Just A Minute blog

A blog on the BBC radio programme Just A Minute

Location: Wellington, New Zealand

January 30, 2011

nice piece on JAM guest Sir Patrick Moore

from The Independent on Sunday

Sir Patrick Moore: In tune with music of the spheres
He played piano with Einstein and counts rock icons among his friends. But for Britain's best-loved astronomer, the stars in the sky are all that matter. Paul Bignell meets Sir Patrick Moore
It is only when the elderly white-haired bloke slips in his monocle that he transforms, before my eyes, into Sir Patrick Moore, TV astronomer extraordinaire. His face, rather unremarkable when naked, takes on a purposeful, Churchillian quality, as his right cheekbone and brow clamp on to the glass disc that for decades has been a hallmark of one of the nation's best-known scientists.
The transformation doesn't last long. The eyeglass slips on to his chest and he hunts for it wearily, a man whose mind is still sharp betrayed by a body that is letting him down. As if to defy it, referring to the legacy of a war wound that now leaves him unable to walk, he barks: "I was playing cricket not so long ago... before this problem with my spine. I was a great leg-spinner, you know."
His friends from the local cricket club who call round attest to this and to his hardiness in younger days: the spry physique defying bitter cold as he stood, shirt unbuttoned, in the slips. They speak fondly of good times after the games, when a well-refreshed Moore would cycle home in the dark, whatever the weather.
The hall clock chimes that it's quarter after the hour. "Ah well, gin and tonic, I suppose," his says, with a wry chuckle. I disappoint my genial host by opting for tea. We settle and talk. The trademark clipped, Pathé News diction is not what it was. Sentences dissolve into a slur after the first couple of words and I have trouble understanding him at times.
His mind, however, remains crystal clear. In March, the 87-year-old will record the 700th installment of The Sky at Night. It is the longest-running programme with the same presenter in the history of television. He has been doing it since 1957, missing only one recording in 2004 when salmonella poisoning from a goose egg nearly killed him. It seems only fitting that the BBC throw him a lavish bash to mark the event, in the back garden of his West Sussex home.
To scotch any lingering doubts about whether he should remain in the role, he has just completed one of his weightiest books. Ten years in the writing, The Data Book of Astronomy, published next month, is a compendium of just about everything anyone with an interest in the cosmos could want to know: a summation of his life's work. The book could possibly be his last. "I can't go on for ever: I may not bring out another book. In my career, you could say it's the summary of my life so far.
"So much has happened in the past 10 years," he says. "There's the probing of the planets; unmanned probes that have gone well beyond the solar system; new instrumentation and new advances in astronomy."
His eyes brighten as he talks about his project with his friend, a fellow astronomer and rock guitarist, Brian May. The Queen songwriter often visits Moore's home.
The octogenarian is rather proud of other famous names he has rubbed shoulders with over the years. He's very impressed with the physicist and former D:Ream band member Dr Brian Cox, and has invited him over to the house.
On the dining room wall hangs a black and white photograph of a young Moore seated at a piano, Albert Einstein playing a violin. "That's a fake," he confesses. "But we did meet." The pair met in America and duetted on Camille Saint-Saëns' "The Swan".
"I've never had a music lesson," he says. Indeed, he seems to have had relatively few lessons of any kind, making his prominence in the academic world all the more remarkable.
He was born in Pinner, north-west London, in 1923. His father, an army captain was awarded the Military Cross in the First World War. Patrick's path should have been conventional enough for a lad from a well-to-do family: prep school, then Eton. But ill-health through heart problems meant he was tutored at home.
Captivated by astrology at six, he joined the British Astronomical Association at the age of 11. Exactly 50 years later, he would become its president. The Second World War thwarted his plans to study at Cambridge.
His father, gassed in the First World War, never fully recovered. But the biggest blow in Patrick's life came when his fiancée, Lorna, a nurse, was killed by a bomb. "She was in the wrong place when a German bomb fell. There was no one else for me after that. I knew then I'd never marry."
To this day, he remains a Eurosceptic: "In the war, the Germans tried to beat us, the French did nothing and the Italians made good ice-cream. Out of Europe!" And his views on women are similarly unreconstructed. He is only a little sheepish about suggesting recently that women have ruined the BBC. "I think that might be true... You never see a male newsreader nowadays, they're all women. There are two things the BBC doesn't like: I'm male and I'm white."
Cambridge held open a place for him while he had a stint being "banged about" in the RAF. But he wanted to stand on his own two feet. He set about forging a career in astronomy. In 1957 his first book, about the Moon, was published. When the BBC decided it wanted to produce a monthly astronomy programme, aimed at enthusiasts, Moore's reputation and knowledge, combined with his diction, made him a perfect choice. On 26 April 1957, the first episode of The Sky at Night was broadcast. Why has it lasted? "Partly because it's cheap! Ha, ha, ha... But lots of people have an interest in astronomy. I've tried to make it as interesting as possible for people. I've done my bit."
His lack of formal training and career in popular science TV might have led to sneers from academics. "Quite the opposite. Although I'm an amateur, I'm on Nasa committees and committees on Moon matters. I think they're quite taken with me." Being made a Fellow of the Royal Society makes him the most proud. He still appears astonished a decade later.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his own education, he is against the teaching of astronomy as a school subject: "If it's taught badly, as so many things can be, interest can be killed. Anyone who has an inkling of interest will come to it naturally."
He reminisces about giving a talk many years ago at Torquay Boys' School: "An 11-year-old started talking to me. And I thought to myself, 'I'd better keep an eye on this boy'." Chris Lintott is now an astrophysicist and Sky at Night co-presenter.
Even after seven decades, he claims to have no idea what started it all, why his interest in space developed. "I can't tell you!" he says. "It just did."
Relenting, he offers a clue. His inspiration sits behind me on a shelf in his study, among the flotsam of 50 years. "Behind the dragon," he barks, as I search. In passing, I spot the Bafta he was awarded in 2000 for best presenter. "Behind the brass dragon!" I stumble on something called the Golden Egg award. "In front of you, man!"
Perched at the end of a series of seven small tomes, I finally find an 1898 copy of G F Chambers's The Story of the Solar System. It is in immaculate condition. Its blue-bound cover and hand-drawn illustrations of planets captured the heart and mind of the six-year-old Moore. It is a wonder I managed to the find the book at all. The house is packed with mementos, models and pictures. The ceilings are festooned with tankards.
He lived here after returning from the war, with his mother, Gertrude, until her death in 1981. There are reminders of her all over the house in the form of curious little water-colours. "She did those when she was 82," he says. "She had the music and the art. I got the music, but not the art."
Music became a feature of his TV appearances: he played the xylophone on Morecambe and Wise. He composed on the piano: operettas and scores for local theatre productions. "My last composition was called 'Out of the Sky', for a marching band... but I can't do it any more." He pauses and looks down at his arthritic hands: the hands that, until recently, bashed out books on his beloved 1908 Woodstock typewriter. The most recent was composed on a considerably less challenging computer keyboard.
He has little time for the creep of advancing years. The monocle drops again. He scrabbles for it, finds it, and looks disgruntled. Time is not on his side. But then comes the defiant, clipped diction. Clear this time: "There are other things I want to do!"
'The Data Book of Astronomy' by Patrick Moore is published on 28 February

