Just A Minute blog

A blog on the BBC radio programme Just A Minute

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Location: Wellington, New Zealand

March 24, 2015

Sheila turns 100

Sheila Hancock had her 100th appearance on Just A Minute today. She first appeared on the show in its 2nd ever show way way back in 1967, and 48 years later, she's still there, challenging, talking and being cheeky at the age of 82.

She is by a distance the most frequent woman panellist and is the only one who is still appearing who has stood up to both Kenneth Williams and Paul Merton and out-talked them both.

I'm a big fan  and I thought it very appropriate that she won on her 100th appearance.

It seems from this article of a few months back that she is now semi-retired from stage work so hopefully that gives her time to do JAM more often!

Happy 100th Sheila!

At 81, Sheila Hancock likes to joke that she only has another 10 years to live. But far from resting on her laurels, the award-winning actress, best-selling writer and grandmother of seven has been busy launching a new career – as a novelist.
We meet soon after the publication of her debut novel, Miss Carter's War which has been well received. She was already an accomplished author of autobiography, having won plaudits in 2005 for The Two of Us, about her life with her second husband, the late actor John Thaw, and in 2009 for Just Me, in which she chronicled life getting used to being without him. But when her publisher Bloomsbury approached her to write fiction, she didn’t think she could do it.
Then her imagination became engaged, after watching a woman being ignored by everyone around her at Fortnum & Mason, simply because she was old. Suddenly, Hancock found she wanted to write about somebody elderly and lonely, who might have had an interesting life. Her attempt at the first chapter was a disaster – “it was so boring, it was unbelievable” – and the tale only started to come alive when she began to weave in strands of her own life and interests.
The plot thickened to include themes of education, the French Resistance, and the shift in attitudes towards homosexuality. She researched hard and was given an editor as a sounding board. “There were endless rewrites, because I was coming at it new,” she says, and she almost gave up after presenting a documentary about the Brontë sisters.
“Bloomsbury had given me an advance, so I phoned them up and said, 'I’m writing a cheque, I’m sending the advance back. I can’t do this – I just can’t. Because I’ve read these great books by the Brontës and I can only be mediocre. I don’t like being mediocre.’ It took me about three months to get over that.”
The role of teaching is at the heart of the book – something that Hancock feels passionately about. She is involved with a charity that tries to rescue primary school children who might otherwise fail early in the system: “If you don’t pick ’em up at that age, they will be behind for the rest of their lives.” In the days before the Education Act of 1944 made grammar schools free, Hancock won a scholarship to Dartford Grammar (“Dare I say I was a bright kid?”). Her teachers were desperate for her to try for a “state scholarship”, which would have subsidised her university years, but she knew of no one who had gone. “I didn’t know what university was.” Her head teacher tried to persuade her father, but the idea was lost on him, too.
Instead, she chose acting, and won a scholarship to Rada. She had been hailed for her performance in the school play and the head boy asked her to the dance. “I did think, 'This is good, this is glamorous, it’s better than being a nurse.’ ”
While other Rada graduates went off to the Royal Shakespeare Company, Hancock spent eight years in rep in Oldham. She performed a “huge” range of parts, but no one picked her up until Joan Littlewood, the innovative director of Theatre Workshop in east London, gave her an audition and transformed the course of her acting life.
“She said, 'You’re wonderful, my little bird’, and she allowed us all to be ourselves.” In Littlewood’s world, actresses didn’t have to be beautiful and middle class. “I would have spent my life being a character actress if it hadn’t been for Joan, because people like me played comic maids.”
Hancock describes her career trajectory as “muddled”. “I never get listed in the pantheon of important actresses because I’ve so confused everybody. I played the lead in Sweeney Todd at Drury Lane, I was the first Miss Halligan in Annie [in 1978], I did revue with Kenneth Williams [One Over the Eight in 1961], I’ve done lots of musicals – and I’ve been at the National Theatre in The Cherry Orchard.”
Despite her fame, Hancock has been driven by a very basic urge. “I think of myself as a jobbing actress. I’ve had to work to earn the money.” Even when she was married to Thaw? “He felt the same. If you’ve been poor, it haunts you for the rest of your life. And John was very poor.”
