Christopher Nicholas Parsons
10 October 1923
|Died||28 January 2020 (aged 96)|
|Education||St Paul's School, London|
|Alma mater||University of Glasgow|
|Known for||Just a Minute (1967–2019)|
Sale of the Century (1971–1983)
(m. 1954; div. 1989)
Christopher Nicholas Parsons actor, straight man and radio and television presenter. He was the long-running presenter of the comedy radio show Just a Minute and hosted the game show Sale of the Century during the 1970s and early 1980s.(10 October 1923 – 28 January 2020) was an English
Parsons was born and grew up in Grantham, Lincolnshire, and was educated at St Paul's School, London. He became a full-time actor following the Second World War and began appearing in various theatre, film and television roles, including support to Arthur Haynes as his straight man. He began presenting Just a Minute in 1967 and never missed a show until 2018. In addition to his well-known roles on this and Sale of the Century, he appeared as a guest on other television shows, including Doctor Who and Have I Got News for You.
Christopher Nicholas Parsons was born at 1 Castlegate, Grantham, Lincolnshire; he was the middle child of the family, having an older brother and a younger sister. His father, Paul, was a general practitioner whose patients included the family of Margaret Thatcher; claims that he delivered her are apocryphal. His mother, Nell, née Maggs, was a nurse before her marriage.
Parsons was born left-handed but was made to write with his right hand. As a child, he had a stutter, which he managed to control as he grew older, and was slow to learn owing to dyslexia. He also suffered from migraines but nevertheless excelled at school.
After education at Colet Court and St Paul's School in London, Parsons' initial career plan was to become an actor. However, his parents believed that a career in engineering would be better, as he had repaired grandfather clocks as a young man and was creative with his hands. While at school, he was best friends with John Treacher who was to become Commander-in-Chief Fleet. At school, Parsons' nickname was "Shirley" after the then-burgeoning American talent, Shirley Temple.
After he had left school, his family contacted relatives in Scotland, who arranged a job for him in Clydebank near Glasgow, where he spent five years employed as an engineering apprentice at Drysdales, a maker of marine pumps. Parsons was 16 when his parents sent him from his relatively privileged home in London to the industrially-hardened city of Glasgow. Sixty years later, in 2010, he recorded a nostalgic radio programme, titled "Doon the Watta" (on Youtube) about his time as an apprentice, highlighting his posh middle class-accent amidst the Glasgow working man's dialect. While there, he also spent two six-month periods studying engineering at the University of Glasgow. He never graduated, but finished his apprenticeship and gained sufficient qualifications to become a mechanical engineer. He was offered a posting in the Merchant Navy during the Second World War, but he did not join the service after falling seriously ill with pleurisy. He spent five months in hospital and at one point his survival chances were rated only 50-50.
Career in entertainment
At the end of the Second World War, Parsons became a full-time professional actor. He made his stage debut in the West End as Kiwi in The Hasty Heart at the Aldwych Theatre in 1945 which ran for over a year, then played the lead in a tour of Arsenic and Old Lace. He made his film debut in Master of Bankdam in 1947 and continued his stage career, with two years in repertory at Bromley, and later, Windsor and Maidstone. In 1952, he became a resident comedian at the Windmill Theatre, performing regular nights of stand-up comedy to packed houses.
Film, TV and radio
In the 1950s, Parsons provided the non-singing voice of Tex Tucker in the children's TV puppet series Four Feather Falls, having put himself forward for the job at the suggestion of his first wife, actress and voiceover artiste Denise Bryer, who was in the show. During the late 1960s, he created and presented a satirical programme on BBC Radio 4 called Listen to This Space, which by the standards of its time was very avant-garde, and he received the Radio Personality of the Year Award for his work on this programme in 1967.
Parsons became known to TV audiences in the 1950s and 1960s as the straight man to comedian Arthur Haynes for ten years; the partnership broke up at Haynes' request. They had a successful season at the London Palladium in 1963, and shortly before the split appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in the United States, although Parsons was not credited. Subsequently, Parsons returned to the stage, before becoming a regular on The Benny Hill Show from 1968 to 1971.
After Haynes died, Parsons appeared as a personality in his own right on television, including in the long-running Anglia Television quiz show Sale of the Century, broadcast weekly from 1971 to 1983. In 1983 Hill wrote and performed in the sketch "Sale of the Half Century", with himself cast as Parsons.
Just a Minute
Although there were a number of early episodes when he relinquished the chair and was a panellist, Parsons never missed an episode until 2018, when regular panellist Gyles Brandreth stood in for him for two episodes that were recorded in April and broadcast in June, due to a bout of illness: Parsons was then 94 years old. Brandreth again stood in the following year for two shows recorded at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Just a Minute continued to be transmitted with Parsons as host until his last show on 23 September 2019.
In 1988, Parsons appeared as himself in The Comic Strip episode "Mr. Jolly Lives Next Door", alongside Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson. The following year, he guest-starred in Doctor Who, playing Reverend Wainwright in the Seventh Doctor serial The Curse of Fenric.
Parsons featured in the original London cast of the Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods at the Phoenix Theatre in 1990 as the Narrator. In 1991 he appeared as the Mayor in the BBC's children's series Bodger & Badger. This was followed by an appearance in the fourth and final series of the UK TV show Cluedo as Reverend Green in 1993.
Parsons was guest presenter on the BBC topical quiz show Have I Got News for You. He appeared on Celebrity Mastermind in 2007. Just a Minute transferred to television in 2012 for a ten-part early-evening series to celebrate its 45th anniversary, with Parsons and regular panellist Paul Merton. He appeared opposite ex-wife Denise Bryer in the Big Finish adaptation of the Gerry Anderson series Terrahawks, playing the ex-husband of Bryer's character, Zelda.
