Nicholas Parsons

Christopher Nicholas Parsons CBE (born 10 October 1923) is an English actor and radio and television presenter. Still active in his 90s, Parsons has had long career in television, radio and theatre.

Nicholas Parsons

Parsons recording Just a Minute
at the Pleasance Grand, Edinburgh, in 2007
Christopher Nicholas Parsons

(1923-10-10) 10 October 1923
Grantham, Lincolnshire, England, UK
EducationSt Paul's School, London
University of Glasgow
OccupationActor, radio and television presenter
Years active1945–present
Known forJust a Minute
Sale of the Century
TitleRector of the University of St Andrews

President of the Lord's Taverners
Denise Bryer
(m. 1954; div. 1989)

Ann Reynolds
(m. 1995)

Parsons has hosted the comedy radio game show Just a Minute since its inception in 1967. He also hosted Sale of the Century throughout its initial incarnation from 1971 to 1983. During his tenure, the audience peaked at over 21 million viewers, a record for an ITV game show.

Early life

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 was a general practitioner whose patients included the family of Margaret Thatcher; claims that he delivered her are unproven.[2] His mother, born in Bristol to a founder of local company W.B. Maggs & Co, was training as a nurse when she met Parsons' father at University College Hospital, London.

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.[3] He also suffered from migraines but nevertheless excelled at school.[4]

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.[4]

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 talent of Shirley Temple.[5]

After he had left school, his family contacted relatives in Scotland, who arranged a job for him on Clydebank near Glasgow, where he spent five years employed as an engineering apprentice at Drysdales, a maker of marine pumps.[6] While there, he also spent two six-month periods studying engineering at the University of Glasgow.[7] 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 due to ill health.

Career in entertainment

Parsons started his career while training as an engineering apprentice; he was discovered by Canadian impresario Carroll Levis, and appeared in his radio show as an impersonator. He also gained valuable early experience in amateur concert parties.

Early career and on as a theatre comedian

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,[8] performing regular nights of stand-up comedy to packed houses.

He starred in the West End show Boeing-Boeing for 15 months in the mid-1960s and later, other West End productions throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Film, TV and radio career

In the 1950s and 1960s, he appeared in many supporting roles in British films. In the late 1960s, he portrayed David Courtney in the short-lived American sitcom The Ugliest Girl in Town.

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 then 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 well known to TV audiences during the 1960s as the straight man to comedian Arthur Haynes. They had a successful season at the London Palladium in 1963 and appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in America in 1966. In the same year, the partnership broke up after ten years at Haynes's request, allowing Parsons to return to the stage, before becoming a regular on The Benny Hill Show from 1968 to 1971.[9]

After Haynes' sudden death, 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 1984. In 1983 Hill wrote and performed in the sketch "Sale of the Half Century", with himself cast as Parsons.[10][11]

Parsons was the subject of This Is Your Life in 1978 when he was surprised by Eamonn Andrews.[12]

Just a Minute

Parsons has been the host of the BBC Radio 4 comedy panel game Just a Minute since it was first broadcast on 22 December 1967.[3][13] The show continues to be transmitted with Parsons as host. The programme's longevity is arguably due in part to the host's ability to be a chairman, create laughs and to act as a straight man to the comedians who participate.

Until 4 June 2018, Parsons never missed an episode, but that same month, fellow panellist Gyles Brandreth stood in for him for two episodes due to a bout of illness - at the age of 94.[14] The same occurred the following year for two shows recorded at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.[15]


In 1988, Parsons appeared as himself in The Comic Strip episode "Mr. Jolly Lives Next Door", in which he had the misfortune to encounter two incompetent escort agency directors (Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson in their usual cheerfully violent, dipsomaniac personas) followed by the psychopathic and misnamed Mr Jolly himself (played by Peter Cook).

In 1989, he featured in the long-running BBC science fiction television series Doctor Who as the doomed Northumberland vicar Reverend Wainwright in the Seventh Doctor serial The Curse of Fenric. Parsons later provided a commentary for the DVD release of the serial. Another guest role in 1989 was in The New Statesman, where he played himself hosting a daytime quiz show. In 1990, he appeared as the Mayor in the BBC's series for children Bodger & Badger.


Parsons featured in the original London cast of the Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods at the Phoenix Theatre in 1990. In the early 1990s he hosted a short-lived panel game called Laughlines which was broadcast by Sky TV rival BSB on the Galaxy entertainment channel. This was followed by an appearance in the fourth and final series of the UK TV show Cluedo as Reverend Green.

Parsons took the lead role of the Narrator in the 21st anniversary revival of the stage musical The Rocky Horror Show at the Duke of York's Theatre in the West End in 1994, and starred in the revival the following year. He then toured with the production intermittently from 1994 to 1996.

Recent career

In April 2005 he was the guest presenter on the BBC topical quiz show Have I Got News for You and over the next decade guest-starred on many other television shows as a speaker and an entertainer. He appeared on Celebrity Mastermind in December 2007 and played Father Gorman in the Agatha Christie's Marple episode The Pale Horse in 2010. 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.

Parsons wrote an autobiography entitled The Straight Man: My Life in Comedy, which was published in 1994,[16] and he produced a book of memoirs in 2010 called Nicholas Parsons: With Just a Touch of Hesitation, Repetition and Deviation.

