Friday, January 31, 2020

Without Hesitation, Repetition Or Deviation

Many of this blogger's comedy heroes seem to be dropping like flies at the moment, dear blog reader. There was Terry Jones a few days ago and now, Nicholas Parsons is the latest to leave us. Although, at ninety six, it was hardly a shock. 'People ask how I've survived so long,' Nicholas once said. 'I was in The Blitz and there was stoicism in adversity. And humour. Humour sustained me.'
Nicholas Parsons' early acting experience as a comedy straight-man made him ideal as the unflappable presenter of one of BBC Radio 4's longest-running programmes, Just A Minute. For more than fifty years, Nicholas asked his guests to speak for sixty second (or, as long as they could) without hesitation, repetition or deviation on topics as diverse as burglars, Birmingham, biscuits in bed and, infamously on one occasion, Nicholas Parsons. Each week, Parsons tried, sometimes unsuccessfully, to keep a bevy of celebrity panellists in check including Clement Freud, Peter Jones, Derek Nimmo, Kenneth Williams, Sheila Hancock and Paul Merton. Always neatly coiffed and invariably immaculately dressed in blazer and flannels, Parsons' smooth voice on Just A Minute and, more particularly, his image on the popular TV quiz show Sale Of The Century, made him a dapper reminder of a bygone age and a ripe target for other comedians.
Christopher Nicholas Parsons was born in October 1923 in Grantham, the son of a doctor. His father's patients included the Thatcher family, although there is no definitive proof, as has been suggested, that Doctor Parsons delivered the future Prime Minister. Nicholas described himself in his autobiography as 'the unconventional child of conventional parents.' His early schooling was hampered by dyslexia and the insistence of his teachers that he should write with his right hand, despite being born left-handed. He was also hampered by a stammer which he finally managed to overcome. He had early ambitions to be an actor but his parents opposed the idea, his mother believing that showbusiness was fit only for 'drunks and low-lives.' Instead, a few strings were pulled through family contacts and he joined a shipbuilding company on Clydeside to train as an engineer. Thrown into a tough working environment, he was forced to resort to jokes and impersonations to win over the Glasgow shipbuilders who regarded him as a Sassenach posh boy. The experience helped launch his comedy career. Illness prevented him from joining the merchant navy during the war but, by this time, he had begun taking small parts in local theatres around the Glasgow area where he also did impressions. Moving to London, he worked in repertory, cabaret, on the West End stage and at the Windmill Theatre as a comic. He appeared in various radio shows including the popular Much-Binding-In-The-Marsh. In the 1950s and 1960s, he appeared in many supporting roles in British films including An Alligator Named Daisy (1955), The Long Arm (1956), Brothers In Law (1957), Happy Is the Bride (1958), Carlton-Browne Of The FO (1959), Too Many Crooks (1959), Doctor In Love (1960), Carry On Regardless (1961), Murder Ahoy! (1964), The Wrong Box (1966) and The Ghost Goes Gear (1966). In the late 1960s, he portrayed David Courtney in the short-lived American sitcom The Ugliest Girl in Town.
His big breakthrough came when he began working as a straight man for Arthur Haynes, whose ITV show had made him, for a while, one of the most popular comedian in Britain. Parsons excelled as the authority figure in sketches during which Haynes, often in his nominal role as a tramp, railed against the establishment. Many of the scripts were written by Johnny Speight. Nicholas was so successful that Haynes began to perceive him as a threat and the pair parted company shortly after an appearance in New York on The Ed Sullivan Show. In 1960, Nicholas voiced the character of Tex Tucker in the puppet series, Four Feather Falls, produced by Gerry Anderson. During the late 1960s, Nicholas created and presented a satirical programme on Radio 4 called Listen To This Space, which by the standards of its time was rather avant-garde and he received the Radio Personality of the Year Award for his work on the programme in 1967. Just A Minute was first broadcast on 22 January 1967. Parsons had originally wanted to be a panellist but the BBC insisted his experience as a comedy straight man made him ideal for the position of chairman. 'As a good straight man,' he once said, '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.'
