Wednesday 18 September 2019

Simply the Best - Parky pays tribute to his hero and friend

As Michael Parkinson publishes a new book about his friendship with George Best, he tells Julia Molony about the loss of the man he loved, his Yorkshire childhood and how his wife saved him from his own battle with the bottle

A loveable rogue .... Michael Parkinson first met George Best shortly after he arrived in Manchester
A loveable rogue .... Michael Parkinson first met George Best shortly after he arrived in Manchester
Michael with wife Mary celebrating his knighthood
George Best A Memoir

Julia Molony

There's an atmosphere of order and industry inside Michael Parkinson's house when I arrive on a fresh November morning.

His assistant greets me at the door, while a housekeeper is busy making coffee and maintaining the gloss and polish of the place to show-house standards. I am led inside and installed on an elegant sofa, cushions plumped to perfection, overlooking the manicured lawn and a view over the Thames that is straight out of The Wind in the Willows.

And now, here is the man himself, lean as a whippet at 83, crossing the lawn to the house briskly, just the slightest hint of stiffness as he walks. He is worried it's too cold in the living room, so we move to the light-filled drawing room where he lights a fire before settling into an armchair.

As a younger man, the right camera angle could make Parkinson look rakish, but his features have softened with age and today he's like a story-book granddad, the soft grey of his cable knit-jumper setting off the warm tones of his shiny white hair and parchment skin, his eyes lively and bright behind his specs.

Michael with wife Mary celebrating his knighthood
Michael with wife Mary celebrating his knighthood

Parky has eight grandchildren of his own now. "Bloody expensive. Very expensive," he says ruefully.

What sort of grandfather is he? "I hide away," he says, raising his brows. "It's different isn't it. Family structure is different. People live in different places now. Further away. I grew up in the same street as my granny and granddad. Both my paternal and maternal grandparents lived one door away from each other."

Though he started his career as a newspaper journalist Parkinson became one of Britain's most famous broadcasters. His career peaked in the 1990s and 2000s, when his eponymous, prime-time chat show was broadcast weekly to an international audience of millions.

He officially retired in 2007, but has stayed busy since, running a production company and publishing several books - an autobiography in 2008, a book about Muhammad Ali and now, a portrait of George Best, written with his son Michael Jnr, and based on his admiration of the player whom he hero-worshipped for his performance on the pitch, and loved as a dear friend off it.

He had, he writes in George Best: A Memoir, some misgivings about revisiting the ultimately tragic story of a player with audacious talent who gradually self-destructed. "There was a dramatic inevitability about his life as you get to know it better, that basically he was going to kill himself. That's what he did. He drank himself to death at 59," he says with a rueful, mirthless laugh. It was, after all, a tale that has already been exhaustively picked over like carrion by the tabloids. But he was drawn in again by the myth of the man, and an opportunity to contribute to his memory of him, through the prism of his own deep and enduring affection.

"A lot of people were amazed by our friendship and I can see why they might have thought that," he says. "But I just enjoyed him. I liked him. He probably thought I was rather censorious in a sense. And that he knew what I was thinking at times about some of his behaviour. But I never said that."

There were 11 years difference between them. "I never said 'come here' and then gave him a lecture. So I was big brother in a sense."

Michael first met George Best when Best was 17 years old, brought over to England as Manchester United's great white hope after the Munich air disaster, the 1958 aeroplane crash that wiped out half of the Busby Babes, the dream team named after their manager Matt Busby.

After the tragedy, Busby, who felt responsible in some way for what had happened, swore to rebuild his awesome side, and it was into that breach that Best arrived. He would remain, by Busby's estimation, the greatest player to have ever lived.

"When I met him [Best] he was this gauche kid from Ireland, skinny and unsure, unhappy. Manchester to him must have been like Las Vegas for god sake. And yet the kind of mythical quality to the entire story was that he came across the Irish Sea, barely playing in the streets basically, to meet a man who had been looking all his life for him. Without knowing."

Parkinson was working in Manchester at the time. Having started as a rookie journalist on a local paper after quitting the grammar school he hated, he'd found his way to Granada Television, a new network rapidly changing the cultural landscape of the city.

"Timing is everything. I was there when he arrived, saw his first game. Matt and I were friends so we talked a lot about him, I could see the effect he had on Matt. How much Matt loved him and how much he relied on him... but he was an extraordinary creature, he really was. And when you look back on your life you think about people you've met, he'd be very high on my list of the most fascinating. Nobody ever understood him. He didn't understand himself."

Michael interviewed George many times over the course of their friendship. Outside of work "he came to rely on me as being the stop off point whenever he was in trouble with the press or in Manchester", Parkinson remembers.

He used to come here, to the Berkshire house, for some respite from the media circus his life had become.

"We wouldn't have boozing or anything around here," says Michael. "He'd just stay around the house and play football with the kids and occasionally he'd go off to town and come back with a young lady. It was a kind of bolthole and he knew I would never rat on him. I would never report anything, or pick up the phone and call the newsdesk… He trusted me from that point of view."

But as George descended further and further into alcoholism, they became estranged.

