Just A Minute blog

A blog on the BBC radio programme Just A Minute

Location: Wellington, New Zealand

November 20, 2007

New Years Eve Special and Panel News

okay some big news - there is going to be a Just A Minute special, on December 31st.

As I understand it, and my information is second-hand, it will include some clips from old shows, some comments from current players, and some special rounds being recorded at the three recordings being done before the end of the year. It sounds like there wll be some appropriate anniversary topics for the various panels to talk on that will be played only on this special. Nicholas Parsons is fronting the whole thing.

Apparently the BBC nixed a special show similar to what happened for the 35th on expense grounds. Brits will know the BBC is going through a downsizing at the moment and at much the same time Radio is marking the 40th anniversary of Radio Four, and the 50th anniversary of Today, BBC Radio's main news programme.

So they are doing this special on the cheap, it seems. But I repeat, my info is second-hand so some detail may be wrong.

And lined up already for one or more of the three recordings - Sir Clement Freud, Paul Merton, Tony Hawks, Kit Hesketh-Harvey, Gyles Brandreth, Chris Neill, Sue Perkins, Phill Jupitus and Josie Lawrence (not sure who for which recording yet).

Josie is a newcomer. She is probably best known for her 10 years as a regular on Whose Line Is It Anyway, but has spent 20 years as a regular improviser with the Comedy Store Players, and 10 years or so with the Royal Shakespeare Company. She's one of those people who annoyingly "have it all", a brilliant dramatic actress, a wonderful singer - she improvises wonderful songs, a great comedienne and also gorgeous as hell. I've wanted her on JAM for years - most of her Comedy Store colleagues have done the show - Richard Vranch, Neil Mullarkey, Lee Simpson, Jim Sweeney and of course Paul - but I'm told she has been nervous about it in the past. It seems that's the view of many who are asked!

So I think all that sounds like good news!

November 18, 2007

The Guardian writes an editorial on Clue

Am I the only one who thinks it's hillarious that 200 people write in every season asking for the rules to Mornington Crescent...

In praise of ... I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue

Monday November 12, 2007
The Guardian

Mrs Trellis of north Wales will no doubt be sitting by her wireless at 6.30pm this evening when the start of I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue's 50th series is announced by the show's bumbling brass theme (based on a tune by Haydn). What follows is guaranteed to be brilliant. It always is. Listening is like being welcomed back into a comfortable club on a wet winter's night, a cheerful refuge from a dour, serious world outside. There may be people who are tired of its routines, its in-jokes and innuendo - but they are the sort of humourless listeners who write in to the BBC asking for the rules of Mornington Crescent to be explained (200 do every series), who wonder why Samantha hasn't read out the score in years and probably question the need for the licence fee to fund Humph's expensive laser display board, too. Everyone else appreciates the show's relaxed brilliance.

Many things contribute to this, starting with Humphrey Lyttelton, who has chaired the show since it began in 1972, getting funnier and bolder through the years. He does deadpan gags better than anybody else in broadcasting and gets more smut past the BBC, too. Without him the show would not have made it through 10 series, let alone 50, a magnificent score matched only by the even longer-lived Just A Minute. By rights Clue should have stopped being funny years ago. But there is nothing dusty or exhausted about a programme that still asks silly people to do silly things, and gets away with it every time.

Article on Graham Norton

nice piece in today's Observer

The name's Norton. Graham Norton.

He's the BBC's sequined agent: a celeb-baiting, Saturday-night superstar with a killer line in put-downs. Barbara Ellen dodges the double entendres and arched eyebrows in search of the real Graham Norton
Sunday November 18, 2007
The Observer

