Interestingly the BBC has heavily promoted the return of Just A Minute for the year by pointing to a statistical achievement.
Last year it was David Tennant completing a full minute in his debut - touted as a JAM first (which it wasn't
This year the emphasis has been on Paul Merton passing Kenneth Williams' total of appearances.
As the one who initiated the JAM stats obsession, I can't (and don't) object to interest in them.
But there are two quibbles I can make about the interest in this one.
there is the interest in someone getting to second on a list. Usually
we get excited when someone BREAKS a record, not by who is second! Paul
will probably have to keep playing for another decade or more to pass
the great Sir Clement Freud's number of shows.
other is that if you include TV appearances, Paul actually passed
Kenneth in the middle of last year. Now as I often say when people want
to argue with me about what should and shouldn't be counted, you can count JAM shows in many different ways
and if you look carefully at my website you will see I do do this.
week Paul passed Kenneth's total of radio appearances. So - fine just
to count those - but the BBC promoted JAM's 900th show back in 2014. On
radio shows alone, the 900th show is still to come and won't happen
until late next year.
It will be interesting to see if
the BBC decides to promote the 1000th show when it comes up, probably
in 2018 - or if it waits for the radio milestone to clock over probably
three or four years after that.
Anyway, let's put aside my anorakian approach to JAM stats.
There were many good things to come out of the interest in the milestone in the past week.
Let's start with the BBC itself which provided this little duologue on the statistical feat between Nicholas and Paul
which is good fun. Whoever scripted it has clearly been making full uise of the website!
Then there is these four full minutes from Paul
I was contacted by a BBC producer and asked to suggest some full Paul
minutes. I was asked to nominate clips since 2007. I suggested four and
as you can see they were all used. I also nominated a couple of pre-2007
minutes including my personal favourite Paul minute, the one of flying
saucers from 1995. And I suggested using the famous 2005 banter on the
outwitting by herbaceous borders - but these didn't make the cut. Anyway
the full minutes are there and are good fun.
Also Paul gave a really interesting interview to The Guardian about Just A Minute
Although he and Nicholas have talked about JAM boith on stage and on CD
in recent years, these have ended up with essentially being Paul
interviewing Nicholas. It's fascinating to read Paul's comments on the
show he describes as "his favourite job".
I'll post the
article here for posterity as it really is a good one. Sadly though for
those looking forward to Esther Rantzen's debut next week, Paul says it
didn't go well!
Paul Merton on Just a Minute: 'Our worst contestant? Esther Rantzen'
As Paul Merton surpasses Kenneth Williams as a Just a Minute legend,
he talks about the fast-talking panel show’s best and worst guests – and
why everyone was scared the day he arrived.
It’s incredible that Paul Merton was ever allowed on Just a Minute.
“Five years before I went on the show, a producer told me that mine
wasn’t the sort of voice they heard on Radio 4,” says the 58-year-old
comedian, in what back in the day would have been seen as an
unbroadcastably earthy London accent.
In 1988, just before he made his debut on the radio panel game, they
still had doubts. Ted Taylor, the worried producer, rang Merton up. “He
thought he was booking Sid Vicious, I think, because he explained to me
that they don’t swear. Then wanted to know what I was going to be
wearing just in case I turned up in swastika gear.”
Little did Taylor realise that, for Merton, this was the realisation
of a childhood dream. As a boy in the early 1970s, while his peers were
listening to Bowie and T-Rex, Merton would be taping Just a Minute, to
learn how to emulate the virtuosity of Kenneth Williams, Derek Nimmo, Peter Jones and Clement Freud.
Today the Sid Vicious of panel shows has become part of the
establishment. On 22 February, when Just a Minute enters its 74th
series, he will overtake the late Kenneth Williams to become the second
most featured panellist on the show. Williams appeared 346 times.
Monday’s show will be Merton’s 347th.
Freud, who died in 2009, retains top position with 544 episodes. Does
Merton plan to overtake him? “Clement had a 20-year start, so it would
be tricky.” He’d have to record 32 series to catch up: that’s more than
three series a year for a decade. Merton puts his face in his hands.
He’s unlikely ever to catch up with the 92-year-old host, Nicholas
Parsons, who has presented all 864 episodes since the show’s launch in
1967. Indeed, Merton suggests one of the reasons he has stayed on the
show for 28 years is because Parsons is such a “generous, sweet man”.
It was Merton rather than Parsons, though, who revolutionised Just a
Minute, perhaps even saving it from the chop. “When I started with
Clement, Peter and Derek, the atmosphere was like a gentleman’s club,
with someone sitting in the corner reading anecdotes about Donald Wolfit. If a woman walked into the room, they stood up – which caught me out completely.”
