Michael Parkinson recalls years of love and joy with his dad


'I've had a charmed life: a largely untroubled upbringing, a strong and enduring marriage, sons who still talk to me, and a career that for the most part has been fulfilling and lucrative,' says Michael Parkinson (above)

‘I’ve had a charmed life: a largely untroubled upbringing, a strong and enduring marriage, sons who still talk to me, and a career that for the most part has been fulfilling and lucrative,’ says Michael Parkinson (above)

As is true of most men of my generation, crying does not come easily, and in my book crying on a national television show is a definite no-no. 

But when the tears came, it was difficult to stop them. I was overwhelmed by a whole raft of unexpected emotions.

I had been asked by Piers Morgan on his Life Stories ITV show about losing my father – and was taken completely by surprise.

To be honest, I don’t know what happened. I didn’t just cry, I sobbed. I was totally unprepared for the violence of my reaction.

The fact is, I’ve had a charmed life: a largely untroubled upbringing, a strong and enduring marriage, sons who still talk to me, and a career that for the most part has been fulfilling and lucrative. 

The only really difficult times I have had were dealing with the death of my father and the overwhelming grief that threatened to derail me, plus my brief sojourn into the sad backwater of a drink problem.

I had openly talked and written about both, explaining that they were not wholly but definitely interlinked.

The tipping point was perhaps the simple yet skilful question Piers asked. He didn’t deal in generalities but asked me specifically to recall feelings that come to mind when I think about the day my father died and, like Banquo at the feast, into my head sprang a terrible image that had lurked in the shadows for so long.

We had brought my father home to die, and when he passed away I couldn’t cope with the organisation of the removal of the body to the funeral home. 

It meant that I was unprepared for the sight of my beloved dad being removed by two strangers in what amounted to a large zip-up plastic bag. It was this image that for some reason came into my mind when Piers asked the question.

There was grief, certainly, and a sense of loss, but also regret and shame, mixed with a sense of wonder that such a man had been my dad. To rationalise, process and express all these feelings at that moment was impossible. I was paralysed. Pinned like a rare butterfly.

'The only really difficult times I have had were dealing with the death of my father and the overwhelming grief that threatened to derail me, plus my brief sojourn into the sad backwater of a drink problem.' Above, a young Michael with his cricket-mad coal miner father, John

'The only really difficult times I have had were dealing with the death of my father and the overwhelming grief that threatened to derail me, plus my brief sojourn into the sad backwater of a drink problem.' Above, a young Michael with his cricket-mad coal miner father, John

‘The only really difficult times I have had were dealing with the death of my father and the overwhelming grief that threatened to derail me, plus my brief sojourn into the sad backwater of a drink problem.’ Above, a young Michael with his cricket-mad coal miner father, John

To his credit, Piers, with suitable care and no little skill, ensured the moment didn’t become too uncomfortable for me, the studio audience or the viewer by empathising and by asking me to try to explain why I still felt my father’s loss so strongly. I simply answered that it was because he was a much better man than I was.

Pick the bones out of that, Sigmund Freud.

When I think about my father, John William Parkinson, there is no word in the English language that captures what he endured in order to give me and my mother a comfortable home life.

He gave us the chance to indulge our shared liking of losing ourselves in books and being entranced by Hollywood movie stars, as well as a new cricket bat for me every season and a pair of shiny football boots of the type worn by my hero, Danny Blanchflower. We have a lot to thank him for.

He had been a coal miner from the age of 14. He worked in conditions unimaginable to the average man or woman and he did it without complaint until ill health forced him to retire in his early 60s.

However, the location and the name of the pit where my father worked – Grimethorpe, part of the Barnsley Seam of the South Yorkshire Coalfield – is about the limit of my knowledge of what the life of an average miner was like.

So when my son Mike and I set out to chart the history of my father’s early life and his time as a miner, we employed a genealogist.