It would almost be nice to show a little originality and not like Graham Norton. The chat-show host and presenter is famously likeable (he has topped polls of people Britons would love to have around for dinner). Moreover, while Norton has proven a great fit on Saturday-night prime time with shows such as How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? and the search for Joseph on Any Dream Will Do (he has a show in the new year featuring tribute acts), his BBC2 chat show is, if anything, getting better.
Even my boyfriend, who, to put things into context, loathes so-called 'trash TV', is always banging on about Norton being a first-rate brain and wit. However, it's Norton's charm that enables him to be waspish and still keep the celebrities on side (he once said of repeat-guest Jordan: 'She's one of the most successful authors in the country - you can't take that away from her'). Coupled with an unabated silliness, this is what makes his chat show - that signature 'camp' ragbag of mercilessly teased celebrity guests, audience participation and inveterate web surfing - still feel so fresh and watchable. 'Well,' says Norton, 'I suppose we should know what we're doing after 10 years.'
The day we meet, at a central London hotel, Norton rushes in an hour late because of the traffic jams caused by the state opening of Parliament. He is dripping with apologies, and sweat. The latter caused by jumping out of his cab and running the last mile. 'I thought: Well, even if you've gone, I've done some cardio,' he says. After being horrified by the sight of himself looking fat on TV, Norton is now into fitness, and certainly looks as 'buff' as anyone could hope for when they're leaning against a sofa arm, panting for breath. 'I think I'm having a heart attack,' he announces between gasps. 'Obviously, gym not very good.'
Once recovered, Norton is as friendly, easy and open as you might expect from someone who 'told all', including near-adventures as a San Francisco rent boy, in his candid 2005 autobiography So Me (more of which anon). Self-deprecating, he almost flinches at the idea of being lured into an outbreak of pomposity - when the 'deep' questions appear, as they must, his eyes twinkle and he often adopts the pose of a chin-stroking shrink ('Hmm, interesting').
'Do I have more depth than I'm given credit for? NO!' he chuckles. 'It's only when I'm interviewed that I get to do any thinking. It's not as if I sit down with the postie, with him asking: "Where do you see yourself in 20 years?"' Does Norton consider himself particularly witty? 'Occasionally I'll say something and think: That was quite clever. But not very often. Mostly I'm thinking: I've said that before. Or it will be: Oh my god, my brain has completely gone to mush, I must stop drinking.'
Norton has always said his Irishness helps, simply because it renders him 'classless'. 'The other thing about our shows is we've never been cool. It's always been a kind of guilty pleasure if it's been a pleasure at all.'
What about the ongoing debate about the squillions he is paid for his 'golden handcuffs' deal with the BBC (rumoured to be £5m over three years)? Along with Jonathan Ross, Norton, though not paid nearly as much, is always in the line of fire when it comes to moans about misspending public funds. Norton says it's long surprised him to realise how 'accountable' the BBC has to be. 'It's a very vulnerable organisation, which I don't understand, because you look at the BBC and you think: You're huge, you're this monolithic thing, just go fuck off.'
In this way, there's a 'world of difference', Norton thinks, between the BBC and other channels: 'Peter Fincham [the BBC controller forced to resign over the Year with the Queen fake-footage scandal] has lost his job; ITV has stolen nearly £8m, and all those legs are still under the table. That makes no sense to me at all.'
Later, Norton says, 'What I'd love [the BBC] to do one day is just say [he looks solemn]: "You're right, we're stopping." The director general, Mark Thompson, just goes: "Let's just stop the BBC. You happy now, Daily Mail? It's gone!"'
How about the cyclical attacks on Norton's own contract? 'Listen,' he says. 'That salary is a miracle. I don't know how I get it. But if the BBC has decided that's my market value, then what kind of moron would go: "No! Please take half of my salary and invest in Saturday-morning children's programmes!"'
