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Nicholas Parsons

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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
Died28 January 2020(2020-01-28) (aged 96)
Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, England
EducationSt Paul's School, London
Alma materUniversity of Glasgow
  • Actor
  • presenter
Years active1945–2020
Known forJust a Minute (1967–2019)
Sale of the Century (1971–1983)
(m. 1954; div. 1989)
Ann Reynolds
(m. 1995)

Christopher Nicholas Parsons CBE (10 October 1923 – 28 January 2020) was an English 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.

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.

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  • R.I.P. Its With Heavy Heart We Report About Tragic Death of 'Just a Minute' Host Nicholas Parsons
  • Nicholas Parsons recalls This Is Your Life
  • Nicholas Parsons & Jim Bowen go head to head!!
  • Nicholas Parsons on Welcome to Just A Minute
  • Newsnight: Death of Nicholas Parsons


Early life

Christopher Nicholas Parsons[2] was born on 10 October 1923 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.[3] His mother, Nell, née Maggs, was a nurse before her marriage.[4]

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.[5] He also suffered from migraines but nevertheless excelled at school.[6]

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.[6] 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.[7]

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.[8] 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.[9] 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.[4][10]

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.[11]

Early career

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

He starred in the West End show Boeing-Boeing and other West End productions.[13]

Film, TV and radio

In the 1950s and 1960s, he appeared in many supporting roles in British films. In the late 1960s, he portrayed David Courtney in the American sitcom The Ugliest Girl in Town.[14]

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.[15]

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.[16] 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.[17] Subsequently, Parsons returned to the stage, before becoming a regular on The Benny Hill Show from 1968 to 1971.[18]

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.[19][20]

Parsons was the subject of This Is Your Life in 1978 when he was surprised by Eamonn Andrews.[21]

Just a Minute

Parsons was the host of the BBC Radio 4 comedy panel game Just a Minute from its first broadcast on 22 December 1967.[5][22]

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.[23] Brandreth again stood in the following year for two shows recorded at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.[24] Just a Minute continued to be transmitted with Parsons as host until his last show on 23 September 2019.[25]


In 1988, Parsons appeared as himself in The Comic Strip episode "Mr. Jolly Lives Next Door", alongside Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson.[26] The following year, he guest-starred in Doctor Who, playing Reverend Wainwright in the Seventh Doctor serial The Curse of Fenric.[27][28]


Parsons featured in the original London cast of the Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods at the Phoenix Theatre in 1990 as the Narrator.[13] In 1991, he appeared as the Mayor in the BBC's children's series Bodger & Badger.[29] This was followed by an appearance in the fourth and final series of the UK TV show Cluedo as Reverend Green in 1993.[30]

Parsons took the 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.[13]

Later career

In 2005 Parsons was guest presenter on the BBC topical quiz show Have I Got News for You.[10] He appeared on Celebrity Mastermind in 2007.[31] 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.[32] 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.[33]

Parsons wrote an autobiography entitled The Straight Man: My Life in Comedy, which was published in 1994,[34] and he produced a book of memoirs in 2010 called Nicholas Parsons: With Just a Touch of Hesitation, Repetition and Deviation.[35]

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.[36]

He played himself and provided the voice of Dagon, Lord of the Files in Good Omens, filmed between 2017 and 2018.[37]

From 2001, he appeared annually at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe presenting his comedy cabaret show The Happy Hour.[10]

Other roles

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.[38][39] He was also a patron of the British Stammering Association[16] 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 until his death.[40][41] He was an Ambassador for Childline and The Silver Line.[42]

Parsons was a supporter of the Liberal Party and the Liberal Democrats.[43] 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.[16] On 17 October 2013, a week after his 90th birthday, he appeared as a guest on the BBC One political discussion show This Week.[44]

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.[45][46] 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.[47][48]

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.[49][50] 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.[51]

He held the Guinness World Record for the longest after-dinner speech (11 hours) until it was reclaimed by former holder Gyles Brandreth.[52]

Personal life

Parsons was married twice. He was first married to actress Denise Bryer in 1954; together they had two children.[16] The couple divorced in 1989.[16] He subsequently married Ann Reynolds in 1995.[10] He was a keen cricket fan, both as a player and supporter,[53] and had a lifelong enthusiasm for clocks.[36]

Health and death

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.[54]

After a brief illness, Parsons died on 28 January 2020, aged 96.[25]


  • 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


Year Title Role Notes
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
Eyewitness House Surgeon
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
1971 Danger Point Fisherman
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
2008 Lady Godiva Himself
2010 Marple Father Gorman Episode: The Pale Horse
2019 Good Omens Dagon (voice) Miniseries and last TV appearance



