Andrew Vine: Parky’s star guests had something to say, not just to sell

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MAYBE it’s age catching up with me, but sometimes when channel-hopping and finding a line-up of people on a sofa being interviewed, I catch myself wondering: “Just who on Earth are you?”

Fame lands on and then flutters away so fast from modern celebrities that this week’s chat-show stars are next month’s has-beens. They are as disposable as a take-away coffee cup, and about as distinctive.

All that unites them, apart from their interchangeability, is that they’re trying to sell us something. A workout DVD, a recording, or an autobiography of a life not yet out of its 20s.

And in doing so, they have spelt the demise of one of the best-loved formats on television – the chat show.

This was alluded to last week by the king of the British chat show, Yorkshire’s own Sir Michael Parkinson, that most affable yet penetrating of interviewers who raised the genre to a pinnacle of achievement.

Hard though it is to believe, next year will mark a decade since he finally bid the audience farewell on the last of his television chat shows, and it is now 45 years since he began his run on the BBC.

Four-and-a-half decades, and yet still audiences hark back to those shows with an affectionate warmth of recollection that never fades.

There is no possibility of that happening with today’s line-ups of cash-in-quick pseudo-celebs. Chat shows have been cheapened by featuring a production line of here-today-gone-tomorrow personalities exploiting their 15 minutes of fame for all it’s worth.

Sir Michael mourned the passing of the true chat show, with its stars of enduring brilliance and proven talent, whose entrances prompted gasps of delight from the audience, and who needed no tightly-controlled public relations machine to guard their image.

They came on and Parky drew them out – Orson Welles and John Wayne, Fred Astaire and Bette Davis, Bob Hope and Robert Redford.

And, occasionally, he delved deep enough to reveal the very soul of somebody the whole world admired, as in his interviews with Muhammad Ali, which remain the definitive record of the greatest of boxers outside the ring.

Small wonder that millions never missed the Parkinson 
show on a Saturday night after Match of the Day, or that it became one of the jewels in the BBC crown, ranking alongside the likes of Morecambe and Wise or The Two Ronnies as classic light entertainment.

Small wonder, too, that those interviews have been re-packaged and repeated endlessly. Like the best of television from the 1970s and 80s, its quality has given it timelessness.

This was classy television for grown-ups, on late enough for the occasional risqué story to be told, and never under-estimated the intelligence of its audience.

There were others, too, who followed the example of the Parkinson show to good effect. The late Russell Harty and Sir Terry Wogan deserved their big audiences because they gave them genuine stars with stories to tell.

But now, as Sir Michael said, everybody seems to be famous and nobody has a private life.

Chance upon a chat show, and there’s every possibility that the stars have nothing to offer except dreary details of their latest divorce or bout in rehab.

In the glory days of the Parkinson show, it was about people who could act, sing or make people laugh. They had Oscars and Baftas and Grammys, back catalogues of classic films or albums – and the urbane elegance of true stars.

Now, fame is all about the ruthless manipulation of personal lives in pursuit of maximum publicity until this week’s celebrity is eclipsed by someone with a yet more lurid tale to tell.

It’s inconceivable that if he still had a chat show, Sir Michael would waste his time on those who populate “reality television”, still less the gargoyles who people that even odder genre, “structured reality” in which oddballs from Essex or Chelsea are plied with drink and set arguing with each other.

The appetite is still there for chat shows, as shown by thriving late-night programmes in the United States, but here it is only radio that keeps the flame alive, presenting guests who don’t have anything to sell, simply something interesting to say.

It’s difficult to envisage an heir to Sir Michael ever coming along, an interviewer with their name on the titles who is content not to be the star of the show.

And maybe the nature of celebrity has changed so much that guests of such calibre simply would not agree to subject themselves to an interview in which no subject is off-limits.

The classic chat show came to an end when Sir Michael took his last bow. Roll on the repeats one more time, so that we can remind ourselves that a deceptively simple format once delivered a touch of the magical.