Nicholas Parsons on the success of Just a Minute

Eddie Mair talks to the panel show host about 45 years of radio success, and the new TV version of the programme

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I travel with Nicholas Parsons almost every day. Having discovered recently that much of the back catalogue of Just a Minute can be downloaded, most of my journeys are

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enlivened by Nicholas and his chums in my earphones, trying not to repeat, hesitate or deviate. I’ve worked my way from the earliest recordings where it’s all rather sedate and everyone talks like royalty, to the Best of 2010 in which razor-sharp wits like Paul Merton and Sue Perkins battle over every stumble.

This strange obsession has allowed me to crunch entire decades into a few months and to appreciate more than I did the skill of Nicholas Parsons as chairman. His tweaking of the format has kept the show fresh and fast-moving. His guiding hand encourages nervous first-timers to find their feet. And his willingness to be the butt of jokes affords comic flights of fancy.

Television

The programme is celebrating 45 years on Radio 4, in which he hasn’t missed a single episode, with another foray into television.

When we meet, Nicholas hasn’t yet seen the TV shows that have been recorded but “I gather they’re very pleased with it”. Previous attempts at making the radio hit a TV smash have failed – “They messed it up” – but this time they’re using the Just a Minute radio producer Tilusha Ghalani and two television people Nicholas describes as brilliant: Andy Brereton and Jamie Ormerod. They said, ‘We’re going to do what you did on the radio. We want your input, we want your advice.’” And so, perhaps this time, a TV star is born.

By following Nicholas’s advice, Just a Minute has stayed on air – sometimes in the face of opposition from programme regulars.

Narky

“Clement Freud was always a bit narky and in his autobiography criticised me because he wanted to keep it the way it had started – a very sort of gentle, intellectual show where people like him and others would show off their knowledge and erudition. And I maintain if we’d gone down that route we would have gone the same way as My Music and My Word. Excellent shows – but of their time. They had their sell-by date.”

In his book, Nicholas Parsons: With Just a Touch of Hesitation, Repetition and Deviation, he wrote of having huge admiration and respect for Sir Clement. Isn’t that the sort of thing people say when they’re trying not to say someone was hard to like?

“Well that’s a good phrase – he was hard to like. I did have huge admiration and respect for him. He was at school with me. I worked for him at his Royal Court Theatre Club on many occasions. We used to go to parties at his house, so I did have a genuine affection for the fellow. Latterly he got a bit crabbit.”

We agree that’s a good Scots word. “I think he resented the way I ran Just a Minute, because he wanted to run it in the old-fashioned way. A certain antagonism crept in but that didn’t damage the appreciation or respect. I genuinely liked him, but he wasn’t easy.”

In the old recordings Clement often came under fire from Wendy Richard, who hated his habit of creating lists to fill the minute. Did they rub each other up the wrong way? “Oh God, yes,” says Nicholas adding that Richard was a lovely woman but she’d morphed into Pauline Fowler.

“It was very sad about Wendy because I knew her from when she was a youngster. Some of her first work was in The Arthur Haynes Show (on TV in the 1950s, with Parsons as Arthur’s straight man) and I used to drive her back into London from Elstree. She was always a feisty lady – a real character.

“I was very fond of her but she used to look miserable in Just a Minute. And if you’re doing an audience show you’ve got to look as if you’re enjoying yourself. She’d say to me, ‘Nicholas, why aren’t I back doing that show? You know I love doing it and I think I’m quite good.’ And I’d say, ‘Wendy you’re marvellous and I’ve suggested you should come back.’ But I couldn’t say to her, ‘Darling – chill out a bit. Enjoy it.’ ”

Darling

He gets away with calling a lot of women “darling” – and flirting with them. “Yes I love the ladies. It’s a natural thing. A bit theatrical really. But I call a lot of people in private life ‘darling’ because they are darlings. I know women who are not darlings and I don’t call them darlings. I only say it to people who are darlings to me.”

If his use of “darling” is a little old-fashioned, why not? Nicholas is a little… old. Twice he broaches the subject of age without me bringing it up and I wonder, given the recent fuss about BBC ageism, what he thinks about oldies being tossed out in favour of younger people.

“I feel very strongly it should be based on talent. Sometimes people get older and they age more rapidly than other people. If you’ve got the talent for the job they should go on employing you. And you don’t bring in someone new because they’re younger. You bring in someone different because they’ve got a different talent or a different perspective.”

Players of Just a Minute often mock his age, and he doesn’t mind. “Nowadays if you’re making jokes, you don’t make jokes which are sexist, racist or about disability, but you can make as many jokes about age as you want.”

Age

Listening to decades of Just a Minute recordings, you can HEAR Peter Jones and Clement Freud getting older, but Nicholas Parsons’s timbre and vitality don’t seem to have changed much since the 1970s. I tell him that I don’t want to know how old he is, or print his age. “Just put ‘he’s an advanced age’. I do feel a sensitivity about age because I think they feel that if you’ve reached a certain age…”

But not even Nicholas Parsons can go on forever. When he dies, what should they do with the show. “Oh God, I didn’t think about that. I mean I hope the show will continue. Of course they’ll find a replacement.” I ask whether he has anyone in mind and he replies, “No and I don’t like to think about it.”

I start laughing. “Don’t give them suggestions?”

Nicholas replies “No! No! No! Thank you Eddie for that!”

This is an edited version of an article in the issue of Radio Times magazine published 20 March 2012.

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Just a Minute is on BBC2 at 6:00pm tonight