RADIO / Filling the unforgiving minute: Martin Kelner on the
durable success of a radio programme that just goes on and on and on and on
Friday, 26 March 1993
'HELLO, as the Minute Waltz fades away once again, it's my
pleasure to welcome you to Just A Minute, perhaps the most deceptively simple,
enduring, popular, and much-copied comedy game on radio. And the subject is:
why the longest-running game-show on radio, dismissed by some people 10 - even
20 - years ago as a clapped-out Victorian parlour game, should suddenly have
become fashionable. Can you speak on that subject for just one minute without
hesitation, repetition, or deviating from the subject on the card, Jonathan
James-Moore, Head of BBC Radio Light Entertainment?'
'For years we recorded Just A Minute in the Paris Theatre,
Lower Regent Street, before a coterie of regulars, many of whom seemed to be
personal friends of Kenneth Williams. But for the series that has just
finished, we took the show out on the road for the first time, to Llandudno and
Bury St Edmunds, and it was quite a surprise. It would be exaggerating to say
the recordings were like pop concerts, but our reception was rapturous, and
from a much younger and - how can I put it? - hipper audience than we expected
. . . '
(Challenge. Deviation. Surely any series that has been going
for 20 years and includes Clement Freud and Derek Nimmo cannot be described as
hip. Hip replacement, possibly).
'The latest research shows a 25 per cent crossover from
Radio 1 to Radio 4. That means one in four of their regular listeners is also
listening to Radio 4 at some time. It would appear that the time-slot we go out
in, which is the same one as The News Quiz and I'm Sorry, I Haven't A Clue, is
a particular favourite with this younger audience. We also have something
called an Appreciation Index, which measures how much the listeners are
actually enjoying the programme, and Just A Minute scores higher with the 25-
to 34-year-olds than with any other section of the audience . . . '
(Challenge. Deviation. Radio audience research uses
notoriously small samples, usually a woman in Cheltenham and three of her
friends. Nicholas Parsons, you have the subject . . . )
'When Kenneth Williams died, there was a feeling within the
BBC that the programme ought to be allowed to die with him. Frankly, it was an
embarrassment to Radio 4 because it had been going on so long. We were actually
saved by the World Service. They said it was their most popular programme, and
there would be ructions if we didn't make any more . . . '
(Hesitation, for contemplation of angry ex-pat out in the
bush, banging the wireless with his pith helmet).
'So to keep the show going we started introducing new young
comedians, like Stephen Fry, Tony Slattery, Sandi Toksvig and, most
successfully, Paul Merton. These people had grown up in the world of ad-lib in
the comedy clubs and they gave the programme a wonderful new lease of life, and
apparently attracted lots of new listeners. Paul, who has now become a regular,
was such a fan of the programme he actually wrote to the producer asking to
take part . . . '
(Challenge. Surely not? Paul Merton . . . )
'It's true. Eleven years ago I was living in a bed-sit room
with no television, and programmes like Just A Minute were my main source of
entertainment. I had 11 or 12 of them on tape and used to listen to them
continually. It's the only time I have ever actually asked to take part in a
programme. I think they were a little worried I would swear all the time, so I
had to employ the maximum amount of charm to convince them I wasn't going to
turn out to be a dangerous axe-murderer or something. I have been doing it now
'The strange thing is that however many times you have
listened to the programme, it is still extremely difficult to do it. There is
no point in thinking you can. Clement Freud will pick you up on the slightest
hesitation. Clem and Derek are gambling men, so winning is very important to
them. The competitive element is part of the programme's appeal, I think . . .
(Challenge. Deviation. The parlour game thing is possibly de
rigueur out on the rubber plantation, where they want wireless rather than
radio. But for this new, young, hip audience, brought up on The News Quiz and
Whose Line Is It Anyway?, surely not. Victor Lewis-Smith, critic and comedy
writer / performer . . . )
'What I find particularly ludicrous is when Nicholas Parsons
says 'A point for an amusing challenge', as though Nicholas Parsons were the
ultimate arbiter on whether something is amusing or not.
'This is the sort of thing that would appeal to the Radio
Light Entertainment people - or the Not Funny Department as they are known
within the BBC. I once met a light entertainment producer who told me his idea
of the perfect joke. 'My parents are in the iron and steel business,' he said,
'My mother irons and my father steals.' He then crossed his legs as a gesture
of satisfaction revealing a pair of grey socks under his grey suit, with a
little yellow jester embroidered on each sock. That was his way of indicating
to the world that he worked in light entertainment . . . '
(Deviation. Irrelevant. You're just settling scores with
former employers . . . )
'No. I've never worked for Light Entertainment. I once
offered them a script in which Pol Pot turned up working as a waitress at
Betty's Tea Room in Harrogate, which they said was self-indulgent. That might
have been more radical than Just A Minute. If they are getting a younger
audience - and I have to say I am not one of them - it is probably because of
Paul Merton, who is very good.'
(Wrong. Apparently research shows Nicholas Parsons is
appreciated by younger listeners as much as Paul Merton. Back to you, Jonathan
James-Moore . . . )
'Nicholas is ideal for the programme, which was actually rather
old-fashioned even when it started in 1967. It was devised by a chap called Ian
Messiter, who is now in his seventies, and has spent his life devising quizzes
and running a novelty company selling whoopee cushions and the like. Just A
Minute derived from a previous invention of his, One Minute Please, but was
actually a sort of English Victorian parlour game. Nicholas's personality works
magically in it . . .'
(Hesitation. What sort of personality might that be?)
'The sort that works magically in a rather old-fashioned
English parlour game.'
(Challenge from Nicholas Parsons).
'It might sound old-fashioned but we have moved forward. If
we were still doing what we were 25 years ago, people would say, 'We've heard
it all before', and switch off. Our figures are increasing all the time, and we
go all over the world, so we must be doing something right . . . '
(Challenge from Paul Merton: 'Cholera goes all over the
world. It doesn't mean it's popular.')
'You see, I can feed the lines to people like Paul and Peter
Jones. All those years working as a straight man for Arthur Haynes and Benny
Hill have paid off. I think some of the new comedians appreciate a straight man
of the old school. They've even invited me to guest with them at The Comedy
Store once or twice.'
Jonathan James-Moore: 'Not only that, but the cassette of
Just A Minute is in the Spoken Word Charts. That means it's being bought not by
retired Colonels in Penang but by the people who go into Our Price and HMV.'
(Well done. Street credibility established, and to be
further reinforced by recordings during the Edinburgh Festival this summer.
Points all round for being amusing. Especially Peter Jones for this line on the
subject of Capability Brown: 'His little- known brother was Inability Brown,
who designed window boxes . . . ')
'Just A Minute, Silver Minutes' is available on cassette
from the BBC Radio Collection