Does he think people have a tendency to overreact about him? 'Yes, I do.' Norton flops on to the cushions with a wry grin. 'Jesus Christ, it's only television.'
Norton, 44 (his real surname, Walker, was changed for Equity purposes), was raised in Bandon, Country Cork, in a Protestant family in a Catholic district. His late father, Billy, was a Guinness rep; his mother, Rhoda, worked for the local Mothers' Union. In So Me, he confessed to wetting the bed until he was nine or 10 and 'cross-dressing', wearing his sister's clothes. 'I did wet the bed, and people tried to read something into it,' says Norton. 'I'm like: I did stop - I don't wet the bed now.' As for the cross-dressing, he doesn't think too much should be made of it: 'I was a tiny cross-dresser, under four, and my sister had prettier clothes - I was just trying to cheer up a dull outfit.'
Norton's childhood, though not unhappy, did seem to suffer from 'small-town' malaise. 'Hurrah for telly, movies and magazines,' he says with feeling. Joking apart, he did sound a bit sad and isolated - how much of it does he think was to do with his sexuality? He shrugs: 'I've heard other gay people say when they were growing up they felt "foreign". Growing up, I was able to label these feelings as: I'm a Protestant. It wasn't until I left, I thought: Oh, those weren't Protestant feelings.'
There was an adolescent encounter with a male foreign-exchange student, but Norton found he couldn't tell his parents he was gay and eventually ended up more or less 'coming out' on TV, simply because his behaviour was so obvious. 'Which I don't recommend to anyone.' His mother's reaction was: 'It's such a lonely life,' and his family, whom he describes as 'quite Fifties', were to prove more relaxed than he could have hoped.
In those early years, was it that Norton didn't want to be gay? There was a fling with an older woman, a tutor, and another year-long relationship with an American girl. 'I don't think anyone wants to be gay,' says Norton. 'For a cosmopolitan child living in London, on the right side of town, maybe it wouldn't cost them a second thought. But when I was growing up, it did cost me a second thought. I thought I'd be a social pariah. Back then, if you saw a gay man in a film, he was the baddie, or he was going to be killed, or he'd kill himself.' He smiles wryly. 'You knew it wasn't going to end well for the gay character 100 per cent of the time.'
Another frustration was that Norton wanted to be an actor, but back then drama courses weren't readily available. 'It's not like now, when anyone can be a failed actor.' He ended up having a kind of mini-breakdown at Cork University, feeling very low and collecting dead insects, though he pooh-poohs the notion of genuine depression - after visiting Paris and London, he thinks he simply became disenchanted with Cork. 'Some people think they're depressed and they go to the doctor and want pills. And you just think: You hate where you live, you've lost your job, your boyfriend has dumped you, could all this be why you're depressed?'
In the end, he fled to San Francisco to live in a hippy commune. It was here that, skint and sexually curious, he answered an ad to become a rent boy, backing out at the last moment when he was asked to 'perform' for the pimp.
'It's probably one of those stories that needs to be taken in context,' says Norton with some understatement. 'You had to be Irish, you had to be 20, you had to be in San Francisco, you had to be trying to be gay, but not knowing how to be gay.' Norton reflects that, in terms of Aids, he had a lucky escape. 'This was 1983, when San Francisco was a gay Disneyland. At the time, I was thinking: I should be having lots of sex, what's wrong with me? But looking back, it's like: Thank God!'
Back in England he joined the Central School of Speech and Drama, and realised his talents lay in being funny rather than dramatic. Another lucky escape - surely better to end up as a chat-show supremo than just another actor? Norton isn't so sure. 'You'll always feel a failed actor before a success at anything else.' However, around this time Norton was violently mugged, stabbed in the street, which helped put the 'greenhouse' of drama school into perspective. 'Afterwards, I was like: I'm playing the servant in The Cherry Orchard, fine, who gives a fuck?'
