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RIP Nicholas Parsons (1923-2020)

Blog | By Valerie Grove | Jan 28, 2020

Radio 4 is festooned with candles and balloons this year. So many favourite programmes are celebrating birthdays.

I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, the funniest and most surreal panel-game, is 47. The Today programme is 62, as it reminds us daily, and so is Test Match Special. The venerated Desert Island Discs, an ideal formula that pleases both castaway and audience, is 77. As for the Shipping Forecast – our ‘nightly litany of the sea’, as its presenter Zeb Soanes calls it – at 150, it predates even the earliest crystal sets.

And then there is the panel-game Just a Minute or, as it is fondly known to participants, JAM. JAM celebrated fifty years on air on 22nd December 2017, when Nicholas Parsons, who has just died aged 96, could flourish his unique trump card: he has been in the chair for the entire half-century. He even chaired the pilot.

It was not an instant success, as Parsons likes to relate: ‘My manner can best be described as laborious, rather pompous.’

Audience Research found the show ‘dangerously thin’. The male panellists (Derek Nimmo and Clement Freud) overshadowed the women.

There were annoying hesitation challenges, irritating bursts of applause, and silly extra restrictions like not using the word ‘the’. But hey, as Parsons now reminds us in every episode, over the decades JAM has become utterly brilliant, vibrant with talent, a favourite ‘all over the world!’

And, while there may be those who look on JAM as Marmite, the panellists absolutely love participating.

Stephen Fry says, ‘It’s like being asked to join the MCC or the Athenaeum.’ Sue Perkins calls it ‘my favourite gig of all time’.

Why else would Fry, Paul Merton, Ross Noble, Julian Clary and Graham Norton bother? They don’t need the money, but they love Radio 4. They enjoy the unrehearsed spontaneity of JAM, where you turn up half an hour before and record two shows before supper.

If their jokes are its appeal, Nicholas Parsons is the keystone. I met Parsons – at 94, impossibly dapper and spry – at the Park Theatre, where he and his wife came to see Gyles Brandreth’s family production of Hamlet.

This reminded me that, on JAM, Brandreth spoke of having once played Hamlet: ‘I was so poor, the audience threw eggs at me,’ he said. ‘I went on as Hamlet and came off as omelette!’

What is the key to JAM’s success?

‘Fun,’ says Parsons, ‘Intellectuals come on to show how good they are at the game, but that’s not the point. The point is to increase the fun.’

The doyenne of radio critics, Gillian Reynolds, is certain that the entire show depends on Nicholas Parsons’s professionalism and comic timing.

Parsons was a doctor’s son, raised in London; he read engineering at Glasgow, acted in rep, and became straight man to the comedian Arthur Haynes.

Sioned Wiliam, Radio 4’s comedy commissioning editor, sings his praises: ‘He’s amazingly alert, very astute, does two shows a night, is hugely loved, and never undercuts the panellists.’

Certainly not: he enjoys being the foil to them all. Gyles Brandreth gets away with saying outrageous remarks about him. ‘He even claimed once to be my love-child!’ says Parsons.

Another time, given the subject ‘The chairman’s darkest secret’, Brandreth began, ‘Nicholas or, as close friends know him, “Susan”, is the first transsexual to host a panel show in this country.’

But it is the chairman’s great age which is most guyed. Sheila Hancock coined the term ‘Nick-baiting’. When Parsons recalled playing at the Globe Theatre, Paul Merton interrupted, ‘Shakespeare gave you the job, didn’t he?’

Here are Paul Merton and Graham Norton bantering about Oliver Cromwell:

Parsons: ‘Well, it was 1653, not 1563...’

Norton: ‘Nicholas remembers.’

Merton: ‘To be fair, he was doing the warm-up act for Charles I’s execution.’

Norton: ‘He’s still got the bladder on the stick!’

Merton: ‘Unfortunately, for different reasons these days!’

Or there was the time Merton said, ‘Just a Minute has been recorded in French, Belgian, Flemish, Walloon, Greek, Latin.’ (BUZZ)

Norton: ‘It has not been done in Latin.’

Merton: ‘Well, when Nicholas first did it, it was.’

