Michael Parkinson reveals the death of his father drove him to drink

Michael Parkinson in his own words: The late TV legend reveals how the death of his father drove him to drink even more than normal, with the dam of grief only breaking years later with the discovery of one photo

Every morning, when I woke, I could see the pit from my bedroom window. When you couldn’t see it you could smell it, an invisible sulphurous presence.

Grimethorpe Colliery was where my dad worked, where my grandad worked and his dad before him. It was where I expected to end up, too.

I remember thinking it wouldn’t bother me, provided I could marry Ingrid Bergman and get a house nearer the pit gates.

I was not long a teenager when my father took me down the pit and tipped the wink to his mate on the winding gear that there was a tourist on board. We dropped like a man without a parachute.

Big laugh. The rest wasn’t so funny.

Television presenter Michael Parkinson (right) with his father on the way to play a game of cricket

He took me where men worked on their knees getting coal, showed me the lamp he used to test for methane gas, explained how dangerous it was. ‘Let’s see if you’d make a miner,’ he said. He gave me a pick and nodded at the seam, black and shiny. The harder I hit the coal, the more the pick bounced off the surface.

‘Find the fault,’ he said, running his fingers across the coal face. He tapped it and a chunk fell out, glittering in his lamplight.

We walked back and he said nothing until we reached the pit gates. ‘What do you reckon?’ he asked. ‘You wouldn’t get me down there for 100 quid a shift,’ I said.

He nodded and smiled. ‘That’s good,’ he said, ‘but be warned that if ever you change your mind and I see you coming through those gates, I’ll kick your a**e all the way home.’ This is the story of a boy who did as he was told.

There was a certainty and closeness about life in a pit village in those days that was comforting for the child lucky enough to find its embrace. I was safe in the perfect cocoon of my home, with my loving parents and an extended family never more than a street away.

When my mother started work at the Co-op as a shop assistant in 1943, I was fed and watered by my two sets of grandparents, who lived next door but one to each other. That is, if I managed to avoid several aunties along the route, who, if they saw me passing by, would insist on feeding me, too.

By the time I was eight or nine, I was a regular moviegoer. Our local cinema was called The Rock. It became my second home and the source of all my aspirations.

My first cinema memory is of my father being warned by the management that unless he improved his behaviour he would be kicked out. At the time he was falling into the aisle, helpless with laughter at Laurel and Hardy.

It was here, watching films about dashing newsmen in belted trenchcoats and trilby hats, that I decided I wanted to be a journalist. I’d still marry Ingrid Bergman, but instead of living near the pit we’d live in a house next to Barnsley Football Club.

Broadcaster Michael Parkinson (right) with his wife Mary Parkinson (left) at the TV-AM studios

Looking back, I am struck by the freedom I had as a child.

When I wasn’t at the cinema or out playing cricket and football, I was roaming our village and the surrounding countryside, or lying in the long grass watching my dad play cricket.

In 1946, I moved to Barnsley Grammar School, an all-male environment where I was instructed by some (but not all) short-tempered brutes who, when all else failed, would try to beat information into you. I disliked it intensely.

Shortly before I took my O-levels I was caned by my headmaster, Mr Roche. He had three or four canes he would practise swishing while you stood there wondering how many you might get and what the target might be. 

Before the beating he told you what he thought of you. On this occasion he finished his speech by saying, ‘Unless you buck up, Parkinson, you will never add up to much.’ Then he gave me six on the hand, which meant I couldn’t pick up a pen for a day or two.

As I left his study, I remember thinking there wasn’t much point in hanging about. He didn’t like me and I hated him and what he stood for, so the sooner we parted the better.

The fact is I had already decided what I wanted to be. When my father was captain of the cricket team, we were visited every Monday by a man from the local paper riding a large and sturdy Raleigh bicycle. He would collect a match report from my dad.

It seemed to me a wonderful way to spend a day. I wanted a job like that. In fact, I wanted his job.

I took O-levels without doing any work and without caring. I passed in Art and English and departed grammar school shortly afterwards.

I was 16 and already had a job. I was the man on the bike who came to our house for the cricket scores — a junior reporter on the South Yorkshire Times.

