Just A Minute blog

A blog on the BBC radio programme Just A Minute

Location: Wellington, New Zealand

October 28, 2008

The Humph diaries

Kinda silly but interesting!

Read about his diaries here

Marcus Brigstocke

JAM semi-regular Marcus Brigstocke on his new show and life... from the Independent

Question Time: Marcus Brigstocke

Interview by Sophie Morris

Work: Stand-up comedian, broadcaster, Radio 4 regular, former host of satirical news show 'The Late Edition', and team captain on new show 'Argumental'

Life: 35, lives in Wandsworth, south London, with his wife and two children

Balance: Snowboarder, music lover, runs comedy festival in Méribel, France

'Argumental' starts tonight on Dave. What's the concept?
It's a panel show with comedian Rufus Hound and me as team captains and political journalist John Sergeant in charge. We propose motions: "Peter Andre is the luckiest man in the world," say. Everyone has a proper old dingdong until Sergeant decides he's bored.

Who inspired you to pursue comedy?
Robin Williams; Live at the Met is an astonishing stand-up show. Then Bill Hicks, Peter Cook and Jim Henson. It's probably fairer to say I got into comedy because I'm a big-mouth.

Who do you enjoy today?
Chris Rock is fantastic. I adore Bill Bailey. Stephen Fry and Phill Jupitus always make me laugh. Andrew Maxwell is hard to beat.

What was your first break?
I briefly thought I had one when I did a sitcom on BBC1 a few years ago. Thank goodness I kept gigging.

Are there any jobs you wished you hadn't done?
Chief beverages officer at Little Chef. I should have walked off The 11 O'Clock Show when I was a guest. The producers ruined what could have been a good show by making it thoughtless, lowbrow, misogynistic, homophobic, pathetic and bullying.

Who in the industry would you most like to work with?
I've probably revered Chris Morris too much to actually wish to work with him, but Brass Eye turned my comedy world on its head.

Which show would you most like to present?
Newsnight. And the fact that Britain doesn't have a daily comedy show frustrates me massively. America has The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Letterman, Leno and Conan O'Brien. We can't manage one.

What would your desert island media be?
Question Time, Radio 4 and The Independent. On an average day, most papers have the same headlines. The Independent will have something different.

October 26, 2008

Making a debut

Ian McMillan on his first go at Just A Minute

The 52-year-old rates Radio 4’s Just A Minute as more difficult to record than Have I Got News For You. “When you get there you think ‘blimey I’m with the big boys’ and for Have I Got News For You they give you a tiny dressing room with all the week’s newspaper in a big stack and you think ‘bloody hell I’ve only read The Guardian’ and you start stupidly looking at the rest when there’s only half-an-hour to the recording. But when you get out there people like Ian Hislop and Paul Merton are very supportive and luckily the series producer is from Barnsley,” says the man who has the accolade of being football’s first poet in residence, at his hometown club, Barnsley.
He recalls arriving to record Just A Minute at Manchester Opera House.
“There was about 2,000 people there who were big Nicholas Parsons fans and he says ‘here’s one of your own, Mr Ian McMillan’ and they all started booing. I said ‘I’d like to point out that this is Lancashire and I’m from Yorkshire’. He replied ‘well it’s all the North’… so they all started booing him.”

October 25, 2008

QI - C

Thought I'd mention the latest QI DVD, series 3 or the C season.

Very very funny as well as quite interesting.

JAMsters appearing on the video are Stephen Fry, Bill Bailey, Phill Jupitus, Sean Lock, Jo Brand, Arthur Smith, Dara O'Briain and Rob Brydon.

Also on duty are Alan Davies, Rich Hall, Clive Anderson, Jeremy Clarkson, Andy Hamilton, Rory McGrath, John Sessions, Alexander Armstrong, Helen Atkinson-Wood, Jimmy Carr, Doon Mackichan, David Mitchell and Mark Steel.

Well worth it!

producers again

Have heard from the lovely Claire Jones who tells me that she and Tilusha Ghelani are going to share JAM duties. Each will handle one season or another depending on production schedules.

Sounds good!

October 24, 2008

first JAM recording of the season

was at London and featured Paul Merton, Graham Norton, Charles Collingwood and Shappi Khorsandi.

Correspondent Ewen Moore sent this description. Thank you very much Ewen for such a great account of the night!

