Just A Minute blog

A blog on the BBC radio programme Just A Minute

Location: Wellington, New Zealand

December 06, 2017

JAM features

The Guardian talks to Nicholas here

more JAM features - the Tele on Nick

The Telegraph has a nice interview with Nicholas - as it's behind a paywall I've copied it here

Nicholas Parsons has left his walking stick at the dry cleaner’s: a rare senior moment from someone who is a one-man campaign against ageism. Parsons is 94 and has a brain like a bacon slicer, challenging my questions with a dogged persistence and showing irritation when I bring up the subject of slowing down, or the way he is treated by younger people.
“Patronised?” he splutters, a crack momentarily appearing in his quiz-show host sheen. “Why on earth would I be patronised?”
Only the foolish would patronise Parsons. He is a genial soul in many ways (the odd moment of crabbiness, he explains, is due to the errant walking stick), and when we meet is wearing a splendid sports jacket, much like the sort that used to dazzle Seventies TV audiences on Sale of the Century. He is also a heavyweight – a showbiz survivor who has diversified to maximum effect and, for the past 50 years, has reigned supreme as the host of BBC Radio 4’s Just a Minute.
Like many national institutions, the panel show nearly didn’t make it past the pilot. “The BBC didn’t want it and quite rightly,” he tells me over a coffee near his home in north-west London, where he lives with his second wife, Annie. “It was a disaster. There were all sorts of inhibiting rules [from Ian Messiter, the show’s creator] – there was a round where you couldn’t use plurals, and another where you couldn’t use the definitive article. The rules hadn’t been defined properly. And I wasn’t terribly good” (Parsons was second choice to compere after Jimmy Edwards, who couldn’t record on Sundays), “but then neither was anyone else.”
So how did he stop being a disaster? “I didn’t say I was a disaster. It’s funny how you want to exaggerate it. I said I wasn’t terribly good,” he says, testily. “But the show evolved, and it has succeeded because we have never rested on our laurels. Some people assume that after 50 years, I must be on automatic pilot, but if I were, the show would have died years ago.”
My mother thought actors were all debased or degenerate
That’s me told, and I can’t blame him really. Parsons has an engineer’s brain (he trained as a mechanical marine engineer during the Second World War) and is sharply alert for any fuzzy logic that might arise during our discussion. In childhood, he was an undiagnosed dyslexic, which, given his professional life dealing with scripts, autocues and acutely rendered word play, must be a challenge.
“I have learned to rely on my memory,” he says. “It’s been a good compensation for everything else.”
Parsons’s phenomenal memory ensured he secured a place at the highly academic St Paul’s School in Hammersmith, west London, and certainly his dyslexia has never held him back. His parents, proud of their son’s achievements, were less than thrilled when he announced his ambition, after the war, to be an actor.
“They were horrified. My mother thought that they were all debased or degenerate. I was born in an era when you did what you were told and they told me that showbusiness wasn’t a proper job. It’s different now, of course. Today everyone wants to look at those people who queue up to do The X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent. Most of them don’t have talent, of course… Anyway, I told my parents that I had become an engineer to please them, and now I was going to please myself.”
Following 15 months in rep at Bromley, Parsons spent several years as a jobbing actor in films and in the West End before working as a straight man to Arthur Haynes on the popular comedian’s TV sketch show, where Parsons played smooth establishment figures – doctors or lawyers. “I suppose I look a little like a doctor,” he says. “I certainly never looked like an actor, and that is a problem when a saturnine chap walks in and auditions for the same role as you.”
In this profession, if you are not on form you are finished
Parsons was also adept at playing vicars, sending them up in a way that was considered taboo then.
“I have been at the coalface of all these changes. Attitudes have advanced and today, of course, you can send up the Church of England. Now there are other problems. You have to be awfully careful. You would never put a joke in with a Jewish person or one which would show the idea that the Irish are all idiots.”
Certain highlights of Parsons’s career now sit uncomfortably in arguably more enlightened times – namely his quizmaster role on the brash and brightly lit Sale of the Century, the critically mauled, but highly successful, ITV game show which, with its luxury prizes presented by glamorous ladies displaying rather too much décolletage, seems terribly sexist now. “It was of the period,” says Parsons. “People didn’t see us as sexist. That was just the way 
of thinking at the time. And in fact,
 we were the first quiz show to have a male host.”
Sexism, says Parsons, has always existed in the industry. “The difference now is that people have the confidence to come forward and report it. In those days, you didn’t. You just told them to stuff it and walk away – and then you didn’t get the job!”
After Sale of the Century, which finished in 1983 after a 12-year run, Parsons found himself out of work and discovered acting work in unexpected places: for anarchic Eighties comedy movement The Comic Strip Presents; in Doctor Who (as a vicar who tried to use his faith – and failed – against a species of alien vampires); and in the acclaimed 1990 West End premiere of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods.
“I have had to work hard,” says Parsons. “In this profession, if you are not on form you are finished – you have to be on song for everything you do. I have managed it, I think, because I enjoy my work.”
Variety has been key to Parsons’s success, and he nearly added an extra string to his bow when, in the Seventies, he was invited by the Liberal Party to stand for Yeovil. Work commitments made him decline and he is not sure whether he would have been a success at Westminster.
“In politics, personality is as important as content, and the more personality you have the more likely you are to succeed.” He cites Winston Churchill, who “saved our country at a time of crisis because, although he had knowledge, he also had incredible charisma and was a great orator. He roused the nation with his performances.” Not the type of performance Parsons is comfortable with, although he does acknowledge the House of Commons is “just another arena of theatre in a way”.
I suggest it can be an arena of cruelty, too. Parsons shoots me a rueful look. “Showbusiness can be very cruel, too.”
Does he still have ambition? “Oh yes,” he says, his eyes lighting up at the prospect. “I love a challenge.”

