Just A Minute blog

A blog on the BBC radio programme Just A Minute

Location: Wellington, New Zealand

June 28, 2009

Independent Pink List

JAM star Stephen Fry is rated second on this year's Pink List - the list of the most powerful gay people in Britain.

The only person to beat him was senior Cabinet Minister Peter Mandelson - who the paper says is arguably the most powerful individual in the country.

So quite an achievement for Stephen. I wrote a blog post a few weeks ago about how he seemed to be popping up everywhere on every subject, and I think he deserves this level of recognition. He seems to me to be morphing into a national treasure.

Other JAM stars included on the list are Sandi Toksvig (18th), Graham Norton (19th), Clare Balding (22nd), Sue Perkins (58th) and Julian Clary (78th).

The full list and reasoning can be seen here.

Nicholas on hs school days

From The Daily Mail

Nicholas Parsons, 85, has presented Radio 4's Just A Minute for 42 years. He has two grown-up children from his first marriage, and lives in Buckinghamshire with second wife, Annie, 69. He says:

Here I am in 1939, aged 15, at St Paul's in London – a school I loved. I was born in Grantham, Lincolnshire, and went to kindergarten at Kesteven High School for Girls, where they took little boys in the nursery classes. Then I had one term at The King's School in Grantham, before moving to London when I was eight.

Once we'd arrived in the capital, my parents – Paul, a doctor who delivered Margaret Thatcher, and Nell – sent me and my older brother, John, to a boarding prep school, Tenterden Hall in Hendon.

The place was archaic in the extreme. Most terrifying of all was matron, a sadist who wore a starched cap and cuffs. She reported us to the housemaster all the time, which meant we were caned for the slightest misdemeanour.

I was incredibly homesick. Parents weren't allowed to visit during term time, and I only survived because I could make my friends laugh. I'd mimic the masters and get caned for it, but it was worth it. Back then I was beaten for getting laughs – now I get paid for it.

We never told our parents how unhappy we were – we just put up with it, presumably because we thought they had been through the same thing and we had to suffer it in order to grow up.

I did very well in my studies – I was often top of the class – despite my dyslexia, which in those days didn't even have a name. I was very slow at learning to read and write, but I had – and still have – an excellent memory, and always remembered my lessons.

I also had a stammer, which I sorted out in later years, thanks to a very good voice trainer, who showed me how to control my breathing. In any case, I always found that, when I walked on stage, I felt so at home the stutter always faded away.

After two years, my parents at last took my brother and me away from Tenterden Hall and sent us to a day-school – Colet Court in Hammersmith, the prep school for St Paul's. I was blissfully happy and never wanted to go home at the end of the day. At 14 I passed my Common Entrance exam to St Paul's across the road, and again was very happy.

I loved rugby, cricket and boxing, and again I did well in class. I stayed at St Paul's until I was 16, when World War II broke out. I could have been evacuated with the school. My younger sister, Patricia, was evacuated with her school, and my brother already had an apprenticeship at Rolls- Royce, but my parents, who'd decided I was a non-achiever, chose not to send me away with my school.

Instead, I was sent to a ghastly establishment in north London, where I seemed to know more than the teachers. Even so, I passed the school certificate with five distinctions, which in those days was equivalent to A-levels. So, aged 16 and a bit, I was eligible to go to university.

My parents asked me what career plans I had, and my reply was the same as it had been since the age of five – I wanted to be an actor. I'd been doing amateur dramatics and school plays for years, and knew it was the only career I wanted.

My father said, 'Ridiculous!' and my mother was horrified at the thought of my joining such a ghastly profession. I'm sure she thought I'd end up as an alcoholic pervert in the gutter.

Then, because I was always making and repairing things, my uncle suggested I become an engineer. Next thing I knew I was on a train to Scotland to begin an engineering apprenticeship on Glasgow's Clydebank shipyards, with a firm called Drysdales who made pumps for ships. I found my way to my lodgings at the YMCA, went down to the docks and started work.

I thought I'd landed on another planet, not least because they seemed to be speaking a foreign language – a broad, gutteral Glaswegian. There I was, a public school boy with the accent to match, mixing with all these unusual characters. But my fellow apprentices accepted me, partly because I used to make them laugh by mimicking the foreman.

Along with my work on Clydebank, I did a sandwich course at Glasgow University for two years. I didn't really feel I was cut out to be an engineer, but when I was old enough to fight in the war and tried to join up, I was told I was doing important war work, and so should carry on with it.

Carry on I did, but because of the severe rationing, I wasn't getting enough nourishment for a teenager. I was still intent on pursuing my stage career and was entertaining the troops with little concert parties, getting up at 6 in the morning to work at Clydebank and then rushing off to perform somewhere. It all took its toll.