I thought you might be interested to know that on Saturday 17th I finally achieved a long-held ambition and attended a JAM recording - the first, I think, for the upcoming winter season. I was arriving home that morning from a holiday in your homeland of New Zealand so knew I would be somewhat jet lagged but wasn't going to let that stand in the way of this opportunity.

The recording was at the Radio Theatre in Broadcasting House - the first of 3 recordings (6 episodes?) to be held there for this season - Nicholas commented in the introduction how it was nice to be back there after quite a while away. Maybe they're recording a lot in London this season because it's winter? I'm quite pleased, actually, because it probably makes it easier to get better panellists. I agree with you that last season suffered somewhat from too many new/inexperienced players.

Anyway, after a wait outside Broadcasting House, where a police car pulled up and asked what we were all waiting to see (they seemed somewhat bemused by the reply) we made it in and took our seats. The first slightly odd thing was that the producer was (I think…) Claire Jones and definitely not Tilusha Ghelani. I'm not sure why Claire Jones has returned? Anyway, she introduced Nicholas, who came on looking every bit the showman and in surprisingly good shape for his age. He's definitely of the old school of showbiz - a real old fashioned entertainer who seems to come alive when he's in front of the audience. He welcomed us and introduced the panel for the two recordings - regulars Paul Merton and Graham Norton and two more surprising guests - Charles Collingwood (returning after a bit of an absence) and Shappi Khorsandi, who, like you, I wasn't necessarily expecting to return for another shot. I was extremely pleased to see Charles - he's one of my favourite 'minor' players and I'd been a bit worried that people like him were being phased out in favour of 'trendier' faces. He is quite gentle and surreal and reminds me quite a lot of Peter Jones. Shappi was surprisingly good - she's definitely starting to get the hang of it and I wouldn't be surprised if she starts to become quite a regular player over the years. She struggled against Paul and Graham's lightning wit and on-the-ball challenges but fought fiercely and was also thoroughly endearing, definitely winning audience support! In the second recording she particularly started to get the hang of things. The second recording was actually the better of the two as all four players seemed thoroughly warmed up by then and Charles also made a much more dramatic contribution than in the first recording - even getting up in mock anger at one point and threatening to walk out, during a round on 'clubbing' where Paul and Graham were implying that he spent his spare time hanging around outside nightclubs trying to pick up young girls!

I think the second recording will be the first to be broadcast - it was a Christmas/New Year show and is due to go out on Monday 29th December - and featured rounds such as 'what I got for Christmas' (which Nicholas changed to 'what I was given for Christmas' in a protest against the poor standard of English) and 'my new year's resolutions'. There was quite a lot of humour derived from the fact that, of course, Christmas is still several months away. There was also quite a lot of humour coming from the fact that (apparently) the tables were set up further apart than normal and Nicholas couldn't quite hear what the contestants were saying, which made his job rather difficult! Claire Jones offered, between the two recordings, to have everything repositioned but Nicholas declined, saying that it would be too much hassle for everyone.

I enjoyed seeing how well Nicholas worked the audience and how much warmth and camaraderie there was between everyone on the stage - how they seemed pleased to have Charles Collingwood back, how they looked out for Shappi Khorsandi, whilst still being competitive… needless to say, Paul won both games although it seemed to me he wasn't quite on top form - he seemed to be coasting somewhat. Graham was probably the funniest contributor to the shows.

They're back recording in the Radio Theatre on November 1st although they couldn't tell us who the panellists would be. I'm hoping they manage to get Stephen Fry as I always enjoy a show when he's on and he might be able to do it given it's in Broadcasting House. Anyway, I thought you would enjoy this preview of the forthcoming season and please feel free to use any of it in your blog. Thanks for the great site - keep up the excellent work!

A new - or old - producer?

Tilusha Ghelani's two year term at the helm of Just A Minute is up.

I'm sad to see her go. There's been a good attempt to bring in some new voices, which always helps to rejuvenate the programme and keep it fresh. Thanks for your work over the past two years Tilusha and I hope you achieve more success in the future.

A correspondent believes the new producer, is ex-producer Claire Jones. Claire produced the show for six and a half years from 2000 to 2006 and I have confirmed she is back at the BBC. She is the second longest serving producer after the show's founder David Hatch so is a real pro. If she is back at the helm, I sincerely welcome her back.