Hancock’s marriage to Thaw lasted from 1973 until 2002, when he died, at just 60, of oesophageal cancer. She had previously been married to the actor Alec Ross, from 1954 until his own death from oesophageal cancer in 1971. Hancock and Thaw each brought a daughter to their marriage and had another together. She loved both her husbands. “I was very lucky. One of the best things that John and Alec gave me was somebody to love. It’s every bit as important as being loved. It’s lovely loving, isn’t it? In fact, I find it almost better, because being loved sometimes embarrasses me, but loving is a gift.”
Today, though, there is no love interest. “Darling,” she says, “I did go out on a date with a gentleman and halfway through the supper with him I was thinking, 'Did I switch on my electric blanket?’ John and I always used to walk hand in hand – usually because we were clinging on to one another with fear if it was a Bafta award ceremony or something, John’s sweaty palm in mine – and I occasionally see an old couple walking hand in hand and I do have a horrible pang then and think, 'Oh s---, I wish that was me’. But I soon get over it.”
In her novel, there is a brief mention of love-making between an elderly couple. “If it came along, I might think about it, but I can’t waste time thinking, 'Am I attractive enough to have sex?’ I really can’t, because sex for me is an expression of love. It takes a long time to get to that sort of love. And part of it, to begin with, is guile. What I can’t do any more is pretend to be fascinating and sexy and attractive. I can’t be bothered.”
There was a period, after Thaw’s death, when Hancock says she expected too much of her daughters. She wanted them to call every day to check up on her, but realised suddenly that she was being unreasonable. Although the grief hasn’t entirely left her, she chose to cherish the life she has.
“It seems to be a betrayal of John not to live my life to the full. And also, you’ve got a wonderful freedom when you get old, you have no responsibility. There’s this phrase, 'Spending the kids’ inheritance’. I’m not responsible for my daughters any more.”
But she doesn’t feel lonely. “That’s the joy of writing. What I couldn’t stop being is creative in some way. The people I find who are not enjoying old age are the ones who cease to be curious. It’s never too late to learn things.”
Old age – and “old” seems an out-of-place word when describing Hancock – has not got to grips with her. “The reaction I get so much is, 'You’re not 81!’ I swear to God I don’t feel any different. I’ve always felt slightly ill. I was always aching and I was always injuring myself on stage. Then I had cancer [breast cancer in the late Eighties]. So if I wake up and the fingers are a bit achy, I think, 'Well, I’ve always felt like that.’ ” When she describes the benefits of growing older, her sense of naughtiness comes out. “I hate parties, I can never hear what anybody’s saying. Now, if I want to leave, I just say, 'Look, I’m terribly sorry, I’m getting a bit old for this.’ I’m not – I go on somewhere else. It’s a wonderful excuse.”
Although she no longer needs the money – “I’m fine, thank goodness” – Hancock might return to the stage. “I may do a play for a short run, but with my 10-year time lapse that I’ve set myself, I can’t afford a year doing the same thing every night. If I do a play, it will probably be new writing or something that I find exciting.”
At the moment, she has other things on her mind. “I’m really getting ready for death so I don’t leave my children with terrible complications. I’m throwing things out, having a real big declutter. I’m even going round old people’s homes.” The urge, she says, stems partly from her religion. “You do have a responsibility, as a Quaker, to prepare for your death and not be a burden to people.”
Hancock also burnt the diaries upon which she based her book about her life with Thaw. She’s not keeping a dirty secret, but avoiding hurting those she loves. “I wrote at the end of the day, so if I’d had a row with one of my kids, I’d write, 'Oh, she’s impossible, I don’t like her! How did I have a daughter like this?’ The next day, or a week later, I would look at that and think, 'What the hell was I talking about? Mad! It’s absolutely not true.’ ”
Remarkably, for a woman who has achieved so much, Hancock would prefer to have been a teacher. “That is the life I would like to have led, the woman I would like to have been. I’ve faffed around being an actress, I’ve gone on the odd march, I’ve involved myself with some campaigns, but I haven’t really done it – not like teachers do, not like social workers. I worship people like that. I’ve had a great life and hope I will continue to, but honestly, if I’d known what university was like I would have gone. It’s been a big disadvantage, it’s given me a terrible inferiority complex.
“When I was at the RSC later in my career, I think I was the only actor who hadn’t been to university. I would have become a writer earlier, too, because I didn’t have the courage to write. I’ve spent my life being seen and not heard. Surprisingly, because I sound as though I’m shouting my mouth off all the time. But I have been so inhibited all my life. And that’s the other freedom of old age. You suddenly begin to think, 'OK. Got nothing to lose.’ ”

March 19, 2015

and another panel

the team was Paul Merton, Gyles Brandreth, Marcus Brigstocke and Lucy Beaumont.

