Hesitation, Repetition and Deviation: A Lifetime of Laughter in Just a Minute
As the latest series of BBC Radio 4’s Just A Minute programme reaches the show's 50th year, it seems like an apt juncture to celebrate its longevity. Not only has it survived to a staggering 79 seasons (and counting), but has thrived not only as one of the channel’s, but the entire of the BBC’s, biggest successes of all time. Nearly as old as the channel itself, premiering just before Christmas in 1967, unbelievably, the show has only ever had one host – the now legendary 94 year old Nicholas Parsons (although it should be noted that on 9 occasions he took the opportunity to be a contestant and let someone else chair the topics).
A professional comedic straight man since the 1940s, Parsons success in the role may in large part be his ability to wilfully and playfully act as such to many a comedian’s joke, and often even as the butt of one. Helping his friend, show’s creator Ian Messiter, sell the idea to the BBC, Parsons was never intended to be the programme’s chairman (host) but had to stand in for comedian Jimmy Edwards for the pilot, and then seemingly just never left. Fifty years and nearly 900 episodes later, Radio 4’s audience are certainly glad he stayed.
Those unfamiliar with the show need not be intimidated by it, the format is staggeringly simple. A number of celebrity panellists (mostly comedians but by no means exclusively so), are required in turn to talk for one whole minute on a topic given to them by the chairman (Parsons) without any hesitation, repetition, or deviation. Sounds simple, right? Well actually it’s a lot harder than you’d imagine, which is where all of the hilarity ensues. If competing panellists notice either of these three rules being broken then they buzz in and get a point – but then they must continue the oratory for the remainder of the minute. When they are asked to speak on a subject they know little on, then the nonsense that results can really crank up the laughter.
While Paul Merton and Graham Norton are currently amongst those who make the most frequent appearances on the show, the list of guests is a rich and varied one. Over more recent years regularly appearing players have included Pam Ayres, Marcus Brigstocke, Julian Clary, Barry Cryer, Jenny Éclair, Stephen Fry, Sheila Hancock, Josie Lawrence, Ross Noble, Sue Perkins, Tim Rice and Liza Tarbuck.
Throughout the show’s entire history however, some major players have been Kenneth Williams, Peter Cook, Kenny Everett, Thora Hird, Maureen Lipman, Bob Monkhouse, Patrick Moore, Terry Wogan and Victoria Wood. A larger list of players can be found on this dedicated blog, and impressively features actors from Doctor Who, The Thick of It, and a plethora of comedians from Bill Bailey and Rob Brydon to Rhod Gilbert and Dave Gorman. It truly is the most unique set of guests any show has ever likely had. One of the most recent additions is socialist stand-up comedian Alexei Sayle, who despite being a household name since the 1980s had yet to make his debut until series 75.
My favourite regular contributor is former politician and sometimes One Show presenter Gyles Brandreth. As he is a former Tory whip I am loath to admit a liking for him, as I’m sure are many others. Years ago, when I worked in a call centre taking orders for books, there was a special offer on where if a required amount of books were purchased, buyers would receive a free RHS Diary. One day, we ran out of the diaries and had to start offering a book by Brandreth instead. After a day the company had to cease the offer as droves of people made it clear they would rather cancel their orders than receive his book – so essentially, they preferred to get nothing instead of a free copy of Gyles’ book!
Despite his political convictions, Gyles is a highly entertaining raconteur with a range and depth of knowledge likely envied by most he encounters, and has a perfectly amiable willingness to poke fun at himself from time to time, which comes in useful on a show where he is regularly lambasted with humour.
There have been several attempts to bring the format to TV, all the way from the late sixties through to the show’s 45th anniversary a few years ago. The most recent attempt was a 10 episode adaptation which aired on BBC2, although for the most part, like all the other TV versions before it, it failed to capture the feel and intimacy of the radio version.
Thanks to the BBC’s reach, Just A Minute is popular around the world, however it has also inspired a Swedish language cousin, Pa Minuten (On The Minute). Debuting in 1969 on Sveriges Radio P1, it has been almost as long running a success as the British original.
A special programme celebrating the show, 'Just a Minute: 50 Years in 28 Minutes', will air on BBC Radio 4 on Christmas Day at 18:30.
If you have not given Just A Minute a try yet then I highly recommend you do, it’s a laugh a minute.