October 18, 2008

Nicholas on the history of radio comedy

from the BBC

How radio comedy changed a nation

Radio comedy has not only entertained audiences for some 70 years, it's also been a medium for change in British society itself, says Nicholas Parsons.

Radio has always been a part of my life. My earliest memories of entertainment are sitting at home with the family around our wireless listening to the variety show Music Hall on a Saturday night. We would hear working class comedians like Rob Wilton and Elsie and Doris Waters, Gert and Daisy as they were known, as well as entertainers of a different genre or background.
Then in 1938, as a youngster I became a fan of a wonderful new scripted show called Bandwaggon. Starring "Big Hearted Arthur" Askey, who was a working class fellow living with an upper crust gent, Richard "Stinker" Murdoch. I believe this show helped to start a subtle blurring of class divisions.
Bandwaggon established a new formula of comedy sketches and music. At the beginning of the war it was a wonderful boost for morale.
Before the advent of radio, comedy and light entertainment emanated from two sources, music hall or variety and the legitimate theatre. The working classes would flock to the music halls, where they enjoyed broad comedy, whereas the legitimate theatre was patronised by the more discerning or elitist members of society.
Those who supported one form of entertainment rarely visited the theatres that presented the other. Through radio comedy the BBC began to broadcast shows that bridged the gap and with a cross section of entertainers, listeners were exposed to performers who represented a different class to the ones they mixed with or recognised, and they enjoyed them. Class barriers were being subtly broken down.
A show like ITMA, It's That Man Again, starring the national hero Tommy Handley, did much of that work. Comedy writer Brian Cooke remembers it as "the one that broke down a lot of barriers".
"It was a very fast show, it was the equivalent of The Fast Show back then. People would open the famous door and say their catchphrase and then went. You've got so many catchphrases and they caught on, some of them rather sadly. Mrs Mops' Ta Ta For Now which became TTFN was often the last phrase uttered by people dying in hospital."
After the War there was the famous Goon Show, created by Spike Milligan. Incredibly funny surreal humour with characters drawn from all walks of life, which the younger generation adored, the Goons left older people confused, including the hierarchy at the BBC. They never realised how the anarchy, chaos and irreverence in the show were subtly affecting class attitudes. Also a whole generation was laughing at the same thing.
As the nation changed after the war, so did the BBC and its radio comedy continued to influence the nation and vice versa. Importantly it was a change in the background of the comedy writers and producers hired by the BBC that kept radio comedy changing with the nation. The BBC realised it needed to attract a broader audience, and that it needed to hire working class writers and producers, which it started to do in the 1950s and 60s, including writers like Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, the men who brought Hancock's Half Hour to the radio.
Simpson says working class life became a theme in drama and in comedy often because that was the background of the writers involved.
"People like Ray and I, our social background never thought to become playwrights. Working class lads didn't become playwrights!"
Just after the war the BBC produced The Little Green Book, a guide as to what comedy writers and producers could and couldn't say on air. I remember being told by one producer when recording a stand up show that I couldn't use the word naked as a punchline to a joke, it was a banned word in the Little Green Book's guidance and censorship.
The rules they introduced were often ignored or were even used by some writers as something to challenge and subvert. The writing team of Marty Feldman, Barry Took, and later Brian Cooke, on Round the Horne were an example. The programme introduced characters that the BBC frowned upon. According to the rules in the Green Book you couldn't have reference to a man being effeminate, but then came Hugh Paddick's Julian and Kenneth Williams' Sandy to challenge the Green Book and break down the taboo of homosexuality.
Brian Cooke was a writer on Round the Horne and for him the characters and language of Polari used in Round the Horne did influence the public who were listening.
"The lexicon of Polari was like Cockney slang," says Cooke. "What it was originally meant to do was to stop people realising that you were propositioning somebody. It was illegal to do that. When Round The Horne started if you winked at man in the street you would be arrested but what Julian and Sandy did was stop some of that."
Radio comedy continued to push boundaries and I gladly contributed to that with a programme I devised in 1965 called Listen To This Space. We wanted to break all the rules of BBC censorship. We were going to quote from the newspapers and name them, which was then considered advertising. We were going to poke fun at politicians and others in the public eye, which was then considered taboo. We were even going to mention the Royal Family, but always with respect.
After the pilot it took some ingenious negotiations but the BBC did buy it and what I believe made it popular with the public is that we were unafraid to tackle sensitive subjects of the day, including immigration and race relations.
In a show broadcast in 1965, in a courageous item, the writers created a retelling of the Little Black Sambo story and we persuaded the great Sir Leary Constantine to come and read it.
Whilst British radio comedy unconsciously explored issues of class structure and sexuality, there was a delay when it came to tackling race and ethnicity. In 1996 Sanjeev Bhaskar brought Goodness Gracious Me to BBC Radio 4, and the social impact was huge as he saw in the response he received.
"We were writing a comedy show," recalls Bhaskar. "We wrote about what we knew, we never had a political agenda. We were described once as the lubricant in the engine of race relations and I still don't know what that means, but it sounds like a compliment and I'll take it. An Asian guy stopped me in the street once and said 'Why are you washing our dirty linen in public?' I said 'Wouldn't you rather it was washed?' and he said yes. I said "What's your point?" He said "I love the show!"
I've been witness to that huge impact that radio comedy has had since the 1930s and have been part of it for over 60 years. BBC radio still maintains its high standards, which is valuable, but they have moved a long way from the establishment viewpoint they adopted in their pre-war days. I do believe that these changes have come about principally through the power of humour to influence attitudes and patterns of behaviour and in it's that way that radio comedy has helped change a nation.

