Why we don’t have room for a serious chat anymore
jeanniejeanniejeannie.co.uk BLOG Friday 10th September 2021
THOUGHT FOR THE DAY
The Parkinson era is long gone: Why we don’t have room for a serious chat anymore
By Ed Cumming
Parkinson at 50 (BBC One) was a bittersweet watch. With his son, the producer, imaginatively called Mike – could an interviewer’s son be called anything else? – Sir Michael, now 86 and finally beginning to show his age, went back over a life and a career that took in more than 600 shows and 2,000 interviews. The old footage was a joy. The man talked to absolutely everyone: Lauren Bacall, Dame Edna, Muhammad Ali, Miss Piggy, Shirley MacLaine, Marlon Brando, Fred Astaire, Bette Davis, some bloke called Rod Hull and his ostrich puppet that boomers are all obsessed with. It’s only 14 years since Parky hung up his clipboard, with a valedictory interview with Peter Kay in 2007, but it feels so distant as to seem like another era. In one clip from 1979, Bette Midler can be seen teasing him. “They told me you were in showbiz,” she said, in mock surprise. “I didn’t realise you were a journalist. How dreary!”
Nobody has replaced Parkinson on British TV, not because nobody’s up to it but because the format has evolved. Parkinson was a Fleet Street journalist and served in Suez before he made the move into this newfangled format, television, with serious reporting as well as that incredibly lame spaghetti harvest April Fool that boomers are also obsessed with. Even with the glitziest Hollywood stars, Parkinson’s style was underpinned by a certain professional gravitas. He wasn’t there to alienate his interviewees. They trusted that he wouldn’t stitch them up; he trusted them to answer the questions the viewers wanted answers to.
Sometimes he got it wrong: in a recent interview with the Radio Times, he apologised for giving Meg Ryan a hard time in 2003. On the whole, though, the relationship between celebrity and interviewer was respected by both sides. Parky could suggest to John and Yoko that Yoko was known as the “woman who broke up the Beatles” without causing a diplomatic incident. Lauren Bacall could remind him sternly that “being a widow is not a profession” without storming off to her agent.
It’s impossible to imagine an interviewer being given the same freedom today. There’s nothing like Parkinson. Piers Morgan has his Life Stories, but they are big set-piece confessionals with mandatory tears. There’s none of the breezy sense of a star wandering through town, taking an hour out of their day for a bit of sprightly chat. Tellingly, the closest analogues to Parky in recent years, Graham Norton and Michael McIntyre, came from stand-up comedy rather than journalism. No shade to either man, especially not Norton, who is as good at his job as anyone on TV except Stephen Graham and Anna Maxwell Martin, but the gig is entertainment rather than intel.
The situation is hardly better in America. There, it is elegantly epitomised by James Corden and his carpool karaoke, a format precision-engineered for the era: shareable, easy to understand and almost zero-risk for the performer. The Paul McCartney and Billie Eilish editions were memorable, but mostly watching those clips is the same as not watching them.
The audiences are to blame, too. Partly, it’s about attention spans. It’s hard to imagine a teenager torn between TikTok and Warzone, settling in for an hour of chat even with Stephen Graham or Anna Maxwell Martin. Who am I kidding, nobody would do that? The Norton format is designed to allow the biggest stars in the world to chum up on the little sofa, pretend they don’t hate each other, and deliver over-rehearsed YouTube-friendly anecdotes that last no more than three minutes. It works brilliantly to the point that Tom Hiddleston can come across as a reasonably chilled, normal and funny guy. But you never learn anything about these people or get the sense that Norton is asking anything that hasn’t been pre-approved and signed off by a phalanx of lawyers and publicists. It’s depressing to compare these slots to the great Parkinson interviews, like his first encounter with Muhammad Ali, when the boxer thought he was coming on for a short news interview and ended up submitting to an hour of Parkinson’s questions.
