Michael Parkinson

Sir Michael Parkinson

Sir Michael Parkinson is an Honorary Patron of the RCM Friends scheme.

What are your earliest musical memories?

Music has always been one of the most important things in my life. My earliest recollection of music in the house is my mother, who used to play old records, and I first heard the 'Great American Songbook' like that. I think when I was about five I could sing songs like You Make me Feel so Young, and that was my very first memory of music.

The only exposure I had to classical music as a young person was that I lived in a mining village that had at least five Methodist chapels, and throughout the year we had a complete cycle of Handel’s Messiah. I used to go, and I was entranced because I’d never seen people singing while their Adam’s apple warbled, and I’d never seen men dressed up in tails and a white tie. So I loved that but I also loved the music. I thought it was glorious, and I still love it to this day.

Do you play an instrument yourself?

No, and it’s a bit late now! I was dissuaded from playing the piano as a child when my friends would come and knock on the window when Miss Greenwas trying to teach me Handel’s Largo. They’d bash on the window and mouth “football”, and I’m afraid that won!

You're best known for your love for jazz. How did that start?

Towards the end of the Second World War, when I was about 10, I was fiddling with the radio one day and I got AFN, American Forces Network, and it broadcast jazz, which I’d never heard before. And I heard what I now know to be the Louis Armstrong Hot Five playing Potato House Blues. That started me off on an adventure with jazz, which was my greatest love.

When you started your chat show [in 1971] you regularly invited on classical musicians…

Yes, we had on a lot of violinists for example, such as Itzhak Perlman, Isaac Stern, Anne-Sophie Mutter, and of course Yehudi Menuhin. We put Menuhin together with Stéphane Grappelli – that’s how they met and became friends.

Stéphane was a regular on the show. He was a wonderful natural musician, totally self-taught. One day someone had the great idea of bringing Yehudi Menuhin on the show with him. So we rang Menuhin and he said that he’d never heard of Grappelli until recently, but he had just heard a record of his, and he said “I think he’s a truly remarkable player, I’d love to meet him”. So we put the idea to Stéphane – and he was aghast! He said “No, I cannot meet him, I am just a fiddle player and he is a genius!” But then we mentioned money – and he was there!

Eventually we persuaded Stéphane to go up to Hampstead to rehearse with Menuhin, and he came back four hours later with his face wreathed in smiles, grinning like a child, and he said “Four bars into 'Lady Be Good' – now who’s the genius!?”

Public reaction to their first appearance was extraordinary, and they made four or five very successful records together.

You also interviewed some of the great opera singers…

Yes, for example, we had Pavarotti on the show three times. The last time was sad, he was literally wheeled into the studio he was so big. But before that in the1970s, just to sit next to him and hear him sing was wonderful. He would sing at every possible opportunity because he loved singing. He just sang; it was as natural to him as breathing.

I thought the greatest privilege of the job was to sit next to people who were doing remarkable things – the greatest of their kind in the world. To sit next to Pavarotti and have him sing to you is quite something.

Was it a conscious decision to include serious musicians?

Yes. The world is wonderfully broad and wide, and I always wanted the broadest possible range of guests. To ignore Arthur Rubinstein and just put on Oscar Peterson would have been wrong; to put them both on together was to recognise that they both had an immense talent in their very different areas.

We had a belief then that it wasn’t about celebrity, it was about talent; it was about people who’d done something remarkable. I think what we did was to say to the audience, you might think these people are remote because they sing opera, but they’re not. And far from the image of classical musicians being remote, I found them really willing and able to enjoy themselves.

How did you get involved with the RCM?

Well Robert Winston conned me in to it! He spoke to my wife and said: “Do you think Michael would be interested in helping out?” and she said: “I think he’d be knocked out! He loves music, any kind of music – you should ask him.”

So he did ask, and I was really delighted.

What are your impressions of the RCM?

I’ve been here a few times now, and I have to say that what struck me as being utterly remarkable is the range of music being played, and the extraordinary amount of what’s happening here – it takes some grasping.

I mean you look at the Events Guide and it’s remarkable. And there always seem to be hundreds of musicians doing extraordinary things all over the place! I remember coming to a meeting in the Parry Rooms. Coming up in the lift I could hear this music, and I thought “that’s not muzak, it’s too nice to be muzak”, and I got out of the lift and there was a student right there playing the piano!

How are you enjoying your involvement with the RCM?

The thing is that I love classical music but know very little about it – I know lots about jazz, and could talk about it for hours – but the same isn’t true about classical music.

So I love that I’m learning all the time. And I also love the thought that I can call up a quartet, like for our wedding anniversary. They played beautifully and off we went to dinner, and when we came back some considerable time later they were still there! They were doing requests and it looked like they were having the time of their lives!

Why do you think people should support the RCM?

I think anybody who cares about our society should care about the promotion of young talent, of proper ambition, of aspiration. Not to be on Big Brother, but to entertain us, to inform us, to inspire us, whatever it might be.

This interview first appeared in Upbeat (spring 2010), the RCM magazine.

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Royal College of Music, Prince Consort Road, London SW7 2BS. Tel: +44(0)20 7591 4300 Royal College of Music, Prince Consort Road, London SW7 2BS.
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