Michael Parkinson (left) with his mother Freda Parkinson (right) posing for a photo

Many years later, I received a letter saying that there was to be a dinner in honour of my old headmaster and, since he had watched my career with interest, would I be willing to be a guest of honour? I politely declined.

So that was how it started. I bought myself a bike, a drop- handled Raleigh with a Sturmey-Archer three-speed, a pair of metal bike clips and a trenchcoat like Bogey wore in all his pictures.

And every day I cycled 25 miles or so around a cluster of pit villages near Barnsley, interviewing anyone who would stand still for two minutes. I bought a typewriter and in the evenings I would translate the contents of my bulging notebook on to copy paper.

When I had finished, I would sometimes read aloud my efforts to my parents. My mother, an avid reader and a woman of great natural style, would nod approvingly at some particularly fine phrase.

My father, who liked the court reports best, would supplement the telling of the misadventures of some local ne’er-do-well with his own assessment, which would be either: ‘Not surprised about him. Never could play cricket.’ Or, ‘Fancy that! I mean, he’s a good opening bat, that fella.’

Eventually, I moved to Doncaster to the Yorkshire Evening Post. I chose Doncaster because in those days it was a journalists’ town. Two evening and three local papers were printed there.

It also had a racecourse, a decent football team, one or two agreeable pubs and a few good-looking girls. I met one on a bus and married her.

I remember the very moment I first saw Mary Heneghan. I was on the upper deck of a double-decker travelling to the mining village of Tickhill. With me was my colleague Denis Cassidy. We were on our way to a council meeting when this tall and slender girl with reddish-gold hair and a red duffel coat sat behind us.

Denis, who was good at chatting people up, introduced us. When I turned to look at her, I remember thinking I could gaze upon that face for a long time without tiring.

She said she was a teacher on her way to earn some extra money with a keep-fit class in Tickhill. When she’d gone, I told Denis I might be in love.

He said I should call her. I said I didn’t have her number.

Broadcaster Michael Parkinson (pictured) died on 16 August 2023 aged 88

He said she told us which school she worked at so what more information did a trained journalist require? I said I was too shy to ring the school. He said: ‘Don’t be so bloody stupid. I’ll ring for you.’ And he did, pretending to be me, which is how I came to date Mary for the first time.

Pathetic really, and yet the start of a partnership lasting 50 years.

We married in Doncaster. Mary made her own wedding dress; I looked as if I had made my own suit. We rented a flat in Manchester, where I was by then employed at the Manchester Guardian. My father celebrated our union by bringing over a ton of coal in sacks.

A year after our marriage, Mary told me she was pregnant. Our delight was somewhat tempered by my father’s observation that if it was a boy and born in Lancashire, it would not be able to play for Yorkshire.

Even I dismissed this thought as irrelevant, but I should have known my father better, events were to prove.

I was offered a job at the Daily Express for 2,000 guineas — double the salary I was earning at the Manchester Guardian. Mary shared my excitement at a move to London. But we decided she would stay in Manchester until the baby was born.

We’d reckoned without my father. I got a call in London. ‘Job’s done,’ he told me. ‘What job is this?’ I inquired. ‘Mary,’ he said. ‘What about her?’ I said. ‘She’s been moved,’ he said. ‘Where to?’ I asked. ‘Our house,’ he said. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Because we live in Yorkshire,’ he said.

‘I know that, but why have you kidnapped my wife?’ I asked. ‘I’ve told you, but you won’t listen. If the boy is born in Lancashire, it can’t play for Yorkshire,’ said my father, as if explaining something to an imbecile.

‘Have you thought about the chance it might be a girl?’ I said. ‘Don’t talk bloody daft,’ he said.

A month later, at a nursing home in Wakefield, Mary gave birth to a boy. We called him Andrew John and he didn’t play for Yorkshire.

It didn’t matter because he loved his grandad and was adored in return.

Michael Parkinson in Sydney in June 1982

Meanwhile, at the Express, things were not going well.

I was one of 30-odd writers basically employed to fill the one gap left on the features page after the obligatory political piece, the blessed Beachcomber column, Rupert Bear and the Giles cartoon.

