The wild and euphoric applause that greeted David Tennant’s debut on Radio 4’s Just A Minute on Monday didn’t only come from the studio audience – the other panellists (Stephen Fry, Paul Merton and I) joined in the rapture, as did the chairman Nicholas Parsons, the whistle blower, the producer and even the surly BBC security.
Tennant had managed to do something unprecedented in the show’s 50-year history and we all knew we had seen something brilliant and thrilling: first time on the show and indeed the first time he opened his mouth, he spoke for the full 60 seconds without hesitation, repetition or deviation on the subject “Exit, Pursued by a Bear”. This is the verbal equivalent of a record-breaking pole vault performed by someone who was a stranger to the pole. Tennant’s command of the airwaves may not quite go down in history alongside Edward VIII’s abdication speech, but for the many Just A Minute fans around the world it isn’t far off.
My first time on the show wasn’t such a triumph. Just A Minute is fiendishly difficult, liable to induce sweaty palms and lock-jaw in virgin participants. As I found out. It was being recorded in Jersey and I met up with fellow panelist Clement Freud in the First-Class lounge at Heathrow. Clement was engrossed in the horse racing on the television, and insisted that we ignore our flight when it was called. Even when the increasingly petulant announcer said: “Would the remaining two passengers for Jersey please proceed immediately to Gate 23.”
“No, no!” he said, when I stood up. “We have to see the next race.”
When he finally agreed to stroll to the plane and board it, we had to walk down the aisle glared at by passengers seething at the delay we had caused. On arrival at our destination Clement detected garlic on the breath of the taxi driver (“I’m allergic! Stop the car!”), and there was more drama as an alternative driver was found. By the time we arrived at the theatre and took to the stage I was a nervous wreck, barely able to think without hesitation, deviation or repetition, let alone speak. I think I came a “close fourth”, as Nicholas kindly put it.
“Very well done,” said Clement with an impish smile. “Better luck next time.”
These days, Just A Minute doesn’t tour much, and is recorded at the BBC Radio Theatre in Portland Place, London. When we all meet in the Green Room before the recording newcomers are sometimes nearly incontinent with nerves. Remembering my initiation, I always try to be sympathetic and say something reassuring, like “Just throw yourself into it, that’s my advice”. Very similar to the director Gerard Damiano’s advice to Linda Lovelace, I expect.
Young David paced up and down and had a look of fierce determination about him, but really there was no inkling of what he was about to achieve. By comparison it took me about 10 years to get the hang of JAM. The problem is that the brain has to multi-task content, vocabulary and delivery in a frankly unnatural way. I swear I saw steam coming out of Terry Wogan’s ears when he did it for the first time.
Then, more importantly, there’s the pressure of getting laughs on top of all the other things you have to worry about. You can’t savour the laugh you get, either, because that would be perceived as hesitation. So you plough on. Then somewhere in your mind you criticise your own technique, which is fatal and causes a lapse in concentration, so you deviate or repeat and are buzzed anyway. It’s a minefield!
On the rare occasions when I have managed an uninterrupted minute, deftly avoiding all the obstacles involved, it’s as if the planets have aligned in my favour. There is no thrill quite like it. For David Tennant achieving this on his first try must be like having an out-of-body experience. Clever man. And nice cheek bones, too. No wonder we all roared our admiration.