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.
‘It’s a gift and a curse at the same time…You get the pain much worse than anybody else, but you see a sunrise much more beautiful than anybody else.’
Can it really be ten years since the passing of one of my heroes, writer, poet, musician, actor, campaigner and comedy anarchist Spike Milligan? His status as the father of alternative comedy and unquestionable influence on British culture has often been documented both in his life and since his passing, and this is not intended as a tribute or biography. The chronicle of his life and works have been recorded elsewhere, better and more thoroughly, and often by those who knew and worked with him.
Prevalent in his life, and what most interests me, underlying every endeavour – The Goons, Puckoon, his war memoirs, the various Q series, his humorous and serious verse – was a long battle with mental illness. The term manic depressive – bipolar disorder, to give it its contemporary label – might almost have been coined for him, struggling as he did against extremes of madcap creative genius and complete mental and physical inertia, accompanied by the darkest, sometimes suicidal and even murderous, contemplations.
The often cited trigger for his depression was an incident during his war service in Italy, in which he came under heavy shellfire resulting in a lengthy hospitalisation and a number of complete breakdowns. Shellshock, as it was known then, or post-traumatic stress as you would now call it. He was removed from front line service, although he remained in the army and in Italy until after the war, which was the period in which his entertainment career began.
But according to his confessional appearance on In The Psychiatrist’s Chair with Dr. Anthony Clare – originally recorded in 1982, but transmitted as part of Radio 4’s recent programming* in honour of the late Milligan – his anxieties and many of his psychosis can be traced back to his upbringing in India when he was a awkward, introverted child, sometimes beaten by his mother, without his army-absent father, alone until a brother came along eight years later. As a result he grew up overly-sensitive and with little tolerance. His extroverted persona and lunatic behaviour were compensation for an underlying shyness.
With his depression at its worst, Milligan opted for an induced narcosis for three weeks, when he simply could no longer cope with his issues. This hit during what most would consider the pinnacle of his career – The classic, surreal radio comedy, The Goons. He wrote the scripts on automatic, like a production line, and would come to resent this period of his life. The fact that, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the stress and mounting psychosis, he turned out an impressive body of ground-breaking material, is an astounding achievement, and what most impresses and inspires me.
I have my own experience of mental illness, both personally and affecting those close to me. When asked if he would swap the illness for a more balanced life, Milligan, as is common with those who suffer with bipolar disorder, declined. Like a sine wave, the unbearable troughs are countered by soaring peaks, in which he and others are capable of their greatest works. Medication, although it takes the edge off the lows, can dull other things too. Being a long standing admirer, I know something of Milligan’s life story, but learning details of the depths he reached, and how he coped with his illness, for me, earned him a new level of respect.
As he aged, he learned to cope better with his problems, although he was never free of them. His controversial epitaph, inscribed in Gaelic on his tombstone, ‘I told you I was ill,’ sums up the man. He maintained his sense of humour throughout, even when facing the end.
I’m always conscious of avoiding direct comparison between my efforts and those of the subjects of some of my articles. I am not a creative genius, nor have I ever plumbed the depths of despair like Spike Milligan, but I can appreciate in my own way what he went through and what it meant to have still been able to write through it all.
* The Spike Show: Milligan Remembered, a compilation of new and old programming, presented by Milligan’s secretary Norma Farnes.
I’ve known her a couple of years. She used to drink in the same pub as me – you don’t see her in there now, I think the poverty’s starting to bite – and one time, we chatted at the bus stop for a quarter of an hour. She turned out to be a big fan of the Rebus books, and was massively impressed with my baby daughter.
Now, I see her every day I’m working (which recently is pretty much all of them), because she rolls up on her mobility scooter, comes in, buys four cans of Strongbow Super, attempts to engage me or whoever in small talk, then leaves.
Today she bought five cans of Strongbow Super.
“Special occasion?” I asked (well, you have to show willing.)
“No, I’m cooking tonight. What you want to do is, get yourself a gammon steak, and cook it in this [waggles can of Tramp Drink at me]. Bit of mustard, it’s gorgeous.”
When I started this post I was honestly intending it to be a Springsteen-esque lament about how society’s broken her down but she’s doing the best she can, but the fact is she smells of piss and cooks with cans of 9% cider, and I’m fucking glad she doesn’t come stinking up the tavern any more.
Six more months of this job and I will be a Nazi.
He appears to have decided we’re not racists after all; well, he’s still buying booze from us, and you wouldn’t buy booze from a Nazi, right? Anyway, this time he comes seeking advice from the highly knowledgeable offy staff.