March 14, 2015

new panel

the first shows recorded for the new season featured the interesting combination of Paul Merton, Sheila Hancock, Pam Ayres and Mike McShane.

I think there are more shows being recorded this evening so if I have more info I'll post it.

February 16, 2015

more thoughts on JAM's first for the year

The fuss over David Tennant's first in speaking for 60 minutes without interruption continues. On Saturday morning, Radio Four's popular Today programme devoted five minutes to this with Nicholas Parsons interviewed. He declared the first ever JAM to be a "disaster"! It seems to get worse every time he mentions it.

The Today programme also called Nicholas "Sir Nicholas", a mistake he didn't correct (Parsons has not been knighted). Their webpage also mis-spelled his name as "Nicolas" although I see that has now been corrected... though the knighthood remains.

I have sent an email to some of the news outlets who have made the mistake about Tennant's first, and have yet to receive a reply or see the error corrected. In a way this is understandable as most reporters will not want to spend their valuable time trying to work out whether I'm right or not, especially when they have Nicholas's word. As I say I CAN understand that, as a journalist myself. But still, it is a bit disappointing that this incorrect "fact" continues to be repeated, and that the off-the-cuff recollection of a man who is after all in his 90s is all it takes for this meme to take off.

Nicholas, as much as I love him, is not totally reliable when declaring historical firsts.

I was at a recording in 2007 when Clement Freud and Gyles Brandreth were both on the panel. At one point Nicholas declared the show "to be the first time we have had two former MPs on a show together". Clement immediately snorted and said, rather grumpily, "Gyles and I have been together on this programme at least a dozen times". Which was rather percipient of him, as Kenneth Williams might have said, as they had appeared on 13 programmes together at that point (though the first four were before either was a "former MP". Graham Norton also pointed out it was the second show recorded that night anyway, so couldn't possibly be the first.

But perhaps my favourite Nicholas mistake came in 1976 when in introducing Thora Hird, he declared her to have been a great success when she was on the programme last year. Thora immediately interjected that she had never been on the show before so can't have been a great success, adding "but I'm sure if I had been on, I would have been a success".

I'd also note that in his Daily Mail article he singled out Pam Ayres as being slow to pick up the way of speaking in the game, although she went the full 60 in her debut radio appearance and her second TV appearance!

I am not, I hope, coming across, as being too hard on Nicholas. We all make mistakes. I make them all the time. Lots of them. With Nicholas, it's a symptom of him getting excited about the programme which isn't at all a bad thing.

I think though that it has brought up a couple of thoughts that interest me.

The first is that Just A Minute is really treasured by a lot of people. Try doing a Twitter search in the past week on #justaminute and you'll see what I mean. People still love the programme after almost 50 years. A lot of people. That's why the media is using this achievement as an excuse to talk about Just A Minute.

And people loved that particular show. When I listen to a show for the first time these days, I am taking down details of subjects, and who is talking. Sometimes concentrating on that, you lose touch with the actual quality of the show. My first reaction was that, given the stellar cast, it was slightly disappointing. But that hasn't been the reaction of many many others who found the show a delight. It's hard to go past a panel with such names as Paul Merton, Stephen Fry, David Tennant and Julian Clary, I guess.

And finally perhaps, to give Tennant's achievement some perspective. It's pretty clear that in the 70s and 80s, the policy of the regulars was to allow a newcomer some latitude to get going and get into the rhythm of JAM-speak, even if they were pausing a little, or repeating the odd word. Sometimes players were allowed more than a little latitude and allowed to keep going until, or past, the point of collapse. I mentioned in my earlier post, for example, that Stanley Unwin was one of those who had achieved Tennant's feat. But look at how he did it on the subject of "communication"....

Oh! Well! The early communication of course was the tom-tom which is a wonderful form of communication between the natives of the various continents of the world. But um of the so-called civilised world I think er the er early digital, early digital communication was the morse code. Dit-dit-dee-dah-dee-dah and so on. Ah then after that ah we had um.... we had er oral communication. Now the trouble is that I find is that er our wonderful, our wonderful language which very few of us bother to speak properly, ah you might.... but um... there's always a first time on a programme you know! But deep folly! Communication ah I, I found one day that the chap wasn't listening to what I was trying to express... 

