Clement Freud on Just a Minute: a Celebration, Radio 4

Just a minute ... did you just set me up for a gag?

Chris Maume
Sunday 31 May 2009 00:00

First Humphrey Lyttelton, now this. Nearly a year after one giant of the airwaves died, six weeks ago another followed. Like Humph and I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, Sir Clement Freud's name was synonymous with one of radio comedy's twin peaks, and Paul Merton, to whom the Just a Minute flame has passed, was on hand to wave goodbye to the burning boat. Billed as "a celebration", it was affectionate but clear eyed.

The obituaries of Freud all mentioned his legendary grumpiness, and while Merton didn't dwell on that too much – though he did mention the delight Freud took in sending back meals in restaurants, accompanied by insults – he did recall how intensely competitive Freud was about Just a Minute.

You often wonder on game shows how much victory means to them: hugely, in his case. "Clement's way of playing the game was to win," said Merton. He had a little bag of tricks, like buzzing in the last couple of seconds to gain a point for being the one speaking at the end, while reeling off long lists of things ate the time up. "He's listing again!" Wendy Richard interrupts in one clip.

The in-it-to-win-it edge of steel was unsheathed in Merton's very first show: the pair were sitting next to each other, when 10 minutes in Freud leaned over and whispered, "This is the worst show we've ever done." Merton survived the mind games, later learning he wasn't the first debutant to run the Clement Freud gauntlet.

Eventually, said Merton, "a certain warmth crept in", and Merton found himself co-opted as straight man for Freud. Two shows are recorded together, and before one show Freud challenged Merton to get in a mention of the plans for a Scottish parliament. Merton duly complied, and Freud's buzzer buzzed. Why, asked Nicholas Parsons – repetition, hesitation or deviation? "Devolution," said Freud, bringing the house down with his apparent lightning wit.

Merton still sounded slightly resentful at being set up like that. But it did mean that at last he felt like a fully accepted fixture on the show – "And I'd only been doing it for five years".

But he ended by remembering Freud's laughter. "It was a pure laughter that bubbled up so swiftly that it sometimes took its owner completely by surprise."

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