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Parky - My Autobiography Hardcover – 2 Oct 2008
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I recommend it heavily. It's a wonderful book (Melvyn Bragg)
Parky's book is a joyous, breezy read, as much for the improbability of his early escapades as for his backstage anecdotes about the stars. It is also beautifully written (Daily Telegraph)
The early chapters about his childhood and early career ... are disarmingly modest and offer a proper glimpse into another world (Independent)
Crisp and detailed prose ... with an especially impressive account of a pre-second world war childhood in the north (Mark Lawson, Guardian)
Funny and self-deprecating and just as laid-back as he is on camera (Boyd Tonkin, Independent)
This autobiography is just like an extended edition of a brilliant Parkinson on television - engrossing and entertaining (Irish Times)
The long-awaited autobiography of one of Britain's national icons.See all Product description
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There is some controversy over the etymology of the word 'fan'. Some argue that it derives from the older English term 'fancy', referring to someone's hobby or sport. Others suggest 'fan' is more naturally derived from the word 'fanatic', which has a Latin origin, 'fanaticus'. Both these alternate explanations share something in common, which is a sense that the word 'fan' denotes someone who wishes to escape from reality, or at least mundanity. The celebrity culture is for those who prefer imitation to a conscious life. How else could Parkinson litter his assessments of colleagues with the most sweeping emptiness and banality? In this book we learn that so-and-so is "...the most charismatic actor of his generation" or that some other guy was "the most talented footballer ever..." Michael Parkinson has had access to some of the most interesting people in recent history (see, there I go again), but he doesn't really tell us anything about them. It's about as meaningful as saying to the visiting plumber: "Do you realise that you are the most charismatic plumber I have ever met?" Most of us go dewy-eyed like this when we are recalling particularly good teachers, say, and we might gush: "He was the greatest teacher ever...", but Parkinson does this day-to-day, and consequently he tells us nothing.
The point about all this in relation to what Parkinson does is that it reveals both the true nature of the celebrant culture and also an important cultural flaw in the talkshow model. In a talkshow climate, the critical capacity in society atrophies. This is something that was anticipated and it's why Parkinson's efforts in the 1970s to expand his show to a nightly format were so fiercely resisted at the BBC. Everyone is "brilliant" or "the most charismatic actor of his generation" or "a great actress" or whatever it is. As we become dumbed-down and less literate, the 'critiverse' shrinks and we eventually end up in a society where we accept, even give political support to, someone like Tony Blair. I don't mean to say that it's all poor Michael Parkinson's fault. He is clearly a nice man, but he was naïve in that he and others like him were never cognisant of these dangers. We have sleepwalked from a society in which we were citizens into a society in which we are all celebrants, and for all their talk of privacy, most of the CELEBrities favour the celebrant culture. They like its illiteracy and its lack of genuine criticality and contextuality. Michael Parkinson was still a great talkshow host, but paradoxically he failed to understand the true destructive power of the medium he helped to develop and plainly fails to understand the trivialising cultural effect of talk shows. This is partly because he was part of the left-cultural milieu of the Sixties and he was close socially to the actors of the satire boom that produced TWTWTW and presaged HIGNFY. As Parkinson recounted that major dispute with the BBC from the 70s over moving to a nightly version of his show, I was siding with the BBC.
Having said all that, while people sneer at the 'cult of celebrity' and the tendency of our media to CELEBrate personality, I don't necessarily. Certainly, where this culture crosses the line of right/wrong is in turning entertainment and spectacle into cruelty. Parkinson was part of the 'old school' in this respect - he didn't resort to cruelty. I also like the way Parkinson identifies a transcendent quality in a select few of the stars he has interviewed - he suggests they have more than presence (p.179), in fact they "exude will power" (p. 180). I can't argue much with this. Essentially that is what hierarchical society is: the imposition of will, a kind of confidence trick, and the celebrity class are just vampiric showmen for the tricksters, but I think he makes a mistake admiring Burton and Connolly, both of whom rose to fame because they embodied the nihilism that society has embraced in which morality becomes a relative choice that can be deconstructed, in Connolly's case through comedic and satirical means.
