Oration for Nicholas Parsons CBE

By Mr Nigel Siesage

Nicholas Parsons’s many contributions to the entertainment of the nation are so extensive that they cannot be summarised in just a minute - with or without hesitation, repetition or deviation. He has been an outstanding contributor to radio and television for over 70 years, and continues to do so with remarkable vigour and mental agility at the distinguished age of 92.

A career in entertainment was not, however, what might have been predicted for him when he was born in 1923, the son of a doctor and a nurse, in Grantham, Lincolnshire. A little deviation is irresistible here: his father’s practice also cared for the family of Grantham’s other famous “son” – the future Margaret Thatcher, though sadly the story that Dr Parsons delivered the future Prime Minister is apocryphal.

So the stage was not in Nicholas’s blood, but he knew it was what he wanted to do from the age of 5. Unfortunately, when he expressed an interest in acting, his parents revealed what he has described as a “neurotic dread of a dissolute thespian life”. Perhaps they were also influenced by a concern that he would not succeed, as he had a stutter and (although this wasn’t recognised at the time) was dyslexic. His subsequent successes on stage, radio and television are therefore an even greater personal triumph.

With these disadvantages, when war broke out in 1939, the 16-year old Nicholas was taken away from St Paul’s School in London, and - since he had shown some skill with his hands - was dispatched to Glasgow as an engineering apprentice in the “robust” environment of the Clydeside shipyards.

This was undoubtedly a culture shock for a well-spoken public school-educated southern boy, but with hindsight it may have been the opportunity he needed. In school, an ability to make the other boys laugh had won him friends, even if it sometimes led to a caning. Now he found that his sense of humour helped in his communications with the Glaswegian engineers (once he had managed to understand what they were saying); and it gave him an independence he might not have had at school or home, to take part in amateur concert parties, specialising in impersonations.

Nicholas studied briefly at Glasgow University but did not graduate, though he finished his apprenticeship and qualified as a mechanical engineer. It is a pity that the University’s engineering students are not graduating today, to see this demonstration of the diverse careers available to them.

Spotted by impresario Carroll Levis, Nicholas’s first professional appearance was on a radio talent show. With the ending of the war, and with the very reluctant acquiescence of his parents, he moved from apprentice engineer to apprentice actor in repertory at theatres in the south east. He made the first of many British film appearances in 1947. To his regret, though offered a leading role, he had to settle for a minor part as he was not released from his stage commitments in the West End.

Regular work on the West End stage eluded him initially, but his versatility was demonstrated by success on the London cabaret circuit; and later as a stand-up comedian, including at the Windmill Theatre, famous – or notorious – for its “living statues” where a naked dancing girl's body was concealed by fans. As Nicholas has pointed out, more was revealed to the rest of the cast backstage than to the gentlemen in the audience, but it was a considerable challenge to amuse those gentlemen with a comedy act while they waited impatiently to be titillated.

This summary passes over many other stage and radio appearances, but it is fair to say that our honorand’s career really took off when he formed a television partnership as straight man to comedian Arthur Haynes. Their show was the ITV comedy triumph of the late 1950s and early 1960s, leading to Royal Variety Show appearances and the Ed Sullivan Show in the USA. The partnership was dissolved shortly before Haynes’s premature death, but by now Nicholas was a star in his own right; and was able to fulfil his childhood ambition to play the lead on the West End stage, starring for 15 months in the immensely successful farce, Boeing Boeing.

This too was the age of TV satire, and Nicholas pointed out to the BBC that radio was being neglected. This led to the pioneering weekly show, Listen to this Space, which he devised and which won him the award of Radio Personality of the Year for 1968.

And so we come to Just a Minute, the radio panel game which Nicholas has hosted for an astonishing 49 years, outstripping even Roy Plomley’s tenure of Desert Island Discs. In over 900 programmes, Nicholas has managed – and engaged with - some of the most talented comedy stars the country has known. To name a few: Derek Nimmo (an earlier honorary graduate), Kenneth Williams, Paul Merton, Stephen Fry, Giles Brandreth, Sheila Hancock, Graham Norton and Sue Perkins. The length of its run and its sustained popularity are testimony to the quality of the concept, but equally to the skill, warmth and generous spirit which Nicholas has brought to the programme – as to so much of his life.

He further demonstrated his talents as a host on the TV game show, Sale of the Century, a programme which he came to regard as a “professional albatross” and which ran for the relatively short period - by his standards – of 14 years.

But there is much more to Nicholas Parsons than these shows. There have been appearances on Dr Who, three seasons in The Rocky Horror Show and fifteen on the Edinburgh Fringe, to which he returns this autumn. He was elected Rector of St Andrew’s University, a role he found very rewarding; and his work for children’s charities such as the Lord’s Taverners, ChildLine and the Variety Club was recognised in the award of a CBE in 2014. It is also very much to his credit that he is a lifelong supporter of Leicester City Football Club.

Nicholas has said that his profession is not one from which you retire; it retires you. In which case, after seventy years in the profession, we can anticipate many more years in his company.

Mr Chancellor, on the recommendation of the Senate and the Council, I present Christopher Nicholas Parsons, that you may confer on him the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws.

Delivered by Mr Nigel Siesage on 12 July 2016.

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