Obituary: Nicholas Parsons, actor and broadcaster

Nicholas Parsons, who has died at 96, was a true veteran of the stage, screen and airwaves with a career which spanned three-quarters of a century.
Nicholas Parsons with his CBE at Windsor CastleNicholas Parsons with his CBE at Windsor Castle
Nicholas Parsons with his CBE at Windsor Castle

He was familiar from comedic and straight roles but was perhaps best known for asking the questions on the ITV quiz Sale Of The Century and for his 50 years as host of BBC Radio 4’s Just A Minute, which he was still presenting until last year.

Despite his glittering CV, he once said he believed he would have got more work if he had been “more rugged-looking”.

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In 2016, as he prepared to celebrate his golden jubilee on Just a Minute, in which celebrity guests strive to talk about a subject for 60 seconds without hesitation, repetition or deviation, Prince Charles, a fan of the show, performed a cameo.

Parsons was born on October 10 1923, in Grantham, Lincolnshire, where his father was GP to the family of Baroness Thatcher.

After studying at St Paul’s School in London, he headed to Clydebank as an apprentice engineer, despite his own hopes of becoming an actor.

But his impressions were featured in a radio show and, following performances with amateur concert parties after the Second World War, he moved into acting, working first in rep at Bromley, Kent.

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Comic roles became a speciality and he became resident comedian at the Windmill Theatre in London after working on the cabaret circuit in the 1950s.

He found TV fame appearing with the comedian Arthur Haynes in his ITV show in the early 1960s, and he was also a regular on The Benny Hill Show.

At the tail end of 1967, he introduced Just A Minute for the first time, and the show is still going strong today.

Within a few years, he had also become known for hosting Anglia TV’s Sale Of The Century, with its notable opening line “And now from Norwich, it’s the quiz of the week ...” It had launched as a regional show in 1971, and was broadcast nationally by 1975.

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Parsons had guest roles in Doctor Who, and the children’s series Bodger And Badger, as well as taking a cross-dressing role in a touring production of The Rocky Horror Show in his 70s, and performing a number of seasons with his one-man shows at the Edinburgh Festival.

In 1990, he starred in London’s West End in Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into The Woods, and his autobiography, The Straight Man – My Life in Comedy was published in 1994.

He was a regular guest on television and radio comedy shows, and in 1999 he took his comedy chat show, The Nicholas Parsons Happy Hour to the Edinburgh Fringe, returning to the event in years that followed.

Besides The Arthur Haynes Show, notable projects included Carry On Regardless and Cluedo, and he starred in the West End comedies Boeing Boeing and Say Who You Are, as well as musicals and revues.

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His first major success on television came as the straight man to Haynes in the famous partnership that flourished in the 1960s, and included Swing Along, a season in 1963 at the London Palladium. Haynes died in 1966.

Among his many charitable commitments, he had a long association with the Grand Order of Water Rats and the Lord’s Taverners, for which he has served as president.

Parsons said he was “flattered and delighted” to be awarded a CBE for his charitable work in December 2013.

Ten years earlier, he had received an OBE for services to drama and broadcasting.

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On June 4 2018, he missed his first episode of Just A Minute, and was replaced by regular panellist Gyles Brandreth. The BBC said Parsons was “taking a couple of days off”.

In 2019, he was given a Broadcasting Press Guild award for his outstanding contribution to broadcasting.

Parsons married his second wife Ann Reynolds in 1995, and had two children from his first marriage to the actress Denise Bryer.