Just A Minute blog

A blog on the BBC radio programme Just A Minute

Location: Wellington, New Zealand

August 19, 2009

Nice article on JAM

From The Big Issue

Forty years of Just A Minute

Stars of Radio 4's hit quiz explain why it's pure rock 'n' roll...

It’s the simplest of parlour games and by rights should probably have been consigned to the history books as a relic of more genteel times. Yet 42 years after it first aired, Just A Minute, or JAM as fans call it, remains one of the funniest shows on radio.

Although this venerable institution has been going longer than some contestants have been alive, the bright young things of British comedy, as well as the elder statesmen, still clamour to get the gig, despite the very modest radio salary attached. It’s a who’s who of showbiz, from champ of the modern game Paul Merton to Graham Norton, Patrick Moore and Stephen Fry, and on to Ross Noble, Sue Perkins, Bill Bailey and Eddie Izzard.

Somehow this polite contest – inspired by a punishment that inventor Ian Messiter was handed by his history master, who when he caught the young Messiter daydreaming in a class instructed him to repeat everything he had said in the previous minute without hesitation or repetition – has transcended its humble premise to become one of Radio 4’s most popular features.

Even if you’ve never heard the show, the likelihood is that you know the basics – that the aim is to speak for 60 seconds without repetition, hesitation or deviation. It’s a measure of its success that even at the Fringe, where the yearly recording of the programme is up against new shows from all the leading lights of comedy, the tickets are always snapped up within two hours.

However, Nicolas Parsons, who has been the chairman of the show since its inception just three months after Radio 4 launched, says that the programme almost didn’t make it beyond the trial run. “We did the pilot and it wasn’t very good,” he admits.

“In fact, the BBC didn’t want it – they said there was no potential in it.

“Nobody would’ve predicted that it would have grown to what has become an iconic show where top names in showbusiness are very happy to come and guest on it.”

Thankfully the young producer at the show’s helm – a new talent from Cambridge called David Hatch, who would later become Sir David Hatch, managing director of BBC Radio – thought otherwise. Even then, Hatch was recognisably going places and since Radio 4 wanted him to go places with them, they gave in and Just A Minute found its slot.

As far as Parsons was concerned, there was only one drawback – he was landed with the umpire’s role. The reason he’d pitched the show to the powers that be was he wanted to get involved in the ad lib comedy on the panel, and here he was, the man in charge. “Unfortunately,” he says, “one of the things they did like about the pilot was my chairmanship.

“So I was landed with it. In showbiz, if you’re offered a good job, you don’t suddenly become arrogant and say, ‘I’m not going to do it’. It’s too fragile a profession.”

After this wobbly start, the show eventually bedded in with regular panelists Clement Freud, Derek Nimmo, Peter Jones and Kenneth Williams providing the laughs, within the structure of Parsons’ unimpeachably fair adjudication.

In his words, it “slowly evolved and improved and become more efficient”. As chairman, he subtlety altered the rules to allow the humour to flourish – one example being that if an incorrect challenge is funny enough then both the challenger and the speaker get a point.

Thus followed a happy and successful couple of decades, until Williams’ death in 1988 threw the programme into crisis again. Again, it was only internal BBC politics that saved JAM. Parsons says that Radio 4 thought the programme couldn’t survive without Williams, but the World Service – for whom JAM was their biggest export – was not going to give up so easily and said that if Radio 4 wouldn’t make it, they would.

At which point a serious case of defensiveness set in and Radio 4 decided that no one else was going to pinch their hit. The new boy who came in after Williams was longtime fan Paul Merton, whose surrealist flights of fancy revitalised the format for a new generation.

“As others started dying off, all these new young comedians came in,” says Parsons. “Another reason I think it has achieved longevity is that now we don’t stick to the same four. There is a nucleus of regulars but the mix is always different, so you get a different atmosphere.”

Julian Clary, a longtime regular, agrees: “They’re quite clever in rotating the talent, so you get people who’ve been doing it for a long time and new people as well, but at same time you have the consistency of the wonderful Nicolas Parsons at the helm. It’s a very good exercise for the brain because it is quite a difficult game to play, avoiding the hesitation, repetition and deviation, and then on top of that you’re expected to be funny. It’s such a British tradition, it’s been around for so long.”

Another current regular, Sue Perkins – who has been doing the programme for just over a decade – was equally delighted to join the ranks of JAM panelists, although on her first try she was so nervous she couldn’t get a word out and was immediately buzzed for hesitation.

“It is a celebration of words and wordplay but there’s more to it than being a human thesaurus,” she explains. “You could do that, but what I like about it is that it has an element of the highfalutin but also the most ridiculous, childish silliness.

“It can be professorial one minute and then kindergarten the next. That is what makes it enduring.”

Perkins also says it’s important not to forget Parsons’ role. “He’s the historical link,” she adds. “He’s had four people taking the piss out of him for over 40 years on that show and he rises above it.

“The game in its modern form probably couldn’t survive without Paul [Merton], but the game in its total history couldn’t have survived without Nicolas. It would certainly be a poorer relation in his absence.”

JAM rookie Justin Moorhouse, who has only come in for recording once but is hoping to appear again in the Edinburgh shows, says it is “up there in the top five scary things you can possibly do in this business”.

Moorhouse says that when you’re trying to get work at Radio 4, Just A Minute is held up as “the carrot at the end of the stick”. He also echoes what everyone says about the group of people who make the show – although they are competitive, everyone is “just lovely” to the newbie.

Parsons says this continued level of enthusiasm for the programme is “very flattering”, especially as they can’t wave the big bucks about. Perkins, however, says there’s another reason people love to be on the show. “We did one in Bristol and I walked into this hall that looked like an aircraft hanger,” she recalls. “It was filled to the brim and they went mental. When Paul came on, Jimi Hendrix may as well have just walked in. That’s when I realised, Just a Minute is like a rock gig for square people.”

Sue Perkins's comments about the show are nice and very perceptive. But with 26 shows out of 200 in nine years, she is not a regular and has not been appearing for over a decade. Julian Clary has appeared in 29 of 262 shows in 13 years - hardly "regular" either. Nitpicking I know!


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