New book out on Kenneth Williams

I haven't seen it yet but looks like a very interesting collection of

Great to have new info on Kenneth after all these years.

October 11, 2008

Former JAM producer talks about his struggle with depression

John Lloyd was JAM producer for two years in the mid 70s. He's since gone on to great success in TV, producing Not The Nine O'Clock News, Spitting Image, Black Adder and QI.

But sadly he has also had mental health problems and talks about them in this Daily Mail article.

Day the laughter stopped: How a mid-life crisis turned genius behind Spitting Image and Blackadder into a depressive

By Helen Weathers

Mid-life crises have a tendency to strike at the most surprising and unexpected of times, and John Lloyd's was no different.
It was 1990 and he had just been crowned the King of Laughter, winning two Baftas as producer of the comedy classic Blackadder and, to cap it all, a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Just the latest triumph for the man who brought us Spitting Image and Not The Nine O'Clock News.
'After the first two Baftas, we already had the brandy out on our table and were half-cut when I heard my name being called for a Lifetime Achievement Award,' says John, now aged 57.
'I stumbled up to the stage, totally unprepared, and had to make a speech in front of Princess Anne.
'My wife Sarah was pregnant with our first child at the time, and I remember going home, Baftas held aloft, thinking: "I'm the happiest person alive."
'Life couldn't have been any better at that moment. I had everything I'd ever wanted: the wife, the family, the career, the house in London, the cottage in the country, the cars, the money, the awards. I'd won so many awards that people had actually started booing when I went up to collect them.
'But from almost the very next day, things started to go wrong. It was as if some steel curtain had come down with the words "The Life Of John Lloyd - that's the end of the first part".
'I woke up the next day and started the descent into a dark pit of mental anguish in which it felt as though I was surrounded by poisonous snakes.
'I found myself thinking: "What's the point of it all?" I'd achieved everything I'd set out to achieve. I didn't need any more awards, I didn't need another house, I didn't need any more money. What was missing from my life was any sense of meaning.'
In the weeks that followed, he found that where once he would leap out of bed, ready to unleash his creativity on the world in 90-hour weeks, now his body and mind were hopelessly leaden at the prospect of another day.
'When I'm cheerful I'm very positive, energetic and jolly, but I became miserable and short-tempered, growing anxious and cross, when things didn't go my way,' he says.
'In meetings I would become difficult and argumentative, trying to control everything and tell people what to do.
'I suddenly found parties intolerable because I couldn't enjoy myself because I had lost all sense of self-respect. I felt overweight, out-of-condition and I was probably drinking too much. People used to tell me I looked haunted and tortured, and I was. I was nicknamed either Mad Jack because of my obsession for getting things right, or Mr Grumpy.'
There were times, he says, when he'd crawl under his desk, hold his head in his hands and silently scream: 'I can't go on!'
'Was I suicidal?' he asks today. 'I was never tempted to go out and buy a noose. I've always thought suicide the most selfish and ghastly act, but in the depths of the pit I could see no point to my life.'
Where once John had possessed the Midas touch, he suddenly found himself struggling to get his original comedy concepts off the ground, which compounded his belief that he'd completely lost the plot.
He found himself being sacked from projects, his scripts binned, unread. So instead, he directed TV commercials for credit cards, banks and lager.
John still enjoyed the creative side of his work as a director and found it offered a welcome reprieve from his inner torment, but the minute the cameras stopped rolling the 'black dog' of depression would return.
'When I hit my early 40s at the beginning of the Nineties, I realised that I'd just been blundering through life. I started to question my existence. It seemed to me that you are born, go to school, work hard, make money and then die, and I thought: "There has to be more to it than this." ' he says.
Even in the fiercest grip of his depression, John never considered going to the doctor or asking to see a psychiatrist, preferring instead to try to find his own solutions to his problems.
'I have always been the kind of person who believes there must be an answer to everything,' he says.
'I like to solve puzzles, and that's what it felt like: being trapped in a giant Rubik cube. I was tied in knots but knew there had to be a solution if I could just find it.
'The worst part of it all was the feeling that I was the only person in the world who felt this way. I didn't know anyone who'd suffered depression or had a breakdown, even though it is incredibly common.
'I'd surreptitiously hang around the New Age sections of bookshops, furtively picking up copies of self-help books with titles like Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway - it was like something out of a comedy sketch. I even read Freud and Carl Jung in a search for answers to why I was in a such a state. I'm sure some people must have thought I'd gone quite bonkers.'
But it proved his salvation. 'I just read anything and everything, and what I found out gave me a reason for getting up each day. I discovered I wasn't the only one who felt like this. In fact, people had been feeling like it for centuries, probably since the beginning of time, and their writings helped shift my perspective about my own predicament. What I was feeling was not unique, but universal.'
John believes that it is no coincidence that his mid-life crisis arrived along with parenthood.
His son Harry was three and daughter Cocoa one when he plunged fully into the pit - tipped over the edge as he grappled with the realities of fatherhood.
