June 23, 2014

Parky and the stars

For the king of television hosts, Michael Parkinson, Don Bradman proved about as elusive as the Scarlet Pimpernel

Parkinson (second from left) interviews Muhammad Ali (extreme left) and Joe Frazier (extreme right) with Dick Cavett in 1974 © ABC Photo Archives/Getty Images

When Michael Parkinson was 13, he rode his bike from Barnsley to Leeds to watch the 1948 Australians.

That day, July 27, Don Bradman hit an unconquered 173 to set up a famous victory, and to Parky it fired his lifelong love for the game of cricket.

He, of course, went on to become a successful journalist and won global fame as a television host. Over the years he interviewed an amazing array of talented people. However, a number of others "got away".

Frank Sinatra and Bradman were two superstars who slipped Parky's grasp. "I got closer to the Kid from Hoboken [Sinatra] than I did the Boy from Bowral [Bradman]," said Parkinson.

"Sinatra was the greatest star of them all. At a party in Los Angeles I was introduced to him through a songwriting friend of mine, Sammy Cahn, who wrote 17 hit songs with Sinatra and got as close to him as anyone got. I wanted to have Sinatra on my show. When I was about to leave the party I went up to the great man and said, 'Mr Sinatra I have to go.' 'That's fine,' Sinatra said, shaking my hand, 'Goodbye, David.' And I thought, 'That's me snookered, I'm not going to do any good here at all.'

"I suppose I was aggrieved and a little annoyed that I never got to interview Bradman," Parkinson said. By the time Ray Martin of Channel Nine did an interview with the Don, then in his 88th year, in May 1996, it was far too late for anyone to get the whole story, where Bradman could tell the cricket world his innermost thoughts about Bodyline and how he set about destroying bowlers.

"The ideal time to do it was when I was in Australia in 1979. More's the pity that he went to his grave without the world getting the chance to see the definitive Bradman interview on camera. On the odd occasion I have glimpsed him in the distance and he vanished before I could reach him, like a mirage. Once, a host showed me the tea cup Sir Donald had been drinking from. The liquid was still warm and I felt like an explorer who had just found a fresh imprint of the Abominable Snowman."

While Bradman never appeared on Parkinson's show, the cricket and wine writer John Arlott most assuredly did, and Parky believes that was the best interview he did with anyone on cricket.

"Cricket is taken too seriously and life too casually. There is an inevitability about sport today, regimented and very predictable," Arlott said to him.

"If an interview with Bradman had occurred, I would have asked him about his fame. Being famous is a bit like having the measles. It is a minor affliction and the rash soon disappears, but for some it never goes away"

It is a view Parkinson subscribes to. "Imagine today's coaches having to deal with the non-conformist Keith Miller," Parkinson says. "As great as Miller was, I am not convinced today's coaches would appreciate his great talent and match-winning ability, because he wouldn't conform: he would always do it his way."

Parky first set eyes on Miller when he saw him play in the 1945 Victory Tests in England.

"He became my hero and every kid's hero in England. By 1948, when Bradman's side arrived, England was a drab, dour place. We were still on rations. The US was continuing to help resurrect Britain after the long, exhausting war years. Bradman's team lit up our summer, lit up our lives in a sense. There was Bradman himself, but also an array of super-talented players such as Miller, Neil Harvey, Arthur Morris, Ray Lindwall, Don Tallon and so on."

Once on his show, Parkinson asked Miller about the pressure of Test cricket and back came the immortal reply from the ex-Flight Lieutenant war hero: "Pressure? There's no pressure in cricket. I'll tell you what pressure is… pressure is when you are flying a Mosquito and there's a Messerschmitt up your arse!"

"He was tall, long-legged, broad-shouldered and incredibly handsome," Parky said of Miller. "When he batted, he hit the ball with great power and in classic style. He bowled like the wind and caught swallows in the field. He was my hero then and was from then on.

"I got to know him, and one occasion, when I was working for the Daily Express and Keith had his column with the same newspaper, we had this grudge match between the Express and the Daily Mail. I was standing at second slip and Miller was at first slip, engaging with a man on the boundary wanting to know the winner of the 2.30pm race at Canterbury, when a snicked catch came hurtling straight to me and this figure leapt across my vision. Miller caught the ball one-handed and gave it to me, saying, 'What won that bloody race?'

Were I to host a dinner party to celebrate my last days on earth, Keith Ross Miller would be at the top of my guest list."

He wasn't the best cricketer Parky ever saw, though.

"Bradman was the best batsman and Sobers the best all-round cricketer of them all: the complete package.

"I also loved watching the two Richardses play, Vivian and Barry. But the cricketer I admired most and got to know from the time I was a child and loved until he died was Fred Trueman. Growing up, he epitomised all my ambition. I wanted to be a Yorkshire cricketer. I played against him when I teamed with Dickie Bird and Geoffrey Boycott at Barnsley Cricket Club."

Once Parky rang Fred to ask him to appear on Parkinson and he mentioned that Harold Pinter, the celebrated playwright, would be on the couch with him. Trueman asked about Pinter: 'Who's he play for?'

"Fred was my hero," Parkinson says, "and I think the best piece I ever penned was my obituary of him, which I wrote for Wisden. Because I watched him throughout his career, knew him and loved him, I was able to weave a lot of observation and love into that piece. As an all-round bowler he was the best I ever saw. He should have played a lot more Test matches, but he missed two Australian tours he should not have missed and he never toured South Africa.

"He was left out of a tour to Australia after he had taken 187 wickets for Yorkshire at an average of 14 and they took a bloke named David Larter - a big bloke who couldn't bowl - in his stead."

Are Australians like Yorkshiremen?

"Yes, I think there is something in that. When I first went to Australia it was a bit like going to a rather large, sunny Yorkshire. After you've been here in Australia for a while you can see clearly that cricket has the same grip on the people that football has on the people in England. Cricket is the No. 2 game in England, very much in the shadow of football. In Britain football has all the money and the crowds and the immense following."

Had Parky managed to persuade Bradman to be a guest on his show, what other guests would he have invited to accompany Sir Donald?

"None. Bradman stands alone.

"If an interview with Bradman had occurred, I would have asked him about his fame. Being famous is a bit like having the measles. It is a minor affliction and the rash soon disappears, but for some it never goes away. They and their family are on public display, forever."

The female superstar who got away from him was Katherine Hepburn. "I adored her from afar," says Parkinson.

"However, my all-time favourite was Muhammad Ali. I had him on the show four times, spanning 11 years. Those four interviews I did with him represent a relationship we had. He was a deeply flawed man but an extraordinary human being."

Some of his less stellar interviewees perplexed Parky. Among them was Australian batsman Doug Walters.

"I spent two hours with Doug on a Friday, interviewing him for ABC TV in Australia. Next day I played golf at Royal Sydney and as I walked on to the course off came Ian Chappell and Doug Walters. We exchanged 'g'days', as you do, and I overheard Doug ask Chappelli, 'Who's that bloke?'"

Ashley Mallett took 132 wickets in 38 Tests for Australia. He has written biographies of Clarrie Grimmett, Doug Walters, Jeff Thomson, Ian Chappell, and most recently of Dr Donald Beard, The Diggers' Doctor