It was not a happy show. “Sometimes there would be recordings where
the four regulars would gang up on Nicholas. On one show, they talked
about his first wife being more attractive than his second. I think
producers had a bit of a torrid time – they couldn’t get new people on
because it was a closed shop.”
Williams’ death in 1988 raised the prospect of the show being axed.
His performances – elongating words to thwart the charge of hesitation;
throwing flamboyant mock-tantrums; his whole needy, waspish shtick –
were so distinctive that Just a Minute seemed unthinkable without him.
But then Parsons met Merton on a short-lived TV show called Scruples and
encouraged him to apply. Soon Merton found himself on the same panel as
his childhood heroes. His presence changed everything.
was a view that Paul Merton’s come in, he’s fresh and
different, and if we gradually bring in new people, maybe the show has
legs.” And so it proved: Julian Clary, Graham Norton, Jenny Eclair, Sue
Perkins, Ross Noble, Shappi Khorsandi and Gyles Brandreth have all
helped to give Just a Minute a new lease of life. “It’s just as
competitive as it was,” says Merton, “but looser and more fun. I
think.”Just a Minute, in case you don’t know, works like this. The host
gives one of four contestants a topic to talk about for 60 seconds and
they have to do so without hesitation, repetition or deviation. If
another contestant reckons the speaker has broken a rule, they push a
buzzer and get a point for a correct interruption, and then take over
the subject for the rest of the minute.
“It seems easy,” says Merton, “but it’s like golf. Just watch Rory
McIlroy play and try to copy him.” Why are you so good at it? “Practice.
And the gift of the gab. It’s my favourite job. I love it.” He once won
12 shows on the trot. “I had to stop winning because I was becoming Man
United and realised everybody wanted Leicester City to have a chance.”
Who have been the worst contestants? “Esther Rantzen was one. There’s
an understanding that you won’t object to repetition of words like ‘I’
or ‘and’, but she did. Big mistake. If you start being pedantic, others
do it right back.”
But has Just a Minute, like many TV and radio panel games, stayed too
much of a gentleman’s club? “I don’t think so, not latterly at least,”
he says. “I agree with having quotas. Just a Minute works best when
there are women. That said, I have been guilty of sexist attitudes. I
remember being on the show with two women and I thought: ‘This will be
relaxing.’ We recorded it at the Hay-on-Wye festival and I won’t say who
they were, but it was anything but relaxing. They were so tough and
funny and competitive.” After the interview, I check the show’s
database: he must mean Maureen Lipman and Pam Ayres.
Merton decided to be a comedian when he was a small boy. But he
didn’t know how to realise that ambition. “There was no comedy circuit
in London. There were northern clubs, but I wasn’t northern. There was
Butlin’s, but that wasn’t me. Or there was Footlights if you’d been to
Cambridge, like Peter Cook
or the Not the Nine O’Clock News crowd. I hadn’t. There was no way
in.”So, after leaving school, he worked for seven years as a clerical
officer at Tooting employment office. “I remember I was 19 and they were
already advising me to consider my pension options.” Then he saw Alexei
Sayle. “People go on about seeing the Sex Pistols
live. He was my Sex Pistols.” Inspired, Merton quit the civil service
and gave himself five years to make it. His break came at 1.30am one
April morning in 1982 at the Comedy Store in Soho. “I was last on the
bill, so if I was shit it didn’t matter.” He had been working on his
policeman-on-acid routine for six weeks. “I had a plastic policeman’s
helmet under one arm, and a tiny notebook on which – ingeniously – I’d
copied the gags so I couldn’t forget them. And I was speaking in this
blank copper’s voice about how I’d travelled to the planet Zanussi.” Did
it go well? “Incredibly well. People were laughing at the set-ups
before the punchlines.”
he think his comedy career would involve so many panel shows? “I’m only
in two. They suit my natural laziness. I couldn’t have written 500
sketch shows, but I could improvise on 500 panel shows. There are so
many on TV because they’re popular and cheap. That doesn’t mean they’re
In 2007, novelist Will Self argued that Have I Got News for You had lost its edge.
“I don’t think he had a good time on the show,” says Merton. “He made a
joke about fisting, which didn’t go down too well. Say something that
doesn’t work and the audience think, ‘Oh, I’m not sure I like you.’”
Time for Merton to go: he and Suki Webster, his third wife, are off
for a South African safari holiday. Are you enjoying life? “I love it.
This is the existence I wanted when I was 10.” He has fame, a happy
marriage, a creatively fulfilling life – and no mobile phone or social
media profile. “I decided not to do Twitter or Facebook because it’s
like taking the vilest heckler home in my pocket. Why would I want to do
That said, there’s always someone who’s ready to rain on Merton’s
parade. One day, he recalls, he turned up at Broadcasting House to
record a show. “Are you here for Just a Minute?” asked the doorman.
“That’s right.” “The queue’s over there,sir."