If you had been watching BBC One at 11pm on 25 October 2003, you would have witnessed one of the most talked about moments in British television history. This was the time-slot of Parkinson, then the BBC’s flagship chat show, hosted by veteran interviewer and national treasure Michael ‘Parky’ Parkinson. That night’s top-billed guest was Meg Ryan, fresh from a messy divorce and in the midst of a media tour to promote her latest film In the Cut.
The format of Parkinson was straightforward: three celebrity guests would chat with Parky, whose grandfatherly demeanor and warm Yorkshire accent gave the show the air of a gentle fireside chat. There was some middle-of-the-road musical entertainment, the audience clapped and everyone went home. It was a tried and tested format that had changed little since the 1970’s, and although Parky was in the twilight of his career by 2003, millions still tuned in every Saturday night to enjoy his cozy brand of entertainment.
But tonight something felt different. Far from a convivial chat, Parkinson and Ryan were butting heads. Ryan sat with her arms and legs crossed, leaning away from Parkinson and replying in monosyllables to a barrage of increasingly needling questions from the host.
Parkinson pursued line after line of awkward and sometimes overly personal questioning, even suggesting at one point that her decision to star in In the Cut, a darker movie than the breezy rom-coms that had made her famous, was because she was ‘bruised’ from her recent divorce.
Just as the tension started to boil, Parkinson changed the topic to Ryan’s early ambitions to be a journalist. Things seemed to cool as Ryan described her time studying at New York University and how she ended up becoming an actor instead. But Parkinson’s choice of topic was a trap. “Now that you’re wary of journalists, does it give you an insight into what they’re after?” He asked. Ryan paused “Now that I’m wary of them?” She echoed. Parkinson pressed on. “Yes, you are wary of journalists. You’re wary of me. You’re wary of being interviewed, you don’t like being interviewed. You can see it in the way you sit, the way you are” Ryan looked around the studio incredulously as Parkinson continued. “In other words if you were me, what would you do now?” Ryan thought for a second and delivered the perfect riposte, “I’d just wrap it up”. The audience laughed nervously.
The interview caused a national sensation. Water-coolers around the country were abuzz. The media firmly sided with Parkinson and subsequently dragged Ryan through the mud, labeling her arrogant and sullen. In a Guardian article (published almost two months after the episode aired, to give you some idea of the fallout), Peter Bradshaw wrote:
“Tetchy, defensive, and sometimes apparently just not interested, Ryan gave the British public an unscripted glimpse into the life of the pampered A-lister ungraciously submitting to the publicity process and looking with uncomprehending distaste, as if through a thick glass screen, at the non-American media and public she was forced to court.”
Despite being just 15 at the time and largely disinterested in celebrity tattle, I accepted this narrative as the canonical version of events. In fact if you’d asked me what I thought about Meg Ryan even a couple of weeks ago, I would probably have given you a pretty similar account to the one above.
So when I recently pulled up a clip of the exchange on YouTube I was confused. Meg Ryan wasn’t being difficult at all, Parkinson was being rude and condescending to her. Was this definitely the right clip? I scrolled down to read the comments:
“Watching this back after many years believing Meg Ryan was a lunatic in this interview. How wrong I was, Meg answers his question with honesty and sincerity whilst completely playing ball - Parky goads and continually tried to catch her out then turns aggressive and intimidating - disgusting”
“I remember really slagging Meg off about this interview years ago. I’m sorry Meg. There was ‘something in the water’ and I thought you were really unresponsive - and I even remember you walking out of the studio [she didn’t]. Damn! I’m so sorry I remembered this so negatively. You were sweet and natural and still so lovely.”
“I totally agree with the majority of other comments about Parky. I’m not sure why Meg Ryan got the bad press following this interview, she didn’t deserve to in my book.”
Normally I would never encourage anyone to read YouTube comments, but the ones beneath this clip are worth a look; they are almost unanimously in Ryan’s favor. I couldn’t find a single comment that came even close to the vitriol that was printed about her at the time. What was going on? Had everyone secretly agreed that we all got it wrong?
This disparity between memory and reality made me think of the Mandela Effect, a largely unexplained phenomenon whereby large groups of strangers seemingly share false memories, sometimes in great detail. It is named after a popular false memory, reportedly shared by millions of people, that Nelson Mandela died in prison in the 1980’s, even though he was released from prison and lived for another 30 years. Was the Meg Ryan incident a case of misremembering en masse?
There are a number of explanations we could look at. An improvement in Anglo-US relations after the invasion of Iraq, perhaps. Or the #metoo movement. Or the shocking revelations about the behavior of other so-called national-treasures from 1970’s Britain that tarnished a generation of entertainers. But I’d like to favor Occam’s razor and offer a more simple explanation: we have, as a society, got better at listening to women. Parkinson vs. Ryan is not a case of collective misremembering but a touchstone against which we can measure our progress. In 2003 we saw a difficult, ‘tetchy’ celebrity daring to insult an institutional, avuncular figure. Today we see a man bullying a woman.
It’s an encouraging sign that things are getting better at a time when it often feels like they aren’t. No doubt there are similar exchanges taking place today that we will look back on 16 years from now and wonder how we got it so wrong. By way of an apology, let’s call it the Meg Ryan effect: not a collective misremembering, but the steady march of progress.