After my apprenticeship I volunteered for the Merchant Navy as a junior engineer, but never sailed. Instead, I suddenly collapsed and spent six months in hospital with a serious lung condition.

When I was discharged, I came back to London and set about becoming an actor. I knocked on doors, wrote letters, auditioned, understudied, and never took no for an answer. I progressed through cabaret, clubs, theatre, radio and eventually the ITV comedy series the Arthur Haynes Show, which ran for ten years in the 1960s and established me. It was hard work, but worth it.

No prizes for guessing which one Nicholas is!

June 26, 2009

They haven't a clue

I was looking forward to the return of I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue - and the first couple of shows seem to have been greeted like mana from heaven. The Guardian reviewer amusingly suggested they had thought up a brilliant new parody of JAM in Just A Minim - but of course the game has been played on and off for years.

I suppose I can understand why, with a new chairman, you wouldn't want to change anything else. But I found the two shows disappointing. There was little that seemed new or original. Same old games, same old jokes. I thought the best performer was Victoria Wood, by far. The others seemed to me to be phoning it in.

Stephen Fry as chairman gradually warmed up but I thought his reading of the long introductions was to be frank, poor. The monologues were written as if they were intended to be read by Humph, and Fry just didn't seem comfortable with them. Given that Fry is a professional comedian, maybe he should have written his own material, or at least have had some input into it. He was best when it seemed as if he was ad libbing.

I am not a big fan of Clue though I do usually listen. But I did think these shows were worse than usual. It's in part the absence of Humph - one way the show had of not sounding smug about their familiar routines and jokes was that Humph sounded as if he was contemptuous of the whole thing. Stephen Fry just sounds a bit too smug himself to play that role.

But I also wonder if producer Jon Naismith and consultant Iain Pattinson have not been running things a tad too long. Time for some new ideas. Some from me - now that the chairmen are comedians too, why not have them play a greater role in the games? How about some new musical games? One Song To The Tune Of Another is sounding particularly tired - how about improvising songs like they used to in Whose Line Is It Anyway? Personally I'd cut down on the monologues by the chairman. And maybe it's time too to think whether we need Barry, Graeme and Tim every week. Victoria Wood was damn good and some of the other occasional players are also a bit more original - Sandi Toksvig, Jeremy Hardy and Andy Hamilton are favourites of mine. Another sort of game that could be adapted is something like Party Quirks - where the players have to take on weird personas.

I'm assuming Jack Dee will eventually get the chairman's job as he is the most Humph-like of the candidates and is to tour with the team. Maybe once he has settled in the BBC will appoint someone new to the producer's job and slowly bring in some fresh thinking. I feel that it needs it.

June 15, 2009

The Rise and Rise and Rise of Stephen Fry

The first part of this year has been an interesting time for Stephen Fry. He just seems unable to stay out of the news.

First he seemed to be continually linked with Twitter, the new one-line interactive tool and for a time seemed to have more people following his "tweets" than anyone else. This got him some praise - and inevitably some derision.

Then he stepped into the biggest political scandal in Britain for ages over MPs expenses, arguing that really the breaches were not all that important. For a week or so, mainly because he was the only one arguing that side of it, he was mentioned in every political article, it seemed. He has hardly been psychic as the scandal has continued to resonate, but even he must have been surprised at how much attention was given to his political views. Although he has occasionally voiced public support for the Labour Party, politics has not been a major part of his life.

And he became the voice of JAM marking Clement's death, although he has not done the show for three and a half years now, and quite possibly had never met Clement outside the JAM environment. But he became the voice of the JAM establishment - in part anway because we all love him and he can speak for all of us.

Tomorrow he will chair the first edition of I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue in 18 months. Although he is sharing the chair in the first series with Jack Dee and Rob Brydon, I see his appointment to the first show as important. He is a big fish, a star if you like, a household name, and he gives the show huge credibility. I don't see it however as very likely that he will agree to become the show's permanent chairman. He is now perhaps bestknown for his chairing of the TV panel game QI and I doubt he will want to be primarily known as a panel game chairman. Especially when he continues to act and extend his interest in TV documentary-making and as an "expert" on new technology.

Why do we love Stephen Fry? (Well not all of us, the Daily Mail describes him this week as a "blousy boy-bore".) The question really answers itself - he is a tremendous wit, very clever but reassuringly modest with it, and somehow vulnerable and personable despite being far more talented far beyond our ken. That he ahsn't tried to specilaise as actor or comedian or writer is interesting in itself - it suggests a certain intellectual restlessness which is also appealing. We take an interest in him because we are not sure exactly what he'll be up to next. We are sure he'll be great in it.

I'd love to see Stephen as a regular on JAM. If anyone could replace that air of erudition that Clement Freud had, it would be Stephen. It seems unlikely but you never know.

