Just A Minute, review: Nicholas Parsons' snuggly blanket of a show has a timeless appeal

The Radio 4 show is one of a handful of radio's more old-school institutions that have proved impervious to the tides of fashion

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Over the past few years radio has proved itself adaptable and more than able to cater to the demands of a new generation weaned on Instagram, Netflix and mobile technology. Serial and, to an extent, longer-running podcasts such as Radiolab and The Moth have shown us new forms of storytelling in an era in which radio is no longer the preserve of insomniacs, home-workers and the terminally antisocial. It's a world in which our favourite shows can, in the manner of a box-set, be gobbled up at our convenience.

This is all as it should be, but a handful of radio's more old-school institutions refuse to change. These are the programmes where time has stood still and which have proved impervious to the tides of fashion.

Radio 4's Just a Minute – in which guests must talk on a given theme for a minute without hesitation, repetition or deviation – is one such show, following the same format that it did 48 years ago. Contestants have come and go (and, in many cases, died) but its one constant is the host Nicholas Parsons, now in his 91st year and a man for whom a nicely pressed cravat and good manners – even when he is berating wayward panellists – are the markers of a civilised world.

In years gone by we have had Kenneth Williams swilling vowel sounds around his mouth like fine port and Clement Freud, mulling lugubriously over the less learned topics as if being held at gunpoint.

Now we have Graham Norton, whose every oration is a miniature piece of musical theatre, and of course Paul Merton, whip-sharp and acid-tongued yet underneath it just a big old softie.

I've no doubt that, over the years, there have been calls for a Just a Minute overhaul, where some blue-sky-thinking nincompoop has tried to drag it into the 21st century with plans of parachuting contestants to the Arctic circle and getting them to riff on all things snowy while fighting for survival with the help of a one-man tent, an army knife and a tin of tuna. That all attempts to zhuzh it up have been resisted is a minor miracle.

Last week, making his debut, David Tennant made headlines by going the full minute on Shakespeare's famous stage direction in A Winter's Tale "Exit, Pursued by a Bear". As a man of the stage, it may have been his dream topic but, even so, his fluency, knowledge and confidence was a thing to behold.

On the same show, Stephen Fry was gently reprimanded by his host for smartarsery, prompting him to jovially protest: "I've been bitch-slapped by Nicholas Parsons."

This week's episode, featuring Merton alongside Tony Hawks, Josie Lawrence and Alun Cochrane, saw the panellists improvising on themes such as skinny lattes, family mottos, honey, multitasking and the concept of "keeping it real". Mention of the last one prompted titters from the audience, at which a bone-dry Parsons observed, "Nothing funny in that."

This is the panel game next to which all other panel games pale, a soft, snuggly blanket of a show drawn weekly over the nation in a fug of warmth, wordplay and wit. Its silliness, and its simple capacity to bask in the quick-wittedness of its panellists (even when they deliver their monologues so very s-l-o-w-l-y) make it joyous listening.

I'm usually a big fan of change but not in this case. Just a Minute is perfect as it is.