I'm sorry, I've been given the clues

Your starter for 10 - when is it all right to dupe your audience? By John Walsh

With a thrill of horror, the nation has learnt that the guests on Radio 4's Just a Minute may not be as startlingly fluent as they seem. Nicholas Parsons, for 32 years the show's oleaginous chairman, has spilt the beans that his guests - including such wits as Paul Merton, Stephen Fry and Kit Hesketh-Harvey - aren't wholly extemporising when they hold forth on "Deckchairs" or "Maiden Aunts" or "My First Suit" without hesitation, deviation or repetition. Shockingly, it seems that an hour before the recording starts, they're given a list of topics to be covered in the show, and thus have plenty of time to rehearse their "ad-libbed" contributions.

Parsons points out that "pre-knowledge" of the subjects is an option that more confident guests could decline, if they wished to do so.

"We discovered, right at the beginning, that if the subject was completely unseen, the guests were umming and erring within a few seconds," he says. Such old hands as Clement Freud don't mind having a subject sprung on them; Paul Merton, by contrast, likes to know what's coming up, so he can have one of his stratospheric riffs all ready to go. In Parsons' view, you can't beat a rehearsal for making a spontaneous monologue go with a swing.

Well, honestly. We're still reeling from the news, last year, that the droll exchanges between guests on Have I Got News For You? are all rehearsed for months before being uttered. We've only just dried our tears after learning that guests on the Channel 4 quiz show Countdown are prompted towards the right combination of letters by a studio hand whispering answers to them through an earpiece.

How many more ghastly revelations will we have to endure? Must we envisage the prospect of Jeremy Paxman circulating the BBC2 green room, muttering "Who invented hieroglyphics? Rameses II. Don't forget. And which opera, first performed at the Viennese Statsoper in 1846...?" (But I think we can probably discount any suggestion of answer-rigging on University Challenge, given the panellists' startling level of ignorance about, say, the date of the Abdication.)

Since it seems to be the fashion to blow the whistle on rule-bending in radio shows, here goes: I was told some of the questions when I appeared on Nigel Rees's Quote Unquote programme a few years ago. As we sat in the hospitality room, glumly flooring hock and peanuts, the show's producer appeared by my side.

"Shall we just run through one or two of them now?" she asked brightly. "Where does the expression `Nice one, Cyril' come from?"

I said I thought it was a Hovis commercial, or possibly a football chant involving Cyril Knowles of Tottenham.

"OK. Who said `I have nothing to declare but my genius'? Of course, it was Oscar Wilde. And which French politician memorably declared in 1916: `Ils ne passeront pas'?"

"Wait a minute," I said. "Don't tell me the answers. If I don't know them, I can always have a reasonable stab."

"Oh, all right," she said mildly. "But some people do get self-conscious about the gaps in their learning and like to have a bit of help. I mean, we don't want any awkward silences, do we?"

And you know what? She was right. Quote Unquote passed in a blur of amuse- ment. Everyone sounded knowledgeable, occasionally forgetful, breezily well-read but modest with it. Every time a contestant said, "I'm guessing here, but is it by any chance...?", you knew for sure that they'd been given the answer beforehand, along with the peanuts.

Some of us had taken advantage of the producer's crib, others had politely disdained. But the point was the show, and the fact that it sounded relaxed, well-balanced and civilised. Whether they really recalled the provenance of the quotations hardly mattered. The audience wanted them to know the answers and be droll about them; nothing more.

Letting guests see the answers is basic showbiz management. It may involve a slight con trick, a tacit white lie, but it's a deception that is no more heinous than the unseen mattresses that break the fall of the plummeting heroine at the end of Tosca.

Purity and probity aren't everything. They can even be counter-productive. I know this from going on a literary quiz series last summer. It was called The Write Stuff, written and presented by the TV critic James Walton and featuring the novelist Sebastian Faulks and myself as team captains. We were allowed one woman writer guest each week. We were not, needless to say, shown any questions beforehand, though we were alerted in advance as to who would be the featured "Author of the Week": Dickens, Chandler, Austen, DH Lawrence...

It was lip-biting, buzzer-trembling stuff. My fingernails clawed and scissored the Royal Society of Literature's damask tablecloth. Sebastian Faulks, urbane as a Venetian doge, flicked imaginary specks of dust off his flannels and answered everything in a growly, I-think-you'll-find- it's-Ossian baritone. I concentrated harder. It became something of a school-swot battle. Interrupted questions and instant answers flew around like tennis balls.

"In what year was the first novel by EM- " Bzzz. "1905."

"Which French novelist once played in g-" Rrring. "Albert Camus."

Which single eight-syllable word forms the first li-" Bzzz. "Polyphiloprogenitive."

The reviews came out. "Faulks and Walsh," sniffed one critic, "were as competitive as spermatozoa. They wouldn't let their women guests have a look-in". Ye gods, I thought. In a quiz? Should we have said, "I'll have to think about that one. While I'm busy with my pipe, Hermione, perhaps you'd care to have a go?"

Would listeners have been happier with a slower, carefully stage-managed exchange of queries and responses, rather than a blizzard of raw knowledge? You bet they would. Whatever the hidden wiring, whatever sleight of hand it takes to make a broadcast show more comfortable for the listeners, I don't see any great harm in it. It makes for a smoother, funnier, more "civilised" half-hour. I just wouldn't want to take part, that's all.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory