Prime-time Parky thrills at Borders Book festival

Not even the weather could dampen spirits at the Borders Book Festival. By David Robinson

THERE'S a school of thought that says you should never meet your heroes, that they always disappoint.

On that basis, Michael Parkinson should never have met Robert Mitchum, the man he idolised so much as a teenager that he went to bed with

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sticking plaster on his chin, clamping the skin into what he hoped would one day be a Mitchum-like dimple, and with Elastoplast on his forehead in a vain bid to train his eyebrow to lift in that lazily quizzical way that Mitchum managed so effortlessly.

On that basis, though, the main tent at the Brewin Dolphin Borders Book Festival last weekend for Parkinson's own event would have been half-empty, instead of packed full – mostly with people who vaguely remembered watching, along with millions of others, Parky's encounter with an almost monosyllabic, out-of his-head-on-dope Mitchum. Indeed, if we didn't want to meet those people who have entertained, educated

or inspired us over the years, the tents in the gardens of Melrose's Harmony House – and all other book festivals –would be cold, empty, soulless places. Yet most of us don't mind such meetings at all. At Melrose last weekend there were record audiences – over 12,000, bringing an estimated 3.35 million to the local economy – in spite of the dismal weather. Why? I imagine that most of the people who turned up to Parkinson's event did so because they wanted a bit of gossip

about the A-listers he's interviewed, to find out what they're really like when the cameras stopped rolling. He didn't disappoint. Mitchum, already stoned, went up to the hospitality room and, when the barmaid went to the optic measure for his vodka, asked for the whole bottle.

But perhaps you can guess all of that. Perhaps you can even guess what Billy Connolly and Mohammad Ali – "the only two people good for another two million on the viewing figures"–were like off the set, if only because you might have seen them on it.

What you can't guess – and it matters, because in a sense it's what this whole book festival business is about – is what Parky was like himself. That's just down to the live encounter between one man and an audience. Here, he was excellently interviewed by Rory Bremner. (Could

he be the new Parky? Now there's an idea.)

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What impressed me most about Parkinson was the solidity of his craft, not just as an interviewer but as a storyteller. Like a lot of famous people, he downplays his success. It was just a matter of luck, he'll say. Being in the North of England at the time when it set Britain's

cultural agenda (The Beatles were, for a couple of weeks before they finally disappeared to London, his show's house band at Granada). Being in television when it was making up its own rules. Being a TV interviewer in the 1970s when the Hollywood studios finally allowed their stars to be interviewed on the small screen. Sure, anyone

could have done it.

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Except they couldn't. Not a lot of people know this, but Parky joined the Manchester Guardian in 1958, in the same batch as Michael Frayn (also at Melrose), Richard West and the late political journalist Anthony Howard. Parkinson, in other words, was never famous for being

famous. Fame struck for the simple reason that he could write and was good at it. The stories he wrote, and told, about his early days in Barnsley were lovingly remembered without being oversentimentalised, and are the key to the man. When his dad took him down the pit, he asked him to have a go at hewing coal from the seam. Parky swung his pick, but it bounced straight back. "No," his father told him, "run your fingers across the coalface and find the fault." When he did, the coal fell away easily. No better metaphor for the interviewer's technique. So, the message from Melrose is do meet your heroes.

Meet Christopher Brookmyre (or Chris, as he now is to his bookjackets) and you'd have heard, not just the start of a new, grittily Glaswegian series but a hilarious pastiche of Jane Austen as written by Irvine Welsh. Meet Rory Bremner and you'll get a masterclass on fusing

comedy with truth to articulate a thought that an audience

might have an inkling of but not yet expressed. Meet John Byrne and share his rage at what has happened to the Paisley he grew up in and wonder why he hasn't been commissioned to write a TV series since Your

Cheating Heart. Meet astronomer/novelist Stuart Clark and learn how, to the medieval mind, stars were just pinholes in the sky through which we could glimpse heaven. Meet Tom Conti and Maureen Lipman and you were in the presence of the Peter Ustinov and Joyce Grenfell of our generation.

A good book festival also innovates, and Melrose is no exception. This year, director Alistair Moffat set himself not just the technological challenge of a live link-up to an overspill hall for his top four items, but the further one of making audiences look anew at much-loved novels such as Sunset Song and The Thirty-Nine Steps. Both succeeded admirably, in the latter case thanks not just to Ian Campbell and Stuart Kelly, editors of new editions of the books, but a top-drawer line-up of thesps: Robert Powell, David Rintoul and Vivien Heilbron. Heilbron, of course, played Chris Guthrie in the TV adaptation of Sunset Song 40 years ago. As compere Jim Naughtie pointed this out, there was a sharp intake of breath, because (and I swear I'm not just being gallant here) the years have barely marked her.

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A further reminder of the difference a good actor can make to a reading came in Powell's readings of the six shortlisted titles of historical fiction for the 25,000 Walter Scott Prize. He was excellent: no wonder sales of all six flew off the festival bookshop's shelves.

History, of course, throws up ironies as well as the possibility of good fiction. Both fused together in the presentation of the prize to Andrea Levy for The Long Song – her novel about the end of slavery in Jamaica – in the gardens of a house which itself was named after a slave

plantation there.

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The Walter Scott Prize adds hugely to the Borders Book Festival's lustre, but so too does the friendliness, helpfulness and efficiency of its staff. They're the reason writers who've been to almost every book festival there is – Alexander McCall Smith, for example – rate it as the

most enjoyable on the circuit. They're right. It is. Even in

the pouring rain.

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