Nicholas Parsons (1923-2020)

Nicholas Parsons was many things in his long career: actor, radio presented comedic stooge, legendary quiz show host, writer, film producer and national treasure. But to we fans of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, Nicholas Parsons had a very special place in our affections as the voice of Tex Tucker, bearer of magic feathers and the singing sheriff of the town of Four Feather Falls.

lt seemed as though, even if he might not live forever, Nicholas Parsons would carry on working well into his hundredth year and beyond. This impression was helped by his ever-youthful, breathlessly enthusiastic delivery and pin-sharp wit which never faltered during his incredible 52-year run as host of BBC Radio 4’s comedic game show Just A Minute from its inception in 1967, when the station itself was merely months old, to what turned out to be his final appearance in September 2019, when Parsons was approaching his 96th birthday.

During his early years in showbusiness Parsons made his way as a light comedy actor in stage productions and as a stand-up comedian, working both in cabaret and for a long period in that traditional proving ground for comedy talent, the windmill Theatre. He became nationally famous in the mid-1950s, benefitting from the same explosion of opportunities brought by the arrival of commercial television to Britain that enabled Gerry Anderson to reinvent himself as a director and producer. For Nicholas Parsons, that opportunity came when he was paired with cheerful comedy actor Arthur Haynes, who had recently been blessed with a new scriptwriter in the form of Johnny Speight. The show grew in popularity to become a cornerstone of the success of its producers, Lew Grade’s Associated TeleVision, running from 1956 until Haynes’ death in 1966.

It was in this period when Parsons began his association with AP Films and Gerry Anderson, via his wife at the time, Denise Bryer, who had provided the voice for the title character in The Adventures Of Twizzle and had been hired for APF’s first independent production, Four Feather Falls. Parsons put himself forward for the lead role of Sheriff Tex Tucker, surprising everyone when he dropped his polished English tones and came up with a perfect American accent. Parsons and Bryer also appeared in an award-winning series of adverts for AP Films, most famously as a pair of Martians observing Earth in a commercial for Blue Cars coach holidays. Parsons later worked with AP Films technicians and studios on a longer commercial (a form known as an ‘admag’) for the company.

Haynes eventually dropped Parsons, having become afraid that the pair were regarded as a double act, and the actor was forced, not for the last time, to reinvent himself. He returned to the stage, and later repeated his straight man role on television for several years opposite Benny Hill, the success of whose Thames Television series eclipsed that of Arthur Haynes in the public mind. When Nicholas Parsons did return to national fame it was as a quiz show host, fronting the Norwich-based Sale Of The Century from 1971 until 1983. In contrast to the wit which he brought to Radio 4’s Just A Minute, he played this show completely straight, so much so that television audiences forgot that he was capable of much else. Actually, he spent time not working on the show by becoming a successful producer of short documentary films.

When Sale Of The Century finally ended, Parsons had to re-establish himself all over again – ever the hard-working professional, he took his one-man show around the university circuit and the Edinburgh Festival. He also landed the occasional acting role, often simply playing himself. His appearance in the 1989 Doctor Who story The Curse Of Fenricas a priest who has lost his faith proved far removed from the ‘stunt casting’ the series indulged in, surprising audiences with a finely-judged and heartfelt performance. Latterly, Nicholas Parsons even returned to the world of Gerry Anderson, appearing as a sort of science fiction version of himself in a Big Finish Terrahawks audio story, the ex-husband of Zelda, voiced by his own ex-wife Denise Bryer.

There will never be another Nicholas Parsons. He remains a unique figure who will be missed across many generations.

Originally published in FAB 95.