“What is best drink for woman?”
“Um…gin’s popular. Or Taboo.”
“Is for woman, so must be very sweet.”
“Baileys is sweet. £10.99 a bottle.”
“Hmm…is strong? Must be sweet, and strong, so later…woman is easy. [Makes internationally recognised hand gesture for putting your willy in a lady]. I take Baileys. And 20 Pall Mall Red.”
Which is probably the real reason behind 90% of Baileys sales, but I’ve never heard it put quite so bluntly.
He buys 8 Carlsberg, 10 Lambert and Butler and some sweets.
“That’s £10.23 please sir.”
He hands me a twenty. I run the counterfeit pen over it, because if I bank a fake it turns up again in my pay packet come Saturday. I key in “2000-ENTER”, the till opens, and I take out a fiver, four pound coins, a fifty pee, a twenty pee, a five pee and then…
“Here, I’ll give you 50 just to make it easier,” he says, handing me 50p.
Easier for WHO, you bastard?
“Hello love, I’ve just come for me wines.”
“You are wrong on two counts, madam. Firstly, I do not love you, indeed your very presence offends me. Secondly, you have not come for ‘wine’. You have come to purchase, as you do EVERY COCKING DAY, two large bottles of Lambrucini, a drink so cheap and nasty that even people who drink Lambrini look down on it. Give me the money and fuck off, you harridan bastard.”
Before we start, let me make it clear I hold no animus against Polish people. I am strongly pro-EU (well, anything that pisses off the Daily Mail and my ex-mother-in-law has to be good, right?), I have in my time been beaten, shunned and arrested for anti-racist rants and activities…I ain’t a Nazi. I welcome our Polish brothers and sisters, their charming kids, their inexpensive plumbers, and their delicious Sklep (which I believe to be some kind of stew, but I’m not altogether sure).
But this bloke…here it is. Word for word.
LONG-SUFFERING OFF-LICENCE DRONE: Can I help you sir?
RESENTFUL POLISH DUDE: Why is no Tyskie in fridge?
L-S-O-L-D: Uh…dunno. We just put what they tell us to in there. People at head office decide, probably after lengthy negotiations with their equally revolting counterparts from the beer companies, you know, the sort of high-powered, small-dicked twats who afterwards go for expense-account dinner at Frankie and Fucking Benny’s and behave like they know what good food is, then one of them offers to show the other lot “the sights” of Runcorn or Ashby-de-la-Zouch or Radlett or whichever pointless, futile little shithole their HQ is in, which turns out to be a branch of Revolution and The Most Depressing Lapdancing Club In The World. And then they send us a diagram showing exactly where the Stella goes. And Tyskie wasn’t on it, so it doesn’t get in the fridge.
RPD: IS BECAUSE YOU DON’T LIKE POLISH, RIGHT? HAH!
L-S-O-L-D: Uh….we have Okocim in the fridge.
RPD: I UNDERSTAND. [Pause and stare at me like he’s going to hit me]. 20 Pall Mall Red KING SIZE!
L-S-O-L-D: Here you go. £4.10 please sir.
RPD: [Throws right money down] I tell my friends. RACIST.
L-S-O-L-D: Thank you, come again.
OK so it wasn’t exactly word-for-word. I did say the last bit in the Apu voice though. Maybe I am a racist. Would The Simpsons ever have got away with making Apu a comedy Indian if they’d been British?
“How much is a case of Carlsberg?” he asks. I count to ten in my head, then reply, “£10.99,” and gesture towards a stack of six cases of Carlsberg, on which hangs a sign bearing the gnomic and impenetrable riddle, “CARLSBERG – FULL CASE £10.99”. He tuts.
“It used to be £9.99.”
Yes, it did. It also USED to be 25p for a litre of petrol. It USED to be £25,000 for a 3-bedroom semi with front and rear gardens. I USED to be able to do it seven times a night. You USED to have a wife, until she got sick of being married to a skinflint alcoholic and left, leaving you with nobody to annoy except the poor bastards who work in the nearest off licence. BUT NOT ANY MORE. So unless you’re going to fire up your Tardis and fly us both back to the glory £9.99 a case days, it’s TEN NINETY FRIGGING NINE.
He buys a case anyway. But he’ll be back next week. And he’ll ask again, and I’ll tell him again, and he’ll tell me how much it used to be again, and it’ll be the same every week until one day I twat him round the head with the non-inflation proof lager and do a wee on his comatose form right there in the shop, the bastard.
To be continued…