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Obituary: Ian Messiter

Denis Gifford
Friday 26 November 1999 01:02 GMT

IAN C. MESSITER, as he was originally billed, was the creator of "perhaps the most deceptively simple, enduring, popular and much-copied comedy game on radio or television anywhere". This was Just a Minute, and the speaker was Nicholas Parsons.

He was, of course, the programme's chairman, and may be accused of a slight bias. But bias was not one of the objections for which panellists could interrupt each other during their 60-second speeches on topics set by Messiter. These allowable objections were hesitation, repetition and deviation, and successful interruptions not only meant the interrupter won a point, he also took over the talk for the remaining seconds. Sounds complicated? Not really. And with Parsons as chairman it hardly mattered. Laughter was what counted, and this extraordinary series produced as much - if not more - merriment as any carefully scripted radio series ever. Hence its incredible popularity covering 48 years, if one includes its predecessor One Minute Please, as one surely should.

Ian Messiter, who dreamed up the extraordinary topics running from such everyday subjects as "The Most Extraordinary Person I Ever Met" and "Plums", to "Wilhelm Furtwangler" (with or without the umlaut) and "Parbuckles", based his game on a real-life incident which happened to him as a 13-year- old schoolboy and clearly scarred him for life. It occurred at his public school, Sherborne in Dorset. When his form master Percival Parry-Jones, known as "PJ" to his pupils, caught the lad daydreaming, he was ordered to stand in front of the class and "Repeat what I have been saying for the last minute, without hesitation or repetition." When young Messiter failed miserably, he had his trousers pulled down and was given six of the best on his bare bottom. One Minute Please was his jubilantly adult revenge.

Ian Cassan Messiter was born in 1920 at Dudley in Worcestershire. His father was a surgeon who saw that his bright lad attended Winton House prep school and then Sherborne. Nineteen years old when the Second World War erupted, he promptly joined the Army, but before long was invalided out. For a while he became a conjurer, but having no great success he signed on at the BBC in the lowly role of Programme Assistant, which meant he was one of those back-room boys who carefully placed needles on revolving gramophone records.

Messiter's first proper assignment was to find a young lady to be interviewed by Alistair Cooke in his programme Junior Bridge Builders. He found her at a dance in Covent Garden, jitterbugged with her to the superior swing of Major Glenn Miller and his Air Force Band, and married her.

He assisted the producers of many BBC shows made by the Variety Department, including the top comedy series of the time, It's That Man Again. "That Man" was, of course, Tommy Handley. His first taste of quiz games came with Twenty Questions, which began in 1947. Still a Programme Assistant, he worked with the producer Cleland Finn, helping out by suggesting topics for "Mystery Voice" Norman Hackforth to whisper to listeners at home.

Stewart MacPherson, the Canadian sports commentator, was chairman, and panellists included the ex-war correspondent Richard Dimbleby, funny-voice man Jack Train, one of the Itma cast stranded by the death of Tommy Handley, and Anona Winn, an ex-singer with whom Messiter would later set up a productive relationship. In time he would become the producer of Twenty Questions, when he would have to perform the unsavoury task of giving Gilbert Harding the sack for being drunk on the air.

In 1949 Messiter produced the first British radio show to star two youngish arrivals from Canada, Bernard Braden and his wife, Barbara Kelly. This was called Leave Your Name and Number, scripted by a third Canadian, Eric Nicol, and taking as its theme the true-life experiences of a young couple trying to make a break for themselves on the London stage. First broadcast in the Show Parade series, it blossomed into a proper run of its own in 1950.

In the same year Messiter wrote a play for radio entitled Mrs Drake's Duck. This was bought by the film producer Daniel Angel and scripted into a sex-change scenario by director Val Guest. Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, the star, insisted it be called Mr Drake's Duck. The plot was about a farmer's wife who found her ducks laid atomic eggs.

Messiter's first attempt at creating a panel game of his own came in 1951. Called One Minute Please, it would be the first BBC show ever sold to an American radio network, Du Pont. The BBC received pounds 50 for the rights; Messiter got nothing. When he complained the BBC sent him a cheque for pounds 50. Messiter forwarded it to the BBC Benevolent Fund.