"In the end we drifted apart because he never wanted me to see him in despair. And I didn't want to see that either." Parkinson pauses, and his face crumples suddenly, tears springing to his eyes.

"We had this long distance relationship towards the end and I didn't go to see him in hospital. I'm not glad I didn't but I'd been warned against it. He'd turned yellow apparently with jaundice. He'd also too, of course, done something that was debatable. He'd allowed himself to become a participant of a second liver. (Best had undergone a transplant after being diagnosed with severe liver disease in 2000.) And you have to think about that don't you? You'd have thought that if a man came to you and said, look I can give you a liver, but don't ask me for another one because the waiting list is eight miles long. You might have thought, I'll stop drinking now. And of course he didn't."

Parkinson finds the decision hard to square with the man he knew and loved.

"I would have thought that he would have been much more considerate than that. Because he wasn't stupid. He understood the entire implication of all of it. And you know, George was aware more than most people that he was responsible. He never blamed anyone else for his drinking. He didn't say 'oh I fell in with the wrong lot' or whatever. He was the leader of the wrong lot for god's sake. There was no self pity in him at all."

As a broadcaster, Parkinson relied on a certain sangfroid; a steady, unruffled approach to conducting interviews in front of audiences of millions. But emotions run close to the surface when he is a talking about his own experiences, especially when they involve George.

Recalling anecdotes about George, like when the latter mooned at him through a taxi window on the Kings Road, he collapses into gales of laughter, momentarily overcome as both mirth and anguish play across his face.

"In the end you have to judge him for what he was rather than what he became. And what he was was the greatest player I've ever seen. And one of the nicest guys I've ever met."

He could understand too, his descent into the bottle. He's had his own struggles with it.

When Best was nearing the end, Parkinson was having his own reckoning with booze. He went through a phase of destructive drinking after the death of his father.

"I had a notion of how easy it was to become involved (in drinking too much). In those days I chose two professions, TV and newspapers, where if you didn't drink there was something wrong with you. You got sent home. Mr No Mates."

When he was a feature writer, he'd regularly spend the whole day in the pub. "Some days you'd just drink all day long. I understood just how easy it is to fall into that situation when you go from being a heavy drinker to the condition becoming chronic."

But unlike George, Michael had the stability and security of his family, and most notably his wife Mary behind him. It was she who shamed him into changing his ways "by saying to me one day, 'you know the worst thing about you when you are drunk, you're ugly'". He was so appalled he stopped heavy drinking overnight.

"Drunks are horrible. That changed me."

Given his knighthood in 2008 he has had, by any measure an extraordinary life. He wasn't an obvious candidate to rise to the top of the British media, but was born into a working-class family in a small Yorkshire mining village.

His family had been miners for generations. He escaped that fate thanks to his "bloody good parents. That's the foundation of it all. I had a mum and dad who were not going to allow me down a pit. I was the first male Parkinson ever who didn't go down a pit. They wouldn't have it".

His was by no means, he says, an idyllic childhood. "It wasn't Enid Blyton," he says. But he got lucky with his mum and dad, whom, he says "were perfect from my point of view…." He was a cherished only child.

"My father had a great sense of humour. He was a decent man. He wasn't a drinker. So we didn't have any booze problems, beating up the wife and all that nonsense, which went on around the village, of course it did. No pretending it didn't."

Most crucially he "never grew up disputing the fact that I was loved. And that's terribly important for a child. I was overwhelmed by aunties and things. And taken in when my mum was at work, which she was for a time, I had a choice of about five places I could go to within about 100 yards of our house. I was never fearful, I was never frightened. I was never beaten up. I was a good runner. All that security. I can't imagine what it's like to wake up being frightened, which today a lot of kids are".

He's been happily married for more than 50 years to Mary, a cheery, no-nonsense blonde of Irish descent who pops her head into the room during the interview to issue, with smiling authority, instructions about a package that Michael is to collect from the post office.

Mary had a tragic early life, growing up in near-poverty. She lost both her parents young, and was charged with taking care of her siblings. "It was a troubled childhood but she was an extraordinarily sort of joyful person. If you'd met her in those days you'd have no idea that she came from any sort of troubled background. And even today she doesn't talk about it."

Mary enjoyed a successful 10-year career in TV herself. As Michael built his career "it was important that Mary came with me... For 10 years she became a TV star. She was brilliant, she really was. When she decided she didn't want to do television any more she gave it up. Throughout her life she's gone her own way, without neglecting the business of being the mum, or the family".

Parky's three sons are all now in their 50s. "Two of them are in the business - Andrew, my eldest boy, he works for IMG, does all the sports programmes across the world. Nick, my middle boy is a restaurateur." He runs the acclaimed gastropub, The Royal Oak up the road from the house. While Michael Jnr works with him, both on the books and as a TV producer. "They're all in a sense in showbiz I suppose in a way, but not overly."

He seems gratified by the fact that none of them have pursued fame. "They grew up with a very clear view of what celebrity is and what it meant. And it's instructive that none of them sought it... They grew up not being very impressed by famous people. Because I was famous and they knew I was stupid. In any case I was just their daft dad."

'George Best: A Memoir' by Michael Parkinson, (Hodder & Stoughton) €14.99

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