Obituary: Nicholas Parsons – BBC News

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 50 years, he asked his guests to speak without hesitation, repetition or deviation on topics as diverse as burglars, Birmingham and biscuits in bed.

Each week, Parsons tried, sometimes unsuccessfully, to keep a bevy of celebrity panellists in check including Clement Freud, Derek Nimmo, Paul Merton, Sheila Hancock and the show’s undoubted scene-stealer, Kenneth Williams.

Always neatly coiffed and invariably immaculate in blazer and flannels, Parsons’ smooth tones on Just a Minute and, more particularly, his sugary image on 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 on 10 October 1923 in Grantham, Lincolnshire, the son of a GP. His father’s patients included the Thatcher family, although there is no definitive proof, as has been suggested, that Dr Parsons delivered the future prime minister.

Nicholas Parsons 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.

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Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh was a popular comedy show in the early 1950s

He had early ambitions to be an actor but his parents opposed the idea, his mother believing show business was fit only for “drunks and low-lifes”.

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 posh boy. The experience helped launch his show business career.

Illness prevented him taking up an offer to join the merchant navy during the war but, by this time, he had begun taking small parts in local theatres around Glasgow where he also did impressions.

Breakthrough

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 Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh.

His big breakthrough came when he began working as a straight man for Arthur Haynes, whose ITV show had made him the most popular comedian in Britain.

Parsons excelled as the authority figure in sketches during which Haynes, often in his normal role as a tramp, railed against the establishment. Many of the scripts were written by Johnny Speight, the creator of Till Death Us Do Part.

He was so successful that Haynes began to perceive him as a threat and the pair parted company shortly after an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.

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Anglia Television

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Sale of the Century pulled in audiences of 20 million

In 1960, he voiced the character of Tex Tucker in the television puppet series, Four Feather Falls, produced by Gerry Anderson who would later go on to make Thunderbirds.

Just A Minute first aired 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 Kenneth Williams, whose treatment of his chairman ranged from toadying sycophancy to outright abuse.

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Parsons was the chairman of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Just A Minute’ for more than 50 years. Panellists have to speak for 60 seconds on a given subject without “hesitation, repetition or deviation”.

Proud

Later stars 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 a show that originally ran for 12 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 20 million people tuning in.

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Parsons (right) with other stars of BBC Radio 4 at the station’s 1971 summer programme announcement

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 just a quiz master.

Parsons continued his straight man role when he joined the Benny Hill Show in 1969 where he remained for five years.

Budding performers

He later put himself at the mercy of Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson in The Comic Strip Presents, in which he appeared as himself.

This willingness to share the joke, appearing on television programmes like Have I Got News for You, playing a vampire’s victim in a 1989 episode of Doctor Who and narrating the Rocky Horror Show all helped him 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 that made short films for cinema, wrote two volumes of autobiography and made it into the Guinness Book of Records in 1978 for the longest ever after-dinner speech, more than 11 hours.

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Alien encounter in Doctor Who

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 encouraged by Parsons.

However, his annual star turn at the Fringe was cancelled in 2019 after Parsons was admitted to hospital. He was due to perform four sold-out shows.

It followed a rare no-show on Just A Minute with what the BBC said was a “bad back”. It was only the second time he had missed a taping in the panel show’s 52-year history.

Parsons was fanatical about cricket, both as a player and supporter, and was a president of the Lord’s Taverners. He also served as rector of the University of St Andrews and was a prominent supporter of the Liberal Democrats.

He married the actress Denise Bryer in 1954. 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.”