Val Parnell – Paladin of the Palladium


TVTimes interviews the man behind Sunday Night at the London Palladium

LOOKING at a newspaper picture of Tommy Trinder bowing to the Queen, Bud Flanagan once said: “He bows to Royalty, but he kneels to Val Parnell.”

From the TVTimes for 2-8 September 1956

Despite this crack, the Paladin of the Palladium is no ruthless tyrant or despotic czar.

He is the genial boss of the Moss Empires music hall circuit of 24 theatres that provide entertainment for nearly half-a-million people every week.

He is also Chief Executive of Associated TeleVision, and, in a fortnight’s time, will again be presenting Sunday Night at the London Palladium.

It takes a long time to get to know Val Parnell. Unlike most of the people in the profession, he doesn’t go in for the hail-fellow-well-met approach and a lot of effusive conversation.

He is head backroom boy of a vast domain of show business, and mostly he keeps himself to himself.

Audiences can raise the roof

After his wife Helen, Val Parnell loves the Palladium best of all. It is his pride and joy, and he can rightly boast that it is the greatest and most famous music hall in the world.

To top the bill at the Palladium is the ultimate ambition of every variety act in both hemispheres.

Stars like Danny Kaye and Bob Hope sacrifice enormous fees in America to experience the thrill of hearing a Palladium audience raise the roof.

Jack Benny tells a story of how he met Danny Kaye in New York, just after Danny had returned from enjoying London’s twice-nightly applause.

“What time is it?” said Jack to Danny.

“Six-fifteen and eight forty-five,” replied Danny.

Val has the happy knack of making friends of the stars he employs.

On his desk is a paperweight with the inscription: “To Val — the real star of the London Palladium — from Frank Sinatra.”

Guest of honour

Comedian Danny Thomas gave him a Christmas present of cigars with the comment: “To Val, my friend and boss — a rare combination.”

They like him as a man and they respect the fact that he knows the business inside out. And so he should, as son of the once-famous ventriloquist, Fred Russell — still sprightly at the age of 94.

When Fred Russell was a guest of honour at a Press Club dinner some time ago, Val was there as well.

Someone introduced the grand old man as “Fred Russell, the father of Val Parnell.”

“No,” corrected Val, “I’m the son of Fred Russell — and proud of it.”

Famous son of an almost legendary father: Val Parnell with a picture of Fred Russell

In the photograph above you see him standing beside the portrait of his father that he keeps on the piano in his office.

“What about a smile?” asked the photographer as he posed for the picture.

”I never smile,” said Val. He looked at me and asked: “What have I got to smile about?”

But there was a twinkle in his eye.

Come to think of it. I’ve rarely seen him smile. For years I’ve met him backstage, front-of-the-house, in the auditorium rehearsing a Royal Variety Performance, and at all sorts of private parties — and I’ve hardly ever seen him smile, except in greeting a friend.

It’s not that he hasn’t a sense of humour or an appreciation of fun; he can judge the effect of a comedian on an audience long before he hears the laughter.

Once he gave an audition to a not-very-funny comic.

Judging effect

“I’m sorry,” said Val, “but I don’t want any profanity at the Palladium.”

“But,” the man protested, “I don’t use any swear-words.”

“I know,” said Val. “But the audience would.”

Though born into show business, Val did not hanker after grease-paint and footlights. He preferred the business side. He eventually became assistant to the famous George Black, whom he succeeded as boss of Moss Empires when Black died in 1945.

Val’s love of the Palladium amounts to a sort of fanaticism. With a gleam in his eye usually associated with fathers speaking of their first-born, he said to me:

“Do you know that up in the half-crown gallery they’ve got the same carpet as the fourteen-and-sixpenny stalls… at £4 17s. 6d. a yard?

Down in the cellar

“Do you know that it cost £6,000 to put in a new cloakroom downstairs? That’s because we’re over some wine cellars, and thousands of bottles of wine had to be moved out for the job — and then moved in again.”

A final anecdote…

Early in the war a neurotic Negro artist tried to get a Palladium date — and failed.

He called at the Moss Empires’ offices, declaring drunkenly that he would shoot Val Parnell if he didn’t give him a job.

“Mr. Parnell,” said an anxious secretary, “there’s a man downstairs who says he’s going to shoot you.”

Replied Val: “Tell him to get in the queue.”

About the author

Moore Raymond (1903-1965) was a journalist, playwright and comic book author, this latter work appearing in Girl, Eagle and Swift, where he created the memorable character of Smiley.

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