That was 18 years ago - how does Norton feel now about his 'near-death experience'? He laughs at the term, though concedes it was serious - he lost a lot of blood. 'It was interesting because when you're losing blood it really is your life force going out of you. And what's nice about it is that it's only a little bit panicky and then you're just really tired.' He remembers an elderly couple came to help him. 'The old lady was there in her dressing gown, God love her, with someone bleeding on her doorstep, and instinctively I asked to hold her hand - which I think is a kind of human thing, where you don't want to die alone.'
The mugging proved to be the wake-up call Norton needed. Though there were still gruelling years waiting tables, he started doing radio and TV (he was Father Noel in Father Ted), and performing stand-up shows at the Edinburgh Festival (The Mother Teresa of Calcutta Farewell Tour; The Karen Carpenter Bar and Grill). Nominated for a Perrier, he stood in for Jack Doherty on his talk show and was voted best newcomer at the British Comedy Awards, the first of many gongs (he has since won several Baftas and an International Emmy).
Norton joined Channel 4 for So Graham Norton and V Graham Norton, at one point going out five nights a week with a high-octane mix of prank calls, audience interaction and probes into internet fetishism. Norton ushered in the new millennium with a woman shooting ping-pong balls out of her vagina. He also got Cybill Shepherd to talk about 'where' Elvis kissed her, Dustin Hoffman to tell a dirty joke about Brigitte Bardot's 'muff', and Mo Mowlam to marry two dogs.
Things haven't always gone to plan - Norton ended up calling Raquel Welch a 'grumpy old bitch' and pulling the plug on their satellite link; Harvey Keitel hated the experience so much he tried to talk Dennis Hopper out of doing the show. Perhaps more damaging, later, when Norton first joined the BBC, was that peculiar 'lost period' when he disappeared off to do a New York cable show (this may have had something to do with his then-beau, singer Kristian Seeber).
On his return, it was as if Norton was on 'mute'. He didn't want to launch straight into another chat show, and ended up hosting lacklustre series such as Strictly Dance Fever, which is when people first started carping about how expensive he was. However, soon enough, he was back on form, first with Graham Norton's Bigger Picture, then with Maria and Joseph; he and Andrew Lloyd Webber proved to be an inspired pairing - the Two Ronnies of musical theatre - though to Norton's disappointment (and mine), plans remain shelved to find a lead for Jesus Christ Superstar. 'A shame,' muses Norton. 'Finding Jesus would be such a great title.'
So is Norton worth that fat-cat salary? I'd say so - the on-screen combination of warmth, wit and cheek is rare, and that man grafts. There's a telling moment when Norton says one reason he enjoys doing the 'big shiny Saturday-night floor shows' is that it's 'not all about him'. Unlike, he means, the chat show, which he admits is designed to be 'guest proof': 'We've had American guests and they've said: "I really liked doing that. On other shows, there's a real pressure to tell funny stories." And I'm like: Now you tell me - I was only doing all those jokes because you didn't say anything!'
What about the 'camp' thing? 'What about it? I am camp,' says Norton simply. Though he says he has bridled on occasion; especially when the Channel 4 show was five nights a week. 'And there was no time to step back and go: "Wait a minute - didn't we do lots of getting-fucked-up-the-arse jokes yesterday?"
'Camp is a weird thing,' says Norton, suddenly reflective. 'Because I think it's harder to accept being camp than being gay.' He remembers seeing some gay teenagers interviewed about him on TV. 'They said they thought the show was funny but hated how camp I was. Fine. Except these teenagers were the campest teenagers you'd ever seen.
'It broke my heart,' Norton continues. 'Because I would have been them. I used to look at Larry Grayson and think: Oh my God, is that the future? I don't want to be that person. And now they're looking at me, thinking: I don't want to be camp like that.' Is camp a culture? 'Not a culture, just a manner, a way of being,' he says. 'Some gay men you meet, you think: Jesus, how did you develop into this? And that's how I feel about it. I act it up, and I arch it out, but not 24/7.'
For such a colourful TV personality, Norton certainly manages to live life 'off the radar', dividing his time between his homes in Wapping and County Cork, and walking his dogs, Bailey and Madge. He feels he has sidestepped becoming a tabloid creature mainly because he's always been 'out' and uses his foibles as part of his act anyway.
