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
Jude Law in Black Sea


In Black Seahe is as audiences have never seen him before

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops


Arts and Entertainment
Full circle: Wu-Tang’s Method Man Getty

Music review

Arts and Entertainment
When he was king: Muhammad Ali training in 'I Am Ali'
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game