‘Goldenballs’ to ‘disappointing woman’ – Parkinson’s five most memorable interviews

Entertainment

Sir Michael Parkinson’s interviews are among the most memorable in British broadcasting.

Interviewing high-profile celebrities from both sides of the Atlantic, he sat down with the likes of Madonna, Sir Elton John and Tom Cruise – as well as Sir Tony Blair and Boris Johnson.

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But out of more than 800 episodes of his chat show, he will be remembered for just a select few – and not all of them for the right reasons.

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A look back at Sir Michael Parkinson’s career

Dame Helen Mirren (1975)

Helen Mirren in a play in London in 1979
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Helen Mirren in a play in London in 1979

Parkinson was often accused of being sexist during an interview in the 1970s with actress Dame Helen Mirren.

Perhaps reflective of attitudes at the time, he chose to focus on her portrayal as a “sex queen”, quizzing her on whether her “physical attributes… hindered her career” or “detracted from her performance”.

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The then 30-year-old appeared uncomfortable and grilled him on what he meant, accusing him of claiming “serious actresses can’t have big bosoms”.

Reflecting on the exchange years later, he “pleads guilty to being sexist by today’s standards”.

“I was my most pompous self,” he said, adding that it revealed “an unattractive side” of himself.

Rod Hull and Emu (1976)

Rod Hull and Emu in London in 1976
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Rod Hull and Emu in London in 1976

One of Parky’s most famous encounters was with entertainer Rod Hull and his famous puppet Emu.

In later years he joked that there were far better exchanges he’d rather be known for.

“I’ll probably be remembered for that bloody bird,” he said.

Over the course of several minutes, the pretend bird relentlessly attacked him, damaging the on-set furniture and eventually wrestling him off his chair to the floor.

He managed to keep his composure and good humour throughout, before eventually kicking him away and getting to his feet.

Muhammad Ali (1971-81)

Muhammad Ali and Michael Parkinson. Muhammad Ali was Michael Parkinsons guest on the 'Parkinson' show screened on BBC-1 on Saturday, 7th December 1974.
Pic:BBC
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Ali and Parkinson in 1974. Pic: BBC

Parkinson interviewed the legendary boxer on four occasions between 1971 and 1981, flying once to the US in 1974 to co-interview him with American talk show host Dick Cavett.

Looking back, he compared their encounters to boxing matches, claiming he “lost on every occasion”.

“He was confrontational, he was dictatorial, all those things… and he had that physical presence,” he recalled in 2016.

Their first tete-a-tete saw the athlete talk movingly about his upbringing, racism and conversion to Islam.

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Parkinson interviews Muhammad Ali

But as the years went on their conversations got spikier.

Their 1974 chat saw Ali declare: “You and this little TV show are nothing to Muhammad Ali.”

Then in 1981, he challenged Parkinson again, saying: “I’m not just a boxer. I can talk all week on millions of subjects. You do not have enough wisdom to corner me on television. You are too small mentally to tackle me on nothing I represent.”

Although he said Ali would present a different version of himself each time, he said he revelled in each chance to sit opposite him.

“What a figure, what a personality,” Parkinson said.

“I’ve seen some beautiful men in my time but he was gorgeous. Beautiful – but the gibberish he talked was extraordinary.”

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David and Victoria Beckham (2001)

Parkinson credited his later interviews with being his best, having gained confidence and learned from earlier mistakes.

In 2001 he sat down with David and Victoria Beckham to ask them about their relationship, public image and accusations of affairs.

The Beckhams in Manchester in August 2000
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The Beckhams in Manchester in August 2000

Quizzing former Spice Girl Victoria on how the public’s perception of her had changed – she suggested her husband’s image had overtaken hers.

“I think they think I’m a miserable cow in high heels and I just go down Bond Street all the time,” she told him.

“You can get down and think ‘why don’t people understand me, why are they saying this and that’.

“But what better person than my own husband to see how you can turn all of that around.”

After a short pause, she made the revelation that she “calls him Goldenballs now”, to fits of laughter from the audience, before adding: “That’s one of those things I shouldn’t have said.”

Meg Ryan (2003)

Picture shows - Michael Parkinson and Meg Ryan on 'Parkinson', 2003.
Pic:BBC
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Ryan and Parkinson in 2003. Pic: BBC

A few years after the re-launch of his BBC show in 1998, Parkinson interviewed Hollywood actress Meg Ryan.

The frosty exchange saw Parkinson grill the When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle star on why she wanted to be an actress if she didn’t enjoy being in the spotlight.

He accused her of being “wary” of journalists like him and asked what she would do if she was in his position.

Clearly exasperated, Ryan advised she would tell him to “wrap it up”.

She later accused him of behaving like a “disappointed dad” when discussing nudity in her films.

In a Radio Times interview, Parkinson admitted he wished he’d “dealt with it in a more courteous manner”.

“I was quite obviously angry with her and it’s not my business to be angry towards guests,” he told the magazine in 2021.

He said he would apologise if he saw her again – a change in tune from previously labelling her a “bore” and “unhappy woman”.

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