Welcome to Just a Minute! by Nicholas Parsons - book review: 'Brilliant, superbly enjoyable…' – just not in book form


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The Independent Culture

Despite its in-built defect – the interdict on hesitation, repetition and deviation frustrates any but the briefest joke or anecdote – Just a Minute is a classic example of Radio 4's strange power. The chairman Nicholas Parsons, now, amazingly, in his 90th year, admits that the show "disregards the basic rules" for telling funny stories. "Instead, [its] success is based on improvisation and ad-libbing by bright, intelligent and witty people sparking off each other."

It's odd, then, that such ex tempore humour should be preserved in this bumper volume of selected transcriptions. Most of the ephemeral jokes excavated from the last five decades barely raise a smile. In this whole bemusing haul, there is a solitary comic maestro whose humour translates to the page. Bob Monkhouse's contribution when the subject was "The One-Line Gag" is the funniest thing here: "Never tell secrets to a peacock, you know how they spread tales... Is Karl Marx's grave a Communist plot?" Inevitably, his delirious flow was halted by a challenge.

What hooks the listener is the sparring between showbiz motor-mouths, though their amiable duelling can occasionally embarrass, such as the time when Paul Merton rubbed the "competitive" Wendy Richard up the wrong way. When Parsons tried to soothe things down by giving points to both parties, she erupted, "I don't want [the point]! Let him talk about it! He wants the point, he can have the subject'n'all!" Eventually, Merton refused to be on the show with Richard. Equally "combustible" with other panellists, she was later dropped.

If Richard's determination to win produced unhinged aggression, Parsons's weirdly formulaic chairmanship exhibits excessive earnestness. His anthology omits the occasion Merton punctured one of Parsons' frequent paeans to the programme, "Marvellous… brilliant… superbly enjoyable" etc. Merton responded with something along the lines of "No it's not. It's just a mildly entertaining panel show."

It's hard to imagine many listeners will be so obsessed that they will shell out £20 for this pedantic trawl of the archives, though it will doubtless fly off the shelves in public libraries. But for those wanting to stir memories of Clement Freud ("could be difficult"), Peter Jones ("relaxed"), Derek Nimmo ("a rod of steel running through his spine"), Kenneth Williams ("on occasions could appear to have gone too far"), it will brighten a rainy afternoon, rather like a certain light entertainment about to reach its 900th episode.