She diligently chipped away at her chosen coalface of birth and death certificates, employment records and local newspapers. But, in her words, she came up ‘disappointed and frustrated but not surprised’ because, as she lamented when handing over the research, the working lives of miners warrant only a mention in official documentation when they are either severely injured or killed.

'The cricket pitch is where my father and I grew to know and love each other, where I absorbed the part of him that became part of me.' (Father and son are pictured, top row, third and fourth from the left)

'The cricket pitch is where my father and I grew to know and love each other, where I absorbed the part of him that became part of me.' (Father and son are pictured, top row, third and fourth from the left)

‘The cricket pitch is where my father and I grew to know and love each other, where I absorbed the part of him that became part of me.’ (Father and son are pictured, top row, third and fourth from the left)

My father was, to my eyes, a great man, but he was not a ‘Great Man’ worthy of a detailed life story used as a lesson to others. He was a mere cog in an uncaring and exploitative industrial machine that spat him out ill and diminished at the end of his usefulness to it.

Nevertheless, he spent more than 40 years working in a job and living through a time that would have left both physical and mental scars, would have hacked away at the most resilient, would have pushed his endurance to the limit, but it never came close to breaking his spirit nor dulling his joie de vivre. He wasn’t alone. Miners are a rare breed.

The cricket pitch is where my father and I grew to know and love each other, where I absorbed the part of him that became part of me.

In truth, given the demands of his job, the only place we had time to meet as father and son was on the cricket pitch, and it was the perfect place to make his acquaintance. I have always said that you can learn a lot about a person’s character from the way they play sport, and in my father’s case it became quite clear that he was a one-off.

Under his critical gaze, my boyhood team-mates and I learned the basics of the loveliest of games: play back, play forward and neither hook nor cut until the chrysanthemums have flowered.

He taught us the game’s intricacies and mysteries, like lifting the seam on the ball with a thumbnail, maintaining its shine with Brylcreem and the tactical virtue of the bouncer followed by the yorker. ‘One to make his eyes water, the other to knock his pegs over,’ he’d say.

He was a stickler for doing things properly, for looking the part. He would not allow anyone in his team who was what he considered to be ‘improperly dressed’, which in his eyes would be someone wearing black socks or brown plimsolls.

There were a good number of youths in our team who didn’t own the proper equipment – their parents either didn’t care or couldn’t afford it – but no one ever took the field in Father’s team unless he looked like a proper cricketer.

If a youngster wearing one pad refused his advice to return to the pavilion and put on the other pad, he would take the ball and aim it at the unprotected leg. He was still accurate enough to hit it and quick enough to make his victim wish he had taken his advice.

Proud father: The broadcaster at home with his three sons during their childhood - pictured left to right are Andrew, Mike and Nick

Proud father: The broadcaster at home with his three sons during their childhood - pictured left to right are Andrew, Mike and Nick

Proud father: The broadcaster at home with his three sons during their childhood – pictured left to right are Andrew, Mike and Nick

Eventually we grew up under his wing and became a team of young men. Then we broke up and went our different ways, some into the first team, some to different clubs and higher leagues. I went to Barnsley and the old man retired to come and watch me play, standing behind the bowler’s arm, wincing at my foolishness in cutting when the chrysanthemums were a long way from flowering.

I used to laugh with him and at him a lot, marking him down as a character and thinking he represented a generation and a lifestyle that was totally different from mine. He was, I reckoned, a man I’d never be. But the fact is me and my old man are peas from the same pod, like father like son, and what I learned at his knee about the most beautiful of games is part of a heritage that I found myself passing on to my sons.

Still to this day I’m not quite sure why my father decided I should be a prizefighter.

I have pondered the reasons for his ambition to make me a champion pugilist without discovering an answer. He was a peaceful man, in that he walked away from any confrontation which might end up in fisticuffs, and yet when I was 13 or 14 he bought me a pair of boxing gloves for my birthday, saying he thought it about time I learned how to look after myself.