Norton has even made peace with Ireland, the torture chamber of his youth, his affection in part re-ignited by how beautifully he thinks the local community handled his father's death seven years ago. 'You think you won't like that kind of thing, but when you lose your dad it's lovely everyone coming around and bringing cake or a bottle of whiskey and telling you nice things about him. You think: Oh, that's why they do this - it's a really good idea.'
Romantically, things seem more vexed. Early on, there was an Australian called Ashley, who seemed to affect Norton to the point where he didn't fall in love again for seven years. His next relationship, with American Scott Michaels, disintegrated just as Norton found fame. Most recently there was Seeber, who moved to Britain to be with him. Now this, too, has ended.
Norton has admitted he is probably a hard person to live with, needing control over his environment - what is his take on relationships? 'When they're good they're great; when they're not, they're unbearable.' He's not interested in marriage and kids. 'I don't think I could do children. They're hard work, and what if you fuck them up?' What about being part of a gay power couple (I'm thinking Elton and David)? 'Oh no, that would annoy me,' Norton says with a glint. 'I'm far too competitive.'
I ask if he's a romantic. 'I suppose I am. Then you meet other people.' You're referring to 'movie love', where you're bound to be disappointed? 'Yes, because movies end, books stop, songs finish, but you've got to keep going. And no one wants to think about the bickering at the end of When Harry Met Sally, or him fucking somebody else. Why would they?
'But there's a lot to be said for having your other half,' Norton continues. 'It's the difference between going on holiday with someone or going by yourself. It's all about how an experience shared is an experience enhanced. You've got to believe that sharing your life is worth it in some way.'
As for fame, Norton thinks it affects relationships only in the sense that everything does. 'Clearly my job repels some people and attracts others. And some people it attracts I won't like because that's all they see - but whoever I'm with, even if it doesn't attract them, they're going to have to live with it, and it must be quite boring being the other half of that.' Could Norton be the other half? Another glint: 'I could. For a while.'
As the interview winds down, we discuss ageing. Rather ludicrously, Norton refers to himself as 'now in spitting distance of 60 - I always say I will end my days sitting in bed with my Baftas, dribbling soup down myself, which my dogs lick off, watching daytime telly,' he says. 'Which is probably the reality, but if I get it in first, it's funny rather than deeply sad.
'The good thing about me,' says Norton, 'is that, if it came to it, I could live on Dairylea Triangles. Maybe get some dog food in as well. Perhaps I could share that.' You could 'do' poverty? 'Yes, I could exist on quite little. Whereas if someone was with you and it's all, "Isn't this marvellous?", and you said: "I'm stopping and there's no more money," essentially they'd go off and I'd be...' Norton raises his arms imploringly: '"No, stop, this dog food is delicious!"'
Instead of going on something like I'm A Celebrity, Norton says he'd much rather end his career on a late-night talk radio-type show: 'That's my ambition, you know. [He heavy-breathes] "Next caller, please."' Other than that, he'd be happy enough pottering around, doing a bit of acting and writing.
But wouldn't he miss it all - the roar of the chat-show crowd? Ask Norton what he gets out of his job and he smirks self-mockingly: 'Well, it's very hard to beat 500 people laughing. That's a huge validation.' And this is what he believes everyone is in it for: 'It doesn't matter how serious an actor is - they're doing it because there's some sort of vortex of need there.' Celebrity is effectively something wrong with a person? 'Well, there's something missing, isn't there - otherwise why not go into business?'
According to Norton, his anonymity in America taught him he wouldn't miss fame. In the back of his mind, he is always aware that it could all end tomorrow. 'I could walk out of here, get one phone call, and it could all be over,' smiles Norton. 'And once you accept that you're one big flop away from being unemployable, nothing can scare you any more.'

