I've just finished reading Nicholas Parsons's second volume of memoirs, With Just A Touch Of Hesitation Repetition And Deviation.
A sequel to the 1994 book The Straight Man, the book covers a lot of the same ground. In his foreword Nicholas suggests that this book is less about his personal life than the earlier one. But for me the book is very similar in content, and we run through again his work with Arthur Haynes and Benny Hill, Sale Of The Century, his stage work and so on. His appearance on a Doctor Who show gets another thorough airing.
His work at the Edinburgh Festival in recent years and his run in The Rocky Horror Show are the main aspects that are new in the past 16 years and they both get a chapter of their own.
The problem with this sort of book, which spends a lot of time on plays and radio and TV shows and films that will now be only vaguely remembered by the reader if they are remembered at all, is this. To make these experiences come alive you need a really rich range of anecdotes and a real flair for writing. Nicholas doesn't really have that flair for telling stories that makes all these experiences come alive again and I can't help feeling that many readers are going to be a little bored by the book, espcially if they already have the first one.
The title of course is an allusion to Just A Minute and it gets a lengthy chapter of its own. With the Classic CD commentaries and so many interviews as well as the previous book, I rather expected there would be little new here. But the chapter is the most interesting one of the book and there is a lot that will be new and of interest to the reader. Nicholas talks about just about all of the current players as well as the four classic performers of the past. A long passage about his relationship with Clement Freud is very frank and honest. He recounts an argument after a show where Clement challenged one of Nicholas's decisions, and paints a portrait of Clement as brilliant but difficult which has the ring of truth. It's also quite affectionate and claims that the two were better friends in later years.
The chapter reveals for the first time that Wendy Richard was sacked from the show because Paul Merton refused to appear with her. Although this makes it seem like Paul is the reason for her dismissal, Nicholas makes it clear he sided with Paul, while emphasising that Wendy was good at the game. He feels Wendy introduced a discordant element arguing with the other panellists. An example given is from one of the classic shows - the first of 1993 where Tony Slattery guested. This is the passage that Nicholas discusses. (I've just included the relevant excerpts.)
WENDY RICHARD: Every licensed establishment has their freeloader. You see them standing back with their...
NICHOLAS PARSONS: Tony Slattery's challenged.
TONY SLATTERY: Yes there was a slight hesitation.
NP: There was...
TS: Loath as I am as the new boy but I think it was. And I want to jump in now and again.
WR: I'll see you in the car park later.
TS: As you wish!
PAUL MERTON: That's very decent of you!
NP: I think she was...
PM: Should we form an orderly queue or...?
NP: You see what happens to the new boys don't you Tony?
NP: You had three mores right at the beginning but they let you go on it just to be kind.
TS: Oh that's nice of you, thank you very much.
NP: You said more this and more that!
TS: That's very sweet of you. It'll be extra fun in the carpark Wendy later on.
PM: That's a very dirty laugh, isn't it?
TS: It is!
NP: What I want to know is are we allowed to come and watch?
PM: We were rather hoping you might make the coffee Nicholas.
NP: I might tell you the last time I worked with Tony Slattery he described me as a sexual hand grenade!
PM: From the First World War!
WR: This programme has really gone down! We never have this trouble with Peter Jones!
Now on the broadcast show this is very funny. But in the book Nicholas claims this outburst from Wendy at the end there just changed the humorous atmosphere entirely, bringing everyone down. So that's an interesting take on one of the better remembered editions of the programme.
Nicholas goes through the current players and finds something nice to say about all of them. He is especially fond of Paul Merton and Graham Norton. There is the odd person like Tony Hawks and Tim Rice who he seems to only faintly praise but having set himself the task of praising about 20 people he seems to do it very well.
It's clear that JAM really is Nicholas's favourite job and he is keen to emphasise his own contribution including publishing a letter from the first producer David Hatch who believes Nicholas is the key to the show's success. The idea that Nicholas regards himself as a bit under-appreciated as a comedian and an actor is a theme running through the book and he has a fair point. Nicholas will not be remembered as one of the great actors or comedians of history, but he has had a long and very very successful career. Despite being the butt of so many jokes on JAM, it's clear that Nicholas is sensitive to criticism and it seems the jokes made about him by the Goodies for example did hurt his feelings. Despite the success of Sale Of The Century, Nicholas clearly feels it harmed his acting and comedy career. I found myself wishing Nicholas could enjoy the great success he's had and not worry quite so much about some silly jokes.
Nicholas continues to work very very hard at the age of 84 and there are no signs in the book that he is considering slowing down, let alone retire. Perhaps we will get a third volume of memoirs. JAM fans will find interesting material to read in this book.
I should say that I get a favourable mention in the book as does my friend Keith Matthews. What he writes isn’t 100 percent accurate but it’s all very nice, and I’m quietly pleased!