It is hard to imagine a less auspicious start to a career in showbusiness than that of Nicholas Parsons’.
Despite showing early signs of thespian inclinations, Parsons’ strait-laced parents, fearing a dissolute life of alcoholism and penury, packed him off to Clydebank to become an apprentice in a shipyard.
It was a make-or-break experience for the 16-year-old, going from the rarefied environment of an English public school to the rough and tumble of Glasgow’s working class. It equipped him with a kind of professional armour-plating that proved to be extremely useful in the years to come.
Miraculously he even managed to advance his showbiz ambitions while fulfilling his clerical duties. Using the stage name Nick Marlowe, for fear of being given the sack for moonlighting, he played the daunting Glasgow Empire, where he was billed as “Glasgow’s BBC Impressionist”, with his workmates shouting encouragement from the stalls.
Although Parsons started out doing stand-up, his ambition was always to be an actor. In his 2010 autobiography, My Life in Comedy, he writes of one occasion in 1946 when he pestered one West End producer every day for a week to be seen for a new show, The Hasty Heart, which turned out to be his first theatrical success, running for more than a year.
He gained further experience with BBC Radio’s Repertory Company, utilising his talent for mimicry in a succession of “funny foreigner” roles, as well as continuing to make personal appearances in cabaret and clubs.
Long before he became a familiar TV face from The Arthur Haynes Show (1957-66), numerous British film comedies of the 1950s and 1960s, as well the hugely popular 1970s TV quiz show Sale of the Century, Parsons was a big radio name in long-forgotten comedy shows such as Much Binding in the Marsh, Listen to This Space, and later Keep Taking the Tabloids, which anticipated The News Quiz.
But it was in 1967 that he found the radio role that would last a lifetime, hosting Just a Minute, the show created by Ian Messiter in which contestants had to speak for a minute without hesitation, deviation or repetition. Years of playing the straight man made him the perfect foil for the contrasting comedy talents of Clement Freud, Derek Nimmo and Kenneth Williams, the original trio of regulars.
Ironically the dyslexia he’d suffered from since childhood proved to be a boon on Just a Minute because, as with many dyslexics, he had a sharp mind and an unusually good aural memory that enabled him instantly to recall what had been said and whether a contestant had transgressed the rules.
Workaholic that he was, Parsons continued to combine his radio and TV commitments with a varied stage career that included musicals, comedy showcases, pantomime and his one-man show, which he continued performing well into his 90s.
In 1986 he was surprised to be offered a leading role in a revival of the 1960s musical Charlie Girl, with a cast that included Cyd Charisse, Paul Nicholas and Dora Bryan. Parsons and Bryan had started out together in the 1940s and in his memoir he recalls how they misbehaved by introducing unrehearsed comic business during the run of Charlie Girl, to the annoyance of leading man Nicholas.
In the late 1980s Parsons became rector at St Andrews University, but this didn’t curtail his radio or theatre commitments.
In his third year in the post, he was offered the role of narrator in the UK premiere of Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods. Not by any stretch a singer, Parsons felt inclined to turn the role down but when he learnt he had only one number, Ever After, he decided to give it a go. Despite rave reviews, the run of Into the Woods was badly affected by the outbreak of the first Gulf War, and ran for less than six months.
Parsons also took the narrator role again in the 1994 West End revival of The Rocky Horror Show in which he famously wore fishnet tights and high heels beneath a conventional dinner jacket.
As with Humphrey Lyttelton and I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, it was always going to be difficult to imagine anyone else presenting Just a Minute. One of the many reasons Parsons endured was the pleasure he took in introducing new panellists to the show, especially in more recent years.
He extended that generosity of spirit to his annual pilgrimage to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where for many years he presented an informal chat show, Nicholas Parsons’ Happy Hour, in which he introduced new comedy talents. He never lost that enthusiasm for and belief in fresh comedy talent.
In 2004 he was appointed OBE for services to drama and broadcasting, and in 2014, at the age of 90, he was appointed CBE for his charitable work.
Nicholas Parsons was born on October 10, 1923, and died on January 28, aged 96. He is survived by his wife, Annie, and his two children, Suzy and Justin, from his first marriage to the actor Denise Bryer.