When the BBC threatened to take JAM off the World Service, there was such an outcry across the globe that they relented. After all, in India they even have JAM clubs. So Parsons and the JAM team flew to India, and did a show from the Mumbai Comedy Store with garrulous Indian counterparts.

The programme was devised by Ian Messiter, master inventor of radio panel shows. In his schooldays at Sherborne, a history master caught him daydreaming in class, and challenged him to talk about Henry VIII’s wives for two minutes without hesitation or repetition; the alternative was a caning. He was caned.

Talking on one subject for sixty seconds, without repetition, hesitation or deviation, is harder than anyone thinks. Even Stephen Fry, with his ‘fearsome intellect’, found it hard, and started using cod archaisms like ‘howmever’. (At the end of the programme, an announcer reassured listeners that ‘There is no such word as howmever.’)

Messiter’s programme was originally called Off the Cuff. Then One Minute, Please. In 1967 came the new name, and new mainstay: chairman Parsons.

Parsons had been at school (St Paul’s) with Clement Freud in the 1930s. He had also worked in rep with Kenneth Williams in the 1940s.

‘Re-stoking Kenneth’s ego’ became his role. Williams, when introduced, ‘would stick out his little bottom and strut across the stage’. KW’s catchphrase was ‘I’m a cult figure! I’m a cult!’

‘Kenneth Williams was good at the game,’ says Parsons, ‘but what he was brilliant at was funny improvisation.’

Gyles Brandreth first met Parsons at Fanny Cradock’s Christmas party in 1969.

‘A minute’s speech is no problem for Gyles,’ as Parsons reminded me. ‘In 1982, he established the world record for talking non-stop, twelve-and-a-half hours.’

What gives long-running programmes their staying power?

‘Familiarity, in a word,’ says Joby Waldman of the independent production company Reduced Radio. ‘And that can’t be achieved overnight.’

He used to produce Gardeners’ Question Time – seventy this year; so he should know.

Even the most familiar show has to be ‘replenished’ – a favourite Radio 4 word – to appeal to the 35-40 generation, who may regard ancient panel games as stale buns. My Word and My Music faded out.

But ‘Clue’ and JAM – prompted initially by the Grim Reaper’s carrying off Freud, Nimmo, Williams, Peter Jones and Humphrey Lyttelton – have been refreshed by younger, funnier blood.

On ‘Clue’, Jack Dee has been a brilliant replacement for Humph. Paul Merton – who originally proposed his services to JAM – became its star.

At a book launch for Miles Jupp (another JAM recruit), I asked Merton if he could imagine the BBC ever replacing Parsons with someone younger.

‘Well, they could hardly replace him with someone older,’ he zipped back.

For fifty years, the laughs have become as much part of our comfort zone as slippers by the winter fireside.

So how about any of us pitching a new game show that might flourish for five decades? Highly unlikely, everyone in the business agrees. But Sioned Wiliam assures me that Radio 4 is open to ideas. Must have potential for wit and sharpness, cleverness and silliness.

Recent arrivals in the repertoire include Would I Lie To You?; Heresy; It’s Not What You Know and The Unbelievable Truth. These have staying power. The time to pitch your panel game idea – look on the Radio 4 website under ‘commissioning’ – is next spring.

The deadline for quiz show ideas has gone, but I told Sioned William my proposal anyway: a quiz, I Remember It Well, for the pre-Google generation who think their memory is wonderful but get things wrong all the time.

Who can tell what will work? Parsons says JAM’s formula makes it ‘forever refreshed and unpredictable’.

‘I’ve tweaked the game to introduce more fun, adding bonus points for laughs,’ he says, ‘The family of the show’s inventor are happy for me to tweak.’

Parsons admits that JAM’s success is inexplicable: ‘The essence of comedy is that you pause for effect, you repeat for emphasis, and you deviate for surprise. Yet these three things are exactly what you can’t do in Just A Minute. And it’s a comedy show, played for laughs!’

Long may Master Parsons continue to produce laughs, at the helm of JAM, with his Tiggerish enthusiasm and ebullience. Perhaps there should be a new JAM subject – the secret of eternal youth.