Nicholas Parsons, 1923-2020

The final whistle has blown. Nicholas Parsons, that vigorous and seemingly immortal pillar of British light entertainment and radio broadcasting, died this week at the grand age of 96.

It has been said that we do not truly see a person until they are no longer there. It is only now, with the obituaries dutifully released, that many people will gain their first, true appreciation for a showbusiness career that stretched back to 1941 and included attending the very first Edinburgh Festival in 1947 at the age of 23 before returning, to host a special edition of Just a Minute, a mere 63 years later.

Doctor Who fans will, of course, remember Parsons for his touching performance as the Reverend Wainwright, vicar of St. Judes, in The Curse of Fenric, during classic Who’s valedictory 26th season. In it, he plays a man whose faith died when British bombs fell on German children. Away from Who, Parsons will be remembered for two things. On TV: ‘and now, from Norwich, it’s the quiz of the week,’ Sale of the Century, in which contestants earned money to buy prizes as exotic as a Lada car. And on the wireless: Parsons’ chairmanship of Radio 4’s senior parlour game.

Nicholas Parsons

Parsons was born on 10th October 1923 in Grantham, Lincolnshire. His father was a GP whose patients included the family of former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. Indeed, there is a long-standing rumour that Dr Parsons might even have attended the birth of the Iron Baby, although it appears nobody knows for sure. By his own admission, young Master Parsons was a show-off who irritated his family:

My father was a doctor and I was brought up in a very conventional family at a very conventional time. I was told to behave myself and not try to be funny. I have an older brother and they thought he was marvellous – and he was a very brilliant boy. And I had a younger sister who was the adored young sister. I was in the middle – and the middle child does suffer sometimes.

As he approached adulthood, Parsons’ expressed wish to become an actor was met with stony disapproval and the public schoolboy found himself dispatched to the Clyde shipyards in Glasgow to train as an engineer. It was a tough, working class environment and the dapper posh boy soon found himself having to perform jokes and impersonations to win friends. He took to performing in the evening while working in the shipyard by day. It was during this period, in the early 40s, that he was asked by the then well-known impersonator Carroll Levis to appear on his radio show. Following this mini-break, Parsons worked even harder, but the strain affected his health and he spent five months in hospital.

Church under siege.

Later, moving to London, Parsons worked in repertory, cabaret, on the West End stage, and at the legendary Windmill Theatre as a comic. He also appeared in various radio shows including Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh with Richard Murdoch. Parsons’ breakthrough came when he began working as a straight man for the most popular TV comedian in Britain at the time, Arthur Haynes. Later, Parsons provided a similar service to the even more successful Benny Hill, with whom he partnered for 5 years. Much TV and film work followed.

It was in 1967 that Parsons took on a job chairing (and adjudicating) on a new Radio 4 panel game, which was commissioned for its first series even though the pilot had been a ‘disaster’. The creation of the late Ian Messiter, the format for Just A Minute (JAM to its devotees) is deceptively simple but remarkably fecund: a panel of 4 are each invited to speak unrehearsed on a plethora of topics for 1 minute ‘without hesitation, repetition, or deviation’. 50 years, 85 series, and 947 episodes later, Parsons was still chairing in 2019.

Then came Sale of the Century, which ran for 11 years under Parsons’ benevolent stewardship, attracting a peak audience of over 21 million viewers. This original run of the British version of the show, from 1971-83, cemented Parsons’ public persona as the immaculately blazered quiz master. It was an identification that eventually damaged Parsons’ ‘serious’ career, which by this point had included several TV series (including voice work for Gerry Anderson) and films such as Doctor in Love and Carry On Regardless.

The Quiz of the Week

In 1987, Parsons made the brave decision to work with the Dangerous Brothers themselves, Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson, in The Comic Strip Presents: Mr Jolly Lives Next Door. Parsons played himself, cast as the next victim of a contract killer, played by Peter Cook, who meat cleavers his victims into the next life to the strains of Tom Jones. This willingness to send himself up was born from his years of experience as a straight man: ‘you know how to throw out the lines so the comic will have a good springboard to come back. You also know how to take a joke at your expense.’ Parsons turned his talent for comedy and not taking himself too seriously to performances as the narrator in The Rocky Horror Show, and as a parody of his own public image – again with Rik Mayall – in an episode of The New Statesman.

Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson, and Nicholas Parsons

It was at this time that Parsons entered the Whoniverse with his fine turn as the doomed Reverend Wainwright. He gave a sensitive, touching performance, silencing the bristling fans who had feared that “that bloke off Sale of the Century” would be yet more of John Nathan-Turner’s stunt casting. That said, he perhaps he didn’t fully understand the nuances of Ian Briggs’ script: ‘Of course the stories don’t make any sense, but the fans make up the stories for themselves, that’s the wonderful thing about Doctor Who.’

In more recent years, Parsons performed his successful one-man show up and down the country, wrote two volumes of autobiography, and managed a production company. He also found time to be Rector of St Andrew’s University, King Rat, President of the Lord’s Taverners, and a patron of the British Stammering Association. Quite a CV – but then he always had been a show-off.

Parsons married his first wife, the actor Denise Bryer, in 1954, and they had two children, Suzy and Justin.  They divorced in 1989. He married his second wife, Ann Reynolds, in 1995. His family were with him when his time was up.

96 years. That’s 50,457,600 minutes. There’s no ‘just’ about that.