The original format of One Minute Please was a trifle more confusing than the later streamlined version, Just a Minute. Roy Plomley, creator of Desert Island Discs chaired and there were two teams, Ladies versus Gentlemen. The former consisted of the film stars Valerie Hobson and Yvonne Arnaud, with Nan Kenway, the funny-voice half of the double act Kenway and Young. The Gents were equally big names in stage and screen comedy of the period, Sonnie Hale, Charles Heslop and Reginald Purdell.

Each show had an Appeal Panel, the first consisting of three nurses from Charing Cross Hospital. The highest score for the series was 17 points won by the musical cartoonist Gerard Hoffnung the day he told for the first time his memorable tale known as "The Bricklayer's Story". The fastest talker ever was the now-forgotten Jack Sherry, who rattled words off at the rate of 286 per minute.

After a spell in South Africa, where he produced programmes for local commercial radio, Messiter returned to London in 1954 to work happily as a freelance. His first big success was a new panel game, Many a Slip (1964). With his old chairman chum Roy Plomley rattling off yards of script riddled with errors, two teams of Ladies versus Gents, fingers poised over buzzers and bells, tried to spot and correct the many mistakes. (Lady) Isobel Barnett and Eleanor Summerfield opposed Richard Murdoch and Lance Percival, while Steve Race at the piano played musical mistakes. Now Messiter devised and compiled while the BBC put in their own producer, Charles Maxwell.

Messiter reunited with Anona Winn and together they created Petticoat Line (1965), an all-women game show reflecting the early stirrings of feminism. Winn chaired a fearsome female foursome: the film star Jill Adams, the film starlet Jane Asher, the Daily Mirror sob-sister Marjorie Proops and the pushy Scottish comedienne Renee Houston. They answered questions sent in by lady listeners airing their pent-up grievances against men.

Three years later came the answering show, Be Reasonable (1968). Again devised in partnership with Winn, this all-male affair was chaired by Michael Smee and starred the footballer Danny Blanchflower, the jazz man Humphrey Lyttelton, the comedian Bernard Spear, and Lt-Col Sammy Lohan. The premiss was to answer those answers given by the all-women team in their series.

Just a Minute returned with a dusting down of the old formula in 1967. This time the series used Messiter's original title, and was streamlined down to a team of four. With the elegant and eloquent Nicholas Parsons as chairman, it was every man for himself: Derek Nimmo, the cinema's classic "upper-class twit", the superior croupier-cum-cook Clement Freud, and two ladies, the hilarious Beryl Reid and the unknown Wilma Ewart.

Soon others came in and the team settled down to four permanent funny men, Freud, Nimmo, the witty Peter Jones and extrovert Kenneth Williams, whose gay screeching would become a trademark and whose cult status he emphasised in his own statement, "I'm one of the biggest cults around here." Other talented talkers down the years included Peter Cook, Victoria Wood, Stephen Fry, Sheila Hancock, the American actress Elaine Stritch and, once, even Barbara Castle.

Just a Minute was later tried out on television, in 1965 and again in 1995, but it remains a best-loved series on radio. Messiter flirted with television several times, from The Nixon Line (1968) starring the conjurer David Nixon to Celebrity Squares (1975), where he supplied many of the right-or-wrong statements made by each week's guest stars.

But radio remained his happy medium. Fair Deal (1972) starred Nixon as the card-dealing question master, with the cartoonist William Rushton, comedienne June Whitfield, and astronomer Patrick Moore as the panellists. After Nixon's death, the conjurer Paul Daniels took over a revamped version of the show. Dealing With Daniels (1986) dealt the cards to the team: Anneka Rice, John Junkin, Patrick Moore and Duggie Brown.

False Evidence, which Messiter originally called Spot the Liar until the BBC objected on grounds of taste, had Gilbert Harding acting as judge while panellists tried to baffle their prosecutors, Franklin Engelmann and Leslie Mitchell, two of them telling the truth while the third told lies. This again was revamped and returned in 1990 as Hoax, when the celebrity panel was the baritone Ian Wallace, humorist John Wells and the totally talented Maureen Lipman. One of them was telling lies, but who?

As perhaps the only Englishman ever to have made a good living from devising and compiling quizzes, panel games and game shows, Ian Messiter will be remembered, not so much from television, but certainly for as long as radio remains a power in the land.

Ian Cassan Messiter, gameshow deviser: born Dudley, Worcestershire 2 April 1920; married 1944 Enid Senior (one son, one daughter); died London 22 November 1999.

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