Just A Minute blog

A blog on the BBC radio programme Just A Minute

Location: Wellington, New Zealand

July 14, 2007

Nice article about the great Nicholas

from the Ealing Times - and note his show is on tomorrow night! Get along to it!

From perfect sense to poetic nonsense
By Miriam Craig

Comic actor and presenter Nicholas Parsons is coming to Finchley with his one man show about nonsense poet Edward Lear. MIRIAM CRAIG finds out about the unexpected pairing.

It is for his voice of serenity, order and unwavering fairmindedness amid frenzied comic one-upmanship that many have admired Nicholas Parsons, quizmaster of Radio 4's Just A Minute.

Parsons has hosted the show since it began in 1967, presiding over the repetitions, hesitations and deviations of golden-age regulars Kenneth Williams, Derek Nimmo, Peter Jones and Clement Freud (the only one of the original four still appearing on the show), and, more recently, participants such as Graham Norton and Paul Merton.

Parsons says of the role: "I have to concentrate harder for Just A Minute than in any other job I do. With hesitation and deviation it's subjective judgement and I have to justify my decisions, but for repetition it's sheer concentration. The regular players have often been known to try and trip me up. They'll challenge much later on, thinking I will have forgotten whether a word was repeated or not."

Just A Minute, or JAM as it's known by fans, is just one facet of Parsons' long and varied career.

Now just over 80', Parsons originally trained as an engineer as his parents were dead against' him taking up acting. He started doing impersonations and working in small repertory theatres in Glasgow while working as an engineer in Clydebank making pumps and turbines, where he would entertain his workmates by taking off his various foremen.

When he eventually made the change to being a full-time actor it was with a lot of determination and persistence. "I took any job that came along," he says. "I had the philosophy, work breeds work'. I finished up in the rep and it progressed from there."

Parsons sees the high point of his career as working with Arthur Haynes on his comedy sketch series in the Sixties. "Up to then I'd been very busy working very hard serving my time as an actor in Bromley being a different character in every show," he says. "I did a lot of cabaret, a lot of revues. Then I was resident comedian at the Windmill Theatre doing stand-up comedy. I was doing everything but I wasn't established.

"I fell in with Arthur Haynes by chance in a show called Striking a Note, which was a disaster. But then they got rid of everybody except us two, and that evolved into The Arthur Haynes Show."

Yet another high-profile show Parsons is known for is Sale of the Century, the general knowledge gameshow he hosted for 14 years - a length of time Parsons now regrets: "I should have left Sale of the Century long before I did. People thought I was just a presenter and remember that instead of my more interesting work. But the short films I was writing for cinema were subsidised by the commercial success of Sale of the Century, and I am proud of its success."

Yet for better or worse, much of Parsons' career has been spent feeding lines to his colleagues, and he says he sees himself as a bit of a straight-man, if you want to use that word'. He says: "I often throw out the lines to Paul Merton."

At first, then, it seems surprising that someone so firmly associated with the role of straight-man should devise a show centred around a poet such as Edward Lear, author of The Owl and the Pussycat, The Pobble Who Has No Toes, and The Jumblies, among other favourites.

Yet Lear's verse is written in a tone of English properness and comic understatement that chimes with Parsons's persona.

The idea for the show came from a job Parsons was asked to do for Radio 3. He says: "I had all these nonsense verses to read in time with the music. It gave me a great feel for his nonsense. My father used to read his poems to us, and I wanted to learn more. I read about him in the library and realised he had had the most fascinating life.

"He survived the most horrible childhood, and was a wonderful man who adored children. I began to feel that a lot of this nonsense of his, which started purely as a sideline, was very much a part of himself.

"He called it fantastical rhymes without reason'. It was his own escapist world, in order to cope with the pressures of his difficult life."

Lear was the twentieth child of his parents and left home aged 15. He suffered from epilepsy at a time when there was still a stigma attached to the condition, as well as bronchitis, asthma and, later in life, partial blindness. He was also, at one time, art master to Queen Victoria.

Parsons says: "He produced some of the most amazing nonsense verse ever written. He's the laureate of nonsense. But even though it's nonsense, it's not all light. The Dong with the Luminous Nose is actually quite dark.

"He was also a word creator. Runcible is one of his words. He applies it to spoon, hat, man, situation. No one knows what it means - it can mean whatever you want. You could call it a runcible show."

# How Pleasant To Know Mr Lear is on at the All Saints' Arts Centre, Oakleigh Road North, Whetstone, on Sunday, July 15, at 7.30pm. Tickets priced 10 (8 in advance) are available from the box office on 020 8445 8388.


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