Host Nicholas Parsons admits he’s feeling his age a bit at 94. Panellist Paul Merton says he’s still not got the hang of it after 30 years. But after 50 years of inspired waffle, the stars of radio’s oldest gameshow insist… we’re not out of time yet!
Having reached the enviable age of 94, Nicholas Parsons likes to joke that he gets up each morning, checks the obituary columns, and if he isn’t mentioned in bold type, goes about his business.
And as the chairman of Just A Minute on Radio 4, humour is still very much his business.
Host Nicholas Parsons admits he’s feeling his age a bit at 94. Panellist Paul Merton says he’s still not got the hang of it after 30 years
‘It’s all about laughter and having fun, that’s the key,’ Parsons says, speaking about the quiz show he has hosted since its inception in 1967 and, indeed, of life itself.
‘If you try to win at all costs, everything disintegrates.’
‘Just A Minute has been an education for me,’ adds Paul Merton, who has appeared on the show for almost 30 years. ‘As a kid it was better than any of the lessons I ever learned at school.’
He smiles kindly at the older man. ‘Spending time with Nicholas is an absolute joy. I love working with him. Sometimes it feels a bit like a double-act but actually we’re not.’
‘Shall we kiss?’ quips Parsons.
Next month, Britain’s best-loved radio comedy turns 50. A half-century of inspired waffling. After 79 series, Just A Minute has become part of the well-worn fabric of British life. Cosy as toasted teacakes on a winter afternoon, it can be whimsical, droll even, but on its day laugh-out-loud funny.
The list of legendary players has included the great Kenneth Williams, Peter Cook and Peter Jones, Derek Nimmo and Sheila Hancock, and in more recent years we’ve delighted in the verbal dexterity of Graham Norton, Sue Perkins, Julian Clary and Stephen Fry.
After 79 series, Just A Minute has become part of the well-worn fabric of British life
The Prince of Wales is a hopeless addict – in a specially recorded message last Christmas he called it ‘one of this country’s great institutions’.
The rules of Just A Minute, for the uninitiated: Parsons will give one of four contestants a topic to talk about for one minute. They must to do so without hesitation, repetition or deviation. If another contestant believes the speaker to have contravened a rule, they buzz in, collecting a point for a correct interruption. They then take over the subject for the remainder of the minute, or until their own monologue is questioned.
‘It’s a bit like golf,’ Merton explains. ‘Nobody ever says “I’ve mastered golf” because there’s always a bad shot round the corner. You can’t say you’ve mastered Just A Minute but you try your best to be good at it.’
Merton believes that male stand-up comedians tend to make the worst panellists. US comic Hannibal Buress struggled badly. ‘It may have been a cultural thing,’ ponders Parsons.
‘Yes,’ Merton decides. ‘Then Gyles Brandreth started flirting with him as well, which confused the poor bloke even more.’
Camp as a row of boy scouts but shrewd, never crude and ferociously intelligent. Could make a single sentence last a lifetime. ‘A true one-off,’ reckons Paul Merton.
Pernickety television personality Esther Rantzen is also singled out for being overly competitive. ‘But that is her nature,’ Parsons allows, diplomatically. ‘There is a kind of etiquette,’ adds Merton. ‘A generosity that you must have.’
We are sitting in the gallery of a photographic studio on a bright morning in London shortly after Parsons’ 94th birthday. ‘I’ve been in showbusiness for 70 years,’ he marvels, selecting a breakfast banana. ‘Where has the time gone? What has happened?’
Merton, who turned 60 this year, didn’t get Parsons a present because ‘if I was buying him birthday presents every year I’d be broke’.
But he fully intends to take Parsons for dinner to celebrate. ‘Funnily enough, I was at a preview of Young Frankenstein on Nicholas’s actual birthday,’ Merton muses. ‘Mel Brooks is only 91.’
‘A mere youngster,’ chuckles Parsons.
Razor-sharp in mind, the dapper Parsons is full of neat one-liners and sudden surprises. ‘My favourite activity was water-skiing,’ he declares.
‘So I bought myself a ski-boat when I was doing Sale Of The Century, which had become quite popular and I had a little bit of television money.’
He is being modest. The iconic quiz show ruled Seventies TV schedules, with audiences reaching 21 million. It made him relatively wealthy, with properties in Buckinghamshire, London and Minorca.
The last time Parsons took to the water he was visiting his son Justin in Brunei. ‘I was quite advanced in years even by then,’ he remembers fondly. ‘Nevertheless I got up on the skis and they all clapped in the boat, bless their hearts, but I thought, I won’t be doing this much more.’
Parsons cheerily admits that, even if a Strictly Come Dancing invitation were to arrive tomorrow, his dancing days may be behind him. ‘I’d have jumped at the chance to dance 20, even ten years ago,’ he enthuses. ‘I used to dance fairly well. I did a very natty Charleston.’
Dreamy poet with a wry turn of phrase and a distinctive accent from the Vale of the White Horse in Oxfordshire. Given to terrible pre-show nerves.
‘He popularised the Charleston in this country, didn’t you?’ Merton teases.
‘I was asked to do Strictly a while ago,’ the younger fellow continues. ‘But I’ve got a slight hip problem now, having broken my leg when I was young, so I wouldn’t have been able to do it, sadly. The waltz maybe, but not the jive.’
Merton has heard the call of the jungle, too, but didn’t respond, as I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! ‘isn’t for me, probably’.
‘They wouldn’t take me to the jungle,’ Parsons sighs. ‘They’d be frightened at my age that I might get some awful disease.
‘I lost a job recently because they discovered my age,’ he frowns. ‘They said, “We couldn’t insure you.” ’ Parsons is initially reluctant to go into detail. ‘It was in one of the soaps, actually,’ he eventually divulges.
