Just A Minute blog

A blog on the BBC radio programme Just A Minute

Location: Wellington, New Zealand

March 27, 2012

JAM in the press

A series of articles about JAM in the papers to mark the start of the TV series

In the Radio Times

Nicholas Parsons on the success of Just a Minute
Eddie Mair talks to the panel show host about 45 years of radio success, and the new TV version of the programme
I travel with Nicholas Parsons almost every day. Having discovered recently that much of the back catalogue of Just a Minute can be downloaded, most of my journeys are
enlivened by Nicholas and his chums in my earphones, trying not to repeat, hesitate or deviate. I’ve worked my way from the earliest recordings where it’s all rather sedate and everyone talks like royalty, to the Best of 2010 in which razor-sharp wits like Paul Merton and Sue Perkins battle over every stumble.
This strange obsession has allowed me to crunch entire decades into a few months and to appreciate more than I did the skill of Nicholas Parsons as chairman. His tweaking of the format has kept the show fresh and fast-moving. His guiding hand encourages nervous first-timers to find their feet. And his willingness to be the butt of jokes affords comic flights of fancy.
When we meet, Nicholas hasn’t yet seen the TV shows that have been recorded but “I gather they’re very pleased with it”. Previous attempts at making the radio hit a TV smash have failed – “They messed it up” – but this time they’re using the Just a Minute radio producer Tilusha Ghalani and two television people Nicholas describes as brilliant: Andy Brereton and Jamie Ormerod. They said, ‘We’re going to do what you did on the radio. We want your input, we want your advice.’” And so, perhaps this time, a TV star is born.
By following Nicholas’s advice, Just a Minute has stayed on air – sometimes in the face of opposition from programme regulars.
“Clement Freud was always a bit narky and in his autobiography criticised me because he wanted to keep it the way it had started – a very sort of gentle, intellectual show where people like him and others would show off their knowledge and erudition. And I maintain if we’d gone down that route we would have gone the same way as My Music and My Word. Excellent shows – but of their time. They had their sell-by date.”
In his book, Nicholas Parsons: With Just a Touch of Hesitation, Repetition and Deviation, he wrote of having huge admiration and respect for Sir Clement. Isn’t that the sort of thing people say when they’re trying not to say someone was hard to like?
“Well that’s a good phrase – he was hard to like. I did have huge admiration and respect for him. He was at school with me. I worked for him at his Royal Court Theatre Club on many occasions. We used to go to parties at his house, so I did have a genuine affection for the fellow. Latterly he got a bit crabbit.”
We agree that’s a good Scots word. “I think he resented the way I ran Just a Minute, because he wanted to run it in the old-fashioned way. A certain antagonism crept in but that didn’t damage the appreciation or respect. I genuinely liked him, but he wasn’t easy.”
In the old recordings Clement often came under fire from Wendy Richard, who hated his habit of creating lists to fill the minute. Did they rub each other up the wrong way? “Oh God, yes,” says Nicholas adding that Richard was a lovely woman but she’d morphed into Pauline Fowler.
“It was very sad about Wendy because I knew her from when she was a youngster. Some of her first work was in The Arthur Haynes Show (on TV in the 1950s, with Parsons as Arthur’s straight man) and I used to drive her back into London from Elstree. She was always a feisty lady – a real character.
“I was very fond of her but she used to look miserable in Just a Minute. And if you’re doing an audience show you’ve got to look as if you’re enjoying yourself. She’d say to me, ‘Nicholas, why aren’t I back doing that show? You know I love doing it and I think I’m quite good.’ And I’d say, ‘Wendy you’re marvellous and I’ve suggested you should come back.’ But I couldn’t say to her, ‘Darling – chill out a bit. Enjoy it.’ ”
He gets away with calling a lot of women “darling” – and flirting with them. “Yes I love the ladies. It’s a natural thing. A bit theatrical really. But I call a lot of people in private life ‘darling’ because they are darlings. I know women who are not darlings and I don’t call them darlings. I only say it to people who are darlings to me.”
If his use of "darling" is a little old-fashioned, why not? Nicholas is a little... old. Twice he broaches the subject of age without me bringing it up and I wonder, given the recent fuss about BBC ageism, what he thinks about oldies being tossed out in favour of younger people.
“I feel very strongly it should be based on talent. Sometimes people get older and they age more rapidly than other people. If you’ve got the talent for the job they should go on employing you. And you don’t bring in someone new because they’re younger. You bring in someone different because they’ve got a different talent or a different perspective.”
Players of Just a Minute often mock his age, and he doesn’t mind. “Nowadays if you’re making jokes, you don’t make jokes which are sexist, racist or about disability, but you can make as many jokes about age as you want.”
Listening to decades of Just a Minute recordings, you can HEAR Peter Jones and Clement Freud getting older, but Nicholas Parsons’s timbre and vitality don’t seem to have changed much since the 1970s. I tell him that I don’t want to know how old he is, or print his age. “Just put ‘he’s an advanced age’. I do feel a sensitivity about age because I think they feel that if you’ve reached a certain age...”
But not even Nicholas Parsons can go on forever. When he dies, what should they do with the show. “Oh God, I didn’t think about that. I mean I hope the show will continue. Of course they’ll find a replacement.” I ask whether he has anyone in mind and he replies, “No and I don’t like to think about it.”
I start laughing. “Don’t give them suggestions?”
Nicholas replies “No! No! No! Thank you Eddie for that!”