November 16, 2007

JAM recording

Get tickets for Just A Minute in King's Lynn.

MONDAY 26th NOVEMBER 2007 at 7.30pm

The Corn Exchange,
Tuesday Market Place,
King's Lynn,

Tickets are £5 - they can be booked via the Box Office on 01553 764864 or via the website: www.kingslynncornexchange.co.uk.

November 11, 2007


This from today's Sunday Times

Laughing to the end
Linda Smith’s lover tells how the popular comedienne kept joking right up till her untimely death
Ann McFerran
Only days before Linda Smith died from ovarian cancer, a gang of her best friends and family surrounded her bed, wanting to spend every last second with the woman Radio 4 listeners voted the wittiest living person.
And witty she was, to her very last breath. As Linda drifted in and out of consciousness, her fellow comedian Mark Steel noticed Joan Collins on the television. “I was on a chat show with Joan Collins,” he told fellow comedian Andy Hamilton. “How old is she?” Hamilton asked. “I think she must be close to 75,” replied Steel. From beneath the pile of bedclothes a little voice piped up: “How much is that in human years?”
Linda Smith was days from death but her wit shone through to the end. And it’s these bruising one-liners that her partner of 23 years, Warren Lakin says, he misses more than anything else. “She’d come out with these scorchingly funny things several times a day.”
Veteran of Radio 4 programmes such as The News Quiz and I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, Linda Smith had become a national treasure when she died in February 2006. The satirist of everything which was pretentious or sentimental, Linda Smith was, Lakin says “an intensely private person who chose not to make a show of her illness. She didn’t want her cancer to get the upper hand”.
Her friend and co-panellist of The News Quiz Jeremy Hardy adds, “Had she decided to write about her cancer she’d have set an unattainable standard for the genre. But she hated her cancer and didn’t want to give it the publicity.”
On the day Linda died all her old comedian friends came to visit and toasted her with her favourite whiskey. She died at 10pm, with Warren and her sister Barbara by her side, with her three wishes intact: “She died at home; she died without pain; and she died with her hair.” She was 48 years old.
In his tender memoir of their times together, Driving Miss Smith, published by Hodder and Stoughton, Lakin recalls Linda’s long blonde hair when they first met in 1983, in the early days of the stand-up comedy circuit. “She was several inches taller than me – she was 5ft 10; I was 5ft 6. We talked long into the night about everything, jazz, theatre, comedy. She was very funny and a great storyteller but she never wanted to upstage people. She was also a very good listener, and I could probably go on about myself. I thought she was completely perfect. Within a very short time, we were in love. Perhaps we looked like the odd couple but all I know is she was gorgeous and she was fantastic company.”
If Warren Lakin makes Linda sound ideal, he was also acutely aware that her early life was far from idyllic. “She was born in a maisonette with an outside toilet in Erith in Kent, a town, she’d said, ‘which isn’t twinned with anywhere but it does have a suicide pact with Dagenham’.”
Her mum was a factory worker; her father worked on the railways. Lakin says: “Linda was a daddy’s girl. He was very intelligent, clever and witty; he liked comedy; he liked Pete and Dud. But her father was a Jekyll and Hyde character.” He was also an abusive alcoholic and her mother was on the receiving end. On the day of Linda’s parents’ 25th wedding anniversary, her father left for work and never returned. Lakin recalls: “When I met Linda she was very traumatised by the dreadful rows which had gone on for years. I’m quite proud of the fact that in our 23 years together we never rowed once.”
Not long afterwards Lakin went with Linda to track her father down to south London. “A woman opened the door and it was obvious Linda’s father was doing more than just lodge there. From that moment on, if anyone asked about her father, Linda would reply that he was dead. And to her, I suppose he was.”
Like so many kings and queens of comedy Linda’s comic artistry may have provided an escape from her unhappy past. The roots of her comedy also surely owe something to her background, and how, like Victoria Wood, she found humour in the prosaic. As Lakin says: “Linda never had to work at anything; she was like one of those posh well-educated performers like Stephen Fry. She had a natural panache. She used to say that her family came from that bit of London known as ‘Greater’ but which should, more accurately, be known as ‘Lesser’ London. Where she came from was not the kind of place which inspired you to write poetry.”
Throughout the 1980s Linda Smith served her time on the comedy circuit, performing a memorable impersonation of Margaret Thatcher, complete with twinset and pearls, for miners’ strike audiences. She broke into radio in the late 1990s, holding her own alongside established wits such as Alan Coren. For Lakin the new breed of comedians such as Paul Merton and Jeremy Hardy made Linda’s radio popularity possible.
Audiences and fellow panellists adored her brilliant comic riffs. Lakin says one of his great favourites was Linda on the subject of weapons of mass destruction. “I do sympathise with Bush and Blair trying to find WMDs,” she said. “I’m like that with my scissors. I put them down, then I search all over the house, and I never find them. Of course, I do know that my scissors exist.”
Linda Smith and Warren Lakin’s days together were often taken up with eccentric expeditions, whether it was driving to some gig, frantically late, because they’d failed to include the time it took to drive from east to west London in their journey’s timing; they lived in Stratford East before it became fashionable. Or their quest to find the perfect crab sandwich which took them on the miniature Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch railway, to Dungeness, where Linda’s ashes were finally scattered.
Lakin also remembers the hundreds of times he’d bring her a cup of tea after she’d been gardening for hours. “Where’s the time gone?” she’d say. But how would she know? She always refused to wear a watch. For many years, Linda Smith escaped time. Then it caught her, cruelly, with cancer. It is Lakin’s huge loss – and ours, too. “She was just the funniest woman I know,” he says. “I miss everything about her.”