Audiences, celebrities and the media are locked in a quickening death spiral of trust. Social media’s made it much worse. If the celebrities want to say something, they simply say it on their own terms. Short attention spans and click-hungry websites mean papers are even more desperate for a headline. Wary of their clients giving too much away, publicists restrict their appearances, which means the interviewer and their editors must try to eke out a headline in the slot available. The potential for comments to be interpreted in bad faith or out of context multiplies. Their caution is sensible. A Parkinson-style interview today is an invitation to disaster. Why embrace the risk? But it’s so much more boring, and it’s only going to get worse. If Midler was being ironic 40 years ago, she can’t have known how prescient she would be: in the end, showbiz is much drearier than journalism.
Having watched Parkinson at 50 followed by a repeat of a 1997 edition of the Parkinson Show with Billy Conolley and David Attenborough I was saddenedby how detrementally Michael Parkinson and Billy Conolley had aged in the 24 years. Neither have aged in a very good way. i found it scary. Is that what we have to look forward to in the next 24 years. But then I took hope from David Attenborough who more or less looked the same.
TOP TEN Parkinson at 50OF THE DAY
Top 10 Reasons the 18th Century was Awesome
When we think of the past, we tend to either romanticize it or flat-out abhor it. Apparently none of us could feel comfortable living in a time when the internet was a type of fishing tool. Also, the old days featured a touch of misogyny and a good dose of slavery, as well as completely lacking electricity—but there were plenty of awesome things back then which definitely made up for the downsides.
1 Beer Was Abundant
In order to curb public intoxication, eighteenth century English Parliament passed the Beerhouse Act, which allowed anyone to get their hands on a dirt-cheap alcohol license that only permitted the sale of beer, as opposed to the more dangerous spirits. This led to the rise of “beer houses,” which often simply involved people selling beer from their front porches. Unsurprisingly, you can’t fight an epidemic of drunkenness by making it easy for people to get drunk, so England eventually passed stricter laws
2 Christmas Was Awesome
Unlike today, which sees Christmas associated with shopping and confined to a single day, eighteenth century Christmas took the whole “twelve days of Christmas” thing rather seriously. Feasts, parties, presents, games, and other festivities were celebrated for twelve consecutive nights with no decrease in the fervidity. Sure, businesses could only close on the 25th—but the whole period was still considered an official holiday.As if that wasn’t enough, when all of it was done, the party started right back up in mid-January on a holiday known as “Twelfth Night.” Some say that the twelfth night was actually a larger holiday than Christmas. Interestingly, on this holiday, people were supposed to reverse the normal order, making it a kind of glorified, government-sanctioned Opposite Day.
3 Amusement Parks Were a Thing
Okay, that title is technically incorrect. The eighteenth century didn’t exactly have roller coasters or bungee jumping (well, they sort of did—read on), but they did have parks set aside for entertainment purposes. Known as “Pleasure Gardens” these public parks were initially constructed for the very rich—but over time, people from every class and race started visiting them, making them some of the only places where the rich and poor could mingle without friction. Despite sounding like the title of a bad adult film, pleasure gardens usually hosted outdoor stages for concerts and plays, as well as gazebos, shops, and zoos. And yes, some pleasure gardens in Russia even had actual roller coasters while others had the first carousels. Some pleasure gardens even lived up to their names and hosted harems for public enjoyment. How thoughtful.
4 People Drank Soda
Speaking of cool things people did back in the 1800s that you wouldn’t expect, the first soda water was being handed around too. Joseph Priestly was the first person to invent soda water by mixing oxygen and water. Since he was primarily an academic chemist and a philosopher, he didn’t capitalize on it. But J.J. Schweppe—whose name you may recognize from Schweppes’ ginger ale—did exactly that. His business exploded, and people have been drinking fake bubbly ever since.
