The press hated quiz shows like Sale of the Century says host Nicholas Parsons, coming to Sudbury
Nicholas Parsons has had many starring roles during his long career. He spoke about not giving in to old age, always learning and a little quiz show broadcast from Norwich.
And now, from Norwich, it’s the quiz of the week. At its peak, 20million people tuned in to Sale of the Century. Nicholas was as amazed as anybody when they told him.
“I’d never done a quiz show and I thought well that’s a new experience I’ll try that,” recalls the actor, comedian and presenter, who got the call from Anglia Television just after his successful run in London’s West End with Boeing-Boeing.
Century saw contestants answer questions for cash, which they used to buy merchandise at bargain prices at several points. It only meant to air in East Anglia but went national a few years after launching, becoming one of the network’s most watched shows.
“It took off and became incredibly successful but I did it because it was a new experience. I recently guested on a programme called Top of the Box. They took a year in which they talk about all the top shows in that year. One, 1978 I think it was, the show that got the most viewing figures of any others was Sale of the Century. I was amazed.
“It was a wonderful job, a very nice city and a very nice company. You don’t think at the time ‘this show’s very successful’... I was more proud of my work with Arthur Haynes and Boeing-Boeing. I was never aware we were so successful, in fact it felt like the reverse because at the time the press were very anti quiz shows, they always criticised them as if they were down market and they wanted to raise the site for the viewing public... I got some rather critical press acclaim at that time. The fact they were so successful made them more anti.”
The show proved a double-edged sword for the host of Radio 4’s Just A Minute, who is back in the region later this month with Just a Laugh a Minute. It’s full of anecdotes from a career spanning decades. There’s a chance to ask him questions too and a book signing after his performance.
“Unfortunately, once they decided to take it off the air because they had other things to put on and we’d done 14 successful years, it was like starting again. Because people thought ‘oh, he’s a quiz show host’ it was difficult to get parts in plays and films.”
Nicholas - who’s appeared in everything from The Benny Hill Show and Laugh Lines to The Rocky Horror Show - then got himself a “very interesting but modest” TV job on the new Night Network service, winning him a new young audience. The other day, he was asked to compere a children’s opera.
“You take every opportunity, you don’t become complacent, you don’t become selective and say ‘oh no, I don’t want to do that, that’s a bit beneath my dignity’. If the job is interesting you take it and do it to the best of your ability. If it’s successful it’ll lead to something else.”
Still sprightly for a 94-year-old, he says many people retire in their 60s or 70s to potter around the garden or pub and then fade away.
“Once you give way to old age then old age takes you over. The more you use your mental facilities, it helps keep you younger; but I’ve kept very active all my life. I still am.”
He’s just back from a demanding 10-day Edinburgh stint, doing his show and two Just A Minutes. He’s tired when we talk, but will be back to his old state in a couple of days before heading to the next theatre.
“I try to pace myself a bit more than I used to,” Nicholas adds.
A legend to many in the business, he wanted to be an actor from the earliest age he can remember, but was born at a time when you couldn’t always do what you wanted. His parents thought acting was a precarious and ridiculous idea so encouraged him to become a qualified marine and mechanical engineer. He spent five years on Clydebank but was performing all the time.
After the war, when his parents asked what he was going to do he said “I’m going to be an actor now”.
“They said but ‘you’re a qualified engineer’ and I said ‘yes, I did that to please you but now I’m going to please myself’. I must say they were very kind and said ‘do you want us to arrange for you go to RADA or somewhere’ and I said ‘no, I’ve had some raw experience I’m just going to forge my own way into it’ and it was bloody hard work.
“I wrote to every agent and management and sat in producers offices until they gave me an audition. Slowly you get your first job, you’re in a play in the West End and people think ‘oh, he’s arrived’. Yes, you’re on the way for the run of that show and when it finishes you’re back to square one.
“I talk about this in my show in a humorous way and tell them the different stories of how I got the first job, my time in rep doing a different play every week and some of the funny things that happened there... I guested in Doctor Who, I did a thing with The Comic Strip called Mr Jolly Lives Next Door with Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson...
“My experience is probably more varied than anybody else in the entertainment industry, I’m not saying this with conceit this just happens to be chance. If you keep your wits about you, you learn every time and you should use your experience to give you added ammunition for the next job.”
Does he love it as much as used to?
“I don’t think I’d do it otherwise would I? Have you ever come across a performer who said he doesn’t love what he does,” chides Nicholas.
“Most people, including myself, went into the entertainment industry or showbusiness whatever you want to call it, because they wanted to show their talent and it’s a tough business but they carry on if they still have that desire. Those who do a sedentary sort of job nine–five, every day are probably dying to get away from it all. At least showbusiness, if you do get any work it’s always different.”
• See Nicholas Parsons - Just a Laugh a Minute at the Quay Theatre, Sudbury, 7.30pm, September 20.