Just a Minute’s Nicholas Parsons and Paul Merton talk friendship, tactics and the thrill of the game

The duo are celebrating 50 years of avoiding hesitation, repetition or deviation

Paul Merton and Nicholas Parsons (BBCPictures,mh)

Nicholas Parsons has appeared on every Just a Minute since 1967, usually as chairman and occasionally as a panellist. Paul Merton made his debut on 4 April 1989 and has recorded nearly 400 editions.

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Nicholas Parsons

Nicholas Parsons (Getty,mh)

“Isn’t it amazing I’ve been doing Just a Minute for 50 years? No one else can say they did the original pilot and are still doing the show all this time later. Where has the time gone? Am I that old? Well, I am 94.

I didn’t even think I’d be doing the first show [aired on 22 December 1967] because the pilot was a disaster. Ian Messiter, the creator, was wonderful, but he inhibited the players by making an already fiendishly difficult game even harder with a round where you couldn’t use plurals or the word “the”. It was all over the place but in the end we made it work.

I enjoy the position of chairman so much. It’s the greatest effort of concentration of any job I have. I’m listening intently and can see the way people’s minds are working when they have a subject. We, as professionals, make it look easy and sound fun, but it’s an incredibly difficult game. However famous and talented a new player is, they might flounder. So now if there’s someone coming on for the first time, we surround them with three regulars so that if they stumble, the others can be generous. We don’t want anybody looking foolish.

Paul is particularly good at it. He’s played it such a lot and thinks so logically. He has a gift but is also one of the most generous performers. Most people want to shine because in broadcasting we’re very insecure as it’s a very overcrowded profession. But if he feels he’s talking too much, he’ll hold back and let others have a go. He says this is his favourite job, which is very flattering.

He does this wonderful thing where he goes into a fantasy realm and talks the funniest, most delightful nonsense. Paul and I are good friends, he’s a lovely man. We have a lot of banter going. Because he knows me so well, he often says outrageous things about my age and his leg-pulling is hilarious.

Showbusiness is a very fragile profession. I do think Just a Minute will continue but you can’t predict anything. Somebody said to me once, “You’ve been doing this for so long you must be on automatic pilot.” I said, “Listen, if I was on automatic pilot, the show would be dead by now.” I go out there every time and am instinctively thinking, “It’s worked before but will it work again?” You never know with a live show — in that sense, I feel I’m living dangerously.”

Paul Merton

Paul Merton (BBCPictures,mh)

“Living in a bedsit in south London in the 1980s, I’d tape Just a Minute on my cassette recorder from the radio and listen back to it because I wanted to play along and just loved it so much. I first met Nicholas on a TV show called Scruples and I mentioned how much I’d enjoyed Just a Minute, and it occurred to him that I might be good on it. In 1988, I wrote a letter to the producer, Edward Taylor, suggesting myself. He asked Nicholas about me but was very doubtful and phoned me up to ask what I’d be wearing. Radio 4 was slightly stuffy in the 1980s in some respects.

Now I’ve been doing it for nearly 30 years, yet when I started my ambition was just to be booked again. It can be intimidating but you have to not let that affect you. I have what I call a Big Match temperament — I can rise to the occasion. The aim isn’t to win; it’s to make an entertaining show. I do win quite a lot, but I think I’m getting points for being amusing, not for being sharp on challenges.

I can get quite surreal and the players are quite generous about that. Sometimes if we’ve got less experienced players, I can dominate if I’m not careful and that’s not good for the show. I’m quite happy to think, “Oh, I’ve done enough now,” so I might hear repetition but don’t always jump in. This is a big generalisation but male stand-up comedians usually aren’t as good because sometimes they don’t realise that it’s not about how much they’re talking or how many silly jokes they’re making. It’s dull if everyone talks for a minute without interruption.

Nicholas makes sure he brings someone in if they’re not talking as much. He’s also got the hardest job because he has to listen the entire time to every single thing. I have a great deal of time for Nicholas. He’s a wonderful man.

I took him to dinner for his birthday. He has immaculate manners and a strong sense of humour about himself. He doesn’t mind me joking that he’s so old he’s mentioned in the Bible. If he didn’t find it funny, I couldn’t do it, it’d be awful. But he joins in on the joke and says to the audience, “Oh you’re wicked for laughing”. He doesn’t allow everybody to joke about him, but I think he gives me leeway. My love of Just a Minute hasn’t been diminished by being in it. They say don’t meet your heroes but there are exceptions to that rule and Nicholas is one. Sometimes your heroes turn out to be as talented and as pleasant as you hoped they’d be.”

As told to Kasia Delgado

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Radio 4 will broadcast two special programmes over the festive season — Just a Minute: 50 Years in 28 minutes on Christmas Day; and 50 Years of Just a Minute: Nicholas Parsons in Conversation with Paul Merton on New Year’s Day