5 People Wore Sunglasses
You can pretty safely assume that people hundreds of years ago didn’t exactly dress in denim and leather jackets. That fashion style is reserved purely for the world in which Mad Max exists. But one thing they did wear, oddly enough, was sunglasses. James Ayscough initially thought his invention could be used for corrective purposes, as actual glasses. But when he realized that tinting the lenses didn’t exactly fix your eyesight, he gave them out anyway. These early sunglasses were usually tinted blue or green, making them 100% cooler than the ones we have today.
6 The Coolest Animal Attractions
If you lived in the 1700s, London was the place to be. The city would get a number of circus attractions every year—and while some of them were the usual “bearded lady”, sometimes they got insane animals. The Learned Pig, for example, was an attraction that debuted sometime around 1760. It had been trained using classical conditioning to do math, tell the time, play cards, and even read your future. The pig was a huge success, and inspired a number of imitations—including one pig in the States that was eventually accused of witchcraft and had to go on the run. That’s not a joke.
7 The Coolest Best-Selling Books
Most popular books today are reasonably well-written. That’s why they’re best-selling. But best-selling books in the 1700s were nothing like those of today. Just like the books popular today, popular eighteenth century books reflected the society’s culture. But unlike that of today, culture in eighteenth century London was chock-full of prostitutes. Seriously, they were everywhere. Naturally, one of the most popular books of the 1700s was called “Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies”. For those of you not acquainted with old English innuendo, it was essentially a guide for picking out the best prostitute. Kind of like Yelp for brothels.
8 The Frankist Movement
Around 1750, in Poland, a man named Jacob Frank started gaining notoriety for claiming to be the messiah of both the Jewish and Christian religions (had he chosen to be the messiah of the Muslim faith as well, he would have had to fight himself in a death match—he knew when to stop). Not only was he not declared legally insane, but he actually started accumulating a large following. The new Frankist movement wasn’t welcomed by everyone, however, and many of its members were excommunicated by the Polish church. But why is this featuring on our list? Well, it so happened that Frank believed the closest way to get to God was through ritualistic orgies, which he performed regularly. the Frankists held so many orgies that it’s what they’re now known for. So yeah, if you lived back in the eighteenth century, you could’ve joined an Orgy Cult. Mull on that.
9 Education Was Easy
Let’s say you wanted to become educated, or at least aware of the world, in eighteenth century Europe. The only problem is that you’re flat-out broke. Well, in London and all over Europe, “coffeehouses” were on the rise. Unlike the hipster dens of today, these coffeehouses drew intellectuals like professors or students from universities like Oxford and Cambridge. For a penny, people could buy a cup of coffee and listen to these great minds discuss the state of the world or whatever field they were an expert in.Essentially, you could get free lectures in all sorts of topics. Historians say that these coffeehouses eventually led to a massive literacy spike that also resulted in hundreds of new newspapers all over Europe.
10 Great Safeguards for the Poor
“Socialism,” which features a strong welfare system, is looked upon poorly in some countries today. But this was not always the case: during the eighteenth century, the English Parliament passed three different laws allowing for welfare for the unemployed. And these weren’t “handouts,” either. The Workhouse Test Act allowed people who were poor to receive aid, provided they would try to find a job. The law even gave churches the ability to get federal aid so that they could feed and house the poor. But this leads to a problem: what if there weren’t any jobs to get? The Government had your back on this too. Building projects were commissioned purely to provide jobs for unskilled laborers who were out of work. These building, called “follies” were mainly aesthetic and some of them are still around today.
By Mohammed Shariff
REMEMBER: The most wasted of all days is one without laughter.
– Nicolas Chamfort
INSPIRATIONAL QUOTE FOR THE DAY
“When you have a dream, you’ve got to grab it and never let go.” – Carol Burnett
Happiness is…looking forward not back.
GRANDAD’S ONE LINER JOKE OF THE DAY
If prisoners could take their own mugshots… they’d be called cellfies.
Love is…knowing you bagged something special.
A time for a serious TV chat show…A time to get real.
©2021 Phil M Robinson