Saturday, September 26, 2009

Stooge for England!

We seem to be losing a lot of our iconography lately. And while it's true that we afford them their due deferences and mourn their passing I can't help but feel guilty about not singing their praises more loudly in their lifetimes.

So let us sing a song of Nicholas Parsons.

At least half of my English readership will have smiled at that sentence. In itself that is a tribute to the man's work. Starting out as one of the myriad unremarkable young actors who'd do little cameos in films or plays he has become A National Treasure. And he has managed it by more than mere longevity.

Like many of his contemporaries, Nicholas' early career involved his playing respectable, if a bit wet, characters with impeccable Stage English. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he carried on doing precisely that, acting as stooge, or straight man, to a succession of comedians and, finally, The Nation. The big turning point was his teaming up with Arthur Haynes who was one of the big TV stars in the fifties and early sixties. Haynes generally played the stroppy 'little man' who thought he was being hard done-to by authority, very often typified by Nicholas Parsons. Other times he would be a rather wet middle-class friend to Haynes' "common man."

When that partnership dissolved he became a regular on The Benny Hill Show. (BTW: one of the things I like about Benny Hill is that he continued the tradition of surrounding the comic with straight men and character actors and then letting them be funny.) Hill was lucky to have both Nicholas Parsons and Henry McGee in his troupe.

Parsons was, and is, a consummate straight man. This isn't easy. In fact, it's damned hard. It's easy to imagine that all a straight man has to do is stand there and say his lines while the funny man does the comedy. It's easy to imagine that and dead wrong. If you want to see how easy it isn't, just watch the next time a US President teams up with a comedian for one of those "let's entertain the White House Press Corps" skits. You laugh, if you do, at the novelty of the event and at the good sportsmanship of the President. If the President was Joe Bloggs from down the road you'd think this was a pretty mediocre bit of comedy. The straight man has three important jobs to do. He has to provide a counterpoint to the comic, in physique or personality, or both. He has to provide the feedlines properly - the gag lines must not appear contrived and the feed must not accidentally telegraph the gag. Sometimes a feed deliberately telegraphs the gag, in which case the straight man and the comic both must have confidence in each other not to say a word until just that right moment. A good comic working with a good stooge who he knows and trusts can ride an audience's knowing what the joke is going to be for a good many minutes. (The longest I've seen was Les Dawson and Roy Barraclough riding a very weak punchline for the best part of ten minutes, made the funnier by Dawson's mercilessly trying to corpse Barraclough by staring him out.) The straight man must never step on a laugh.

Strangely enough his big step up to fame had nothing to do with comedy at all. He was the long-time presenter of Anglia TV's Quiz Of The Week, "Sale of the Century."

These days he is more well-known for his stint as chairman of the long-running radio programme "Just A Minute," where he has acted as the foil to the likes of Clement Freud, Derek Nimmo, Peter Jones, Kenneth Williams, Graham Norton and Paul Merton (and about half a million other celebrities, with all due apologies).

I don't know for sure, but I have my suspicions, which of these turned a jobbing actor and presenter into something else. Nor do I know for sure why he was the chosen one: it's not like the seventies was short of people presenting slightly tacky games shows (Mr & Mrs had both Derek Batey and the bloke with the moncle!) Whatever. It happened. Nicholas Parsons became one of the butts of the nation's comedy. Here's an example from 'Hello Cheeky,' circa 1975.
Stranger Than Truth: A new volcano has appeared on an East Indian island. Reports say that it just sits there rumbling and spewing hot air. The natives call it Nicholas Parsons and throw rocks at it.

A picture, or even just the name of Nicholas Parsons became a short-cut for a quick laugh, whether it was the Goodies using him to scare off policemen or the 'Burkiss Way' telling us that "as The Minute Waltz fades away, here's the man who doesn't." In the eighties and nineties both he and his agent worked bloody hard. It often appeared that he would show up at the opening of a packet of crisps. You'd see him in the most unlikely places, always ineffably nice and polite and bemused and always making sure that the clever and funny people appeared to be that little bit more clever and funny. I met him once briefly in a Green Room (nothing clever on my part: I was riding on the coat tails of my brother's ligging and meeting Nicholas Parsons was a bonus). In the Green Room he appeared exactly as he had appeared on set: nice, polite, and apparently bemused to be there. (I have every confidence that he was the only one in the room who had much idea why any of us were there.)

There is a folk memory, and I don't know if it is more true than that, of Benazir Bhutto turning to a companion in a Broadcasting House lift and asking: "why does everybody in Britain hate Nicholas Parsons?"

The truth is that we don't. He is guyed and he is mocked and he fills theatres with his one-man-shows and recordings of "Just A Minute." He is what he is: The Straight Man To The Nation. And God bless him for it.

Straight actors and actresses, once they reach a certain vintage, are accorded knighthoods and damehoods almost by default. In contrast to that, "light" actors like Ian Carmichael and Nicholas Parsons are consistently, and disgracefully, ignored despite their having put in many decades of work sustaining public morale. It is a national disgrace that it is not Sir Nicholas Parsons.

And when the time comes, as it must, what will the reason be given for the title? Why, for nothing more nor less than his services to the tomfoolery of the nation. And long may he prosper for it.


Lulu LaBonne said...

He's been a lovely familiar voice for as long as I've been listening to the radio - I do hope he's not dead - he isn't is he?

Kevin Musgrove said...

No, no, don't worry! I'm just wanting to eulogise the living for a change.

Ellis Nadler said...

Hang on, just a minute....

Scarlett Parrish said...

I remember watching Sale of the Century as a kid!

My god...the 70s, eh? The decade that taste forgot...

Rob said...

"And Now....from Norwich"

How those words ring down the decades.

No Good Boyo said...

They ought to have made Arthur Haynes professor of History at a Welsh university. Then he would have been "Athro Hanes Arthur Haynes".

O Lucky Jim, how I envy him.