At the time his wife, Sarah Wallace, was the publishing director of Century, and although on the surface they appeared the successful media couple John says 'we were probably the most dysfunctional family in London'.
'My wife and I were friends for ten years before we married and I think that has been enormously helpful in the long term,' says John.
'I'm lucky that in our marriage we've always been able to talk to each other, so she was very aware of what was going on.
'Being a good parent is the most difficult job in the world. You have these tiny people who you have the power to completely screw up for life if you get it wrong. Going off to the office was easy compared to trying to deal with a mad four-year-old.'
John and Sarah, now aged 52, who became a full-time mother after the birth of their third child 13 years ago, were the first people to hire Jo Frost, then the 19-year-old daughter of a local builder, who would later find fame as television's Supernanny.
'Jo was fantastic with the children and much better with them than us,' says John.
'She'd have them in bed on time, without complaint, asleep within minutes, while with us they'd be up until all hours. Scratch the surface, and you'll find most parents do a pretty rubbish job of it most of the time.'
The root of John's crisis, he believes, is one common to many high-achieving men when they hit their late 30s and early 40s and stare bleakly into a future which suddenly doesn't seem quite as inviting as it should.
'During my 20s and 30s my life was dedicated to being top of my game. I wanted to be better then all my peers, I wanted acclaim. I went from being a lazy schoolboy to an even lazier Cambridge University student,' says John who was educated at King's School, Canterbury, before studying law at Trinity College.
'Public schools are a bit like crammers, and when you get to university everyone clocks off and parties for three years. Then I was offered a job in BBC radio by some mad person in a pub - a job I neither sought nor wanted at the time - and having discovered the delights of it, almost overnight I turned into a workaholic.'
When the steel curtain came down, however, on the first part of his life, it would take him the best part of ten years to work out how he should live the second part.
It was only after that that he decided to make another TV series - the hugely popular BBC quiz show QI (Quite Interesting) fronted by Stephen Fry.
While he remains proud of his past achievements, he says it is QI which saved his sanity.
The concept behind it is that most of what we learn at school is either too narrow, boring or misinformed, and with a little curiosity we can discover just how interesting and exciting the universe really is by unearthing little-known facts.
'When people think of the classic mid-life crisis, they think of a man having an affair, or turning to drink, or someone as bald as an egg suddenly acquiring a sports car and a leather jacket,' says John
'I decided I wanted to find out the meaning of my life. I realised that, for all my awards, I knew very little about the world. So I started reading voraciously, and whenever I came across an unknown fact which was quite interesting, I found it cheered me up and I'd make a note of it.
'So that's what I did for those next ten years. I spent two years in the depths of the pit, and then the next eight gradually climbing out of it by trying to rediscover the interestingness of this world, cheering myself up along the way.'
I meet John at the offices of the publishers of his new book Advanced Banter, The QI Book Of Quotations, co-authored by John Mitchinson. (The QI books have sold more than one million copies and The Book Of General Ignorance has remained in the top 20 non-fiction bestseller lists throughout 2008.)
'Whenever I found a quotation which spoke to me of the human condition or made me laugh, I'd write it down,' he says.'
Originally, I was going to have a few printed on some bathroom tiles so that if I woke up gloomy, I could simply walk into the shower and instantly feel more cheerful.
'However, learning something new is one thing, but applying it to your life is quite another. But then, everything worthwhile in life is difficult. I decided, to take a quote from the new book, that "for peace of mind you need to resign as the MD of the universe".
I decided to simply let go and stop trying to control everything, because ultimately everything in this life is beyond your control.
'Once I did that, things started to turn out all right. Now I just sit in meetings and beam at people. I listen. I don't try to control them. And the magical thing is that when you let nature take it's course, everything turns out fine.'
Today, John says he is content most of the time, although he does still have a tendency to slip into melancholia.
His marriage survived and television success beckons once more, with QI now winning awards - though this time round, success is not the be all and end all of his life.
'Boredom is an anathema to me and there has certainly never been a boring moment with Sarah. We still find each hugely interesting,' he says.
'These days it is more important to me that I'm a good father and husband than an award-winning television producer. Kindness, humour, warmth and compassion are what matter.
'Going for the big house, the better car, more money doesn't make you any happier. It doesn't make people like you any more. If anything, it makes them like you less. If you are invited to a dinner party and everything is just perfect, you come away feeling bad about yourself because you think: "I'll never live up to that."
'But people who come to our house instantly feel better about themselves.
'More often than not, they end up helping to peel the carrots or popping down to the off-licence to pick up the wine. They see the mess in our house and they go away thinking: "At least our house will never be as untidy as theirs!"'
Eighteen years after the steel curtain came down on the first part of John Lloyd's glittering, awards-strewn life, it seems the second part is proving to be Quite Interesting indeed.