At that point in my life, I had experienced one fight, which took place behind an air-raid shelter with Sonny Shaw, a wiry youth and an evacuee who insulted a girl I was hoping to marry when legally allowed. Our encounter was a bare-fist job and lasted about two minutes until my opponent, who had back-pedalled from the start without a single punch being exchanged, fell backwards into a pile of bricks and cut his head.

Honour was satisfied but without lasting consequence, because my girlfriend married a plumber, leaving me free to marry Ingrid Bergman and whisk her from Hollywood to a two-up, two-down I had selected as our marital home situated opposite the main entrance to Barnsley Football Club.

When I met Ms Bergman, I told her this story and she gave me the kind of worried smile you might assemble before enquiring which nursing home I’d escaped from.

So much of [my father’s] life was spent in darkness but he spread light everywhere

A time passed without me wearing boxing gloves, until the moment arrived when my father decided I should be taught the manly art of self-defence. There was a guy living nearby, Mr Taylor, who had a son of my age whom he had taught to box. The two dads had words and decided it would be a good idea for me to have a similar education.

The venue was the lawn at our home in Cudworth, the one with the red wigwam on it, which was a changing room for the fighters. It was agreed both boxers would take it easy while Mr Taylor gave me the once-over just to see exactly what he had to teach me.

His son Billy was a nice lad, a friend of mine and a tough and respected street fighter. So the bell went and I approached my opponent who, without any preliminary flirting, feinted a left cross and hit me full on the nose with a meaty right piledriver. Blood flowed. 

I fell in dramatic fashion and my mother, who had been a disapproving spectator through the kitchen window, started cleaning the flood of blood and mucus emanating from where my nose had been.

My father suggested Mr Taylor and son should go home, which they did, leaving the Parkinson family in bloodied disarray.

The consequence of the fight – if you could call it that – was that Mum barred Dad and me from the house and suggested we sleep in the wigwam until we learned some common sense.

Much later than that, I did a series of interviews with Muhammad Ali, before the consequences of his chosen profession overwhelmed him. Looking back and thinking of the four interviews I did with Ali, the connection is obvious, and it all started with a fight outside a red wigwam in Cudworth organised by my father.

But if there is one over-riding memory of my father, it is his hands – rough palms like sandpaper, strong fingers, a miner’s hands. When, as a child, he took my hand I felt safer than ever before or since.

In many ways I wish I was more like him. I have a tendency to fret, I can be taciturn, I have a short fuse. I am not full of optimism and vim in the face of adversity. But there is, within me, like the mining scars he carried on his body, an indelible mark that comes from him, and I like to think it is the best part of me.

How much of him I carry with me is probably easier for others to say. I simply adored him.

He was generous, loyal and loved his wife and son and grandchildren without reservation and without expecting anything in return.

He was the most selfless man I ever met. He was also naturally gregarious, loved meeting new people and found delight in talking the hind legs off them with tall stories told with perfect comic timing and the skill of a snake-oil salesman. When he finally walked away, he left his new best friend feeling they had just been run over by a raconteuring human tsunami.

I am drawn to people like my father. We’re all drawn to people who help fill in the bits of us that aren’t there. That’s why I love funny people, people who can light up a room.

It’s probably why I so enjoyed being a talk-show host and it’s definitely why I fell in love with a beautiful, red-headed young woman called Mary on the top deck of a bus in Doncaster. I’ve been married to her for more than 60 years and she’s given me three sons of whom I’m proud, but not as proud as their grandfather was of them.