June 12, 2009

Clue back next week

and the pre-publicity is starting.

June 10, 2009

Are panel games sexist?

Yes says Victoria Wood and although she is talking about TV panel games, clearly women haven't had a great run on JAM...

TV panel shows are too 'male dominated', claims Victoria Wood

Panel shows such as 'I'm Sorry I haven't got a clue' and 'Have I Got News For You?' are too "male dominated" according to the comedienne Victoria Wood.

Wood, one of Britain's most respected comedy writers, has become the latest television personality to criticise the laddish culture of "testosterone-fuelled" comedy panel shows like 'Never Mind the Buzzcocks' and the 'Mock the Week'.

"A lot of panel programmes are very male-dominated, because they rely on men topping each other, or sparring with each other, which is not generally a very female thing," she told the Radio Times.

She added: "I felt I held my own".

The double BAFTA winning comedienne will appear in the 51st series of the radio programme, I'm Sorry I haven't a Clue, the first show go on air without Humphrey Lyttelton, who died in April last year, aged 86.

In his role as chairman for 35 years, he gave the panel of four comedians "silly things to do" in what was billed as "the antidote to panel games".

Wood, 56, will make her debut appearance on the show with veteran panellists Barry Cryer, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Graeme Garden in a recording chaired by Stephen Fry, who is currently 'hot-desking' the role with Jack Dee and Rob Brydon.

Wood, the creator of Housewife 49 and Dinnerladies, has become the latest television personality to criticise the laddish culture of TV comedy.

Sandi Toksvig, who hosts The News Quiz on Radio 4, has also said that female panellists were often edited out of the final cut.

Toksvig said last year: "Testosterone-fuelled arguments between the boys make it difficult. Women's jokes aren't about trying to top the last person or 'win' the game," she said "I think that if more women were in charge, everyone would get a look in."

Bill Matthews, the co-creator of Never Mind the Buzzcocks agreed that panel shows were male-dominated "bear pits" which were "too competitive and testosterone heavy".

Last year, Mariella Frostrup accused Have I Got News For You of being sexist towards female guests.

Describing the panel game as a "disgrace", she said that women were invited to appear only as a token presence to be ridiculed by the "testosterone-driven" team captains, Ian Hislop and Paul Merton.

A BBC spokeswoman said: "There are far fewer female comedians than male so despite wanting to feature more women on our panel shows we often can't. We are working to address this issue though and many women have featured on our shows recently or will be featured in upcoming series including Would I like to you, Shooting stars and QI.

Victoria Wood will appear as a panelist on the first 2 episodes of the new series of I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue starting on the 15th June 2009

So what do we think - is the problem that the men spend too much time bickering with each other and Nicholas - and that's just not womanly?

June 08, 2009

Stephen Fry - can we have too much of him?

Yes, says Stephen himself - here's an interesting article from the Sunday People.

