Talking pubs with Parky

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You wouldn't necessarily know you were in Michael Parkinson's pub.The Royal Oak, in Paley Street, Berkshire, contains not a single signed photo of...

You wouldn't necessarily know you were in Michael Parkinson's pub.

The Royal Oak, in Paley Street, Berkshire, contains not a single signed photo of Billy Connolly chuckling. There's no stuffed Emu, nor clip of Ricky Hatton sparring. Not even a portrait-sized picture of the man himself in his side-burned 1970s pomp adorns its walls.

Nevertheless, sitting down for a chat about pubs with the chat show king in its smart interior, he is proud to call the Royal Oak his.

"Sir Michael", "Parky", "award-winning broadcaster and journalist", stumped up the cash along with son Nick for the Fuller's tenancy eight years ago. A few miles from culinary capital Bray, it faced tough competition. It is now a 'Bib Gourmand' entry in the current edition of the Michelin Guide, and is shortlisted for two categories in The Publican Food & Drink Awards - Chef of the Year and Sunday Lunch Pub of the Year.

With a serious food focus, a menu on which many main courses will set a punter back upwards of 20 quid, and aspirations for a full Michelin star in the Guide's next edition, it is, some might say, not a conventional pub model.

A classic case of a celebrity retiring to half-heartedly run his nest egg? A big bucks-backed restaurant ripping the historical heart out of what could otherwise be a perfectly good traditional pub? Parkinson is fierce in facing down such suggestions.

Building on bedrock

The pub was "on its knees" when they took it on, he says, and they have turned it round into a profitable and critically-lauded business.

More than anything, he believes its success is built on the bedrocks of traditional pub values. "The critics are just jealous," he says. "A well-kept pint is to be bothered about, and not too many landlords, especially down south, understand that. Our pub has got a beautiful pint, beautifully kept.

"We're not being elitist at all. Where I came from [he is of course a proud Yorkshireman, born near Barnsley in 1935], when I was a kid, you could have gone through the door of a pub and it could have had chandeliers but not a decent pint and you wouldn't have gone in there. The scruffy old ratholes, on the other hand, if the pint was right, you would go in there."

And Parkinson claims the same of the Royal Oak's food. "I challenge your readership: I'll go to their pub and have a Scotch egg," he says. "Then they come to my pub and have my Scotch egg for the same price - a different experience altogether.

"We don't want to get rid of traditional pub food, we want to do it better than it's been done before."

Not that he really takes much of the credit for any of this. He takes a back seat to let Nick, who had years of experience managing hotels abroad, handle the day-to-day management.

His only hands-on experience of the hospitality trade was working in the kitchen of a family-run restaurant as a lad. He recounts: "My Uncle Bernard was a chef at the Royal Hotel in Barnsley.

"They used to do Barnsley chops, which is a loin of lamb not less than 16 ounces in weight. I used to have to prep those bloody things. They're still eating my Barnsley chops, 50 years after the event!"

Calling in the favours

Of course, though, there are other parts of Parkinson's CV that have helped the Royal Oak. Despite not wanting to resort to celebrity associations, he turned to a contacts book studded with star names in the pub's early days.

It's not every licensee who, when organising a music night, can call on a favour from friends Jamie Cullum and Daniel Bedingfield. "We opened very quietly," Parkinson explains. "We wouldn't have wanted anyone to come in our pub for the first six months. It was bloody horrible - we kept it a secret!

"We were struggling and that was where we were lucky with my contacts. I didn't want to just sit there putting money into it, but to run it as an enterprise. The likes of Jamie and Daniel carried us through. They were very popular."

The Royal Oak had one final superstar blow-out before, as Parkinson says, they decided the food's reputation was strong enough in its own right. Chris Rea's performance required a marquee to be erected in the pub's modest beer garden.

It's show time

What these incidents demonstrate is the ease with which someone with Parkinson's high-profile can attract new customers to their business, but the King of Chat believes that there are more similarities between the skills bases needed to make it on the telly and those needed to run a successful pub.

"I have an instinct for all this," he says. "I think there is a great link between the entertainment business and show business. In both, you are attracting people by putting on a show.

"Both are bloody hard graft. It's like working on TV. Your audience only sees the person walking down the steps to host the show. They don't see the 95 per cent of the work that goes on behind the scenes," he says.

"In the same way, when people come here to eat and drink, they don't want to know what's gone on behind the scenes. It's showbiz, curtain up."

And with that, it's curtain down on the interview, and the start of another busy lunchtime service at a pub that tries, without entirely succeeding, to hide its backing by one of the godfathers of British TV.

Top five fantasy pub customers

If Parky could have the pick of all the guests who have featured on his talk show, which five would he choose to be customers at the Royal Oak? Standing round the bar would be:

• Billy Connolly

• Robin Williams. "Those two would mean I don't have to talk very much. Billy Connolly is a comic genius, and is a very nice man, as is Robin Williams. A lot of comics are quite ordinary off-screen without the script. Those two certainly aren't."

• "We'd want a bit of glamour. Who did I most like touching my knee on the show? Halle Berry was a beautiful woman. Raquel Welch was maybe the most attractive woman I ever met. I met her when she was about 24, in 1974."

• Tony Bennett. "We'd have to have a singer."

• "And we'd want a piano player. Let's go for Oscar Peterson."

And one he'd bar…

After an infamous on-air spat with the film star, Parkinson "wouldn't have Meg Ryan, although Meg could do with coming to a pub like this and relaxing, getting some beer down her. I'd have to start her on the bitter. She'd be a bit more relaxed than when she was on the show, that's for sure."

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