'As is true of most men of my generation, crying does not come easily, and in my book crying on a national television show is a definite no-no. But when the tears came, it was difficult to stop them. I was overwhelmed by a whole raft of unexpected emotions. I had been asked by Piers Morgan on his Life Stories ITV show (above) about losing my father – and was taken completely by surprise'

'As is true of most men of my generation, crying does not come easily, and in my book crying on a national television show is a definite no-no. But when the tears came, it was difficult to stop them. I was overwhelmed by a whole raft of unexpected emotions. I had been asked by Piers Morgan on his Life Stories ITV show (above) about losing my father – and was taken completely by surprise'

‘As is true of most men of my generation, crying does not come easily, and in my book crying on a national television show is a definite no-no. But when the tears came, it was difficult to stop them. I was overwhelmed by a whole raft of unexpected emotions. I had been asked by Piers Morgan on his Life Stories ITV show (above) about losing my father – and was taken completely by surprise’

My father died well before his time, but at least he got to see me make my mark as the host of Parkinson. He loved coming to the show, and moved effortlessly around the Green Room, chatting to anyone who would listen, engaging Hollywood stars and waitresses with the same easy, unaffected manner. 

Everyone who met him felt they had known him for a long time. He formed a special bond with Mary, filling the gap in her life caused by her own father’s early death, and becoming her mentor and her champion. She, in turn, felt a deep love for him.

When he was very unwell and in hospital, it was to Mary he confessed his deepest fear. ‘I don’t want to die here,’ he said. So she brought him home, and for a month or more he lay in palliative care, while we watched his life ebbing away like a disappearing tide. He died as he had lived, without making a fuss.

When the undertakers came for him, they brought him downstairs in a blue rubber bag, and he looked so small and insignificant I turned my head away. In that moment I accommodated his death by pretending it hadn’t happened.

I began to drink even more than normal, which was to say, a lot.

The more I drank, the more depressed I became. I went to see a psychiatrist, who probed away but didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know.

My drinking didn’t interfere with my work. I didn’t drink for 24 hours before a show and never ever on the day itself – at least not until the show had ended. It was Mary who caused me to change. She said to me one day: ‘You know the worst thing about you and drink?’

I asked what she thought it was. ‘It makes you ugly,’ she said.

Her words rang in my brain ever after and, without ever causing me to become teetotal, made me forever cautious of further excess.

One day, about two years after my father died, I came across a picture of him as a young man. A group photograph of the village cricket team outside the pavilion on the ground where I first saw him play. 

He looked eager, athletic and handsome, and the image broke the dam of my grief and I started crying. I cried for an hour or so, tears of love and regret, of pride and guilt – remembering him with all the love, joy and laughter he gave to us when he lived.

My father would tell tall tales with comic timing and the skill of a snake oil salesman

My father spent a large part of his life in the darkness, but was determined to spread light wherever he went. He touched us all profoundly and left his mark on each one of us. 

He lives on in me in ways I don’t realise; in Mary when she takes off down another cul-de-sac; in my eldest boy Andrew when pursuing a lost cause on a sports field; in my middle boy Nick whenever a party is in full swing; in my youngest Mike in the way he always approaches any challenge with a sense of shining optimism.

He even lives on in those he never met. Recently, my youngest granddaughter, Sofia, surprisingly asked me, given her usual musical taste, if I had heard of the singing group The Ink Spots, because she loves their version of Whispering Grass. Little did she know it was her great-grandfather’s favourite song too, and I wondered if it was him saying a quick hello through the next generation.

Rest in peace father, father-in-law, grandfather, miner, proud Yorkshireman who’s currently opening the bowling, with a smile on his face, armed with a frayed tennis ball and the help of a strong crosswind blowing over the Elysian Fields and telling anyone who’ll listen just how proud he is of his only child.

You never know, if we meet again, I might have finally stopped playing the cut shot before the chrysanthemums have flowered. Mind you, I only hope they play cricket in Heaven. If they don’t, he’ll ask for a transfer.

© Michael Parkinson Enterprises 2020

Like Father, Like Son, by Michael Parkinson and Mike Parkinson, is published by Hodder & Stoughton on November 5 at £20. To pre-order for £17.60, including free UK delivery, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193 before October 31.

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