Since 2001, he has appeared annually at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe presenting his comedy cabaret show The Happy Hour at the Cabaret Bar at the Pleasance.

Parsons is the oldest intermittent broadcaster on BBC radio. Sir David Attenborough is the next oldest intermittent broadcaster on BBC television and radio.[17]

Roles outside entertainment

From 1988 to 1991, Parsons 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 is a leading member of the Grand Order of Water Rats charity,[18] and a patron of the British Stammering Association.[19] He was the president of the charity the Lord's Taverners from 1998 to 1999. He is an Ambassador for Childline and The Silver Line.

Parsons is a lifelong Liberal, having supported the Liberal Party and the Liberal Democrats.[20] 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.[21] On 17 October 2013, a week after his 90th birthday, he appeared as a guest on the BBC One political discussion show This Week.[22]

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.[23][24] 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.[25][26]

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.[27][28] He was also awarded an honorary DA by the University of Leicester in 2007, and an honorary D.Litt by the University of Lincoln in 2014.[29]

He held the Guinness World Record for the longest after-dinner speech (11 hours) until it was reclaimed by former holder Gyles Brandreth.[30]

Personal life

Parsons has been married twice. He was first married to actress Denise Bryer in 1954; together they have two children.[31] The couple divorced in 1989.[32] He has been married to Ann Reynolds since 1995.


  • 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

Selected filmography


  1. "Edward Lear". Great Lives. 13 May 2008. BBC Radio 4. Retrieved 18 January 2014.
  2. pt91. "Oration for Nicholas Parsons CBE — University of Leicester". Retrieved 27 May 2018.
  3. The Daily Telegraph, 24 September 2013, page 11
  4. "Desert Island Discs with Nicholas Parsons". Desert Island Discs. 9 November 2007. BBC. Radio 4.
  5. Parsons, N. (2010), With Just a Touch of Hesitation, Repetition and Deviation: My Life in Comedy, Mainstream Publishing, ISBN 978-1845967123
  6. "Drysdale & Co". Grace's Guide to British Industrial History. Retrieved 13 March 2013.
  7. "Ed Doolan Interviews...". Ed Doolan Interviews. 25 October 2008. BBC. Radio 7.
  8. "Nicholas Parsons". BBC. Retrieved 13 March 2013.
  9. "Early Years". Nicholas Parsons Official Website. Retrieved 25 January 2017.
  10. Ross, Robert (30 October 2014). Benny Hill - Merry Master of Mirth: the Complete Companion. Pavilion Books. ISBN 9781849942584. Retrieved 20 April 2017 via Google Books.
  11. jricci9 (14 May 2013). "Benny Hill - Sale of the Half Century". Retrieved 20 April 2017 via YouTube.
  13. Stevens, Christopher (2010). Born Brilliant: The Life of Kenneth Williams. John Murray. p. 353. ISBN 978-1-84854-195-5.
  14. "Just A Minute presenter Nicholas Parsons misses first show in 50 years". BBC News Online. BBC. 4 June 2018. Retrieved 4 June 2018.
  15. "Nicholas Parsons has been admitted to hospital". Chortle. 10 August 2019. Retrieved 10 September 2019.
  16. The Straight Man: My Life in Comedy (Weidenfeld & Nicolson). ISBN 978-0-297-81239-5
  17. Association, Press (30 June 2018). "Nicholas Parsons: 'The BBC gave a ridiculous reason for my Just a Minute absence'". The Telegraph. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 7 September 2018.
  18. "The Grand Order of the Water Rats, Comedy Zone - BBC Radio Scotland". BBC. Retrieved 7 September 2018.
  19. Hattenstone, Simon (3 December 2017). "Nicholas Parsons: 'I irritated my family because they didn't like showoffs'". the Guardian. Retrieved 7 September 2018.
  20. "Nicholas Parsons on the Lib Dems". BBC News. 11 September 2008. Retrieved 12 April 2014.
  21. "Nicholas Parsons: 'I irritated my family because they didn't like showoffs'". The Guardian. 3 December 2017. Retrieved 8 April 2018.
  22. Greenstreet, Rosanna (15 August 2015). "Q&A: Nicholas Parsons". the Guardian. Retrieved 7 September 2018.
  23. "Host Parsons' delight at honour". BBC News. 31 December 2003. Retrieved 13 March 2013.
  24. "Early years continued". Nicholas Parsons (official website). Retrieved 13 March 2013.
  25. "No. 60728". The London Gazette (Supplement). 31 December 2013. p. 9.
  26. "New Year Honours: Ten famous faces". BBC News. 30 December 2013. Retrieved 17 March 2014.
  27. "Honorary graduates 1921–2012" (PDF). University of St Andrews. Retrieved 13 March 2013.
  28. "Nicholas Parsons, OBE". Debretts. Archived from the original on 7 May 2013. Retrieved 13 March 2013.
  29. "Honoraries". University of Lincoln. Retrieved 13 March 2013.
  30. Meeke, Kieran (27 October 2009). "Nicholas Parsons (profile)". Metro. Retrieved 13 March 2013.

Academic offices
Preceded by
Stanley Adams
Rector of the University of St Andrews
Succeeded by
Nicky Campbell

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