Kingdom star sheds 6st after health scare
Jon Wise
We're going to be seeing a lot less of Stephen Fry - and the man himself couldn't be more delighted.
The star, back in a new series of ITV's hit legal drama Kingdom tonight, has shed 6st since the turn of the year after becoming dangerously overweight.
Stephen, who stands a shade under 6ft 5ins, said: "I am tall and I am naturally quite a big man, but I realised that being more than 21st was simply too much.
"My worry was that I didn't think I would be able to diet away the excess - and I certainly didn't think I would be able to get on with a gym.
"I hated the very idea of keep fit and used to make jokes about people who treated their bodies like temples while simultaneously pulling every muscle known to man and possibly breaking a few bones along the way too.
"But, incredibly, I now love my visits to the gym and the diet I've gone on has actually worked.
"It's hardly revolutionary, just the gradual elimination of foods like bread and sugar which were making me fat.
"I enjoy what I still eat - I continue to tuck into puddings when I choose to - I just don't eat as much or eat the same things that I used to."
Stephen now weighs around 15st but plans to carry on shedding the pounds.
He winces when he sees footage of his heavier self in the new series of Kingdom, filmed on location in Norfolk last summer.
But Stephen, 51, can hardly stop beaming when he looks in the mirror these days. He said: "Of course it's a boost to the ego to lose weight - we all want to look our best. But I am also delighted to find I am in good health too, that carrying the extra weight for as long as I did hasn't done any long-term damage.
"I recently underwent a medical before filming the new series of the BBC panel game QI and was delighted to find I have the blood pressure of a teenager.
"But I certainly don't look in the mirror in the hope of seeing some wonderfully tanned Adonis, even if I have lost weight."
The ever-busy Stephen is, though, looking nicely bronzed after travelling the globe filming Last Chance To See - a BBC series about animals on the brink of extinction.
"Losing weight has been out of fear for my well-being, rather than vanity," he added. "Beauty, I don't think, is all that it is cracked up to be.
"I long ago realised that looking fantastic can be as much a curse as it can be a blessing.
"When I was growing up, I thought that looking cute, or looking beautiful, was the most wonderful thing you could possibly imagine - the goal to aim for.
"And now I realise it isn't. There's nothing sadder than seeing people growing away from their beauty, especially if they are left with all the vanities which beauty gave them in the first place.
"If they still have this expectation of being obeyed and admired simply for being beautiful - and they no longer are beautiful - it is almost tragic."
Tragic was a word applied to Stephen back in the 1990s. Despite big success in telly shows such as A Little Bit Of Fry And Laurie, Jeeves And Wooster and classic sitcom Blackadder Goes Forth - in which he played the booming General Melchett. The poshly-spoken former public schoolboy had a mental illness and more than once tried to commit suicide.
His manic depression - now known as bi-polar - reached a crisis in 1995 when he fled Britain by cross-channel ferry just six days after opening in the West End play Cell Mates with comedy pal Rik Mayall.
Eventually, however, he came back to London and started to get his life back on track after a proper diagnosis of his condition. In hindsight, he wishes he could have sorted out his health problems earlier.
Stephen said: "Being told precisely what my condition was helped enormously.
"I am encouraged to think the stigma of mental health is lifting and that more and more people are not only seeking medical help, but being given proper care and diagnoses when they do so.
"Since I went public with my own problems, and made a couple of TV documentaries about bi-polar for the BBC, I've lost count of the number of people who have come up to me and told me their own heartbreaking stories - of suicide attempts and terrible grief over the loss of loved ones."
"All I can do is point them in the direction of the medical experts and hope they get better."
Stephen sounds as caring as his TV character Peter Kingdom, the Market Shipborough lawyer who often puts the health and welfare of his clients above his own financial interests.
"Although don't be fooled into thinking we are one and the same person," laughs Stephen, who has been with partner Daniel Cohen for more than a decade and divides his time between his homes in West Hampstead and Norfolk.
"Peter Kingdom is much nicer than I am - seriously he is! I'm afraid I can get quite impatient, with myself and with other people, and Peter is so incredibly patient and understanding.
"Basically, when I play Peter Kingdom, I have to find the kindest, most considerate and least egotistical bits of me and leave the rest of me - the grumpiness, the anger, the impatience and all the other negative parts of my personality - under lock and key at home.
"And, sadly, there is quite a lot in life that makes me angry, whether it's Norwich City being relegated from the Championship or trite, arse-paralysing self-help books that make your nose bleed. And I can get a bit testy when I am asked the same old questions time and time again, or when I get interrupted when I am walking along the street with my iPod on.
"I certainly used to get annoyed with cabbies who were forever asking me if there was going to be another series of Blackadder.
"It got to the point where I would hold up a placard, before the driver could ask me the same old question, which stated 'No there's not going to be another Blackadder'. It saved me getting impatient with them!"
Despite admitting he's no saint, more than 7,000 voters in a MySpace poll chose him for Patron Saint of England.
"My problem would be my sexuality," said Stephen, who has been openly gay for many years. "I think The Pope would look into my bedroom manners and find much to dislike with my choice of gender partner."
It's never been clear whether Peter Kingdom is gay or straight. During the first two series, and the one that starts tonight, he's never had a boyfriend or girlfriend.
Stephen said: "I think he's a lonely, single guy who is very good at his job but finds it hard to connect with people.
"But I wouldn't rule out a relationship, in his life, if we do another series. Watch this space."
For Stephen, one of the joys of filming Kingdom in Norfolk is having his family around him.
"My mum and dad, my sister, my brother and my nephews are all around me and it really does feel like being at home, when we are filming the series," he said.
"Which, actually, it is! We film only a few miles from where I live so I've no excuse for being late for work in the morning - and, so far, I haven't been."

June 06, 2009

the power of the blog

A couple of weeks ago I posted a mildly grumpy commentary on the BBC's re-design of its Just A Minute site. You can read the post here.

I don't know if I can take credit or not, but I've noted that a couple of the points I raised have been fixed!

I noted without naming them, that two of the contestants were listed as both present and former panellists. Pam Ayres has now been removed from the list of "present panellists" and is now simply a "former panellist" although she is appearing in the next season. Charles Collingwood continues on both lists, although on the second he is described as "Brian from The Archers" so maybe who ever made the amendments couldn't work out who I meant!

They've also taken up my suggestion of a link to the BBC Shop to JAM related CDs. That's a good sensible addition.

If I am the reason for the changes - and probably it is just coincidence - it does seem mean-spirited not to put back the link to the site.