Monday, May 12, 2008

just a minute

I have been a fan of Just a Minute since the 70s, and I have recently been enjoying two varieties of the same show, one on BBC radio 4, which is the current show (presently off air but I'm sure it'll be back soon) and the other is what I suppose is a 1980s version though nobody says how old it is, which Radio National play at 5:30 on a Monday morning. This is so secret, it's not even in the Green Guide (I think it's just listed as 'comedy', which in the case of Just a Minute is true enough, but in the case of some of the other shows in this timeslot throughout the week such as the execrable My Word and the bizarrely appalling My Music, would be better described as theatre of the absurd). There is something to be said for both versions, but since I was just listening to the 5:30 am one a short time ago, I will briefly talk on that.

JAM began in the late 1960s with a host ('chairman', they say) Nicholas Parsons and four panelists: Clement Freud, Derek Nimmo, Peter Jones and Kenneth Williams. I feel I can speak freely about all of these people because the latter three are dead and the first is still completely alive and my freely expressed opinion of him is that he is brilliant - after all, he wrote Grimble and Grimble at Christmas, didn't he. Derek Nimmo I always found a bit of a bore; here he's the kind of Frank Muir of the panel, i.e. satan. Peter Jones I have a soft spot for - good comic actor - though in JAM he is more like the everyman, never really cuts it, makes us feel better though. Kenneth Williams is an extraordinary genius.

If you don't know the show I will tell you (and not ask you 'what on earth have you done with your life up till now?'). The notion is that you speak on a given subject (I have heard this so many times I have probably committed it to memory) without repetition, deviation or hesitation for one minute. If you do so you get a point, though of course most people can't. If someone else challenges you on one of the above factors, and is successful, they get a point and they take over for the remainder of the minute. Of course like most of these things (News Quiz on Radio 4 is a contemporary example) the game format is hardly relevant to anything, it gives it an edge and an ostensible purpose but the real competition is the show-off aspect of it.

I have already dismissed two of the original panellists. Kenneth Williams was recently the subject of a two-part documentary on Radio 4 discussing his last days - it is the 20th anniversary of his death probably or possibly by suicide, this year - and much was made in that, quite accurately, of the way JAM allowed him to make much of his great general knowledge. A few weeks ago on the RN repeat of JAM he gave a minute's soliloquy on Giotto which was simply magnificent, particularly for being apparently entirely off the cuff. He was also exceedingly erudite, but at the same time, did a lot of his JAM delivery in a bizarre series of elongated and strangulated sentences that make it often quite impossible to understand what he is saying. He freely admits on the show (sorry to cut back and forth in tense) that this is a deliberate ploy to maximise his chances of winning, though of course it is also often very funny. Clement Freud, who was apparently a well-known TV chef of all things and then a Liberal politician, is a lot more whimsical - showing a sharp wit particularly in constructing absurd scenarios based around a pun (he came a cropper in this morning's show when the topic was 'Getting out of a Maze' and he started on a monologue about corn and was pulled up on it because 'a maize' is incorrect English) or making humorous plays on other people's previous statements. Like Williams, he is also a joy to listen to and probably would be even if you didn't understand English, maybe not for as long as if you did understand English.

The shows of the early 80s, which is as I said what I assume we are being played on RN at the moment, are not quite timeless. There are some veiled references to Williams' sexuality (not, of course, from him) and some other generally old fashioned explorations of anxiety over ladies' underpants et al which still is the stock-in-trade of British comedy I suppose but at least they cover it up a bit better now (oo er). I noticed in this morning's repeat that Parsons was still referring to the usual team, but I don't think I've heard one in months that featured the four originals, usually three of them plus a guest which has generally been a woman, to whom they often defer and patronise in various ways. In this morning's case it was Victoria Wood who really did quite well.

If you only ever heard the Kenneth Williams/Clement Freud JAMs you would wonder how they could keep the show going without them. Freud is still fairly regular in the program today, and he must be in his 80s surely, but in fact the format is sufficiently strong that it is entirely sustainable. Such a simple premise, and might I say, not only is it a funny thing to listen to, it does make you appreciate much about spoken English that you might otherwise not consider, not that it's educational or anything, except inasmuch as the repeats show us that Kenneth Williams was one of the great minds of the 20th century, not in an all-round sense because I don't see him as a marvellous creator and innovator, except as an interpreter of other people's work, but also in the sense that he had an exceptional capacity to respond and reflect, and that's not to be sneezed at.

5 comments:

wayne's tony said...

How wonderful, we will switch the radio alarm clock tonight! I'm already looking forward to a cup of coffee, fruit toast and Just a Minute.

David said...

Unless you plan these things a week ahead, I bet you're cursing now. It's only on Mondays. Other, hideous, shows like My Word and My Music are on the rest of the week.

wayne's tony said...

This morning was something called Missing the Point. No fisticuffs please Eleanor.

lucy tartan said...

My Music is indeed really really bad.

David said...

Lucy, when I hear My Music I wonder if it was produced on earth by humans. The show they now play on Tuesday mornings, Many a Slip, is pretty much as ludicrous - smug nonentities (now certainly and probably then too?) dedicating themselves to meaningless pedantry. Women's teams and men's teams, the women's team's buzzer is the sound of a phone ringing - ?!! David Nixon, who if I remember correctly was a tv magician in the early 70s (Wikipedia says d. 1978) is a regular.