2012 marks 40 years since the man behind Sunday Night at the London Palladium, Val Parnell, died. Here DJ Michael Keohan celebrates the ITV television executive, theatre manager and impresario.
Val was born Valentine Charles Parnell at 7 Trelawney Road, Hackney, London on February 14th 1892. Valentines Day. He was one of six sons born to Thomas Frederick Parnell and his wife Elizabeth.
Thomas Fredrick was the editor of the Hackney Gazette newspaper having spent many years as a journalist. In 1896 he ventured into the world of show business as a ventriloquist appearing under the stage name of Fred Russell, his pseudonym to avoid confusion with an Irish politician named Charles Parnell.
Performing with his puppet, Coster Joe, Thomas Fredrick Parnell became a much in demand stage presence on the British music hall scene until he retired in 1933. For his services to performing Parnell senior was honoured with an OBE.
His father’s venture into music halls was something that rubbed off on Val. Having been educated at Godwin College in Margate he, aged 13, started his first job as an office boy with Sir Walter de Frece’s Music Hall Company. Parnell joined at a time when Walter was expanding his circuit of theatres and the future looked bright.
Things suddenly changed in 1914 and with the outbreak of World War I Val signed up to the Queen’s Own 20th regiment, serving with the army until the end of the war. Aged 25 he returned to Sir Walter de Frece’s theatre and music hall empire which in 1919 was taken over by rival Charles Gulliver’s Theatres of Variety group.
The take-over proved to be beneficial to Val Parnell who was instantly promoted to bookings manager for ten of Charles Gulliver’s provincial theatres. Val had nine years of success as a booking manager, this despite it proving difficult to bring in big names due to rival theatre company Moss Empires having more outlets and thus more power to lure in top stars. Parnell pioneered a format that worked around Moss’ domination of top acts.
He called it ‘High Speed Variety’ which saw semi-well known acts booked for the Gulliver owned theatres but for shorter lengths of time than the previous standard runs and a larger turn over of acts per production were placed within the schedules. This format proved a success for the company – so much so in 1928 Sir Walter Gibbons bought-up Gulliver’s company to establish a major rival to Moss with the General Theatres Corporation.
With General Theatres Parnell was now in charge of a national network circuit of music halls and theatres. As National Variety Bookings Manager Val Parnell was put in charge of the music hall and variety theatre’s productions. It proved to be short-lived, while Parnell’s format worked well other parts of the company proved disastrous and was swiftly bought out by the cinema chain Gaumount British Picture Corporation.
The company divisions were split up, with the successful variety arm continuing under the General Theatres brand. Impresario George Black arrived to oversee the live theatre division, Parnell became his assistant. This era kept Black and Parnell busy, Gaumount bought former rival Moss Theatre Group, placing Val as General Manager of their theatres and also decided to turn one of their London theatres into a flagship performance house for the company. The theatre chosen was the London Palladium.
While many theatres either closed or were converted into cinemas Black and Parnell managed to maintain a high level of success for a majority of the live variety venues within the Gaumount group. Thirty years after the advent of films shown with sound, which had been predicted to be the end of music-hall, Black and Parnell kept the tradition alive for a company that was transforming unsuccessful theatres into cinemas, some also became dual-use with live shows and films sharing the same stage. In 1941 Gaumount Cinemas were sold off to Rank, with Moss Empires and General Theatre’s later merged with Stoll Theatres to create the Stoll Moss Theatres. In 1941 Parnell joined the board of directors at the freed-from-cinema theatre group when it was bought into by Parnell and several other investors.
Val Parnell was a firm believer in variety, and as long as live shows put bums on seats cinema wasn’t going to make its way into the theatres he was charged with. His priority became the London Palladium and a host of ‘new ideas’ kept being sought to keep the entertainment fresh. Having seen an act at the company’s Nottingham Hippodrome in which comedians Jimmy Nervo and Teddy Knox kept interrupting the other acts and performers an idea was formed. Parnell in 1932 devised Crazy Week for the Palladium and teamed up Nervo and Knox with other performers Charlie Naughton, Jimmy Gold, Billy Caryll and Hilda Mundy. The Crazy Gang line-up changed over the years but the idea proved such a hit the Crazy Week’s remained a regular of the London Palladium programmes until 1940.