Actually hearing it is even worse with very very long pauses. Still it's good fun and if you are interested, you can also hear it on YouTube

 There are others like this, of which Fenella Fielding is perhaps the most notable example. Joan Turner is engulfed in hysterical laughter before the whistle goes, while Kenny Everett also collapses a bit well before the full 60 seconds are up.

 So Tennant's achievement is a lot better than Stanley Unwin's. I very much doubt that Paul, Stephen and Julian put down their buzzers. It's been pointed out Tennant did repeat the word "stage", but it's the sort of mistake that can easily be missed.

What this whole incident shows is how much people CARE about Just A Minute. That's a good sign for the show continuing for a long time yet.

February 13, 2015

David Tennant's first

David Tennant has received a fair bit of attention for going the full 60 seconds without interruption in his first appearance.

Nicholas Parsons declared it on air to be a first.

 He has since written an article about the feat in the Daily Mail.

Julian Clary has written this article about it and also writes entertainingly about his own JAM debut.

The BBC's PM show did a bit on it at the end of its programme the next day - listen here, there are three bits, one at 22-30 in where we hear a Kenneth Williams minute, one at 36-10 where we hear a Sheila Hancock minute, and one at 56-50 we hear a Clement Freud minute.

And both the BBC and the Telegraph have written nice articles about the achievement.

And of course it IS a big thing to do.

But sadly, it is NOT a first.

Here is a list of players who went the full 60 seconds in their first appearance on radio Just A Minute

-  Andree Melly (1968), Aimi Macdonald (1968), Fenella Fielding (1969), Joan Turner (1970), Katharine Whitehorn (1970), Liz Fraser (1970), Thora Hird (1976), June Whitfield (1978), Kenny Everett (1980), John Junkin (1980), Stanley Unwin (1987), Christopher Timothy (1988), Graham Norton (1996), Charles Collingwood (2001), and Pam Ayres (2003).

Of these, Katharine Whitehorn, Liz Fraser, Thora Hird, John Junkin, Stanley Unwin, Christopher Timothy, Graham Norton, Charles Collingwood, and Pam Ayres were speaking on the first time they'd been given a subject, like Tennant. (ie, the others had already started a subject earlier in the show.)

And Katharine Whitehorn, Thora Hird, Stanley Unwin, Christopher Timothy, and Pam Ayres were speaking for the first time on any subject, like David Tennant. (ie, the others had already successfully challenged someone else and taken over a subject mid-round.)

If we include the various TV versions, we must take out Graham Norton and Pam Ayres as they both debuted on TV. But we must add in Isla Blair (1999), who also achieved it on her first time speaking at all.

None of this is meant to detract from an amazing performance by David Tennant. But it is NOT an unprecedented performance.




January 24, 2015

more on the coming season

the new season begins on February 9th with eight shows. The four panels for the eight shows are...
 
* Paul Merton, Sheila Hancock, Graham Norton and Robin Ince
 
* Gyles Brandreth, Jenny Eclair, Marcus Brigstocke and Shappi Khorsandi
 
* Paul Merton, Tony Hawks, Josie Lawrence and Alun Cochrane
 
*Paul Merton, Julian Clary, Stephen Fry and David Tennant
 
It’s an interesting list because – with the exception of Sue Perkins – it includes all the regulars and semi-regulars.
 
This is the list of appearances since April 2009 when Clement Freud died (including TV and Junior JAM). See how many of the top players from this list are appearing this season - all but one of the top 10, and 11 of the top 14. Seems like Tilusha Ghelani who’s been producing JAM for eight years is going out on a high! (players this season are bolded)
 
Paul Merton 120 shows
Gyles Brandreth 49 shows
Tony Hawks 34 shows
Sue Perkins 32 shows
Graham Norton, Jenny Éclair 28 shows
Julian Clary 24 shows
Josie Lawrence 22 shows
Sheila Hancock 18 shows
Alun Cochrane 17 shows
Liza Tarbuck 16 shows
Pam Ayres, Shappi Khorsandi 12 shows
Marcus Brigstocke 10 shows
Richard Herring 9 shows
Stephen Fry, Charles Collingwood, Kevin Eldon, Russell Kane 8 shows
Miles Jupp, Stephen Mangan 7 shows
Kit Hesketh-Harvey, Ross Noble 6 shows
Paul Sinha 5 shows
Fi Glover, Patrick Kielty, Jason Manford, Rick Wakeman, Holly Walsh 4 shows
Fred MacAulay, Greg Proops, Phill Jupitus, John Sergeant, Joe Lycett 3 shows
Tim Rice, Chris Neill, Janey Godley, Dave Gorman, Ian McMillan, David Mitchell, Justin Moorhouse, Robin Ince, Cyrus Broacha, Jason Byrne, Vanessa Feltz, Rebecca Front, Kerry Godliman, Anuvab Pal, Jonathan Ross, David Tennant, Roy Walker, Terry Wogan 2 shows
Pauline McLynn, Josie Long, Mike McShane, Stephen K Amos, Roberta Bannister, John Bishop, Henry Blofeld, Hugh Bonneville, Hannibal Buress, Rosa Calcraft, Jonah Calkin, Francesca Daly, Kitty Fry, Ruth Jones, Will Pearce, Sophie Shanahan, Leonardo Shaw, Zrey Sholapurkar, Frank Skinner, Russell Tovey, William Tyrell, Tim Vine, Suki Webster 1 show