from The Telegraph

Here’s an interesting topic on which to speak for 60 seconds without hesitation, deviation or repetition: how old is Nicholas Parsons?
“Well, let’s see, he’s been presenting Just a Minute since it began in 1967, so that would make him at least 70, if not 80, and, er…”
Beep! Hesitation. Yes, correct challenge: over to you, Paul Merton.
The answer is that Parsons is a remarkable 88 – not that you’d guess it from listening to his avuncular tones or spending a charming hour in his company. On the radio, his commanding voice belongs to a man half his age. And while he appears a little more frail in person, he still looks young enough to be Sir Bruce Forsyth’s grandson. At the beginning of our interview, I was determined to challenge him to a quick game of Just a Minute; by the end, my nerve had failed as one fluent anecdote after another proved that he’d wipe the floor with me.
Remarkably, Parsons has never missed a show in its 45-year history – though he came close once when he got stuck in a lift en route to the studio. But if you’ve somehow escaped him over the last half century, you’ll be hard pushed to avoid him in the next month. To celebrate the show’s anniversary, the BBC has commissioned a 90-minute history on Radio 4 Extra, two special editions broadcast from India and a radio documentary about the Jam (Just a Minute) competition in Bangalore.
Jam clubs, each with their own elaborate versions of the rules, sprang up all over India when the show used to be broadcast on the World Service. “The trip was organised chaos,” laughs Parsons, who enjoyed being asked for his autograph wherever he went. “But I had a lovely fortnight. I love them; they’re absolutely adorable.”
Starting today, there will also be 10 televised episodes on BBC Two, featuring such stalwarts as Paul Merton, Stephen Fry, Graham Norton and Sue Perkins, as well as novices like Hugh Bonneville.
Will a format that focuses so closely on the spoken word work on television? After all, it wasn’t a success the last time they tried, in the Nineties. Parsons has no concerns. “Television people can be a bit condescending towards radio,” he says. “Once you change something that has been proved, you mess it about. It didn’t work. But the producer and director [this time] have been wonderful – they’ve stuck religiously to the radio format.”
That format has barely changed over the decades, remaining faithful to the vision of Ian Messiter, the show’s creator, whose daydreaming as a 13-year-old schoolboy at Sherborne was rudely interrupted by a master bellowing at him to repeat what he had been saying for the last minute “without hesitation or repetition”. When Messiter failed, he was caned in front of the class (although he wisely chose to substitute this element for “deviation” on the radio show).
And yet the series almost didn’t happen after a poorly received and overly complicated pilot in 1967. “It was too bitty,” admits Parsons. “They had rounds where you couldn’t use the definitive article. And another where you couldn’t use plurals. Derek Nimmo and Clement Freud were quite good; the other two [Wilma Ewart and Beryl Reid] were not. I was struggling a bit as well.”
Parsons was meant to have been a panellist originally, but stepped in to cover for the comic genius Jimmy Edwards, who was unavailable. His chairmanship, however, was one of the few things the BBC brass liked about the pilot. The rules were simplified to the version we know today, a series was commissioned and Parsons was stuck with the role for the next 45 years.
