Last Tuesday the sad news of Nicholas Parsons’s death was announced. The veteran Scottish actor, comic and broadcaster had worked right up to the end, despite his 96 years, following a busy and successful career with the BBC. Latterly, he was best known for his long-term role as chairman of BBC Radio Four programme Just a Minute.
Nicholas and I met when I was 22 and a fledgling press officer at the charity, Help the Aged, in London. I had recently graduated and my boss asked me to meet Nicholas, a supporter of the charity, at Broadcasting House early one morning. He was due to do a live broadcast with BBC Radio Scotland and it was to be carried out in a self-op studio. The building was deserted. Nicholas arrived shortly before the programme was supposed to go live and expected me to know how to connect with the radio presenter in question. My boss had waved away my earlier concerns and told me it was easy to work out the dials and buttons but it was far more complicated than I anticipated. In fact, Nicholas and I both began to panic as the clock ticked by. We managed to hear the booming voice of the presenter and loud music but when Nicholas attempted to speak, nothing could be heard the other end. We pressed buttons, shouted at the mic and frantically checked wiring and connections.
I remember thinking how ridiculous it all was, especially as there was no one around to help and, in that moment, found myself quietly shaking with giggles. Nicholas gave me a steely glance and asked what was so funny. That made me worse and I had to gulp down guffaws, fortunately just as we managed to go live.
After the show, I apologised profusely for my giggling fit explaining that it was part nerves and partly my love of the absurd. He grinned and invited me for a coffee. We got on famously and ended up roaring with laughter and sharing a lot of anecdotes as well as musing about favourite Celtic family expressions. Instead of telling my boss how useless I’d been, he heaped me with praise. My giggling fit remained our secret.
And so it was that we became firm friends. I was soon to meet the whole family and Annie, his fabulous second wife with whom I got on famously. Over the years, Nicholas and I shared many happy events. He would only entrust me to help organise his showbiz parties and so I handled his 60 years in showbiz affair at the Athenaeum when I was nearly nine months pregnant, and years later, his 90th birthday.
I recall so many celebratory occasions not least when he played narrator in The Rocky Horror Show in London’s West End. I was joining him and his family for the show and supper but trying to get him out of the theatre proved difficult because of the many screaming female fans. He was tickled pink. And then he received his OBE and I was honoured to be invited to the intimate dinner afterwards.
On my fortieth, at the private room upstairs at the Ivy restaurant, Nicholas patiently listened to speeches then stood up and delivered his own very risqué and hilarious off the cuff words, wickedly mentioning how thankful he was that a self op studio had united us!
Last year, Annie, he and I met for lunch in St John’s Wood. I got there early and booked two tables knowing that he’d reject one. On cue, he didn’t like the one we’d been allotted so I calmly showed him the other, and he was very happy. What struck me most about Nicholas even then, was his incredible hunger for life and brilliant, fast brain that assimilated information so speedily. He still had his dry humour and ability to tell a good gag. Unlike so many vacuous, self-obsessed celebrities today, Nicholas was discreet and modest. Certainly, he loved the limelight as all actors do but he was reserved, polite and charming with everyone he met. He engaged with everyone of all social levels and was gracious and grateful to his fans and admirers for their unremitting support and affection. He would go the extra mile to engage with fans and spent patient time doing charity work and helping those in need. He was an all-round good egg: constant, honest, honorable, loving and human.
Last summer we met for the last time, though we stayed in touch by email. He invited me to an edition of Just a Minute. I hadn’t attended for a few years so brought a chum along who loved the show. It was one of the best with Nicholas warming up the crowd beforehand and reducing them to stitches. Paul Merton, Graham Norton and Giles Brandreth – all such wonderful raconteurs and close friends of Nicholas’s – were wonderfully witty but evidently so caring of Nicholas. They hung on his every word and hugged him after the show with genuine affection. The audience gave him a standing ovation and he stood on stage with pink cheeks like a little boy who had just won the school talent contest.
After that, Nicholas suffered on and off ill health for six months culminating in his death last week. I have lost a mentor and dear friend, one who taught me so much and gave so generously of himself to all who knew him. Long may his memory live on.