Nicholas Parsons: My family values

The actor and radio and television presenter talks about growing up the middle child of three and the struggle to fulfil his dreams of becoming an actor

I absolutely adored my nanny, Nelly, while I was growing up. She had a great flair with children – she was about 17 when she started looking after us. She helped to make me happy, and I kept in touch with her all my life.

I had a privileged background. My father was a doctor and we lived in a big house on the corner of a green in Grantham. He was also terribly busy with his practice and I didn't see a great deal of him, usually only at mealtimes. I missed not seeing him more. But I did get to know him very well in his later years when he was wasting away from a form of Parkinson's. I used to visit him regularly and keep him company. He was a quiet, reserved man and a brilliant doctor.

As a middle child, I felt squeezed out. I had an elder brother and a younger sister. The firstborn and youngest do get lots of attention. My mother would always get very impatient with me because I had a stutter, as opposed to my nanny who was sweet and gentle. But she was my mother and I loved her. She was also a very judgmental and strong-minded woman. She was one of four daughters and in those days there were only two things daughters did – nurse or teach. She was a nurse but I think she was tortured to some extent because she had so much talent to express.

My mum was always pushing me because I struggled to read and write – it was never a natural process. I had dyslexia but didn't know what it was and thought I was just very slow. But I did very well at all my schools because I discovered the skill of recall. If you're dyslexic, you develop your memory and it's stood me in wonderful stead.

My parents were delighted when I did become successful, but I really had to struggle to go my own way. They were horrified when I first told them I wanted to be a professional performer. When I was 16, they wanted me to study engineering and I ended up in Glasgow working for an engineering firm, run by Scottish relations of an uncle. Every child wants to please their parents, so I did what I was told. With my upbringing and public-school accent, I could have been crucified. I found it traumatic and how I survived I'll never know. I joined an amateur dramatics society and did a bit of standup; all invaluable experience for what I really wanted to do.

Fatherhood was the most magical time of my life – I have two children with my first wife, Denise. I'd come back after a hard day to be greeted by excited children, and it was a great bonus. I'm still very friendly with Denise; we drifted apart, but we're still good friends.

At one point I was getting very tense and not achieving what I should have been. I did see a psychiatrist, who suggested analysis. It helped tremendously – it gave me great knowledge and understanding.

I now have nine grandchildren – my second wife, Annie, has children the same age as mine. I wish I had more energy to see them all.

The day my father died, I was sitting at his bedside in hospital and he was very weak. There was a TV in the room and he suddenly said, "Sale of the Century. Let's put it on." I thought, you watch it, but you've never told me. He said, "I always thought it was very clever the way you did that quick speed up at the end of the show." He did follow my career with interest and it was very moving to find out.

• Nicholas Parsons presents Just a Minute on BBC Radio 4


Emma Cook

The GuardianTramp

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