Wendy Richard gets married

Lots of lovely pics here.

birthday call

Nicholas Parsons is 85 today! (October 10)

October 08, 2008

Paul Merton in India

An interesting article from the Telegraph

Paul Merton in India: Have I got phews for you

The comedian turned travel show presenter tells James Rampton how he aimed for amazement and laughter, not mockery, in his new series in India.

Is Paul Merton the new Michael Palin? He is certainly following in the former Python's footsteps, making that tricky border-crossing from television comedy into the strange territory of travel show presenting. Having guided viewers on an impressive alternative tour of China last year on Five, the long-standing team captain on Have I Got News for You has been invited back to present a similarly unconventional five-part jaunt around India.

"You should ask Michael if he wants to be the old Paul Merton," says Merton, with a broad smile. "If he agrees to that, then I'll agree to being the new Michael Palin."

The 51-year-old Merton certainly possesses the credentials to take over the mantle of Britain's favourite travel guide from Palin, who officially retired from epic series after last year's seven-part journey around the New Europe. Although not a natural adventurer ("Before going to China, I had no great desire to travel"), Merton possesses a marvellously acute eye for the weird and wonderful.

In one memorable sequence from the new India series, Merton joins the million (mainly naked) pilgrims at the annual festival in Junagadh which celebrates the moment Shiva consummated his marriage. To underline their devotion, many disciples perform the most extraordinary, eye-watering feats with their private parts. One uses his reproductive organs to lift a huge rock off the ground - an activity designed to block out his sexual desire. Another wraps his sexual organ around a stick. Looking on with awe and horror, Merton chips in, in typical deadpan style: "Personally, I'd have gone for a cold shower." But crucially, endearingly, even as he raises a quizzical eyebrow, Merton never seeks to demean his subjects. His wry presenting style works so well because it is founded not on mockery, but on wonder.

"You have to guard against sneering at people just because they're different," he says. "You can be amusing, but it shouldn't be at the expense of the people you're talking to. It would be the easiest thing in the world to adopt the tone of 'Look at that funny bloke walking around in his underpants. Oh, it's Gandhi. Sorry, mate!' That's just lazy and patronising. I really took to the Indian people. They're warm, charming, very quick to laugh and have this terrific sense of fun." Another of Merton's strengths as a presenter is his willingness to let his interviewees take centre stage. Merton says he learnt this technique - perhaps surprisingly - at the Department of Employment, where he worked until his comedy career took off in the early 1980s.

"I had to interview up to 15 people a day, and they taught me a very simple rule," he says. "Ask a question, listen to the answer, and base your next question on what they've just said. It's about not imposing yourself on the situation - I'm very happy to back out of the limelight. It would never occur to me to say during the making of a programme, 'Why isn't the camera on me?'"

The other element that distinguishes Merton as a documentary presenter is that, despite his comic background, he is not relentlessly attempting to crack gags. In fact, he takes every opportunity to inject moments of seriousness into proceedings.

"It's all about light and shade," he says. "Trying to get laughs all the time would be really annoying. I like those moments on Have I Got News for You where it gets serious. The contrast works well, and the next funny moment then gets a bigger laugh."

Merton is far happier off the beaten track than following the familiar tourist trail. Don't expect any clichéd shots here of Merton "doing a Princess Diana" and looking sun-kissed and interesting on that bench in front of the Taj Mahal. Stressing that "this is not The Holiday Programme", he introduces the series by declaring: "India [is] a country of one billion people rapidly becoming a superpower of the 21st century, a landscape of stunning vistas etched from its rivers, sunsets and religious icons. But I'm not going to show you any of that." Instead, he introduces us to a Jaipur eunuch protection racket in Ahmedabad, a PG Wodehouse Appreciation Society in Mumbai and a Bangalore prison where the food is reputedly so tasty that inmates in other jails go on hunger strike so they can be transferred there.

It's a good fit: somebody with as developed a taste as Merton for the quirky and arcane is always going to be drawn to these out-of-the-way, idiosyncratic places. In one of the strangest and most compelling scenes in the series, Merton meets BB Nayak, a Mumbai man with a rather bizarre urge: to set a new world record for the number of times he is kicked in the groin within one minute - it's 42, in case you're wondering.

"That man's status has been transformed," Merton reflects. "In a country of one billion, how are you going to stand out as an individual? One of the ways is to become a world champion - it doesn't matter if it's in something outlandish. Our celebrity culture is not that different. This chap got very angry because one of the volunteers to kick him failed to turn up. So I helped out by kicking him in the b******s several times. He even complimented me on my accuracy."

Merton pauses a beat, before adding in that deadpan tone: "Well, you don't want to let the side down." It's hard to imagine Judith Chalmers mucking in in quite the same way.

October 05, 2008

JAM star Wendy Richard has inoperable cancer :(

It's hard to imagine sadder news.

Wendy was a JAM regular from 1988 to 1994, being the first "replacement" for Kenneth Williams. She also appeared in TV shows in 1995 and 1999, and returned to the radio version for a few appearances in 2002 and 2003.

She was ferociously competitive, arguing over almost every challenge, but also had a nice line of wit. More than anyone except Kenneth Williams, she added a sense of draama to the show.

She has beaten cancer before. Everyone who loves her in JAM, Are You Being Served and East Enders will hope she can do it again.

here's the story from the Press Association

Wendy Richard 'is dying of cancer'
Press Assoc.

Former EastEnders star Wendy Richard is dying of cancer and will marry her long-term partner before she dies, according to the Sunday Express.

The 65-year-old actress told the newspaper she has written her will and planned her funeral after being diagnosed in January with an aggressive form of the disease that has attacked her kidney and spread to her bones.

The star, who played Pauline Fowler in the BBC One soap opera, has twice been diagnosed with breast cancer.

She said: "I went for my usual annual check-up and they found that some cancer cells had returned in my left armpit."

