Just A Minute blog

A blog on the BBC radio programme Just A Minute

Location: Wellington, New Zealand

May 02, 2009

Keith Matthews on Clement

My dear friend Keith wrote me a long letter on Clement's death that he asked me to put up on the blog. As he has been such a tremendous contributor to the site I could hardly do otherwise. You'll find it very interesting.

My autistic nephew had taken his dog for a walk and had come back with today's newspaper. Always a cheerful lad bit I do wish I hadn't heard the news from him. "'Ere your mate is dead!" he said with the same nonchalance he uses when noticing a sudden shower.
I had no idea that Clement was showing any sign of waning at his last ever recording of Just A Minute - the one he recorded with Paul and David Mitchell at Broadcasting House. The thing I noticed and was heavily edited out of those shows was the devil-may-care attitude of Clement. His performance had a real bite to it and only those regular attendees would have noticed the aggression in Clement's performance. Thankfully Sheila Hancock was on hand to help Nicholas Parsons jolly the shows along when they hit a sticky patch and there were many of them, when Clement's challenges hit a momentary wall of silence. He used his old tricks, listing and doing a "Freud", getting in just before the end of the minute. He also switched tactics and behaved like the more recent players, sucking up to the chairman to please him!
I had seen him literally hundreds of times, first with his comedic opposite, Kenneth Williams. What an idyllic pair they were, sitting there next to each other like two masks of drama, comedy and tragedy.
Secondly with Paul Merton. They were the tortoise and the hare! Between them they ensured that Just A Minute was never short of laughter or wit.
I am an epileptic whose seizures come on when they are least expected. Three times my seizures have encroached upon my enjoyment of my favourite comedy panel game.
The first was when I collapsed in the foyer of the BBC Radio Theatre and the capped commissionaires were scratching their heads wondering what they could do with this man who was rolling about on the floor. As I was coming round I noticed Clement coming in. He asked what had happened to me and told the commissionaire to "look after him". The most recent was when Dean and I went to Stratford-upon-Avon. Who should be seated on the train opposite us - Clement Freud. He was accompanied by his ever-present lady assistant and they were tucking into a lovely looking picnic hamper. It was Clement who when the shakes came upon me, offered Dean a fizzy mineral water "for your friend".
He is photograph and autograph shy to the point of obsession. I remember Clement's behaviour when at the end of a recording at the Leicester Comedy Festival he fled from the stage as quick as a greyhound rather than be included with the other participants in an impromptu photo session with the local press. He hated the craze of celebrity status and at times would probably have wished he was at the racetrack with normal everyday punters.
At his last Just A Minute, after the recording he remained on stage as the others left. He was looking for his assistant but she was late. He remained on the stage debating whether or not to negotiate the three or so steps to the floor of the auditorium. The house lights were switched off and the theatre dark.
I approached him and introduced myself. I thanked him for his previous kindnesses and a glimmer of recognition came over him. "Are you better now?" he asked in his customary two-edged way. "Yes much better thanks", I replied.
I offered him my History of Broadcasting House to sign. "As you know, I never sign autographs", he replied.
I offered my shoulder to help him down the steps and he accepted. "Thank you for helping me," he said with a smile. "Any time Sir Clement."
As I was leaving, I looked back at the stage set out with its three desks. Something must have made me turn around for one final look. How much fun and laughter has this show brought to my life, I was thinking.
Clement and his assistant made his their slow progress up the side aisle. I pretended to be admiring the wonderful carved pieces that cover the wall of the Radio Theatre to emable Sir Clement to catch up with me and my friends.
As they passed us his secretary asked him "Are you all right?" "I am now you're here", replied Sir Clement.
Clement was integral to Just A Minute from the first show. If the show had not had such a witty, point-hungry, Kenneth-Williams-tolerant, educated man such as Clement Freud, the show would have collapsed under the weight of self-promoting thespians.
Clement was the calm panellist who never ever lost his cool in public. Underneath he probably displayed the nerves of an actor, but he never showed them.
You could always guarantee that Clement would come up with remarks that stopped the show. Some of his more recent ones would have been edited out in earlier days by over-zealous producers. But thankfully sanity has prevailed and many of his performances on the show are in tact.
He never really got to grips with the new interpretation of the deviation ruling that allowed Paul Merton to talk about how he used to be a private investigator for MFI unchallenged. Something that an outraged Kenneth Williams would have challenged for. But Just A Minute was changing with the times and having many improvisational comedians on the panel, laughing in the face of rationality, led to this change.
He never got to grips with the awarding of bonus points for funny remarks. It got so bad that anyone could make a remark during an incorrect challenge and be awarded a point.
Clement could no longer play the game his way. He could no longer guarantee a last-second challenge to allow him to win or at least catch up with the leader because the leader had been awarded so many bonus points. Playing the game logically with all the knowledge to hand - the same way he carefully bet on horses at the race track - could no longer guarantee him his usual win as was usually the case in his first 20 years on the show.
Win or lose, Clement was still there in recent years, scrabbling for the "benefit of the doubt" and his rarely awarded bonus points. Still amazing us all with his long lists and stunning us with his witty remarks.
Nicholas Parsons asked me once if I thought that some of the newer players were frightened of Clement. "No," I replied. "They're more afraid of playing the game and making a fool of themselves." I continued "you need someone like Clement on the panel because he is an eccentric, an oddity, an enigma, and he stands out from all the rest. The audience love him and his peculiar ways that defy logic. Without him the show will become four comedians all trying to get their oar in and the game part of the show will go out the window."
Time will tell.
Dear witty curmudgeonly tricky clever Clement. I will miss you more than words can say. For your laughter and kindnesses and the signed Grimble book that you sent me I award you a thousand bonus points. Now let's see if the others are clever enough to catch you up.
Graham Norton once called Clement The Just A Minute ninja, and so he was!


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