In 1945 George Black died, his two sons would enter the theatre world and would also create Tyne Tees Televison as the ITV North East broadcaster in 1959. With Black’s death Val Parnell became Managing Director of General Theatres and also Moss Empires. Parnell carried on with his mission to keep live theatre alive and built on Black’s legacy, but with a new twist. Parnell restored the old format of twice nightly variety bills at the London Palladium, but rather than British acts leading the productions Parnell flew in top Hollywood stars and American personalities to lure in the audiences.
This theatre innovation looked doomed to fail when Val’s first American top-name-draw offended the critics and audiences alike. Mickey Rooney’s brash comedy failed to sit well with the theatregoers. After this brush with disaster Parnell picked subsequent artists incredibly carefully looking for performers with a great deal of live theatre, vaudeville or musical experience. In 1948 Danny Kaye, a minor American film star, became a sensation at the Palladium – other top draws soon wanted to be on the stage including crooner Frank Sinatra, actress and singer Judy Garland and musician Liberace.
Parnell was criticised for neglecting home grown stars but as he pointed out not many British stars could fill all of the 2200 seats at the Palladium which the American performers could do at that time.
A decade after taking over as MD of the theatre empire Parnell was lured into the new world of commercial television as ITV went to air in London. Working closely with The Grade Organisation – a regular supplier of talent to his theatres – Val Parnell became Managing Director of ATV Network (Associated Television) with Lew Grade as deputy.
Associated Television in September 1955 launched ATV London, which covered the weekend ITV broadcasting, in February 1956 ATV Midlands for the West and East Midlands launched a weekday ITV service to that region. In 1958 he resigned as Moss Theatre’s MD, remaining as a board director with them until 1960.
Val’s biggest show with ATV was Sunday Night at the London Palladium that mixed the best of both worlds. Live variety met television. At its peak the show reached over 20 million viewers on ITV.
In preparation for its new role as a weekly television ‘studio’ the London Palladium – at a time when more than ever theatres were closing due to the competition from cinema and television – Parnell invested in upgrading the theatre. The interior was redecorated, new carpets fitted, a lift was fitted to the orchestra pit, the most up-to-date lighting and sound equipment was installed and there was a no-expense-spared attitude towards the props and costumes that would form part of the shows.
The idea was to bring the glamorous world of the Palladium to viewers who could never afford or were unable, for whatever reason, to reach the variety theatre in real life. Parnell picked for the theme tune a song called Startime from the musical Painting the Town a production that had been a successful stage show at the Palladium just prior to ATV launching.
Airing at 8.00pm on Sunday evenings the weekly appointment with the top stars from America and the UK saw Sunday Night at the London Palladium become an overnight success. It is reported that ITV viewers changed their evening habits in order not to miss the programme. One Vicar in Surrey had to re-schedule his evening service so that his parishioners wouldn’t miss the Palladium show. Over 400 editions, with several spin-offs, aired between 1955 and 1974. Hosts of the show included, Tommy Trinder, Bruce Forsyth, Don Arrol, Norman Vaughan, Jimmy Tarbuck, Bob Monkhouse, Jim Dale, Des O’Connor and Ted Rogers.
Parnell would ensure eight hours of rehearsals took place for just one-hour programme, such was his demand for ‘perfection’ within his television programmes. Parnell would sit in the stalls each week, observing the process alongside his personal assistant and secretary Miss Wood making notes on his behalf of changes, ideas or problems that he would have reworked before the live broadcast. Parnell timed each act to the split second and any performer who over-run their allocated slot was likely to not only banned from future editions of Sunday Night at the London Palladium but also from any Val associated theatre in the country!
This reputation wasn’t without foundation, but Val was known to back down from such a stance occasionally. When performer Jimmy James refused to take a pay cut Parnell barked his ‘you’ll never work in theatre’s again’ promise. And for nine months he didn’t get any work in top theatres. Parnell later relented, sending a telegram to James simply requesting his services to perform at the Newcastle Empire on the ‘usual terms’.
