Chris Neill calls my site "peculiar"
A few months ago the Controller of Radio 4 hosted a dinner to celebrate Just a Minute’s four decades on air. I could see that look in Mark Damazer’s eyes as he greeted me which says I’ve absolutely no idea who you are, and I’m too polite to ask. I don’t entirely blame him, as I am easily the most un-famous person ever to appear on the show. When I reflect on it, I realise how lucky I am.
There is something both silly and rather splendid about a group of grown-ups – in some cases extremely wealthy grown-ups – gathering from time to time to play a parlour-game invented by a schoolboy before the Second World War. Hundreds of people turn up to watch, and millions more tune in to listen. It co-exists on Radio 4 with Money Box Live and In Our Time – but we’re in the far more serious business of trying to speak on subjects such as My Favourite Socks, Tripe, or How I Would Describe Myself to an Alien without hesitation, repetition or deviation.
Most of the shows are now taped at Broadcasting House, but recordings out of London always seem to be more fun. Audiences on the road are particularly enthusiastic, and there is the giddy whiff of the travelling rep company as chairman Nicholas Parsons, the panel, the producer, and the broadcast assistant-cum-whistle-blower gather beforehand for a glass of warm white wine and a curling sandwich. For me, this half-hour is rather unsettling. Friendliness is in the air, but not without a certain brittleness – and, when Clement Freud was around, an anxiety as to whether he might throw a tantrum about something.
Clement could be outrageous, filthy and extremely funny – but you would have to have been an ostrich not to notice his more cantankerous side. It would be churlish, though, not to acknowledge my debt to him. It was he, along with the new producer Claire Jones, who suggested I appear on the programme when I stopped producing it in 2000. Clement’s patronage of new players could, however, prove mercurial: he would quite often whisper to a Just a Minute novice that this was “the worst show we’ve ever done” – the implication being that it was all their fault.
I never received that damnation (not to my face, anyway) but Clement did have a habit of turning a kindly gesture on its head. My last shows as producer took place in Devon, and generous old Clement brought a magnum of vintage port with which to toast me on my way. Whether he forgot or chose not to, the port wasn’t decanted before the show and, by the time Clement got the hotel barman to wrench it open after dinner, it had been shaken into less than the best of states. The poor barman had to take the brunt of Clement’s ensuing fury, and what had been a rather sweet gift turned into something much less merry.
Having said all that I do miss Clement, as also I do Derek Nimmo and Peter Jones – two players who I produced but never got a chance to sit alongside. Peter was slyly funny, sneaking up with the most brilliantly witty lines, whereas Derek was adorable for many reasons, not least his ridiculous requests. Once, on a rather bad phone line from his house in the south of France, he complained bitterly to me that the BBC should do the decent thing and pay a higher rate of petrol allowance to Rolls-Royce drivers as cars like his “positively drink the stuff.”
Someone else I miss very much is Linda Smith. It’s over three years since her pointlessly early death and she remains the person it was most fun to work with. In 2001, on my first shows as a panellist, Linda sat next to me and on a notepad wrote the words “have fun”. Not “good luck”, just “have fun”. I just try to find a balance between making the audience laugh, and not annoying my fellow panellists by interrupting too often (sometimes, if I feel I’ve been a bit too gobby, I even put the buzzer down and wait for the queasy feeling to pass).
There’s a man in New Zealand who amasses the most peculiar range of statistics about the show and apparently points-wise I am the least successful player ever which, I suppose, is a kind of achievement. But if I ever feel down about my skill at the game, I remember Linda’s simple and wise instruction. On the very best editions of Just a Minute that’s exactly what you hear: everyone having fun. And that’s a lot more than can be said for In Our Time.
Chris, if you read this, you are very funny which is the most important thing! :-)