Long Runners / No 25: Just a Minute

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The Independent Culture
Age: 26 (it began in 1967).

Frequency: varies with the programme's fortunes. There'll be 10 this year, 12 next; the lowest was eight, the highest 26.

When does it go out? In Radio 4's Saturday-lunchtime comedy slot (from 12.25 to 12.55pm). Repeated the following Monday evening at 6.30pm.

Audience: just under two million. A little more than a million on Saturdays, 900,000 for the repeat. For radio, that's huge. It's up with The News Quiz and I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue.

Formula: four contestants have to talk on topics ranging from 'The Great Wall of China' to 'Eating Winkles' for 60 seconds 'without repetition, deviation or hesitation'. Players may challenge the speaker by buzzing their buzzer. They gain one point for a correct challenge, and get to take up the subject, gaining another point if they are still speaking when the 60-second whistle is blown.

Regular contestants: until 1988, the personnel were fairly constant - Derek Nimmo, Clement Freud, Peter Jones (popular in a Sixties television comedy with Peter Ustinov and since known only for Just a Minute) and the still-lamented Kenneth Williams, already a household name when the show began for his often outrageous performances in radio revue ('Hello, I'm Julian and this is my friend Sandy') and for the Carry On films. Since his death in 1988, the focus has shifted to a younger generation of comics, beginning with Paul Merton and Stephen Fry.

Who thought it up? Ian Messiter, then a producer in Light Entertainment, now retired, although until 1991 he dreamt up all the subjects and was at the Paris Studio at every recording to blow the whistle.

Any antecedents? Messiter claims to have had the idea from a punishment meted out to him at school. The current show had a pre-life in the early Fifties as One Minute, Please, an almost identical game with a different cast of characters. It was soon dropped. After a decent pause however, David Hatch, now Special Assistant to the Director General, then a producer, revived the formula, renaming and recasting the show. It was he who appointed the chairman, Nicholas Parsons.

What's so special about Nicholas Parsons? His smarminess would be intolerable in any other context. His manner is something between a public-school house- tutor and an encyclopedia salesman. The panellists rib him something rotten.

Most successful contestants: the most competitive are Clement Freud and Derek Nimmo. Freud has the advantage of a voice that sounds like an old 78 played at 45rpm, which gives him more time to choose his words. Nimmo is the most erudite raconteur. But Kenneth Williams was the star. Sulky, flamboyant, emotional, brilliant, he could change character five times during one 60-second stint.

Isn't there now a TV version? Yes. It started on Carlton in January this year, using younger comedians as contestants. It will return for five weeks from early August.

What's it like? Naff. Despite the urbane Nicholas Parsons, it's become an opportunity for the alternative set to show off (cocky Tony Slattery, twee Helen Lederer, that ghastly Jo Brand). It's not a gentleman's game any more: they don't even stick to the rules. And it's vaguely embarrassing to see brazen yoof cheeking a silver-haired man in a blazer.

How much did the BBC get when commercial television bought the idea? Not a bean. Although Ian Messiter was a BBC employee when he dreamed it up, legally it's his baby, and Mike Mansfield Productions (who earlier put My Music on the box) made a private deal with him. The BBC is left eggy-faced, but maintains chirpily: 'We don't mind at all that TV can't come up with original ideas . . .'

Little-known facts: 'The Minute Waltz', Chopin's Waltz in D flat, opus 64 No 1, which plays the show in and out, actually takes two minutes to play. There is an unwritten rule that you don't challenge Derek Nimmo's stutter. It's hesitation all right, but he can't help it. Women have traditionally not been a hit (perhaps they prefer to think before they speak?). Miriam Margolyes did it once and swore never again.

Anything that makes you want to kick the set in? Yes and no. The game by its very nature is frustrating. The speaker will be giving a gripping peroration on 'The Pyramids' when some point-grabbing challenger will accuse him of saying 'actually' twice and begin again from a completely different angle. Edification is not the aim.

The bottom line - how good is it? You'd hardly make a date in your diary not to miss it, but if it comes on while you're stuck in a traffic jam, half an hour will never have seemed so short. One can safely say, without hesitation or deviation, that it's still a great radio institution. Give it a couple more months on the box.