RADIO / Only toffs or cockneys need apply

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The Independent Culture
YOU DON'T have to know that Just a Minute (R4) was inspired by a public school punishment to see it as an upper-class parlour game. The hostile levity, the nonchalant way in which the precise score is never given ('Clement Freud is in the lead, just ahead of Derek Nimmo . . .'), the sports day whistle, the clubman's innuendo: all suggest a loosened black tie. The best contestants have been either toffs or cockneys.

How, then, has it endured for a quarter of a century? On an off-week it can seem so tired that you feel it ought to have been put to bed years ago. This week in Llandudno the audience was distant and depleted, the players doggedly unfunny, and the subjects they spoke on uninspired ('Donkeys'). The challenges for repetition, deviation or hesitation merely irritated. Even Paul Merton was muted. Yet a fortnight ago, at Bury St Edmunds, it seemed funnier than the rest of radio comedy put together.

The show has been revived by a new generation of comedians. When Kenneth Williams died in 1988 it was as if its sergeant-major had gone. The officers' mess continued as normal: Freud filibustering, Nimmo name-dropping, Peter Jones dredging up ancient jokes and graffiti. But nobody made things happen. Williams, with his antic manner and exaggerated grievances ('Ooooohh, but it matters to me'), was the catalyst. He had developed a highly effective style of play, making each syllable a four-course meal. Launching into mock heroics, he sounded like a garden gnome imitating Donald Wolfit.

Now there is Paul Merton. According to a new compilation tape (Silver Minutes, in the BBC Radio Collection) he wrote in asking to appear. His presumption has proved well justified. Recently, he hasn't so much stolen the show as carried out a grand, glorious heist. He has the full arsenal of comedic weapons needed for the game: lightning wit, surreal imagination, and an ability to follow a joke to its logical conclusion and out the other side. He caps even the best gags of his colleagues. The other week Nicholas Parsons swishly announced that in the last round there'd been 10 interventions, a record. 'Very interesting,' murmured Clement Freud. 'Can I just go and phone my wife about that?' asked Merton.

The show has always been smut-happy. With Tony Slattery's debut, a fortnight ago, it turned delirious. If there'd been a penalty for deviance, Slattery wouldn't have scored. In fairness, he took to the game like a duck to water (which is better than can be said of Stephen Fry, more like a dog to water-skiing). But the show should be wary of being overrun by Channel 4 wags. As it is, the mix of old and new is about right. The programme gives Whose Line Is It Anyway? a hard run for its money. The tapes are worth buying and treasuring.

Airing the Future (R4) was a chance for the BBC to take a break and debate itself. The game was similar to Just a Minute, only Nicholas Parsons' syrupy spivery was replaced by Michael Buerk's weary gravitas. Buerk seemed to have invented a new BBC department: Things. He introduced: 'Kevin Loader, from Drama and Things'; and 'Paul Coia, Quiz Shows and Things'. He also seemed to think Eldorado was a sitcom (an easy mistake) and that Alan Plater was a director ('Not me. I lost my hair in the cause of writing'). Never mind, as someone said: 'You've got to have the ability to fail in the BBC.'

Popular performers rehearsed well-loved tics. Roy Hattersley, with that bluster that brooks no suggestion that he's ever been wrong, stretched out his material and vainly courted laughs. A BBC man who'd defected to American cable TV spoke with more style than sense. And Charles Wheeler, berating those who 'use their muscle to impose doctrine', sounded as if he should be Director General. Finally, John Birt spoke with technocratic fluency on 'The Future'. 'We will, um, define for the public all that we, er, think we should do,' he concluded. Definite hesitation. Many of his audience left hoping he'd hesitate some more.