Curriculum vitae
1923 Born in Pinner, north-west London to Captain Charles Traschel Caldwell-Moore and Gertrude. Father dies in 1947, his mother lives at his home in West Sussex until her death in 1981, aged 94.
1934 Joins the British Astronomical Association (BAA).
1940 Joins RAF after lying about his age. Aged 16 when he signs up, he serves as navigator in RAF Bomber Command, reaching the rank of Flight Lieutenant.
1945 Elected a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society.
1957 The BAA invites him to write a book about the Moon. Later presents first episode of The Sky at Night, a BBC TV programme for astronomy enthusiasts.
1965 Appointed director of the new Armagh Planetarium.
1968 Made an OBE. Consultant on Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.
1982 Asteroid 2602 is named after him.
1992 Plays the role of Gamesmaster in the Channel 4 computer games show.
1998 Appears on Have I Got News for You and accompanies the show's closing theme tune on the xylophone.
2000 Wins Bafta award for services to television. Is knighted the next year for "services to the popularisation of science and to broadcasting".
2004 Suffers near-fatal food poisoning; misses The Sky at Night for first time.
2005 Publishes his autobiography.
2007 Sparks fury when in an interview with the Radio Times, he says BBC was being "ruined by women".
2011 Publishes his life's work, The Data Book of Astronomy, which took 10 years to write.

tonight's recording

The panel was Paul Merton, Tony Hawks, Ross Noble and Liza Tarbuck.

Just one more recording this season on Friday February 18th so that will presumably include Sir Terry Wogan. I’d guess Graham Norton and Jenny Eclair as being likely for the panel too.

January 23, 2011

Kenneth Williams

As we head towards the 23rd anniversary of Kenneth's death I thought I'd collect here some of the great documentaries and retrospectives that are on YouTube about the great man.

If you just know Kenneth as a radio performer, here's the chance to watch his unique visual performances.

An Audience With Kenneth Williams

Heroes of Comedy - Kenneth Williams

Stop Messin About - Kenneth Williams

Seriously Outrageous - Kenneth Williams

Desperately Funny - Kenneth Williams

The South Bank Show - Kenneth Williams

Comic Roots - Kenneth Williams

A Life On The Box - Kenneth Williams

The Unforgettable Kenneth Williams

Legends - Kenneth Williams

panel news

The panel for the recording tonight was Paul Merton, Sheila Hancock, Sue Perkins and Marcus Brigstocke

January 22, 2011

and also

I didn't note the starting date for the new season - February 7th - just two and a bit weeks away! Can't wait!


Several newspapers published versions of this story... (this from the Guardian)

Sir Terry Wogan is to join the roster of regular panellists on the long-running BBC Radio 4 show Just a Minute.
The former Radio 2 breakfast host, who retired from his Wake Up to Wogan slot in 2008, will join the comedy series when it returns next month.
Also joining the programme, hosted by Nicholas Parsons, will be keyboard player and Grumpy Old Men regular Rick Wakeman.
Just a Minute sees a panel of wits aiming to speak for a minute on a given subject without hesitation, deviation or repetition. Parsons has been presenting the show since its launch in 1967.
Regular guests who are set to return include Paul Merton, Tony Hawks, Sheila Hancock, Ross Noble and Marcus Brigstocke. The new eight-edition series begins on 7 February.

It’s interesting that the same info was published in several newspapers. It does suggest a press release was put out by the BBC though I can’t see it in their archive of press releases.

The best news to me was a return for Ross and Marcus. Ross’s appearances have been infrequent in recent years. I regard him as among the very best players of all time and it would be great to have him on more often. I feel almost as highly about Marcus who did a couple of shows each season for five seasons – and then stopped. I do hope he is going to be on more often – very funny, very sharp and competitive.

On Wogan, I will be surprised if it is already decided that he is a new regular, before he’s even recorded his first show. The phrase “joins the regulars”, could mean just that he will be working with the regulars, rather than about to become a regular. He is a big name in the UK so he adds some prestige to the show, even just as a guest. His work has largely been confined to British audiences – his long running TV chat show never played here - so I’m not all that familiar with him. I don’t think of him as the comedian-type chat show host in the style of Graham Norton or Jonathan Ross, but perhaps I’m wrong about that.

Inevitably some wonder if he is being groomed to take over from Nicholas as his career does include stints as presenters of panel games. Anything is possible. I guess I will be surprised though if a man in his mid 80s is replaced by someone in his mid 70s. I would think they would want someone a bit younger.

I was terribly wrong with my prognostications about a replacement for Humph on Clue so my guesses on a replacement for Nicholas are likely to be just as wrong. But personally I’d say ...

* Gyles Brandreth is the favourite - he has a similar style to Nicholas, lots of presenting experience, good comic timing, and would be a good target for the banter!

* I think Tony Hawks has a good chance too – would give the show a younger feel and he has been closely associated with Radio Four panel games for years and JAM in particular without finding his niche. I could see him being good at it.

* David Mitchell seems to be given different shows to chair – is he being warmed up for one of the big ones?

* I also see Angus Deayton is about to chair a new Radio Four panel game. It did cross my mind that he was auditioning for JAM... though I guess Paul may have something to say about that and I expect he will have a big say in who gets the job.

* Perhaps slightly longer odds but in each case I think they would do a good job and bring something fresh to it – Julian Clary, Sue Perkins and Liza Tarbuck.

Final trainspotterish niggle – A couple of the papers listed JAM regulars as Julian Clary, Gyles Brandreth and Stephen Fry. Stephen has appeared in 2 of the last 109 shows over almost five years. However you define a regular, I don’t think he is one!

Incidentally the show is recording tonight (Sat) British time so if you’re going, maybe you will see Sir Terry’s debut. Please post here any news if you do go!

January 15, 2011

Recognise anyone here?

January 09, 2011

Never heard of it

One of the revelations in Nicholas Parsons' book is about the 1999 TV series. The BBC produced 20 JAMs for an afternoon audience. The shows were recorded over a week in Birmingham and the panels give every indication of being brought together quickly with little thought. JAM regulars at the time such as Paul Merton and Clement Freud, and other experienced players like Graham Norton, Jenny Eclair, Tim Rice, Kit Hesketh-Harvey, Stephen Fry, Julian Clary, Tony Slattery and Fred MacAulay were not involved when surely experienced teams would have been better to achieve success on the programme.

Anyway Nicholas claims that one of the people who turned up to play had not even heard of the programme before. I am curious about who this could be.

The players who hadn't played the game before were Pam Ayres, Clare Balding, Isla Blair, Ken Bruce, Michael Cashman, Tom O'Connor, Steve Punt, John Sergeant, Brian Sewell and Gary Wilmot. So who do you think was so outside Radio Four and radio comedy listening that they had never heard of Just A Minute?

it had to happen but still sad

The Comedy Store Players have taken Jim Sweeney down from their banner.

Jim who suffers from MS hasn't performed with the Players for a couple of years so this just makes official what's been the reality for some time.

But tis still sad. :-(

January 08, 2011

JAM recording

The recording last night featured Paul Merton, Gyles Brandreth, Shappi Khorsandi and Rick Wakeman. Rick’s best known as a musician and composer, rather than for his comedy work, so it’ll be interesting to hear how he goes.

January 01, 2011

and another JAM honour

John Lloyd, Just A Minute's producer for two years in the mid 70s has been awarded a CBE.

Lloyd is of course far better known for his involvement in TV comedy including Spitting Image, Not The Nine O'clock News, Black Adder and QI.

A nice piece about him here...

Sheila Hancock CBE

Sheila has received another award, this time a CBE in the New Years Honours list.

Most of the papers have pieces about her today, and some refer to JAM. One paper even suggests it has helped make her better-known to the public!

Sheila's long and distinguished stage career has been deservedly recognised.

Here's a nice article in The Guardian, and this BBC page also includes a brief interview with Sheila.

Nicholas's new book

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?
TS: Yes.
(and later)
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.
WR: Hahahahhahaha!
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!

Elisabeth Beresford dies

JAM guest Elisabeth Beresford has died. Beresford appeared just once, on the third show of the first season where she appeared with Derek Nimmo, Sir Clement Freud and Betty Marsden.

She is best known as the creator of The Wombles, the stars of a series of books which Beresford wrote, and later of TV and film.

I was interested to see though that the Wombles was not published when she appeared on JAM, so she was picked for the show on the strength of her journalistic work and appearances on the radio programme Women's Hour.

The Telegraph has a very good obituary here.

RIP Elisabeth Beresford.