Burton and Connolly, and others like them, were not the rugged anti-heroes of popular culture that they are made out to be. They just represent simple-minded nihilism. Parkinson names Burton, for instance, as having 'presence', but he was really just a talentless, wooden ham actor with some kind of vague screen presence: an early example of a kind of 'celebrity actor', if you like, sort of the Brad Pitt of his day. He was the archetypical nihilist. Oliver Reed, likewise a nihilist is praised repeatedly here by Parkinson as if he was a latter-day Orson Welles, but once you cut through all the bluster and exaggeration about him, it's plain Reed was an empty vessel: basically just an overrated drunk. The mistake our society made was in putting these nihilists on a plinth. We should have booed at them on Parkinson and shows like it and laughed them off the stage. Instead they were elevated to stardom and admiration. The nihilists lacked substance or any kind of moral compass and saw morality and civic responsibility as a choice rather than as an obligation. In time we began to adopt these values too as they were the sanctioned values of 'Parkinson' (figuratively as well as literally), i.e. the dominating values of our culture, filtered through the unmediated medium of TV. Now the nihilists dominate the celebrity culture: the vessels are as empty as ever. Parkinson uses this wonderful phrase somewhere in the book: the 'proscenium arch', which is the frame around the stage, traditionally ornate. In the sense that Parkinson uses the term as metaphor, to mean the props of stage and screen, the superficial merely provided the backcloth to the art of celebrity, but now the superficial has become the spectacle.
Not all of the CELEbrities relied on the dream-like trance of the proscenium arch. The likes of Orson Welles, Mohammed Ali, Woody Allen, and Madonna, were (perhaps not so much now) among those with actual talent and were among what I would call the 'anti-celebrities'. In the end, most human culture is a reflection of the expediencies of its day. Secretly, we all want to live like 'them' - not just live, but really be alive - detached from our quotidian concerns and responsibilities. This dream paradoxically requires an element of consciousness. To wish to escape, we must understand what we wish to escape from, though our knowledge and understanding is incomplete, perhaps feeble. We must recognise the fundamental antagonisms of living, life and death (in both the physical and the psychic senses), knowledge and ignorance, power and impotence, dominance and submission, all of which celebrities transcend: so we are projected into a dreamland, aloof and detached from our daily worries, a fantasy world of social relativism without firm morals, ethics and values. Figures such as Welles were anti-celebrity in that they subverted this post-modern celebrity culture while at the same time appearing to embody it. In Welles' case, he stood for knowledge and learning, which are subversive to ignorance and stupidity. In Mohammed Ali's case, he stood for values of independence, grit, hardwork and sportsmanship, which are subversive to laziness, cheating and entitlement. Welles and Ali attack, implicitly or explicitly, or both, society's nihilism yet we see them celebrated because they are the necessary antithesis. Like shadow puppets, they appear to us in the Dreamland, but they do not fully belong there.
However Parkinson was more than a signal or meter of fandom: arguably, as I have alluded to above, he was also a left-wing cultural architect. It is slightly ironic, but typical of its time, that he came from a provincial background, far away from the metropolitan climate. But it's clear from reading this book that "Parky" was always a deflected Yorkshireman: a man 'of the metropole'. One unattractive side of this is a tendency in this book to lapse into PC tropes, and also a tendency to stereotype what we might call 'ordinary folk' (not his phrase but mine). The passage about his father's death and his response to it is very affecting, but at the same time the description he gives of his father is not believable; in fact, it is based on this common kind of stereotype of a Northern working man and frankly is a bit corny. It's Metropole Man remembering his background in the terraced houses with a slight sneer. On the other hand, Parkinson was not a proficient writer and he's not writing a great novel here, and so we can't expect sophisticated characterisation. Another slight criticism of his writing style is that he has a tendency with one or two celebrities - Kenneth Williams, for example - to rely on a recitation of the celebrity's diary or memoirs and that seems pointless filler. I would rather just know what Parkinson thought.
Like me, Michael Parkinson was born in the West Riding, though by my time the old Ridings had sadly disappeared. Parky's voice was very important to his personality as a celebrity interviewer. The rough hew gave him an air of incongruity that contradicted his liberal vapid aspersions but the voice also conveyed a touch of warmth, depth, homeliness and sincerity. The South Yorkshire accents are among most distinct in all Yorkshire, especially around Barnsley where Parky comes from, whereas the accents of my part of West Yorkshire tend to be rather flat and unremarkable, a feature of a place where there has been so much migration and social confluence that the resulting sound is a little out of place. So Parkinson came from a settled, conservative, probably rather conformist part of the country, and it is that background that ultimately he rebelled against.
I'll close this review with some particular highlights of the book. I think my favourite passages are those concerning Orson Welles. The 1974 Parkinson-Welles interview is a classic and had me in stitches when I first saw it ("Sparkle Shirley...I don't think I'm going to sparkle tonight..."!). It can be easily found online. However I hadn't realised there was an earlier interview that was wiped - what a tragedy. I am a great 'fan' of Welles, and I would have loved to see that. I see nothing wrong with the Meg Ryan interview - in fact, I consider it among his best and most penetrating interviews, because it brought out Meg Ryan's natural shyness. Parkinson (a little like David Frost, who he probably learnt this from - or maybe it was the other way round?), had a genius for letting the interviewee talk and....reveal interesting things. Meg Ryan's posture in that interview spoke volumes about her. She might not like that, but she ought to be able to accept that for the rest of us, that is the type of interview where we learn much more about the celebrity than we would from the usual boring, sycophantic format. The Mohammed Ali interviews are another highlight. There is an interesting exchange in one of the interviews, which unaccountably Parkinson does not mention in this book, in which Ali talks about racial identity. I didn't like Parkinson's political correctness in that interview: I sided with the boxer. On the other hand, you have to credit Parkinson that at least he allowed Ali to express his views and it was entertaining to watch (in a nice way), not to mention interesting and thought-provoking.
A talkshow host is the spark that either ignites the more animative aspects of the celebrity personality or dulls it. Parkinson had that gift of being able to spark with his guests without smothering them or assuming centre-stage himself, allowing them to 'Sparkle' and in doing so, bringing a little interest, colour and amusement into our sometimes drab and ordinary lives.
I found his writing style fantastic - easy, punchy and engaging. Loved all the snippets about the celebs. Had not realised he worked as a war correspondent and some of his stories are harrowing - but war is - and his attempts to make non-obvious political statements about the waste of war perhaps could have been more overt - having seen it first hand and now he is retired he should be entitled to voice his true feelings about it in a book like this.
His analysis of the BEEB was hard hitting and not something us viewers have much of an appreciation of.
Overall I found Parky quite self-deprecating in his book - something that is evident in reading other good autobiogs in my view.
Thoroughly enjoyed it!
A good read nonetheless.
Even though there may have been some of his guests who were not necessarily all of the viewers' cup of tea, it's easy to see why the vast majority of the celebrities queued up to appear on his show. Although it was styled `The Parkinson Show', Parky made it quite clear that he was merely compère to the programmes, drawing out the best (and on some occasions, the worst) from his guests; he certainly did not display the cringe-making, showboating antics of those who attempted to follow in his footsteps.
And this is reflected in his writing; he is able to brilliantly express the passion, the love and admiration that people, events and sports have played in his life; together with a very nice style of self-deprecation. In my opinion, this is a terrifically well-written book, displaying all the talents of an accomplished writer.
It also serves as a salutary lesson to those in the glittering spires of television who felt that we could do without Parky; in return, and as a consolation, they gave us Wossy.
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