One of Britain's foremost theatre managers and impresarios, Val Parnell also performed an instrumental role in the popularisation of television following the launch of ITV in 1955. The variety shows he produced between 1955 and the early 1960s played a crucial role in establishing the new channel, offering viewers something fresh and exciting in opposition to what some saw as the staid programming of the BBC.
Born Valentine Charles Parnell in London on 14 February 1892, with the theatre in his blood (his father was the ventriloquist Fred Russell), he began working as an office boy for a music-hall circuit at the age of 13. By 1945 he had risen through the ranks to become managing director of the Moss Empires theatre circuit. As such, he was in direct control of some of London's most prestigious theatres, including the London Palladium.
As Managing Director from January 1956 of Associated Television (ATV) - holder of the London weekend and the Midlands weekday franchises - Parnell held responsibility for all of the company's productions, but with his showbusiness background he naturally took a personal interest in its variety output, the production of which he had already been involved with at ATV before taking up his post.
Beginning on Sunday 25 September 1955, three days after ITV had begun transmission, Val Parnell's Sunday Night at the London Palladium (ITV 1955-65) presented viewers with a quality of variety rarely seen on British television: a weekly show transmitted live from London's premier theatre offering a mixture of homegrown and international acts (the first show featured Gracie Fields and American singing star Guy Mitchell). The weekly visit to the Palladium was central to the new channel's success. The star names, the ebullience of presenter Tommy Trinder (the first of many over the years), the high-kicking Tiller Girls and the public participation game 'Beat the Clock' combined to make the show essential Sunday evening entertainment.
For the first six weeks of its run, Parnell also presented Palladium Preview (ITV, 1955), transmitted earlier the same evening in order to introduce the stars of that night's show.
Having conquered Sunday evenings, Parnell turned his attentions to Saturday with Val Parnell's Spectacular (ITV, 1956-61). Departing from the format of its Sunday forerunner, the Saturday show was largely devoted to one artist (and his or her guests), beginning with The Gracie Fields Show (tx. 10/11/1956).
Other series and specials from the Parnell stable included the variety special, billed simply as Variety, mounted to open the ATV Midlands network on 17 February 1956; Val Parnell's Startime (ITV, 1956-60; initially called Val Parnell's Variety Startime); Young and Foolish (ITV, 1956), among whose regular cast was Parnell's nephew, Jack Parnell, who, with his orchestra, would soon became a fixture of many ATV variety shows; Folies Bergere Revue - Paris by Night (ITV, tx. 9/9/1956) with Benny Hill and Tommy Cooper heading the bill; New Look (ITV, 1958-59), introducing faces new to television; Val Parnell's Sunday Show (ITV, tx. 25/6/1961) starring Tommy Steele; and All Kinds of Music (ITV, 1961).
Other series to emerge from ATV while he was managing director include sketch series The Arthur Haynes Show (ITV, 1957-66); soap opera Emergency - Ward 10 (ITV, 1957-67); sitcom The Larkins (ITV, 1958-64); the secret agent drama Danger Man (ITV, 1960-62; 1964-68); and the Gerry Anderson puppet animation series Supercar (ITV, 1961-62).
Although he remained as a director of Moss Empires until 1960, he had resigned as managing director in 1958 to concentrate on his work for ATV (he also retained an interest in the Palladium). In September 1962 he stepped down as ATV's managing director, to be succeeded by Lew Grade, although, again, Parnell remained on the company board as a director.
He continued to present Val Parnell's Sunday Night at the London Palladium until June 1966, although it endured some name changes. Between September and December 1965 it was renamed The New London Palladium Show, becoming simply The London Palladium Show from January 1966 until it limped to its ignominious close in February 1969. Parnell, however, had ceased to serve as executive producer after the episode of 12 June 1966.
While ITV has sporadically returned to the Palladium to mount variety shows such as Sunday Night at the London Palladium (ITV, 1973-74), Live from the Palladium (ITV, 1987-88), and Tonight at the London Palladium (ITV, 2000), none has recaptured the glories of Parnell's days at the helm.
Parnell resigned from the board of ATV in 1966 to live in retirement in France. He died on 22 September 1972.