Christopher Nicholas Parsons CBE, actor and broadcaster. Born: 10 October 1923 in Grantham, Lincolnshire. Died: 28 January 2020, aged 96.
Nicholas Parsons was a true veteran of the stage, screen and airwaves with a career which spanned more than half a century.
He clocked up numerous acting and comedy parts, but he was best known for his years as question master of TV quiz Sale Of The Century and for his role as host of BBC Radio 4’s Just A Minute, which he was still presenting well into his 90s.
Despite his glittering CV, he once said he believed he would have got more work if he had been “more rugged-looking”.
In 2012, he celebrated the 45th anniversary of Just a Minute – in which celebrity guests strive to talk about a subject for 60 seconds “without hesitation, repetition or deviation” – with a TV version broadcast by BBC2.
In 2016, Prince Charles, a fan of the show, performed a cameo on the programme’s Christmas special.
Parsons was born on 10 October, 1923, in Grantham, Lincolnshire, where his father was GP to the family of Baroness Thatcher. After studying at St Paul’s School in London, he headed to Clydebank as an apprentice engineer, despite his own hopes of becoming an actor.
But his impressions were featured in a radio show and, following performances with amateur concert parties after the Second World War, he moved into acting, working in rep at Bromley in Kent. Comic roles proved to be a speciality and he became resident comedian at the Windmill Theatre in London after working on the cabaret circuit in the 1950s.
He found TV fame appearing with comic Arthur Haynes in his ITV show in the early 1960s, and he was also a regular on The Benny Hill Show. At the tail end of 1967, he introduced Just A Minute for the first time – and the show is still going strong today.
The quiz of the week
Within a few years, he had also become known for hosting ITV’s Sale Of The Century, with its notable opening line “And now from Norwich, it’s the quiz of the week ...” which launched as a regional show in 1971, and was broadcast nationally by 1975.
Parsons had guest roles in Doctor Who, children’s series Bodger And Badger, as well as taking a cross-dressing role in a touring production of The Rocky Horror Show in his 70s.
In 1990, he starred in London’s West End in Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into The Woods, and his autobiography The Straight Man – My Life in Comedy was published in 1994.
He was a regular guest on television and radio comedy shows, and in 1999 he took his comedy chat show The Nicholas Parsons Happy Hour to the Edinburgh Festival, returning in years that followed.
Interviewed by The Scotsman’s sister paper, Scotland on Sunday, during a run at the Fringe in 2011, Parsons said: “I say I’m not only running on my own adrenalin, but also some borrowed adrenalin too.
“At my advanced age I should have been retired a long time ago, but as I said in the Pleasance the other day… someone came up to me and said, “you’re back, you’ve been coming for a few years now, are you not retired?” I said no, I’m in a profession that retires you once your audience no longer wants you. They decide when you leave, and I’m in a position that as long as they still want me, I’m going to keep hacking it!”
In the same interview, he said of the Fringe: “It’s not just a place where you can try things out, it’s a place where you can try things out and there are potentially a lot of people to see you. It might lead on to bigger and better things, there’s a great buzz in the air. I think it’s the best place to be in August.”
Notable projects include The Arthur Haynes Show, Carry On Regardless, and Cluedo, and he starred in West End comedies Boeing Boeing and Say Who You Are, as well as musicals and revues.
His first major success on television was as the straight man to Haynes in the famous partnership that flourished in the 1960s, and included Swing Along, a season in 1963 at the London Palladium.
Flattered and delighted
Among his many charitable commitments, he had a long association with the Grand Order of Water Rats and the Lord’s Taverners, for which he has served as president.
Parsons said he was “flattered and delighted” to be awarded a CBE for his charitable work in December 2013.
He said at the time that he would save celebrations for his day at the palace.
“I received the letter two months ago and was told to keep quiet about it or it might be taken away so my wife and I kept quiet about it,” he revealed.“We won’t be celebrating until the day we go to the palace – I’ve done so much celebrating for my 90th birthday this year.” Ten years previously, Parsons received an OBE for services to drama and broadcasting.
On June 4, 2018, he missed his first ever episode of Just A Minute after 50 years at the helm and over more than 900 instalments. He was replaced by regular panellist Gyles Brandreth and his absence sparked health concerns.
When introducing the show, Brandreth said: “After 50 years at the helm, [he] quite rightly thinks he should be allowed a day off.”
In 2019 Parsons was give a Broadcasting Press Guild (BPG) award for his outstanding contribution to broadcasting. BPG chairman Jake Kanter said of Parsons: “His warmth, sharp wit and clear-headed determination in rooms full of fast-talking show offs have kept him at the top of his game.”
Parsons married his second wife Ann Reynolds in 1995, and had two children, Suzy and Justin, from his first marriage to Denise Bryer.