One of the shows famous features was the revolving stage. It became a feature of the closing credits as that week’s celebrity performers would go round and round and waved madly at the audience until the curtains fell as the ATV Production slide appeared. Other regular features fondly remembered are the dance groups. The most famous the Tiller Girls but they did alternate with a seemingly forgotten alternative. The George Carden Palladium Dancers. Maybe the name just wasn’t as catchy as those more famous Tiller Girls.
With some of the biggest names in entertainment to ever appear on a television programme you would think the legacy of Val Parnell’s Sunday night entertainment would be a cherished time capsule of stars ranging from Tommy Cooper, Gracie Fields, Judy Garland, The Beatles, Frankie Howerd, Ella Fitzgerald, Guy Mitchell, Bob Hope, Eartha Kitt, Roy Orbison, Jane Russell to Max Bygraves, Pat Boone, Cliff Richard, Petula Clarke, Nat King Cole, Ethel Merman and even Ena Sharples from Coronation Street (actress Violet Carson in character!)
Unfortunately out of the hundreds of editions made only a handful survive. ATV in many early cases didn’t record the programme in the first place and later editions were destroyed. Television moments lost forever include such gems as the 100th edition which aired in March 1958 and was Buddy Holly’s only performance at the Palladium. In 1961 when the show reached 200 episodes Mel Torme topped the bill and for episode 250 in April 1962 Harry Secombe and Eric Sykes jointly topped the star line-up. All lost forever.
When the show began it cost £8,000 per episode, a decade later it was costing £20,000 to produce an hour of variety and the 1970s revival cost £50,000 per hour long programme. In 1966, along with ATV soap opera Emergency Ward 10, the show was ‘Americanised’ to appeal to overseas broadcasters. It proved an unsuccessful project with both programmes dispatched from television screens a year later.
Val Parnell had at the launch of the show made a promise, a promise made from years of ‘knowing’ what a theatre audience wanted. “A television set is another front door to your house.” Parnell said, “Open it and you admit someone into your home. In sending people to your front door we shoulder a delicate responsibility to maintain a service of entertainment which will hold the public’s preference.”
Parnell added, “You, our audience, are the people I’m aiming to please. You are the people who make this whole vast industry possible. You are here to enjoy yourselves, and for our part we intend to make that possible.” And for 22 million regular viewers to Sunday Night at the London Palladium Val fulfilled his promises.
Another of Parnell’s major ATV series was New Look, launching in 1958, the show gave up and coming talent a chance to be seen on television. Performers included Roy Castle, Jack Douglas and Bruce Forsyth. Val Parnell’s Sunday Show aired in 1961 with Tommy Steele as the host.
There were also ATV Midlands specials including Val Parnell’s Startime in 1956, which was a Birmingham based version of the Palladium show. The early days of ATV also saw Val as presenter with a show entitled Palladium Preview, which was a promotion showcasing the artistes due to be seen on that week’s edition of the main Sunday night show. Val Parnell’s Spectacular was a Saturday night entertainment series which ran from 1956, mixing sketches with live comedy and music performances. Guests included Sid James, Morecambe and Wise, Harry H Corbett and Kenneth Connor to name a few. Just before his departure as a boss at ATV he launched Val Parnell’s All Kinds of Music, a variety showcase for various music performers and genres.
Parnell became Chief Executive in 1956 at ATV – remaining until 1962. Lew Grade took over his executive positions with ATV Network. A spokesperson for the broadcaster added that the board had accepted Val Parnell’s resignation “reluctantly”. Lew Grade released a statement saying he was “proud to step into the shoes of the great Val Parnell.”
This public support hid a furious behind the scenes battle which had begun in 1960 when Parnell and a group of other theatre experts joined forces to take over the whole Stoll Moss Empire chain’s shares. When Val revealed his plans for some of the major theatres (including the Palladium) – turning them into office blocks – fellow ATV executive and Moss co-owner Prince Littler was furious and undertook steps to remove Parnell from the theatre company. It was later revealed that some lucrative theatres had been demolished to make way for new developments with little explination from Parnell.
