Parkinson was a ‘sexist old fart’ in the ’70s… ‘but in lots of ways he was right’ says Helen Mirren

Helen Mirren clashing with Michael Parkinson in the infamous 1975 interview
Helen Mirren clashing with Michael Parkinson in the infamous 1975 interview - BBC

When Sir Michael Parkinson asked Dame Helen Mirren during an infamous interview whether her “equipment” prevented her from being taken seriously, the actress was furious.

The clip from Parkinson’s eponymous chat show has regularly resurfaced over the years, and is held up as a prime example of 1970s sexism.

But Dame Helen has now reconsidered, and concluded that Parkinson had a point.

“I didn’t feel sorry for Parky, but then in a way I did because in lots of ways he was right. My physicality did get in the way of me being taken seriously as a classical actress,” she told Radio Times.

“Also, I was listening to Elton John’s autobiography and I didn’t realise that when Elton John was outed in a bad way by The Sun, Parky invited Elton on to his show so that they could talk about it properly.

“He held out a hand and helped Elton John at a very important moment. So I don’t want to diss Parky.”

Parkinson welcomes the actress on to his show
Parkinson welcomes the actress on to his show - BBC

She added that times have changed. “And fast. And we can only kick down the patriarchy one brick at a time.”

Dame Helen’s response has clearly mellowed over the years. Reflecting on the interview in 2011 during an interview with The Daily Telegraph, she described Parkinson’s questions as “outrageous”.

“That’s the first talk show I’d ever done. I was terrified. I watched it and I actually thought, bloody hell! I did really well. I was so young and inexperienced. And he was such a f—ing sexist old fart. He was. He denies to this day that it was sexist, but of course it was,” she said then.

In the interview, broadcast in 1975, Parkinson asked the young actress: “You are - in quotes - ‘a serious actress’... do you find that what could be best described as your ‘equipment’ in fact hinders you in that pursuit?”

Asked to explain what he was talking about, Parkinson said he was referring to the actress’s figure and “physical attributes”.

“Serious actresses can’t have big bosoms, is that what you mean?” Dame Helen asked.

“Well, I think they might detract from your performance,” he replied.

Dame Helen told The Daily Telegraph in 2011 that she thought Parkinson’s remarks were “outrageous”.

“That’s the first talk show I’d ever done. I was terrified. I watched it and I actually thought, bloody hell!

“I did really well. I was so young and inexperienced. And he was such a f—ing sexist old fart. He was. He denies to this day that it was sexist, but of course it was.

Love and hate

Parkinson died in August, aged 88.

He always defended the interview, saying that it had made “good television”.

He told one reporter: “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 her knuckles. I would not have done my duty as a human being had I not reacted in a certain way.

“I mean, we didn’t like each other… She didn’t want to do an interview and after about 10 minutes I didn’t want to interview her.”

Parkinson denied that his attitude was sexist, saying: “You have to judge it by what happened in that time. If you didn’t live in that time, you’re not allowed an opinion in my view.

“Am I sexist? No, I’m Yorkshire.”

Dame Helen, 78, will next be seen as Golda Meir in a film set during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Her casting proved controversial, with Jewish figures including Maureen Lipman saying that the role should not be played by a non-Jewish actress.

For her transformation into the Israeli leader, Dame Helen spent two-and-a-half hours in make-up each day and wore a spandex bodysuit to appear larger.