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Remembering Nicholas Parsons

David Caldwell (MA 1967) shares some of his personal memories of Nicholas Parsons – a well-loved Rector and honorary graduate of St Andrews, who died on Tuesday 28 January 2020.

The Citizens’ Theatre
Although Nicholas Parsons was best known as the chairman of the radio panel game Just a Minute –a role he undertook for more than 50 years – he began his working life at 16 as an apprentice engineer in Clydebank for Drysdale’s, who manufactured marine pumps.

What he really wanted, however, was to be an actor and, while still working as an apprentice, he auditioned for and got small parts with the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow. It was there that he met John Macrae (under his stage name Duncan Macrae) – a leading figure in the company at around that time. They became good friends. Ann (the older of John and Peggy Macrae’s two daughters, who became my wife) remembered Nicholas visiting their flat in Glasgow when she was only a few years old. He brought her a present of a sailor doll, which she named after him.

Rector of the University of St Andrews
I met Nicholas around 40 years later when the students at St Andrews elected him as their Rector (1988-1991). As part of this role, he became the Chair of the University Court (the governing body of the University). I happened to be one of the General Council assessors at that time. I mentioned to him on one occasion – probably over lunch after a Court meeting – that I was married to John Macrae’s daughter Ann, and Nicholas spoke warmly about his time at the Citizens and about John in particular. In his book A Life in Comedy published in 2010 he wrote:

“In many ways, John was my theatrical hero, and I was delighted, many years later, to meet a member of the University Court who was married to John’s daughter. Reforging my connection with John was important to me.”

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe
At around the time Ann and I moved to Edinburgh in 2000, Nicholas began to perform every August at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe: Nicholas Parsons’ Happy Hour became an annual event. It had a chat show format, in which he would have conversations with people who were performing in Fringe shows. Usually he would have three guests, and there would be a musical item from one of them. Many were young, stand-up comedians who were just starting out, and whom he wanted to encourage.

He had different guests for every show. This was demanding: he took his research seriously and went to see the shows they were appearing in so that he was well prepared. His conversations with them were fluent and natural, despite being entirely unscripted and conducted without notes. Moreover, his show ran typically for at least six days a week throughout the Fringe. He continued to perform every August for almost 20 years in succession, though by 2018 (aged 94) he had reduced the run to around ten days. His shows were invariably sold out.

Ann and I began to go to his shows each year, and by the third year Ann sent him a note congratulating him and mentioning her father. Nicholas’s response was almost immediate: we should meet. We did so on several occasions, usually in the Pleasance Bar after his show and on one occasion in a restaurant where he invited us to dinner at the end of his run. The photograph was taken on that evening.

He phoned Ann most years when he was in Edinburgh. When she died in 2018, he sent me a card with a sympathetic, handwritten message.

Nicholas Parsons with Ann Caldwell (nee Macrae) in Edinburgh, August 2014

Backstage at the Pleasance
The last time I saw Nicholas was in August 2018, a few months after Ann’s death. Christine – our daughter – went with me this time to his Happy Hour. Nicholas was particularly thoughtful on that occasion: he arranged to meet us before the show so we could get the best seats before the rest of the audience came in, and he and his wife had a drink in the bar with us afterwards.

He also took us backstage before the show to meet his assistant and some of the performers who were appearing as his guests. ‘Backstage’ at the Pleasance Cabaret Bar is a small cramped corridor where the next act waits until the previous show has ended, and its audience has left. It says a lot for Nicholas’s enthusiasm for his work that he didn’t appear to mind that in the least – in fact he even seemed to relish it. For us, it was a great experience.

I remember Nicholas as the perfect professional and, above all, as a very kind and generous person.

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