Michael Parkinson’s interviews fascinate TV, even with new warning

Parkinson’s in Australia ★★★★

Between 1979 and 1983, Michael Parkinson, a leading British talk-show host, would settle in the ABC’s Gore Hill studios in Sydney, where he would direct an Australian edition of a program already close to an institution in the UK. A selection of the 75 episodes produced are now airing on ABC iview, serving as a mix of time capsule and cultural snapshot. As a way to listen to the past, the chat show might not be an obvious choice, but four decades later, it’s a valuable resource and fascinating viewing.

A selection of episodes are now airing on ABC iview, serving as a mix of time capsule and cultural snapshot.

Each episode begins with a contemporary disclaimer: “The following program expresses attitudes that do not conform to current standards and may offend some viewers.” That’s true, even if the question is whether it’s Barry Humphries’ comic creation, Sir Les Patterson, or then-Prime Minister Joh Bjelke-Petersen discussing abortion that deserves the limelight. ‘Warning. There may be unseen episodes that cross a line, but historical insight trumps contemporary privilege. It was monocultural Australia, just beginning to blend in with the world – recurring guest Bob Hawke was not yet Prime Minister, just the gregarious leader of the ACTU.

There’s a degree of cultural cringe to bringing in an Englishman to hire notable Australians (and a good quota of British celebrities), but Parkinson was truly an accomplished interviewer. His questioning was direct but alert – these are free-flowing conversations, so guests would introduce their best anecdotes to amuse the audience, but they would also be pressed on thornier points. In the age of seven-minute slots, the extended running time is a delight, with many opening guests getting half an hour or more opposite the lanky Parkinson.

There is no current equivalent to what Parkinson was doing for prime-time audiences in this free era of just five metropolitan channels. Prominent Australians you may only know from hazy memories or by name, depending on your age, are suddenly fully realized on screen. The lengthy 1979 interview with media mogul Kerry Packer, then in his early 40s, exists alongside his oversized reputation. “You live very much in your father’s shadow,” Parkinson notes of the formidable Sir Frank Packer. “I hope so”, kindly replies his son who, with good humor and filial respect, recounts his difficult formative years.

Michael Parkinson with Barry Humphries in a 1980 episode of Parkinson's Australia.

Michael Parkinson with Barry Humphries in a 1980 episode of Parkinson’s Australia.Credit:age

A meeting the same year with an ascendant of the time, Paul Hogan, gets off to a formulaic start, but slowly Hogan unfolds a thoughtful self-awareness and a steely edge. “I get up on TV and do what they’re trained to do,” Hogan says of his detractors. “I do it better.” It is followed by inglorious power author Frank Hardy, who puffs his pipe as he discusses everything from communism to what drives him as a writer. There is a degree of verbal combat in the interview, but there is also a warmly illuminating interjection from Hogan. Don’t assume that age makes this show stable.


I cannot guarantee the approximately 30 hours of Parkinson’s in Australiabut my sampling is both good enough to make it worthy now and begs the question of why the tradition of chat shows, with a few notable exceptions such as Enough Rope with Andrew Denton, not lying on Australian television? It’s also a great use of the ABC’s archives, which makes the recent decision to cut 58 librarian and archivist jobs all the more disappointing. What else is waiting to be dug up?

Parkinson’s in Australia is on ABC iview.

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