December 04, 2017

latest panel

Two shows recorded yesterday featured Paul Merton, Gyles Brandreth, Stephen Fry and Jan Ravens.
Jan last did the show in 1994 so breaks the record for longest period between drinks.
Her debut - in 1983 - is one of my favourite shows, in part because Derek Nimmo was so rude to her!

December 02, 2017

who's the best?

Many years ago now I had a stat which worked out the percentage of games won by the players. It showed Paul Merton to be clearly the most successful at winning the game. My dear friend Keith Matthews disagreed, as he always did on JAM matters, passionately. His view was that while Clement Freud had the greatest number of wins, he would be JAM's supreme champion.

I mention this because Paul is now just one win behind Clement. I don't know if Keith would change his mind - he adored the old gang of four, although he of course enjoyed Paul too.

In the leadup to the 50th anniversary I have updated this stat. I did wonder if Paul may have been passed by Gyles Brandreth but as you can see, Paul is still the champ. And it's all but certain that in the next season Paul will also have the highest number of wins. I think that even if he was competing with Clement, Derek Nimmo and Kenneth Williams "in their pomp" Paul might well be top of this particular stat. (qualification is five games)

58.78% Paul Merton 231/393
55.56% Gyles Brandreth 60/108
51.72% Tony Slattery 15/29
51.61% Stephen Fry 16/31
44.33% Derek Nimmo 133/300
43.53% Clement Freud 232/533
40.15% Tony Hawks 55/137
40.00% Libby Purves 2/5
37.93% Marcus Brigstocke 11/29
36.67% Sue Perkins 22/60
36.36% Dale Winton 4/11
34.78% Josie Lawrence 16/46
33.33% Liza Goddard 2/6, Jean Marsh 2/6, Nicholas Parsons 3/9, John Sergeant 2/6
32.65% Tim Rice 16/49
29.73% Sheila Hancock 33/111
25.64% Ross Noble 10/39
25.42% Julian Clary 15/59
23.08% Wendy Richard 9/39
20.93% Kit Hesketh-Harvey 9/43
20.59% Aimi Macdonald 7/34
20.39% Graham Norton 21/103
20.00% Rufus Hound 1/5
19.29% Kenneth Williams 65/337
16.67% Martin Jarvis 1/6, Maureen Lipman 1/6, Richard Morton 1/6, Neil Mullarkey 1/6, Paul Sinha 1/6, Barry Took 1/6, Holly Walsh 1/6
16.41% Peter Jones 54/329
16.33% Andree Melly 8/49
15.28% Jenny Éclair 11/72
14.29% Pam Ayres 4/28, Miles Jupp 1/7, Alfred Marks 2/14, Maria McErlane 2/14, Richard Murdoch 1/7
12.50% Phill Jupitus 1/8, Russell Kane 1/8
11.11% Richard Herring 1/9, Richard Vranch 1/9
9.52% Alun Cochrane 2/21, Linda Smith 4/42
9.09% Steve Frost 2/22, Patrick Moore 1/11
8.33% Liza Tarbuck 3/36
8.00% Barry Cryer 2/25
6.67% Geraldine Jones 1/15
6.25% Shappi Khorsandi 1/16
5.56% Fred MacAulay 1/18
5.26% Charles Collingwood 1/19
0.00% Janet Brown 0/6, Susan Calman 0/5, Denise Coffey 0/6, Kevin Eldon 0/8, Graeme Garden
0/7, Janey Godley 0/9, Dave Gorman 0/5, Jeremy Hardy 0/6, John Junkin 0/8, Helen Lederer 0/6, Zoe Lyons 0/8, Stephen Mangan 0/7, Pauline McLynn 0/6, Chris Neill 0/24, Dara O’Briain 0/5, Lance Percival 0/7, Greg Proops 0/12, Arthur Smith 0/9, Jim Sweeney 0/5