Monday 21 August 2023

Interested, Curious and Empathetic, Michael Parkinson Helped Bridge the Gap Between Australia and England

AAPImage/Network Ten

By Lea Redfern, University of Sydney

Michael Parkinson demonstrated the art of the good interview night after night. He practised deep listening, giving his interviewee his full attention, but he was always aware of the audience. While he was asking questions on behalf of the audience and advocating for the audience, he always had the person he was interviewing as his focus.

As host of Parkinson (1971–82 and 1998–2007) and Parkinson in Australia (1979–83), he was a big presence on Australian TV. He was television the whole family could watch together, never unsuitable for children.

We may not have understood everything, and some references went over our head, but as children we could watch Parkinson with our parents. I remember as a young person regularly watching him and hoping the interview would be funny that week.

There were times you knew it was going to be hilarious. When Billy Connolly or “our” Dame Edna were going to appear it was a must-watch.

Whoever the interviewee, Parkinson brought out their stories, their observations. He gave them space to share engaging stories and never stepped on a punchline. Although humour was a draw card for the audience, there was space for pathos, too.

Finding the shape

Parkinson was an interviewer of great skill. He could be a presence, but never pull focus from the interviewee. He was deeply empathetic, and always in control of the interview.

The form of the interview was always satisfying: he knew how to draw a narrative through the length of the program. When interviewing three people at once, he knew how to be fair and have a balance between everyone and their stories. He made this appear effortless.

From 1979 to 2014 he frequently worked in Australia across the ABC, Channel Ten and Channel Nine.

For a generation of ten pound passage immigrants, he represented the best of the old country: he was never patronising, never spoke down to people, and helped to bridge the gap between Australia and England. He was able to bring us the best of British and Australian interviewees alike, affirming Australia’s international standing in the arts and culture.

When speaking to Australian politicians, sports stars and actors he was always deeply interested and deeply curious. He could reflect us back to ourselves without any of the cultural cringe so evident in the media of the time. The affection Australians felt for him is shown in the diminutive “Parky”.

An authentic voice

Born in Yorkshire in 1935, Parkinson didn’t attend university, starting his career working for newspapers straight out of school. It was perhaps this start which aided in his plain speaking common sense and ability to talk to ordinary people. You got the sense he could speak to anybody. There was no putting on a persona; he was always authentically him.

Today, this authentic self is seen in many of our best interviewers. We know how important it is curiosity and authenticity drive the interview – Parkinson was doing this decades before others recognised its importance.

When I started in radio, I looked towards Parkinson as the gold standard. I admired how he was able to draw people out and reveal so much of themselves. He demonstrated how the media could go beyond the soundbite.

So much of the media of the time was about context-free news and current affairs journalism. Although his interviews were with celebrities, he showed people might share more of themselves and the world if they’re given time and space to speak. Parkinson gave us a fuller, richer sense of the people he spoke to.

His legacy in Australia can be seen in people like Andrew Denton, Richard Fidler and Sarah Kanowski – long form interviews driven by curiosity.

Some people have been describing Parkinson’s death as the end of an era, but his legacy will live on. When we look at shows like ABC Conversations, and so many longform podcasts, we find curious interviewers who, like Parkinson, build a relationship and find a connection with an interviewee. A soundbite might show up on TikTok or YouTube – but you have to do the longform interview to get there.

Perhaps one of the best demonstrations of this was Parkinson’s interview with Ian Thorpe. In the 2014 interview, Thorpe came out publicly for the first time, and spoke about his depression and use of drugs and alcohol.

Without the relationship Parkinson was able to build over the course of the interview, it is doubtful Thorpe would have felt comfortable to come out in the same way. Parkinson was always interested in giving people the opportunity to reveal themselves.

That Thorpe felt Parkinson’s show was a safe space to come out says something about the tenor of his relationship with his interviewees and his place in Australian culture.

There for the audience

His few missteps seemed to be with women. As I grew older, I realised he was a man of his time, as was made obvious in his awkward interviews with Meg Ryan and Helen Mirren. In these interviews, his occasional awkwardness around gender is writ large, and the interviews go off the rails. He fails to develop his famous rapport and adjust his approach in response to their discomfort.

But given the length of his career, the rarity of these missteps is still impressive. His geniality and quiet generosity came across night after night, for decades.

What defined him more than anything was how he was inclusive of his audience. No matter how complex the ideas or how smart the person he was interviewing, the audience was brought along with them. He was there on our behalf, and able to ask the clarifying questions without worrying about his own ego.

He represents an age of Australian and British relationships in a way that is truly singular and his interviews are artefacts of that age. He was an interiewer who stood out for not having to stand out, and the delights and possibilities of the long-form interview are his legacy.The Conversation

Lea Redfern, Lecturer, Discipline of Media and Communications, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

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