He’s been on the panel a few times for special broadcasts – “I did pretty well, actually” – but he’s happiest in the presenter’s chair. “It’s a very difficult game to play,” he says. “Every now and again, we have people who’ve never done it before and they struggle.”
What’s more, the pace has picked up with an infusion of younger stand-up comedians. “Clement Freud [a panellist from 1967 until his death in 2009] would have liked to have kept it as a gentle parlour game,” he says. “I knew that if it was going to achieve longevity, we’d have to sharpen it up.
“People ask me what is the essence of its success. And I say it’s just having fun – a lot of intelligent, grown-up people fooling around and having a fun evening. The more fun we generate, the more it’s communicated to the audience, and to the listener.”
Much of the show’s enjoyment, he argues, is derived from the fact that it’s improvised. While heavily edited shows such as Have I Got News For You have a host with carefully scripted gags, only five minutes of fat are trimmed from each half-hour recording of Just a Minute.
It certainly keeps Parsons on his toes; he claims his memory is so good that he’s never made a mistake over a challenge. “Before a show I find myself thinking, 'this has worked before, but will it work again?’” he says. “But then you go out there, the audience greets you, and, like an old pro, something clicks in.”
Parsons, the St Paul’s-educated son of a Lincolnshire GP who is thought to have delivered Baroness Thatcher, defied his parents by pursuing a career in the theatre. He spent five years, from the age of 16, doing an engineering apprenticeship in the Glaswgow shipyards but, despite his mother’s fears that he would end up as an “alcoholic pervert in the gutter”, then soberly trod the boards in repertory, landed a lead role in the West End in Boeing Boeing and became a household name in the Sixties through his comedy act with Arthur Haynes, and in the Seventies with his quiz show Sale of the Century.
Today, he seems to work just as hard as he did then, taking a show to the Edinburgh Festival for the 12th successive year and performing numerous after-dinner speaking duties. Wonderfully, he describes hosting Just a Minute as “the most stimulating job I’ve got”.
And while this octogenarian portfolio worker speaks, predictably, of being “lucky and thrilled to be associated with such an iconic show”, he obviously means it; he is visibly excited when sharing an anecdote about a 13-year-old boy telling him that they played Just a Minute at school, the boy assuming the role of Parsons.
Will he ever retire, to spend more time in his beloved garden, with his family (he and his wife Annie have been married for 17 years; he has two children from his first marriage and multiple grandchildren) – or on the golf course?
“I can’t see any point,” he says. “I’m in a profession which retires you. Once you can’t hack it, the audience spot it soon enough. As long as I can still do it, and the public wants to see me, I’ll go on doing it. It helps to keep me young.”
There was a minor storm last week when Parsons was reported to have said that the elderly were the last acceptable butt of jokes. “No, no,” he cries. “I don’t resent jokes about age. You only make a joke if you think they’ll laugh with you. In a way, it’s a compliment.”
What Nicholas Parsons really means is he doesn’t think of himself as old at all. And he’s right. Let’s hope he continues on the airwaves for many minutes more.

