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.

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished

TV reviewGrace Dent: Jimmy McGovern's new drama sheds light on sex slavery in the colonies

Arts and Entertainment
Australia's Eurovision contestant and former Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian

Eurovision 2015Australian Idol winner unveiled as representative Down Under

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable