Saturday, December 17, 2016
Michael Parkinson V Muhammad Ali
As soon he heard that Muhammad Ali had died this summer, Michael Parkinson knew his phone would be ringing. The interviews he’d conducted with Ali half a lifetime ago had left the two of them inextricably linked in people’s minds, even though they only met four times. In fact, despite being someone who spent that day in June giving interviews to all parts of the globe, Parkinson hadn’t been in Ali’s company since their final interview, all the way back in 1981.
“I couldn’t bear it,” Parkinson says. “There were chances to meet him and there were events when people wanted us to get together to do another interview but I couldn’t bear it. Even with the millennium thing on the BBC, I didn’t want to see him like that. I had a terrible conscience about him, about how he turned out. Still have.
“I sometimes have had little pangs, thinking maybe I should have done it when I was asked. But I couldn’t have done it. I couldn’t have sat there and said, ‘Sorry, what did you say?’ It was bad enough talking to him the way he was in ’81, never mind 20 years later. I just thought I was sad that he was paraded around like he was the elephant man. That’s what I felt, that he was being treated like a kind of freak.
“To those of us who saw him in his glory, it was an awful affront to our memories of him. So I kind of resolved it in my mind. I was for a while upset that I hadn’t done it. But now I know I was right not to.”
Parkinson is in town to promote his book on Ali, a memoir that comprises the four transcripts of their interviews between 1974 and 1981 and also placing them in the historical context of someone who was, at the time, the most famous person in the world. Now 81, he jokes that he lost their encounters 4-0. No disgrace in that.
“That time of the millennium show, Ali arrived at the BBC early in the day. He needed two hours after having his meds to be stabilised enough to do a 10-minute interview. He went up in the lift with a friend of mine who used to work on the Parkinson shows in the 1970s. And he was in the lift, looking around him, going, ‘I used to come here a long time ago to fight a guy called Parkinson.’
“His wife rang after he died. She told me that all he ever did in the last years of his life was sit and watch the old Parkinson interviews. He could get them over there on Netflix or whatever.
“And she was asking did we have these shows and could we sent them to her. So we did. But that’s what she said he loved to do. He’d sit down and have them on and get people to watch with him. And he knew them all, word for word. He’d be sitting there going, ‘Wait, wait, I get him here, I get him here, watch this.’”
Parkinson has lived no small life himself, of course. Still going strong, fronting the production company run by his son Michael, he travels a lot doing one-man shows that trade unabashed on nostalgia for those times. This book was supposed to be something else entirely but he’s long enough in the tooth now not to get too tangled up in things he doesn’t want to do. Nor, for that matter, to be too precious about how he decides what to do and what to avoid.
Childhood in Yorkshire
“This book occurred because the publishers had asked me to write a book on my childhood in Yorkshire. They wanted it for next year but in all honesty, I didn’t want to write it. I didn’t think it would be interesting. But when Ali died I thought, [clicks fingers], ‘That’s it. Thanks pal. You’ll get me out of this bloody contract, God bless you.’ And so here it is.”
We’re sitting in the bar of the Merrion Hotel, the sort of spot a famous person can spend tucked away in a corner for an hour with nobody to intrude, short of a waiter asking if the lemon posset is to sir’s liking. After a well-publicised brush with cancer last year, Parkinson is in grand fettle, full of old yarns and chuckled indiscretions.
“I’m fine,” he says. “I had that spell with prostate cancer, which all men get. As the saying goes with prostate cancer, you will die with it, not from it. The thing with it, is we need to get guys to go more regularly to get tested for it. And to have the understanding too that it’s completely manageable if you do have it.”
His brushes with Ali came at a time when he was the biggest name in British TV, albeit his fame was by association with the conveyor belt of notables that sat across from him. But even before he had his BBC shows, his connections worked for him as much as his work did. Long before he ever sat in a BBC studio, legendary sports agent Mark McCormack had him on his books.
“IMG, which was McCormack’s company, signed me up not because they really thought I was a big star or anything. I was writing on sport for the Sunday Telegraph at the time and presenting Cinema on TV. And actually I think it was more the Telegraph work than the TV work that made them bring me on because McCormack told me that they were very interested in engaging with people that I knew.
“We used to talk about rates and he wanted to charge 40 per cent. And I said, ‘I’m not earning enough bloody money to give you 40 per cent of it! Bugger off!’ And he said, ‘Okay, we’ll do a deal. You get me Georgie Best and you get me Geoffrey Boycott and we’ll do a deal at 15 per cent.’ So I said okay. And he always said it was the worst deal of his life because George lasted a week with him and Boycott lasted a fortnight!
“McCormack took me on but after about two months he assigned one of the office juniors to me. His name was Martin Sorrell – he’s now the CEO of WWP, one of the biggest companies in the world. He’s worth million, billions maybe, I don’t know. But back then, he was only starting out and one of his first deals was with George Best. And to this day, I would think he’s the only agent that went into a room to get a deal for George Best but came out with less money for George than he had going in.”
McCormack used Parkinson as a sounding board years later when he was considering taking over the business side of Ali’s operations.
“The final irony was that by the time Ali’s entourage moved away, the man at the centre was broke. McCormack rang me up to say he had been approached by Ali about taking him over. And I said, ‘Oh aye? Well, he’s alright but the people around him are dodgy.’ And McCormack said, ‘Well, we’ll get rid of them, don’t worry.’
“He called me back some time later and we met for lunch. ‘How did it go with Ali?’ I said. And he started laughing. ‘He’s hilarious,’ he said. ‘In all my years being an agent and dealing with people, I never had one I laughed as much with. Our first meeting, he walked in and put out his hand and said, ‘You’re the first white man I ever worked with, I’ll be watching you.’
“So they talk away for a half an hour about these plans and those plans and what they might do together. And as they were finishing up, McCormack said, ‘I want to ask you a question I ask all my clients and it’s a very important one. I will advise you and guide you as best I can but first I want to know, what advice do you have for me?’ And without hesitation, Ali said, ‘I’ll tell you this Mr McCormack, any time anyone makes a bid, you have one job – hang a zero on the end of it.’”
In the end, Parkinson’s book is a snapshot of a different time. One where two men sitting across from each other in black chairs could hold a country spellbound for an hour and make such an impact that people would talk about it for decades after. Everyone is famous now in one way or another. But nobody will ever be as famous as Ali was back then.
“The means of communication, the way of distributing information back then was so narrow and so singular. When you add in the times, the amount of history that was happening around the world, the student uprisings, everything, the circumstances were ripe for the creation of the world’s first global superstar. And that’s what he was.
“He was channelled by various factors both within and out of his control. People tend to forget that. They tend to think in the present tense all the time. Fame was so different then. Today it’s about social media and people wanting to be famous. Back then, we didn’t even really know what fame was or what it meant. We’d not got used to it. What an interesting time it was.”