It remained one of the hallmarks of the show as Parsons, with varying degrees of success, dealt with panellists such as Williams, whose treatment of his chairman ranged from toadying sycophancy to outright torrents of furious abuse. Later a younger generation of comedians like Paul Merton and Stephen Fry kept the regular audience of two million listeners entertained while Parsons - who never missed a recording in the first five decades that he fronted the show - remained the butt of a series of gentle jokes. Sale Of The Century made him one of Britain's most familiar faces. Announcer John Benson's '... And now from Norwich, it's the Quiz of the Week' was the introduction to the Anglia game show which ran for twelve years from 1971. With its glamorous 'shop assistants' and the fixed grin of its host, the programme became one of the most successful television shows of its time, with up to twenty million viewers. Parsons robustly rejected suggestions that his appearance on the programme amounted to dumbing-down. 'I'm proud of the fact I helped create a huge success,' he said. 'You don't buck success.' However, he later admitted the programme had made his career take something of a dip because people assumed he was now merely a quiz master. Parsons continued his straight man role when he joined The Benny Hill Show in 1969 where he remained for three years. He later put himself at the mercy of Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson in The Comic Strip Presents ... episode Mister Jolly Lives Next Door, in which he appeared as himself. This willingness to share the joke, appearing on television programmes like Have I Got News for You, a superb turn in the 1989 Doctor Who story The Curse Of Fenric as a country vicar haunted by his declining faith and a spell narrating The Rocky Horror Show on stage all helped Nicholas accrue a definite cult status and a surprisingly youthful fan base.
He was also successful away from the microphone. He set up his own production company which made short films for cinema, wrote two volumes of autobiography (1994's The Straight Man and 2011's With Just A Touch Of Hesitation, Repetition & Deviation) and made it into The Guinness Book Of Records in 1978 for the longest ever after-dinner speech, more than eleven hours. He was also a regular at The Edinburgh Fringe where his Nicholas Parsons' Happy Hour featured his own stand-up routine and a series of guests, many of them budding performers. However, his annual star turn at The Fringe was cancelled in 2019 after Parsons was admitted to hospital. He had been due to perform four sold-out shows. It followed a rare no-show on Just A Minute episode with what the BBC said at the time was 'a bad back.' It was only the second time he had missed a taping in the panel show's fifty two-year history.
'We are rogues and vagabonds waiting by the phone, there to hire for our talents' Nicholas was once quoted as saying. 'A bit like prostitutes.' He also noted that 'I get quite resentful when people ask me if I am going to retire. I am in a profession that retires you. If you are no longer hacking it, you won't be asked back, or the public won't come and see you. They will let me know soon enough if I am not doing what I should: I'd be out on the rubbish dump.' Parsons was fanatical about cricket, both as a player and supporter and spent a period as president of The Lord's Taverners. 'The saddest thing about getting old is seeing my cricket bat in the corner and wondering if I will ever play again,' he said. He also served as rector of the University of St Andrews and was a prominent supporter of the Liberal Democrats. He was invited to stand as a Liberal candidate for Yeovil in the 1970s, but he turned down the opportunity in order to remain in the entertainment industry. He married the actress Denise Bryer in 1954 and they had two children, Suzy and Justin. The couple divorced in 1989 and he subsequently married Ann Reynolds. He was once asked what drove him to continue working at an age when most people would have been happy to potter about in the garden. He said he did it because it was fun. 'You can't take yourself seriously. I learned that being a straight man. That's what I do on Just A Minute - laugh at myself and they make jokes at my expense. But that's what life's about, isn't it? Having fun.'