Parsons wrote an autobiography entitled The Straight Man: My Life in Comedy, which was published in 1994, and he produced a book of memoirs in 2010 called Nicholas Parsons: With Just a Touch of Hesitation, Repetition and Deviation.
In October 2016, at the age of 92, Parsons presented the BBC documentary The Incredible Story of Marie Antoinette's Watch, following the story of the Marie Antoinette watch created by Abraham-Louis Breguet, and allowing him to indulge his lifelong fascination with horology.
In 2019, his last personal public engagement was his one-man show which was held at the New Forest Arts theatre and last public appearance was as King Rat at the 130th Annual Grand Order of Water Rats Ball on 24 November 2019 which was held at Grosvenor House Hotel, London.
In the late 1950s Parsons was the compere at a hair design show at The May Fair Hotel in London presenting the latest styles by Riche of Hay Hill. The show was Viking-themed linked to the film The Vikings, with the star Kirk Douglas in attendance at the event.
From 1988 to 1991, he 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 was a leading member of the Grand Order of Water Rats charity and was King Rat in 2019. He was also a patron of the British Stammering Association and was the president of the charity the Lord's Taverners from 1998 to 1999, a charity that he joined in 1964 and remained a member of till death. He was an Ambassador for Childline and The Silver Line.
Parsons was a supporter of the Liberal Party and the Liberal Democrats. He 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 17 October 2013, a week after his 90th birthday, he appeared as a guest on the BBC One political discussion show This Week.
Awards and recognition
Parsons was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2004 New Year Honours for services to drama and broadcasting. 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.
Having served as rector of the University of St Andrews from 1988 to 1991, he was awarded an honorary LLD by the university in 1991. He was also awarded an honorary LLD by the University of Leicester in 2016, and an honorary D.Litt by the University of Lincoln in 2014.
Parsons was married twice. He was first married to actress Denise Bryer in 1954; together they had two children. The couple divorced in 1989. He subsequently married Ann Reynolds in 1995. He was a keen cricket fan, both as a player and supporter, and had a lifelong enthusiasm for clocks.
In August 2019 Parsons suffered a fall, on a train to Edinburgh, while travelling to perform his show The Happy Hour at the Edinburgh Fringe. On admission to hospital a few days later, he was found to have a stomach ulcer and anaemia, and remained hospitalised in Edinburgh for 10 days, before being moved to Stoke Mandeville Hospital, near his home in Aylesbury. After two more weeks in hospital, he returned home and began a slow recuperation.
- The Straight Man: My Life in Comedy, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1994. ISBN 978-0297812395
- Nicholas Parsons: With Just a Touch of Hesitation, Repetition and Deviation: My Life in Comedy, Mainstream Publishing, 2011. ISBN 978-1845967123
- Welcome to Just a Minute!: A Celebration of Britain's Best-Loved Radio Comedy, Canongate Books, 2014. ISBN 978-1782112471
|1947||Master of Bankdam||Edgar Hoylehouse|
|1954||To Dorothy a Son||Passport Official||Uncredited|
|1955||Simon and Laura||T.V. Producer|
|An Alligator Named Daisy||News Interviewer||Uncredited|
|1956||The Long Arm||Police Constable Bates|
|1957||Brothers in Law||Charles Poole|
|1958||Happy Is the Bride||John Royd|
|1959||Too Many Crooks||Tommy|
|Carlton-Browne of the F.O.||Rodgers|
|Upstairs and Downstairs||Brian|
|1960||Let's Get Married||R.A.F. Officer|
|Doctor in Love||Dr. Hinxman|
|1961||Carry On Regardless||Wolf|
|1964||Murder Ahoy!||Dr. Crump|
|Every Day's a Holiday||Julian Goddard|
|1966||The Wrong Box||Alan Fraser Scrope|
|The Ghost Goes Gear||Algernon Rowthorpe Plumley|
|1968||Don't Raise the Bridge, Lower the River||Dudley Heath|
|1974||The Best of Benny Hill||The Phantom Prowler/Mask Boutique Staffer/King Charles|
|1976||Spy Story||Ben Toliver|
|1989||The New Statesman||Himself||Episode: Live from Westminster|
|Doctor Who||Reverend Wainwright||Episode: The Curse of Fenric|
|1993||Cluedo||Reverend Green||6 episodes|
|2010||Marple||Father Gorman||Episode: The Pale Horse|
|2019||Good Omens||Dagon (voice)||Miniseries and last TV appearance|
- Parsons, Nicholas (13 May 2008). "Edward Lear". Great Lives. Series 15. Episode 7. BBC Radio 4. Retrieved 18 January 2014.
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- The Daily Telegraph, 24 September 2013, page 11
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- "Ed Doolan Interviews...". Ed Doolan Interviews. 25 October 2008. BBC. Radio 7.
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- Green, Paul (2017). Encyclopedia of Weird War Stories: Supernatural and Science Fiction Elements in Novels, Pulps, Comics, Film, Television, Games and Other Media. McFarland. p. 56. ISBN 978-1-476-62874-5.
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- Lumley, Joanna (2011). Absolutely: A Memoir. Hachette. p. 145. ISBN 978-0-297-86500-1.
- "BBC One – Celebrity Mastermind, 2007/2008, Episode 5". BBC.
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- "The new series of Terrahawks will see art imitating life". 8 December 2015.
- Parsons, Nicholas (1994). The Straight Man: My Life in Comedy. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. ISBN 0-297-81239-4. OCLC 30590244.
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- "BBC Four – The Incredible Story of Marie Antoinette's Watch with Nicholas Parsons". BBC.
- "Good Omens (TV Mini-Series 2019)". IMDb. Retrieved 3 February 2020.
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