The actress, who rose to fame playing Miss Brahms in Are You Being Served?, explained that despite being treated for the cancer it has spread through her body.

She added: "The drugs I was given to help had an adverse effect. If anything, they did more damage than good so my health has really deteriorated. Now I have a cancerous growth on my right kidney and the cancer has spread to my bones.

"Twice I've had breast cancer but this is different. It's more aggressive this time, unfortunately, and has spread to the top of my spine and left ribs."

She added: "My oncologist said I've got several useful years ahead of me but since then it's got worse."

Ms Richard will marry her partner, John Burns, before starting chemotherapy treatment on October 13.

She was awarded the MBE for services to television in 2000.

October 03, 2008

My JAM Rankings for 2008

Last year I did a hugely popular (!) ranking of all the JAM panellists for the year. Here's this year's version.

You can see last year's here. I note that all of those listed as not being back, were indeed not back. We'll have to see if I can keep up my record this time.

Also note 27 people this year. That's enough for seven different panels. Doesn't that seem a lot?

They won't be back next year

Lynn Ferguson - She was competitive but didn't really have much to say of interest when she had the subject.
Janey Godley - Last year I had her in the "let's hear more of them" group. We did and I thought she was flat. She has some spark in her, but really nothing much to say when she has the subject.
Shappi Khorsandi - She seemed a nice person but it was a long time between jokes.
Josie Lawrence - It pains me to say it because she did get into the spirit of things well. And I adore her. I almost put her in the group above. But in the end she probably didn't produce enough humour to be worth another try.
Liza Tarbuck - Is there anyone else in the history of the show to have said and done so little that is memorable. Surely not worth another run.

They had some good moments

Chris Addison - Last year I had him in the "let's hear more of them" category. I didn't think he was as good this year and he seemed a bit quiet. Still, he does have a style that suits him to the show.
Rhod Gilbert - He wouldn't be top of my list for a comeback, but I thought he had some funny lines.
Robin Ince - A good one-off debut, where he seemed like he was a fan of the show and enetred into things well.
Ian McMillan - His poetry added something though he did almost end up in the bottom group.
Mike McShane - Big Mike did fine with some funny bits and pieces.
Owen O'Neill - Better than on his previous shows, with some witty lines.

About average

Jack Dee - the best of this year's newcomers, especially in the first show where he was funny and competitive.
Dave Gorman - Last year he was in the "good moments" group. He was better this year and seemed more like the sort of panellist who could do well in the future.
Kit Hesketh-Harvey - Last year in the "let's hear more" group. I do think Kit when he is sparking is very very good. He was a bit below his best this year.
Phill Jupitus - Last year in this group. He's a bit unlucky not to have moved up because he sounded more comfortable this year and had some funny things to say.
Fred MacAulay - Last year in this group. Again he's a funny man and a welcome guest, but not totally suited to this format.
Chris Neill - last year I rated him 5th best. I thought this year he wasn't as good. But he had only two shows, he could have done with more.

Let's hear more of them

Gyles Brandreth - Last year I gave him the bronze medal. I thought he wasn't as strong this year although he's a dependable performer with a big part to play in JAM's future.
Marcus Brigstocke - Last year I gave him the silver medal. I thought some of his shows were disappointing this year - I did consider him for the group below. But still someone we will hear a lot more from as he is well suited to the show.
Jenny Eclair - Last year in the "good moments" group. She was funnier this year and she's always welcome on the show.
Clement Freud - Last year in the average group. Back in better form this year, he remains a welcome voice.
Tony Hawks - Last year in the average group, I thought he was funnier this year, especially in the banter area.

Stars of the year

5th best - Ross Noble - Great to hear him again. Not at his absolute best but still wonderful.

4th best - Julian Clary - Same slot as last year. I think he gets better every year and could appear more often than he does.

Bronze medal - Graham Norton - Last year in the "let's hear more" group, Graham was a star in his shows this year.

Silver medal - Sue Perkins - last year in the "let's hear more" group. A real force in the show she appears in these days, Sue is witty, funny, competitive, and original.

Champion of the year - Paul Merton - Champ again. A lot better than anyone else in the show, even though he doesn't try to dominate as much as he used to. Can't open his mouth without being damn funny.

Overall, perhaps a little disappointing this year.