Huge Laurie has said that he and Stephen Fry 'often' discuss reforming their comedy double act, twenty five years after their sketch show, A Bit Of Fry & Laurie, ended. 'Actually we talked about doing it on stage for a long time, so long in fact we passed the date we'd set for ourselves,' he told Radio 2. 'We see each other a lot and we talk about it often.' The pair became TV favourites when the show ran from 1989 to 1995 and went on to co-star in Jeeves & Wooster. They forged hugely successful solo careers after going their separate ways, but Laurie told Steve Wright that a reunion is, possibly, on the cards. 'I think it might happen, yes, but I don't know why we're both being sort of coy about it - "No after you, no after you" - I don't know why we do that. Somebody's got to take charge, I think, and say, "I've booked us in, we're doing this. We've got a month to get ready."' The pair met at Cambridge in 1980 and did reunite for a special programme on Gold in 2010 to mark the thirtieth anniversary of their partnership. Huge Laurie can currently be seen in two new projects for writer and director Armando Iannucci - a film adaptation of Charles Dickens' David Copperfield and the SF TV comedy Avenue Five. Last year, Fry embarked on his first tour since he went on the road with Laurie in the 1980s. This time, he was speaking about his book Mythos, while he has just released the second series of a podcast, Seven Deadly Sins and appeared in the new series of Doctor Who (in which he was great).
This blogger's favourite quote of the year so far came from the very great Frank Skinner during an interview with the BBC's Paul Glynn. 'There's only one thing more embarrassing than the celebrities talking about politics and that's politicians talking about anything other than politics.'
Yer actual Keith Telly Topping thought Doctor Who, Nikola Tesla's Night Of Terror was great, dear blog reader. And, it was proof of what this blogger had always secretly believed; that AC/DC were much better than Scorpions.
This blogger also thought that Fugitives Of The Judoon was great. Mad-as-toast, too which is never a bad thing.
So, dear blog reader - remember that scene in Spyfall where the chap whom we now know to be The Master offered to show Graham a dossier he had compiled on The Doctor? This blogger wonders whether that's got anything to do with a certain plotline in the latest episode? Keith Telly Topping is over-thinking this, yes?
Oh, and speaking of the Godlike Genius that is Bradley Walsh, the bit in Fugitives Of The Judoon where a certain returning guest-star started coming on to Graham might, just, be this blogger's favourite moment of TV. Ever. Bar none.
It's the terror in Bradley's eyes that made it art!
Last week, this blogger also watched the first episode of Picard. Gosh, that was really rather impressive dear blog reader and, not at all what this blogger expected ... although, Keith Telly Topping is not entirely sure what he did expect, merely that wasn't it. This blogger is very much looking forward to seeing how that one develops.
This blogger had a mad-busy morning last Thursday on his day off; it went bus, post office collection office, post office itself (to pay the rent), Morrison's, a bus into town, Boots (in an effort to get something to soothe this wretched hacking cough which this blogger has acquired of late), M&S, the bank, other the bank, Poundland and, then, having a thoroughly excellent lunch on Stowell Street. Because, this blogger really deserve this Cantonese shredded beef with ginger and spring onion and fried rice.
This blogger enjoyed a fascinating discussion with a work colleague about the alleged 'I'll believe it when I see it' latest proposed (and alleged) takeover of this blogger's beloved (though unsellable) Magpies allegedly by a consortium allegedly involving Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. This blogger noted that it says so much about the level to which Mike Cashley is loathed and despised on Tyneside that many people would, seemingly, prefer to see a member of one of the most repressive ruling royal families on the planet, with a human rights record slightly worse than Attila The Hun and who is (allegedly) heavily implicated in the arrangement of at least one (alleged) murder of a prominent dissident in charge of their club than, you know, 'the shit who owns Sports Direct.' 'Yeah,' said this blogger's colleague. 'That sounds about right!' Others, of course, are more conflicted by the issue. Or, at least, claim to be. Like the man once said, 'be careful what you wish for, it might just come true.'
And, finally dear blog reader, normally when this blogger returns to his gaff after a hard day's graft in the windswept mid-evening chill of a Tyneside January, Stately Telly Topping will be in total darkness - an unwelcoming, lonely and cold-looking place full of foreboding and dark secrets and that. One night this week, however, from half-a-street away this blogger could see the drum was lit up like a Christmas tree. 'Well y'bugger,' Keith Telly Topping thought to himself, 'some evil thieving fekker had burglarised the gaff and nicked all me gear.' Fortunately, the answer was somewhat simpler, this blogger had merely forgotten to turn the light off in the living room before leaving at the crack of dawn. The light must, therefore, have been on all day. A minor waste of cash admittedly but, infinitely preferable to having all of one's stash pinched by some wicked toerag.