In the absence of anything else to do, people used their spare time either to write a novel or to drink themselves silly. I chose the latter course.

Every day I would turn up at the office, draw a fiver from petty cash, and head for the legendary El Vino’s wine bar. There I would sit and await the call to duty.

More often than not it never came, in which case I would wait for Poppins, the Daily Express local, to open. Here I would cash a cheque and then give it all back in a boozy session.

I would catch a late train from Waterloo station and hope to get off at Surbiton in Surrey, where Mary and I had by then moved.

The certainty of reaching my destination was somewhat diminished by my habit of falling into a deep sleep as soon as the train set in motion. More often than not, I would awake in Portsmouth and have to catch the next train back.

Once, I fell asleep on the return journey and ended up back at Waterloo five hours after I had left it. Another evening, I opened the carriage door thinking I’d arrived at Surbiton and fell on to the express line at Wimbledon.

I was hauled to safety by a couple of railway employees and then visited by the police who, quite rightly, told me what a chump I had been before seeing me home.

Mary said if I was drinking because I was unhappy at the Express then I must leave and get another job. I said we were broke and that we had a small child and a large mortgage and that I didn’t have a job to go to. But I knew she was right.

Michael Parkinson at his apartment in Sydney in June 1982

A short time later, I went into the office and told them I was leaving. It neither surprised nor bothered them. Then I went home and told Mary. ‘Where now?’ she said in her wonderful unflappable way. ‘No idea,’ I said, and I hadn’t.

Yet, within a few years, my career would take off in ways we could never have dreamed of.

By the mid-1970s, things could hardly have been better for us. My late-night talk show was attracting eight million viewers and more, I had a highly successful column about sporting matters in The Sunday Times, we had a beautiful family house by the River Thames and three boys growing up in a robust and noisy manner.

Mary was a star in her own right on television and we were proud of her. Then my father died.

When he’d retired from the pit we had brought my parents to live in nearby Oxfordshire. There my father devoted his energies, as he had with me, to his tireless attempts to turn his three grandsons into professional cricketers.

He formed a special bond with Mary, and when he was very unwell and in hospital it was to her he confessed his deepest fear. ‘I don’t want to die here,’ he said.

So she brought him home and for a month or more he lay in palliative care while we watched his life ebbing away like a disappearing tide.

I would sit with him and look at his hands lying outside the sheets. They were strong and well-shaped, and the palms and fingers were those of a working man, calloused and rough to the touch

I would place my hands on his, mine unmarked, soft and smooth, and remember as a child the love and security I felt when he took my hand.

For some reason, this memory made me feel ashamed and filled my mind with the unbearable thought that his hands represented all he had done to enable me to enjoy a view of the river and an easy life.

He died as he had lived, without making a fuss.

Michael Parkinson (right) and world champion boxer Muhammad Ali (left)

When the undertakers came for him they brought him downstairs in a blue rubber bag, and he looked so small and insignificant I turned my head away. In that moment, I accommodated his death by pretending it hadn’t happened. Nor could I share my mother’s grief, because I couldn’t face my own.

I began to drink even more than normal, which was to say, a lot. The more I drank, the more depressed I became.

I went to see a psychiatrist who probed away but didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know.

It was Mary who caused me to change. She said to me one day: ‘You know the worst thing about you and drink? It makes you ugly.’

Her words rang in my brain ever after and made me forever cautious of further excess.

One day, about two years after my father died, I came across a picture of him as a young man, a group photograph of the village cricket team on the grounds where I first saw him play.

He looked eager, athletic and handsome, and the image broke the dam of my grief and I started crying. I cried for an hour or so, tears of love and regret, of pride and guilt.

When I stopped I felt purged and later came to realise that when my mother reached the same moment, she stopped writing her book. Like me, she was then able to remember him with all the love, joy and laughter he gave to us when he lived.

  •  Extracted from Parky — My Autobiography: A Full And Funny Life, by Michael Parkinson, published by Hodder & Stoughton, £10.99. © The Parkinson Partnership Ltd 2008. To order a copy for £9.89 go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937. Free UK delivery on orders over £25. Promotional price valid until September 4, 2023.

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