from The Telegraph

Just A Minute: the latest cult radio show set to be a TV hit – after just 45 years
Gillian Reynolds on long-running radio classic Just A Minute, as it arrives on teatime TV, still fronted by Nicholas Parsons and with a host of big-name stars rising to the challenge.
Have you tried speaking on one subject for 60 seconds, without repetition, hesitation or deviation? It’s harder than you think, rather like eating two cream crackers in one minute or rubbing your belly while patting your head. Cracker eating and belly rubbing have never, however, made it in to the big time, whereas Just A Minute is now in its 45th year as a radio favourite, and enters a parallel television existence every day next week at 6.00pm on BBC Two.
Some of the radio regulars will appear, Paul Merton for one. Nicholas Parsons will chair. Liam Keelan, Controller of BBC Daytime, commissioned the new TV series, and is “absolutely thrilled to be bringing this much-loved radio classic to screen in celebration of its 45th birthday”. Derek McLean, BBC TV’s Entertainment Creative Director, cites its “huge success” on Comic Relief last year.
Why do they seem so surprised? Just A Minute has done TV before. The BBC tried pilot shows in 1969 and again in 1981. Carlton TV, London’s former ITV contractor, broadcast 14 episodes in 1994, another 14 the next year, all chaired by Parsons. The BBC televised it in 1999, 20 episodes, chaired by Parsons again, panellists including Pam Ayres, Brian Sewell and Barry Cryer.
BBC TV has often shown a sniffy attitude to adapting radio shows, as if being asked to wear second-hand shoes. It turned down Radio 4’s Up the Garden Path, which became an ITV success, and Whose Line Is It Anyway?, which triumphed on Channel 4 and took America by storm. When they do try radio formats, there’s often a fatal urge to overcomplicate or coarsen them out of existence, as with Never Mind the Buzzcocks.
But this isn’t any old radio programme. It is a classic. It began when Ian Messiter, its inventor, was at school. Caught daydreaming, he was challenged to repeat everything his teacher had just said, without hesitation or repetition. Messiter failed, was caned for it. No wonder the idea stuck.
After joining BBC radio in 1942, he developed it into One Minute Please in the 1950s. Chaired by Roy Plomley, it ran for six years.Rediscovered in 1967, its new producer, David Hatch, wanted comedian Jimmy Edwards as chairman. Edwards declined. Enter Nicholas Parsons, jobbing actor, quick of wit, even of temper, brilliant straight man.
He has now been with the show so long that panel members make fun of his age. They should be so lucky. After Hatch (who later became BBC Radio’s Managing Director) Parsons has had a dozen producers, including Simon Brett, writer of the Charles Paris mysteries and After Henry, and John Lloyd, creator of Radio 4’s The News Quiz, producer of Spitting Image for ITV and Blackadder for BBC TV.
Tilusha Ghelani has been at the helm since 2007. She’s also associate producer of the TV series, and is pleased with it. It was recorded at London’s Television Centre, with an audience as in radio. That’s unusual for daytime TV.
I asked her if it’s different from the radio version? “No! Nicholas and Paul Merton wanted to be faithful to the radio version. And they were. Except for a few little things, like no whistle blower. That looks a bit odd on TV.”
Ghelani worked on the TV shows in tandem with the current radio series. The latter, which was broadcast on BBC World Service radio, now has proof of its international appeal. Two of its episodes were recorded in India at a JAM festival, where students play their own version of Just A Minute. These shows, aired on Radio 4 on March 19 and 26, have a Mumbai audience and Indian panellists alongside the regulars.
Ghelani and Parsons have also made a Radio 4 documentary about the JAM phenomenon, to be broadcast on April 2. “It was Nicholas who heard of the JAM festivals. He is so generous as chairman, so caring with newcomers.”
Newcomers to next week’s TV shows include Stephen Mangan, Ruth Jones and Jason Manford, alongside such regulars as Sue Perkins, Graham Norton and Gyles Brandreth. Other major stars who have been lined up to appear in this new incarnation include Downton’s Hugh Bonneville, panel show favourites Stephen Fry and Phill Jupitus, and comedians ranging from Shappi Khorsandi to Julian Clary.
Of course, Just A Minute has never struggled to pull in big names. The list of panellists over the years is a roll call of British humorists, from Derek Nimmo, Clement Freud and Kenneth Williams to Sheila Hancock, Josie Lawrence and Paul Merton Merton actually got on by writing in, asking to appear. And guess who made sure he did? Nicholas Parsons.


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