Earlier this year, a clip of a 1975 interview between Michael Parkinson and Helen Mirren went viral. You’ve probably seen it already: the chat show host and the actress perched on leather chairs against a gravy-coloured background, the atmosphere between them crackling with tension and dislike.
Viewed from the vantage point of 2016, the interview is wince-inducing for its showcasing of 1970s sexism. Parkinson introduces Mirren as the “sex queen of the Royal Shakespeare Company”, before telling her condescendingly: “You are, in quotes, a serious actress.”
He then proceeds to quote a review which described Mirren as “projecting sluttish eroticism”, before asking whether her “equipment” – i.e. her body – stops her being taken seriously as a dramatic actor. “Because serious actress can’t have big bosoms, is that what you mean?” the 30-year-old Mirren shoots back, her blue eyes flashing steel.
Now, over four decades later, Parkinson has commented on the furore surrounding the infamous interview. And perhaps unsurprisingly, he doesn’t think there was anything seedy about his line of questioning. In fact, he rather seems to think that the young Mirren was – inevitably – asking for it.
“OK, maybe I was a bit over-reactive to Ms Mirren,” Parkinson told Event magazine on Sunday, when asked about the interview.
“On the other hand, she presented a provocative figure as she walked down the stairs carrying a feather boa, half dressed as I recall, with love and hate tattooed on to her knuckles.”
Mirren had indeed dared to get her knuckles inked, a rebellious move for a ‘respectable’ young woman in 1975. But the rest of Parkinson’s recollection of their meeting is so inaccurate that you wonder if he’s ever bothered to re-watch the interview since it aired 41 years ago.
In his ultra-condescending description of the “half dressed” Mirren, she appears as some sort of rock ‘n’ roll Vegas showgirl, shimmying aggressively at the top of a spiral staircase. It’s simply not an accurate account of the softly spoken, impeccably polite woman who really appeared on his show, dressed demurely in a long, plain dark dress.
The “feather boa” to which he refers, meanwhile, was actually a single brown feather, which Mirren said she carried for good luck; a pretentious accessory, perhaps, but hardly a pair of revolving nipple tassels. (Decades later, she would recall how nervous she’d been before appearing on Parkinson’s show, saying in 2011, “That’s the first talk show I’d ever done. I was terrified.”)
Parkinson goes on to claim that “I would not have done my duty as a human being had I not reacted in a certain way” to the young Mirren’s attire and attitude. All things considered, this is a faintly perplexing statement. What does he mean? Does he genuinely think that he, Sir Michael Parkinson, was put on this earth to police young women’s bodies? What a thrilling hill to die on.
It would be easy to dismiss Parky as a relic from a time gone by, and this is an attitude he is clearly keen to encourage. It lets him off the hook from all those pesky modern feminists, you see.
“You have to judge [the interview] by what happened in that time,” he tells Event. “If you didn’t live in that time, you’re not allowed an opinion in my view.”
Ah, yes, we forgot that nobody is allowed to criticise things that happened before they were born, ever. That’s why nobody born after 1865 would dare condemn slavery, and why people born after the end of WW2 don’t understand that Nazism was pretty bad, or – oh, hang on.
“I can see everything in the context of the time I did it,” Parkinson continues. “I can think, ‘Ooh, I wouldn’t do that now.’ But that doesn't mean to say I was wrong at the time.”
Oh, Michael! That’s exactly what it means!
The interview concludes with Parkinson doing some soul-searching. “Am I a sexist?” he ponders, before concluding: “No, I'm Yorkshire. I don't know what the answer is or what a sexist means, basically.”
That, dear sir, is obvious.
Images: Rex Features