By December Littler had got his way with Val selling his shares in the company and quitting the board. What little press coverage his departure made was placed with a promise that he wouldn’t be leaving ATV, even if he was saying goodbye to the Palladium. When speculation that the press were to reveal ‘dirt’ on Val’s private life Lew sacked Parnell from ATV. Parnell never explained his change of view about theatres, but having seemingly always been a successful businessman it could be argued he saw the future being in television and theatre audiences were in decline.
Parnell remained on the board of ATV Network until 1966. At the time of Parnell’s departure ATV announced that he would continue to work for the company as a programme consultant, there however are no surviving documents to suggest between 1966 and 1972 Parnell provided any advice to the company. Val’s name remained on the opening of the London Palladium show until 1965.
Val launched other business interests, while still with ATV, including Parnell Investments in 1964, which purchased several non-entertainment businesses including Tanjon Electrics. It also took shareholdings in companies such as film distributor Rank, Mecca Bingo, Butlins Holiday Camps and several ITV regional companies. Parnell sold off his interests in 1966 and bought a large country house in France where he retired.
In June 1968 it was announced that Val’s health had deteriorated and the 76-year-old was in The London Clinic recovering from a ‘major abdominal operation’. By this point his idea, almost a decade prior, to replace theatres with office blocks proved to have been pretty much accurate. Many of the theatre’s his removal from Stoll-Moss, and later ATV, had attempted to save were now bingo halls, office blocks or supermarkets. The days of variety were in decline.
His private life had been far from dull during the years prior to retirement, as noted his wayward ways lead to major ATV shareholder Lew Grade axing him from the company when the press threatened to expose an affair. In 1914 he divorced his first wife Dolly, he went on to marry show dancer Helen Howell in 1938 and not long after began a long-running affair with 19-year-old West End theatre actress Noele Gordon who later became a star of ATV. In 1963 Helen, who knew of the ‘relationship’ with Noele, was told the marriage was over, Val divorced her to marry singer Aileen Cochrane. At the same time he also ditched Noele to be faithful to Cochrane.
Val Parnell had one adopted son, Graham, who kept away from the limelight and fame his father had created for the family. Val died on 22nd of September 1972 aged 80, while on holiday in England, at his luxury London flat, 64, Portsea Hall, Portsea Place. The 6ft 2inches tall Parnell, described as having the stature of a heavyweight boxer, suffered a massive heart attack and died before paramedics could arrive.
A silver plate from Frank Sinatra to Parnell indicates the admiration he commanded from the performers he worked with. Many who deemed him firm but fair. The gift has inscribed “To the real star of the Palladium”.
On October 20th 1972 a memorial service to Val Parnell took place at St Martin in the Fields church, Trafalgar Square, London. It was to be a final Parnell performance, like so many before it, brimming with A-list showbiz names and swarms of crowds. ATV Network cameras were placed around the church to record the occasion and gave the whole event a Val Parnell showbiz feel.
Gracie Fields flew in especially from Capri to sing The Lord’s Prayer, Harry Secombe read the lesson while Max Bygraves, Bruce Forsyth, Charlie Chester, Jimmy Tarbuck and Norman Vaughan were ushers. Tributes from Jack Benny and Frank Sinatra were read while Jimmy Jewel gave the address.
“Not only was Val Parnell a brilliant administrator, he also had a brilliant mind for picking people for stardom. He had an uncanny knack for seeing stardom in a performance long before other people.” Jewel noted.
Val Parnell has a plaque and plot at the Golders Green Crematorium, London. The London Palladium named a bar at the theatre after the impresario as part of their 100 years anniversary in 2010.
Michael Keohan is a radio presenter and has worked for stations including Lite FM and Capital Radio.
He also from 2008-2009 wrote a monthly personal showbiz column for ATV Today.
ATV Icons celebrate the names past and present who have given a great deal to British Culture.