The label ‘a British Institution’ is too readily applied to our national cultural icons; from the sublime to the ridiculous – from cups of tea or fish and chips to Katie Price’s cleavage. Forty-five years ago, in 1967, a man named Ian Messiter devised a format for a radio based panel game that was so simple and succinct that it has survived, virtually unaltered, since its inception, and on its anniversary is as popular as ever. The premise was this: that its contestants must speak on a given subject for sixty seconds, without hesitation, repetition or deviation. Points were awarded by the chairman, Nicholas Parsons (himself a fully paid up member of the Institution,) for reaching the end of the time period, and for successful interruptions by rival panelists on the grounds mentioned. Unless you’ve been living up a tree and the preset buttons are broken on your digital radio (back at the show’s beginnings, I would have said tuning dial), most people would be able to put name to that program – Just a Minute.
The charm of the show is in its simple rules, which allow the right kind of player almost infinite scope for improvisation. To play well, as well as being attentive to an opponent’s errors, it is necessary to be educated, eloquent, imaginative, confident and, most importantly, witty, as bonus points are available at the host’s behest when the audience enjoy an interjection.
The ultimate achievement in the game is the ‘perfect minute,’ where a speaker continues for the entire time period avoiding any challenge. These events are rare and lauded. Try playing the game yourself, and you’ll see just how difficult it is.
The original team of regulars – often supplemented by a carousel of guests – had ample qualifications. They consisted of the writer, restaurateur and former politician Clement Freud; actor, writer and voice of ‘The Book’ in the Hitch Hikers Guide To The Galaxy Peter Jones; actor Derek Nimmo; and Kenneth Williams – he of Carry On infamy. This assemblage was as much a regular fixture on the panel as the self-selecting Arsenal back four of the 1990s. Along with an array of stand-ins to keep the familiar voices on their toes and to add spice, this quartet remained until the death of Williams in 1988.
Each brought something unique to the mix, and played in their own way, whether it was Freud imparting knowledge with paced, monotone delivery, or Williams playing up to the audience. As the original first team departed – Freud being the last, in 2009 – a new generation of talent took their place and continue to keep the show freshly entertaining. Today, Paul Merton, Sue Perkins, Gyles Brandreth, Julian Clary, Graham Norton, Liza Tarbuck, and Ross Noble commonly have their fingers poised on the infamous buzzers, ready to butt in and spoil each other’s flow.
Present at every recording and often, good humouredly, the butt of many panelists’ jokes, is octogenarian master of ceremonies Nicholas Parsons. His steady, unpartizan stewardship has been a major factor in its popularity. Were he to depart after such a long period in the chair he would undoubtedly be missed enormously. But, like Countdown after Richard Whiteley, even without such an integral component, the show is so brilliantly planned that it could function and go on without him. Where its television rivals for staying power, Have I Got News For You, and Never Mind The Buzzcocks have become tired and predictable, Just a Minute enjoys infinite variety.
In celebration of its longevity, Radio 4 broadcast two special commemorative recordings. One, a three hour collection of highlights featuring classic and contemporary players, Just a Minute: Without Hesitation, the other an episode recorded in Mumbai and starring Paul Merton, Dominic Brigstocke and two Indian stand-up comedians. The audience, mostly, you would imagine, unfamiliar with the format, responded warmly and very quickly were playing along, booing, cheering and applauding in all the right places. A testament to this genius invention, that it can transcend cultural and language barriers.
On BBC2 on Monday 26th March 2012, at 6.00pm, Just a Minute will begin a ten episode run as tea-time television quiz fodder. This isn’t the first time it has made the transition, but now it has a chance to win over the radio-shy segments of the British public and it will, hopefully, become an idea on which the whistle will never blow.