RADIO / Filling the unforgiving minute: Martin Kelner on the durable success of a radio programme that just goes on and on and on and on

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The Independent Culture
'HELLO, as the Minute Waltz fades away once again, it's my pleasure to welcome you to Just A Minute, perhaps the most deceptively simple, enduring, popular, and much-copied comedy game on radio. And the subject is: why the longest-running game-show on radio, dismissed by some people 10 - even 20 - years ago as a clapped-out Victorian parlour game, should suddenly have become fashionable. Can you speak on that subject for just one minute without hesitation, repetition, or deviating from the subject on the card, Jonathan James-Moore, Head of BBC Radio Light Entertainment?'

'For years we recorded Just A Minute in the Paris Theatre, Lower Regent Street, before a coterie of regulars, many of whom seemed to be personal friends of Kenneth Williams. But for the series that has just finished, we took the show out on the road for the first time, to Llandudno and Bury St Edmunds, and it was quite a surprise. It would be exaggerating to say the recordings were like pop concerts, but our reception was rapturous, and from a much younger and - how can I put it? - hipper audience than we expected . . . '

(Challenge. Deviation. Surely any series that has been going for 20 years and includes Clement Freud and Derek Nimmo cannot be described as hip. Hip replacement, possibly).

'The latest research shows a 25 per cent crossover from Radio 1 to Radio 4. That means one in four of their regular listeners is also listening to Radio 4 at some time. It would appear that the time-slot we go out in, which is the same one as The News Quiz and I'm Sorry, I Haven't A Clue, is a particular favourite with this younger audience. We also have something called an Appreciation Index, which measures how much the listeners are actually enjoying the programme, and Just A Minute scores higher with the 25- to 34-year-olds than with any other section of the audience . . . '

(Challenge. Deviation. Radio audience research uses notoriously small samples, usually a woman in Cheltenham and three of her friends. Nicholas Parsons, you have the subject . . . )

'When Kenneth Williams died, there was a feeling within the BBC that the programme ought to be allowed to die with him. Frankly, it was an embarrassment to Radio 4 because it had been going on so long. We were actually saved by the World Service. They said it was their most popular programme, and there would be ructions if we didn't make any more . . . '

(Hesitation, for contemplation of angry ex-pat out in the bush, banging the wireless with his pith helmet).

z 'So to keep the show going we started introducing new young comedians, like Stephen Fry, Tony Slattery, Sandi Toksvig and, most successfully, Paul Merton. These people had grown up in the world of ad-lib in the comedy clubs and they gave the programme a wonderful new lease of life, and apparently attracted lots of new listeners. Paul, who has now become a regular, was such a fan of the programme he actually wrote to the producer asking to take part . . . '

(Challenge. Surely not? Paul Merton . . . )

'It's true. Eleven years ago I was living in a bed-sit room with no television, and programmes like Just A Minute were my main source of entertainment. I had 11 or 12 of them on tape and used to listen to them continually. It's the only time I have ever actually asked to take part in a programme. I think they were a little worried I would swear all the time, so I had to employ the maximum amount of charm to convince them I wasn't going to turn out to be a dangerous axe-murderer or something. I have been doing it now since 1988.

'The strange thing is that however many times you have listened to the programme, it is still extremely difficult to do it. There is no point in thinking you can. Clement Freud will pick you up on the slightest hesitation. Clem and Derek are gambling men, so winning is very important to them. The competitive element is part of the programme's appeal, I think . . . '

(Challenge. Deviation. The parlour game thing is possibly de rigueur out on the rubber plantation, where they want wireless rather than radio. But for this new, young, hip audience, brought up on The News Quiz and Whose Line Is It Anyway?, surely not. Victor Lewis-Smith, critic and comedy writer / performer . . . )

'What I find particularly ludicrous is when Nicholas Parsons says 'A point for an amusing challenge', as though Nicholas Parsons were the ultimate arbiter on whether something is amusing or not.

'This is the sort of thing that would appeal to the Radio Light Entertainment people - or the Not Funny Department as they are known within the BBC. I once met a light entertainment producer who told me his idea of the perfect joke. 'My parents are in the iron and steel business,' he said, 'My mother irons and my father steals.' He then crossed his legs as a gesture of satisfaction revealing a pair of grey socks under his grey suit, with a little yellow jester embroidered on each sock. That was his way of indicating to the world that he worked in light entertainment . . . '

(Deviation. Irrelevant. You're just settling scores with former employers . . . )

'No. I've never worked for Light Entertainment. I once offered them a script in which Pol Pot turned up working as a waitress at Betty's Tea Room in Harrogate, which they said was self-indulgent. That might have been more radical than Just A Minute. If they are getting a younger audience - and I have to say I am not one of them - it is probably because of Paul Merton, who is very good.'

(Wrong. Apparently research shows Nicholas Parsons is appreciated by younger listeners as much as Paul Merton. Back to you, Jonathan James-Moore . . . )

'Nicholas is ideal for the programme, which was actually rather old-fashioned even when it started in 1967. It was devised by a chap called Ian Messiter, who is now in his seventies, and has spent his life devising quizzes and running a novelty company selling whoopee cushions and the like. Just A Minute derived from a previous invention of his, One Minute Please, but was actually a sort of English Victorian parlour game. Nicholas's personality works magically in it . . .'

(Hesitation. What sort of personality might that be?)

'The sort that works magically in a rather old-fashioned English parlour game.'

(Challenge from Nicholas Parsons).

'It might sound old-fashioned but we have moved forward. If we were still doing what we were 25 years ago, people would say, 'We've heard it all before', and switch off. Our figures are increasing all the time, and we go all over the world, so we must be doing something right . . . '

(Challenge from Paul Merton: 'Cholera goes all over the world. It doesn't mean it's popular.')

'You see, I can feed the lines to people like Paul and Peter Jones. All those years working as a straight man for Arthur Haynes and Benny Hill have paid off. I think some of the new comedians appreciate a straight man of the old school. They've even invited me to guest with them at The Comedy Store once or twice.'

Jonathan James-Moore: 'Not only that, but the cassette of Just A Minute is in the Spoken Word Charts. That means it's being bought not by retired Colonels in Penang but by the people who go into Our Price and HMV.'

(Well done. Street credibility established, and to be further reinforced by recordings during the Edinburgh Festival this summer. Points all round for being amusing. Especially Peter Jones for this line on the subject of Capability Brown: 'His little- known brother was Inability Brown, who designed window boxes . . . ')

'Just A Minute, Silver Minutes' is available on cassette from the BBC Radio Collection

(Photograph omitted)

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