Nicholas Parsons was an English radio and television presenter and actor with a long career in television, radio and theatre, described as "the ultimate quiz show host" because of his "geniality, clarity of diction and the speed with which he rattled through questions." He is best known today for his long-standing position as host of the comedy radio game show, "Just a Minute" and as the long-term host of "Sale of the Century" for ITV.
Born Christopher Nicholas Parsons on October 10, 1923 in Grantham, England, Parsons was the middle child of three children. His father was a general practitioner, famous as the doctor who delivered Margaret Thatcher, and his mother was the daughter of a founder of local company W.B. Maggs & Company and a nurse at University College Hospital in London, where she met Parsons' father.
Although born left-handed, Parsons learned to write with his right hand. He also had a stutter, which he managed to control as he grew older. He also suffered from dyslexia and migraines, but he still managed to excel in school, where he was best friends with Admiral Sir John Devereux Treacher, later Commander-in-Chief Fleet. In school, Parsons was nicknamed was "Shirley" after the then burgeoning talent of Shirley Temple, possibly due to his aspirations of becoming an actor. Later graduating from Colet Court and St Paul's School in London, his acting goals were sidlined by his parents, who believed that a career in engineering would be better for him. They arranged a job for him on Clydebank near Glasgow where he spent five years employed as an engineering apprentice at Drysdales, a maker of marine pumps. While there, he also spent two six-month periods studying engineering at the University of Glasgow, but he never graduated, although finishing his apprenticeship and gaining sufficient qualifications to become a mechanical engineer. He was offered a position in the Merchant Navy during the Second World War, which he never took up due to illness.
While training as an engineering apprentice, Parsons was discovered by Canadian impresario Carroll Levis and appeared in his radio show, gaining valuable early experience in amateur concert parties. After World War Two, Parsons made his film debut in "Master of Bankdam" in 1947 and continued with a stage career in West End Theatre, continuing for two years in repertory at Bromley, Kent and later Windsor, Maidstone and Hayes, playing many supporting roles in British films of the 1950s and 1960s. In 1952, he became a resident comedian at the Windmill Theatre, performing regular nights of stand-up comedy to packed houses. He starred in the West End show, "Boeing-Boeing" for fifteen months and later, other West End productions throughout the Seventies. One of his first TV appearances was in "The Adventures of Robin Hood" where he played Sir Walter of the Glen. He became well known to TV audiences during the 1960s as the straight man to comedian Arthur Haynes at the London Palladium in 1963 and on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in America in 1966. He also created and presented a satirical programme on Radio Four called "Listen to This Space," which helped him received the Radio Personality of the Year Award for his work on this programme in 1967. Between TV roles, he appeared in many supporting roles in British films through the 50s ad 60s.
In 1966, the partnership between Parsons and Haynes broke up, and Parsons returned to the stage temporariliy before becoming a regular on "The Benny Hill Show" from 1969 to 1974, gradually getting replaced as Hill's straight man to actor Henry McGee. After Haynes passed away, Parsons appeared as a personality in his own right on television, including in the long-running Anglia Television quiz show "Sale of the Century" from 1971 to 1984. He was also the host of the BBC Radio 4 comedy-panel game, "Just a Minute," and the non-singing voice of Tex Tucker in the children's TV puppet series, "Four Feather Falls," where he met his future wife, actress and voiceover artiste Denise Bryer, who was in the show. He also served as rector of the University of St Andrews from 1988 to 1991, awarded an honorary LLD by the university in 1991. He wrote his autobiography, "The Straight Man: My Life in Comedy," which was published in 1984.
Through the Seventies and Eighties, Parsons worked almost entirely in television, appearing on "The Ugliest Girl in Town," "The Comic Strip Presents" and the long-running BBC science fiction television series, "Doctor Who," as the doomed Northumberland vicar Reverend Wainwright in the Seventh Doctor serial, "The Curse of Fenric." He hosted a short-lived panel game called "Laughlines" in the late 90s and later starred as the narrator in the 1994 21st anniversary revival of the stage musical, "The Rocky Horror Show," touring with the production intermittently from 1994 to 1996.
From 1988 to 1991, Parsons served as Rector of the University of St Andrews. In 2005, he became for a short period honorary Chairman of the International Quizzing Association (IQA), a body that organises the World and European Quizzing Championships. He is also a leading member of the Grand Order of Water Rats charity, a patron of the British Stammering Association, and was a Pro Dono Ambassador. He was the president of the charity the Lord's Taverners from 1998 to 1999.
Parsons was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2004 New Year Honours for services to drama and broadcasting. In April 2005, he was the guest presenter on the BBC comedy news show, "Have I Got News for You," guesting on several shows for the next ten years and appearing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, presenting his comedy chat show at the Cabaret Bar at the Pleasance. He was also awarded an honorary DA by the University of Lincoln in 2007.
In 2010, Parsons a book of memoirs in 2010 called "Nicholas Parsons: With Just a Touch of Hesitation, Repetition and Deviation." He was promoted to Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2014 New Year Honours for charitable services, especially to children's charities.
A lifelong Liberal, having supported the Liberal Party and the Liberal Democrats, Parsons was invited to stand as a Liberal Party candidate for Yeovil in the 1970s, but he turned down the opportunity in order to remain in the entertainment industry. On October 17, 2013, a week after his 90th birthday, he appeared as a guest on the BBC1 political discussion show This Week. He also held the Guinness World Record for the longest after-dinner speech (11 hours for charity) until it was reclaimed by former holder Gyles Brandreth.
Sadly, Parsons passed away in Aylesbury, England on January 28, 2020. He is survived by his wife Ann Reynolds and two children from a previous marriage.
- Is This Your Life
- The Sound of Frankenstein
- The Underworld Water of Jacques Custard
- Opportunity's Knocking
- Top of the Tops
- Undercover Sanitary Inspector
- Cinema: The Vintage Years
- News At Ten
- Down Memory Lane
- The Common Market Square Dance