Tuesday, 5 April 2016

INTERVIEW - Nicholas Parsons

After 70 years as an actor, comedy performer and presenter you would think there isn't anything that Nicholas Parsons CBE hasn't turned his hand to.
However surprisingly and despite his very full and varied career he's about to make his classical music debut as the narrator of the family concert, The Composer Is Dead! on Saturday, April 16.
The concert at the Royal Festival Hall is part of the Yehudi Menuhin Competition London 2016, an 11-day festival which includes internationally renowned soloists, major concerts with some of London’s best orchestras, world premieres, exhibitions, masterclasses, outreach programmes and this family show.
It is the London premiere of Nathaniel Stookey's piece - with a text by Lemony Snicket - and is a murder mystery about the killing of a composer which takes place in an orchestra.
Designed to appeal to all the family the audience gets to explore the crime through the instruments. It also aims to help introduce children to the orchestra's family of instruments and classical music.
For Nicholas, at 92 years young, it is a chance to do something he's not done before and he tells me he's thrilled about the prospect.
"I'd not heard of the festival before but I listened to a tape of the piece and I think this concert is a fabulous idea," he says warmly.
"It's based on the idea of a murder mystery but it's more of an educational piece for children who don't know a great deal about music or orchestras.
"I've never done anything like this before, and I'm not known for my classical musical prowess, so I'm looking forward to it tremendously.
"I love spreading my talents so it's a wonderful to have an opportunity to do a musical piece, work with a full orchestra and entertain children. It's a great piece of theatre and I'm thrilled."
I suggest that Nicholas is the ideal person to narrate it. He's first and foremost an actor but he's also done plenty of presenting - most notably of course ITV's Sale of the Century which was compulsive viewing in our house back in the day and of course Just A Minute which has been going strong on Radio 4 for more than 50 years and which he has been at the helm of since its inception.
He's also a fabulous entertainer, broadcaster and raconteur and has earned himself a CBE for his extensive professional and charity work, not to mention the status of one of this country's national treasures.
But he merely says modestly that he was just honoured to be asked.
"Yehudi Menuhin put so much back into the profession so to I'm very flattered to be part of something with his name attached - the Menuhin Competition," he says.
"It's a marvellous way of introducing children to classical music.
"When I was young we had traditional singers and you could understand the words they were singing," he muses. "With pop music these days is sometimes difficult to hear the words."
And he admits that it's jazz that's more his style.
"I love jazz and to watch a jazz musician play is wonderful and I love it," he says warmly. "To me it's so theatrical. To hear it being played transports me and soothes me. I enjoy classical music but what really sets me alight is jazz.
"I've always been a huge admirer of Yehudi Menuhin and saw him play a number of times. I have the happiest memories when he teamed up with Stephane Grapelli and played some jazz. To see the two of them together and their shared love of the instrument was absolutely fabulous - two geniuses together."
And unbelievably given his astonishing career he's never performed at the Royal Festival Hall.
"I have worked in so many theatres in both the West End and around the country but never the Royal Festival Hall before," he says.
And then delightfully he tells me about the too numerous to mention roles that shaped his career over the past 70 years or so.
It all started with a visit to a circus when he was about five and living in Grantham. Seeing the performers entertain the audience was his lightbulb moment and he tells me that from that moment on there was never anything else he wanted to do.
"I would have run away with the circus if they'd asked me," he says chuckling at the memory.
Fortunately he says had parents who encouraged him initially at least, but when as a teenager Nicholas was still determined to be an actor his father demanded he get a proper job and when he was about 16 he was sent to Clydebank near Glasgow to train as an engineer.
If his parents thought it would quash Nicholas's dreams of being an actor they were sadly mistaken and instead he pursued his dream with a fierce determination.
"My parents were horrified that I wanted to be an actor," he says. "My father represented the thinking of the time and wanted me to have a proper job. His side of the family were doctors and I think he was disappointed that I wasn't a doctor.
"My sister had a fascination for medical things but my father didn't encourage her.
"I became an engineer to please my parents and when I was discharged from the National Service I decided to please myself!
"Nowadays everyone wants to go to showbiz but with shows like Britain's Got Talent it's so overcrowded. The contestants all think they have got talent but it's a tough business. I'm only good as my last job."
His first professional job was doing impersonations on the radio but he continued to try for auditions and wrote to theatre managers. Eventually this led to an acting apprenticeship in repertory at Bromley.
"I was so determined," he says. "I did a different play each week and it was the most fabulous experience.
"If you enjoy it you work hard, put up with the disappointment and frustrations, and eventually it leads to something."
One thing did indeed lead to another and in the 70 years since his days in Bromley he has become a Great British institution, starring on both the stage and screen proving his diversity as an actor with roles in shows such as The Rocky Horror Show, Dr Who, The Comic Strip, Charlie Girl, Into The Woods, Uproar in the House and Boeing Boeing.
And of course he has done stand up, comedy shows, serious drama, review and cabaret, written his autobiography and a book of memoirs, been on Celebrity Mastermind, presented shows on TV and radio and has performed at the Edinburgh Festival for many years with his show Nicholas Parsons's Happy Hour.
He is the consummate professional and during our chat is utterly charming, very funny, full of anecdotes and with an infectious enthusiasm for the people he has worked with over the years as well as life itself.
I ask whether he has a favourite in amongst this incredible CV of his, which incidentally shows no sign of being full or finalised.
And forgive the pun but he doesn’t hesitate in his answer.
"I loved Boeing Boeing as it was such fun to do and I have very fond memories of it," he says.
"The Rocky Horror Show was tremendous fun too," he chuckles. "It's a show that engages so much with the audience. I loved it."
And what about Just A Minute? It turns out he didn't really want the job initially and says the pilot was a "disaster".
"We had no idea if it was going to be a hit and never thought it would be such a success," he says. "You never know with these things til it's happened. You just do your job and hope that the public will like it and come back for more. But you mustn't be complacent, you have to keep on your toes."
He says part of its success is all those involved "have fun".
"I think if you can have fun, play the game and have a good rapport with the contestants that's the main thing," he says.
"Paul Merton is a great player. He pulls my leg but the public knows he's doing it as a friend and is having fun. He has a great comic gift.
"Terry Wogan came and did it his way and David Tennant was great - his first show was brilliant.
"We have to keep it fresh and we never have the same four people in a particular recording.
"The enjoyment is communicated with the audience. It's such a difficult game though and so fast that not everyone can do it.
"It calls on the skills of the presenter in terms of comedy and spontaneity. People naturally pause and deviate but you can't do that. It's our job to make it look easy."
So is there anything else he wants to do I wonder? Anything that he's not yet done?
It seems just to keep working is enough though he does admit to having had a hankering to make more documentary films.
"Many years ago when I was making documentary films I thought I would do more but I realised I would have to give up performing," he says.
"I am lucky to get so much work but all these jobs have different disciplines."
And he credits his love of work to his longevity, not just in the business but in life itself.
"I enjoy working, " he says simply. "It keeps me going - I'm certainly not retiring - they will more likely retire me! Besides the more you use your brain it keeps you young."
And to prove a point he lists the engagements he has both before and after the concert at the Royal Festival Hall which includes dates in Hereford, at the Oxford Festival and doing his comedy shows in other venues around the country - a schedule that would exhaust lesser mortals.
"It keeps me busy and out of mischief," he chuckles.

Nicholas Parsons will narrate The Composer Is Dead! part of the Menuhin Competition London 2016, at the Royal Festival Hall on Saturday, April 16. Tickets £10. Visit www.menuhincompetition.org for tickets and full listings.

No comments:

Post a Comment