice to London and by 1939 we were living in a large house in Hampstead. I attended St Paul’s School, winning caps at rugby and cricket for the under-16s teams.  

But my parents didn’t approve of my acting ambitions. My mother told me I should pursue it only as a hobby. So through one of my father’s patients, I appeared as a schoolboy in The Housemaster by Ian Hay, which was put on by an amateur company. I felt in my natural element, performing it in two country houses and in London.

 

 

…Training an engineer on the Clydebank 

As my parents refused to accept acting was a “proper job”, I was sent away on an engineering apprenticeship to a pump and turbine firm. It was a total culture shock for a 16-year-old. I started work early when it was dark and snow lay on the ground, and I was surrounded by these men talking broad, guttural Glaswegian. 

Luckily, my ability to tell jokes and do impersonations endeared me to my workmates. One came up to me and said, “Nick, we like ye, in spite of yer right English way of talking and yer proper manners.” I developed a broad Glaswegian accent, which I can still use to this day.

 

 

…Witnessing the Blitz from the top of Hampstead Heath

Nicholas Parsons in the Home Guard
In the Home Gaurd in Clydebank (second row, left)

While in Scotland I enlisted with a friend for the Home Guard. We were issued with pikes. Quite what use they’d have been if we’d been in action I’ll never know.

But one night in December 1940, having come back to London for Christmas, as the air-raid sirens that always sent a shiver down the spine started going off, I peeped through the blackout curtains. The sky was glowing red in the distance. It seemed lighter than it had been at dusk.

My father and I decided to investigate, walking up to Whitestone Pond, the highest point of Hampstead Heath, where  on a clear day you can see the City of London. We stared in disbelief as the entire City looked like a great red-and-yellow fireball. In the middle of it all was St Paul’s, lit up in a way no floodlighting could have managed. This was a fire-blitz. The Germans were trying to destroy London by using incendiaries, not explosives. It was spectacle I’ve never forgotten.

 

 

…Being blessed in teaming up with Arthur Haynes

We worked together for ten years from the mid-1950s, and The Arthur Haynes Show was the most popular comedy sketch show on TV of its day. 

Although Arthur and I were from different social backgrounds, we spoke the same professional language. We understood each other instinctively. He was from a music-hall background, and was a little unsure
of himself when it came to working in front of the camera because he didn’t always learn his lines. He had all the sense of a sketch, but sometimes not all the words. 

Fortunately I do have a good memory, and in the age of live television, I’d often feed him the lines, saying things like, “Mr Haynes, I think the word you’re searching for is…” Of course, the audience loved it.

 

 

…Feeling sad when Arthur broke up our partnership

Nicholas Parsons and Arthur Hayes
Nicholas (left) in The Arthur Hayes Show in 1960

I really thought we were going to go on to better things. When we visited the US, Ed Sullivan told Arthur, “You ought to hang on to him, he’s the best straight man I’ve ever seen.”  

But I landed on my feet after we split, being asked to take over from Leslie Phillips as the lead in the West End farce Boeing-Boeing. To have my name in lights at the Duchess Theatre, Aldwych, was the height
of my ambition at the time. We played to packed houses for 15 months. 

But Arthur, who beneath his relaxed exterior was really rather tense and had already had one heart attack, felt the strain of keeping his show going with falling TV ratings, and suffered a second attack in 1966, dying aged 52.

Relive memories of The Arthur Hayes Show in the Reader's Digest shop

 

 

Just A Minute was a flop when it was first piloted.

Nicholas Parsons with Paul Merton
Fooling around with Paul Merton on a Just a Minute press shoot

To begin with, I’d wanted to be on the panel, but producer David Hatch told me, “Do the chairmanship for the pilot and if we get the series, you go on the panel.” Well, the pilot was
a disaster. The only thing they liked was my chairmanship. 

We tweaked it and got rid of lots of inhibiting rules, and now nearly 50 years later, we’re Radio 4’s longest-running comedy, pulling in over two-and-a-half-million listeners a week.

 

 

…Being forced to move house 

Sale of the Century was a huge hit for me when I hosted it in the 1970s. But it raised my profile to the extent that my wife and I had to move from the dream cottage we’d bought on the edge of Hampstead Heath. I’m a keen gardener, but there was no fence between the garden and the heath, and people used to come and stare at me.

We moved to the Berkshire countryside, but my wife couldn’t adjust to life outside London and it led to the eventual break-up of our marriage. These days, my second wife Annie and I split our time between the country and a little flat in London, and it works very well.

 

 

…Suffering anxiety in the late 1980s

After finishing Sale of the Century, no one thought I was fit for anything else. It was as if I had to prove myself all over again. This really is the most insecure business in the world. There’s no surer phrase than, “You’re only as good as your last job.”

Even today, just before I go on to chair Just a Minute, I’m thinking, Well, this has worked before, but will it work again? Then the producer announces you, the adrenalin starts running, the audience responds and you’re away.

 

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