new JAM panel

The last JAMs of next season are currently being recorded in London. 
The big news is that the former Doctor Who, David Tennant, is making his JAM debut.
My friend Keith posted about a month ago that the recording was to feature Paul Merton, Julian Clary, a regular guest who hasn’t been for a while, and a time traveller. David obviously fits the last description.
The blurb that is appearing on Doctor Who related sites says Stephen Fry is also on this season. 
Stephen would fit the other description. But he was married only a few days ago – surely he would be on holiday with his new husband? Also it seems to be a rule these days not to have all-male panels. 
So we shall see. If I hear further I will update you. Certainly a panel of Paul, Julian, Stephen and Dr Who would be something very special.

Update:

Keith was at tonight’s recording and confirms Stephen Fry was the other panellist! It’s always a special treat when he is on the show.
 
Here’s Keith on the recording tonight...
 
Hello Dean and Fellow Jammers, Well the cat is out of the bag now. The atmosphere before the show you could have cut with a marshmallow - David Tennant was the Time Lord and he was sat next to Stephen Fry. Both of whom got huge receptions from the audience. When Stephen was asked to say something during the balancing of the microphone stage an audience member congratulated Stephen on his recent marriage and we all applauded. Stephen had a warm glow on his face and said 'I am so content that I don't mind whether I win or lose! I am so happy!' David Tennant was very nervous at being on the panel but when he got his first subject the thesp in him burst out and he did a full minute! There was a roar from the audience as they realised what David had achieved - the comedy panel game equivalent of winning Mastermind. A man in his early 70s stood up in the production guest seats near the front and gave the loudest roar of approval - it was David's Dad! He couldn't have looked prouder if his son had scored the winning goal in the World Cup! These two shows recorded tonight had such a glow about them that anyone who witnessed them will remember them for a long time. We have a new lady time-keeper/scorer who showed me the printed score-sheets - which were a far cry from Ian Messiter's hand-written ones of the show's past. These were Tilusha's last JAM's for a while and I congratulated her for seeing the show through some of it's most memorable moments - the 800th and 900th shows plus the ones done in India. It was a lovely evening. More JAM's will be recorded in May. When Nicholas polished off four retakes with ease in under two minutes Stephen Fry uttered 'What a professional!' And so he is!

January 16, 2015

Canterbury panel

the panel for the Canterbury shows this week featured Paul Merton, Josie Lawrence, Tony Hawks and one other.

A correspondent in Twitter described the fourth player as “Jack Cochren”. But I haven’t been able to find a comedian or actor of that name or some other spelling of that surname. I am wondering if it could be the former Coronation Street actor and presenter Nick Cochrane? Anyway no doubt, we’ll all know who it was soon!

January 14, 2015

RIP Enid Messiter

Ian and Enid Messiter's grandson has just posted this in the comments on this blog...

It is with much sadness I report that Ian's wife Enid passed away on 27th December 2014.

She will be sadly missed by family and friends.

Just A Minute continues in her memory just as much as Ian's.

Toby (Ian and Enid's grandson).


This is very sad news and my condolences and very best wishes to Toby and his family.

January 11, 2015

congrats Stephen Fry

My email is set up to send me news clippings of some of the JAM stars, among then Stephen Fry, and there is almost a never a day when the QI presenter is not in the news for some reason.

This week, it seemed as if just about every media outlet in the western world announced his pending marriage to his partner, Elliott Spencer, who is also a comedian. I can only wish them the very best.

Of course not everyone will agree but I am sure most JAM fans will hope that marriage does not take up so much of Stephen's time that he can't return to JAM. Perhaps they should invite his husband on too!