  1. ^ Parsons, Nicholas (13 May 2008). "Edward Lear". Great Lives. Series 15. Episode 7. BBC Radio 4. Retrieved 18 January 2014.
  2. ^ "FreeBMD Entry Info".
  3. ^ pt91. "Oration for Nicholas Parsons CBE — University of Leicester". Retrieved 27 May 2018.
  4. ^ a b Dixon, Stephen (28 January 2020). "Nicholas Parsons obituary". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 29 January 2020.
  5. ^ a b The Daily Telegraph, 24 September 2013, page 11
  6. ^ a b "Desert Island Discs with Nicholas Parsons". Desert Island Discs. 9 November 2007. BBC. Radio 4.
  7. ^ Parsons, N. (2010), With Just a Touch of Hesitation, Repetition and Deviation: My Life in Comedy, Mainstream Publishing, ISBN 978-1845967123
  8. ^ "Drysdale & Co". Grace's Guide to British Industrial History. Retrieved 13 March 2013.
  9. ^ "Ed Doolan Interviews...". Ed Doolan Interviews. 25 October 2008. BBC. Radio 7.
  10. ^ a b c d "Obituary : Nicholas Parsons". BBC News. 28 January 2020.
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  14. ^ Vincent Terrace (2014). Encyclopedia of Television Shows, 1925 through 2010. McFarland. p. 1124. ISBN 978-0-786-48641-0.
  15. ^ Parsons 2010, p. 25.
  16. ^ a b c d e "Nicholas Parsons: 'I irritated my family because they didn't like showoffs'". The Guardian. 3 December 2017. Retrieved 8 April 2018.
  17. ^ Parsons 2010, pp. 35–36.
  18. ^ "Early Years". Nicholas Parsons Official Website. Retrieved 25 January 2017.
  19. ^ 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.
  20. ^ jricci9 (14 May 2013). "Benny Hill - Sale of the Half Century". Retrieved 20 April 2017 – via YouTube.
  21. ^ "This Is Your Life Nicholas Parsons". imdb. Retrieved 18 September 2021.
  22. ^ Stevens, Christopher (2010). Born Brilliant: The Life of Kenneth Williams. London: John Murray. p. 353. ISBN 978-1-84854-195-5 – via Google Books.
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  24. ^ "Nicholas Parsons has been admitted to hospital". Chortle. 10 August 2019. Retrieved 10 September 2019.
  25. ^ a b "BBC radio host Nicholas Parsons dies". BBC News. 28 January 2020. Retrieved 28 January 2020.
  26. ^ "The press hated quiz shows like Sale of the Century says host Nicholas Parsons, coming to Sudbury". East Anglian Daily Times. 1 September 2018. Retrieved 28 January 2020.
  27. ^ Craig, David (30 January 2020). "BBC to air Nicholas Parsons programme this weekend". Radio Times. Retrieved 25 May 2020.
  28. ^ 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.
  29. ^ "Andy Cunningham obituary". The Guardian. 12 June 2017. Retrieved 28 January 2020.
  30. ^ Lumley, Joanna (2011). Absolutely: A Memoir. Hachette. p. 145. ISBN 978-0-297-86500-1.
  31. ^ "BBC One – Celebrity Mastermind, 2007/2008, Episode 5". BBC.
  32. ^ "Just a Minute needs a format deviation to succeed on TV". The Guardian. 28 March 2012. Retrieved 28 January 2020.
  33. ^ "The new series of Terrahawks will see art imitating life". 8 December 2015.
  34. ^ Parsons, Nicholas (1994). The Straight Man: My Life in Comedy. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. ISBN 0-297-81239-4. OCLC 30590244.
  35. ^ Parsons 2010.
  36. ^ a b "BBC Four – The Incredible Story of Marie Antoinette's Watch with Nicholas Parsons". BBC.
  37. ^ "Good Omens (TV Mini-Series 2019)". IMDb. Retrieved 3 February 2020.
  38. ^ Cryer, Barry (29 January 2020). "Taking a minute to remember Nicholas Parsons - a friend who always knew the score". The Telegraph – via
  39. ^ "The Grand Order of the Water Rats, Comedy Zone – BBC Radio Scotland". BBC. Retrieved 7 September 2018.
  40. ^ "Lord's Taverners – Our Story". Lord's Taverners.
  41. ^ "Lord's Taverners - Nicholas Parsons, CBE". Lord's Taverners. Retrieved 29 January 2020.
  42. ^ "Nicholas Parsons : I'll keep on working with no hesitation, repetition or deviation". The Times. 27 January 2019. Retrieved 28 January 2020.
  43. ^ "Nicholas Parsons on the Lib Dems". BBC News. 11 September 2008. Retrieved 12 April 2014.
  44. ^ Greenstreet, Rosanna (15 August 2015). "Q&A: Nicholas Parsons". The Guardian. Retrieved 7 September 2018.
  45. ^ "Host Parsons' delight at honour". BBC News. 31 December 2003. Retrieved 13 March 2013.
  46. ^ "Early years continued". Nicholas Parsons (official website). Retrieved 13 March 2013.
  47. ^ "No. 60728". The London Gazette (Supplement). 31 December 2013. p. 9.
  48. ^ "New Year Honours: Ten famous faces". BBC News. 30 December 2013. Retrieved 17 March 2014.
  49. ^ "Honorary graduates 1921–2012" (PDF). University of St Andrews. Archived from the original (PDF) on 24 September 2015. Retrieved 13 March 2013.
  50. ^ "Nicholas Parsons, OBE". Debretts. Archived from the original on 7 May 2013. Retrieved 13 March 2013.
  51. ^ "Honoraries". University of Lincoln. Retrieved 13 March 2013.
  52. ^ Meeke, Kieran (27 October 2009). "Nicholas Parsons (profile)". Metro. Retrieved 13 March 2013.
  53. ^ "Obituary: Nicholas Parsons". BBC News. 28 January 2020.
  54. ^ "Nicholas Parsons, 96: I've learned to pace myself after a nasty fall". 27 December 2019.


  • Parsons, Nicholas (2010). Nicholas Parsons: With Just a Touch of Hesitation, Repetition and Deviation: My Life in Comedy. Random House. ISBN 978-1-907-19522-8.

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