‘Casualty, was it?’ Merton deadpans.
The quips continue at the live recording of Just A Minute at the BBC’s Art Deco-era Radio Theatre, where tonight’s contestants are comedians Jenny Eclair, Zoe Lyons and Rufus Hound.
Before an adoring audience, Merton accuses Eclair of having been ‘named after a cake’, then goes on to win, as he often does.
Gone are the days of Just A Minute being ‘more of a snooty gentleman’s club’.
When Merton was first asked to appear, in 1989, he was thoroughly vetted by the producer on account of his working-class background and London accent.
‘The first thing they said when they called was, “Now, what will you be wearing?” I said, “Just trousers and a shirt.” He said, “Now you do know we don’t swear?” I said, “Yes, I’ve noticed that they tend not to on Radio 4.” I was getting the impression quite quickly that he thought he was booking Sid Vicious.’
Just A Minute may not be punk rock but it still gives off a whiff of quiet subversion.
It has never, for instance, shied away from double entendres. Indeed, controversial panel regular Julian Clary’s input is always warmly received. ‘I spent some years writing material with Julian and it was a struggle to make them single entendres,’ Merton acknowledges.
‘He just gently suggests something which is a bit naughty,’ Parsons agrees. ‘But he never oversteps the mark.’
Backstage at the BBC, two shows recorded, the genial host – walking cane in hand, second wife of 22 years, Ann Reynolds, at his side – works the small reception room, nibbling on crudités and smiling beatifically in a stylish blazer and cravat combo.
Jenny Eclair amusingly outlines her quest for the perfect elasticated trouser while Rufus Hound quacks on earnestly about advertising. Merton empathises with a grin while discreetly opening his own bottle of red wine.
‘I’m not touching the BBC stuff,’ he roars later. ‘I wouldn’t give it to a horse!’
‘I’m not a big drinker,’ Parsons confides. ‘One glass, maybe two, that’s enough. But after a show you feel exhilarated so Paul often brings in an extra bottle and we stay and have a wee chat.
Spry and fleet-minded actress who could keep Kenneth Williams in his place. Parsons says: ‘The simple reason Sheila has played for so long is that she is so very good at it.’
‘You need to pump so much adrenaline that it takes a while to calm down afterwards. Luckily, I’m a great sleeper.’
‘Me too,’ Merton concurs. ‘Particularly when I’m listening to Nicholas.’
He’s joking, of course. The warmth between the two men is palpable. It is also heartening to observe that they are able to enjoy each other’s company unencumbered by mobile telephones. Merton doesn’t possess one, Parsons is simply too polite.
‘We spark each other off,’ the senior gentleman says. ‘People say to me, “Does Paul Merton not like you very much?” And I say, “Paul and I are good friends but he can send me up rotten.” You must be able to laugh at yourself. I couldn’t do Just A Minute if I didn’t.’
And they’re in it for the love, not the money. The pay may be ‘very modest’, according to Parsons, but at least it’s equal. Just A Minute has remained impervious to the pay-gap scandal.
‘I’m very proud of the fact that everybody gets exactly the same money on our show,’ Parsons boasts. ‘There is no pay differential at all, male or female.
‘Of course, if they want to pay me more I’d be very happy to accept it,’ he winks mischievously.
Attempts to televise Just A Minute in the Nineties met with mixed results, as visually it was hardly Game Of Thrones.
But Parsons notes astutely that, as a radio show, Just A Minute has provided a low-key safe place for a number of household names.
For Merton it was an outlet for his more surreal flights of fancy; Graham Norton could explore left-field comedic ideas; it permitted Sue Perkins to indulge her love of language; and it also allowed frustrated intellectuals, such as Kenneth Williams, to display their erudition.
‘I remember Kenny with such affection,’ Parsons says. ‘People say to me, “He slags you off in his diaries”. But I was in rep with him. I know he was struggling and he had ambition to be accepted as a serious actor. He was riotously funny. He would regale us with the most outrageous stories but there was another side to him. If people have depression, there’s a dark side.’
Warm and witty actor. Merton’s Just A Minute favourite and a regular for 29 years. ‘A lovely fellow who came out with some wonderful, wonderful comments,’ says Parsons.
Merton has had his own mental health issues and speaks openly about them in a bid to destigmatise the subject. ‘Back in 1990 I had a very bad reaction to an anti-malarial drug and ended up in the Maudsley Hospital,’ he says, referring to the large Victorian psychiatric facility in south London.
‘I didn’t feel suicidal,’ he confesses, ‘but I was very confused.’
Merton was suffering from a form of mania and experiencing paranoid hallucinations. ‘I was in hospital on two occasions,’ he recalls. ‘It was only diagnosed the second time I was in there. I’d been to Kenya and it was a weekly Lariam pill for malaria that was causing the problems.
‘Once I was taken off the weekly pill it was as if the cloud had been lifted. It wasn’t that I was stressed or under pressure, I was looking forward to making a television series that I’d co-written. I wasn’t going through a bad time either. I know it was the malaria pill that caused it.’
Further bad times were to follow. In 2003, Merton’s second wife (he had been married to actress Caroline Quentin in the Nineties), producer Sarah Parkinson, died from breast cancer aged 41. The couple had been together for just five years.
He married fellow improviser and writer Suki Webster in 2009, and now performs with her as part of Paul Merton’s Impro Chums stage show.
Last year, as Just A Minute entered its 74th series, Merton surpassed Kenneth Williams’s record number of 346 appearances to become the second-most featured panellist in the show’s history, after Clement Freud, who appeared 544 times.
Freud, who died in 2009, was exposed as a child molester in June 2016, having groomed and abused girls between 1940 and 1970.
You sense Freud’s cold shadow when the subject of abuse arises. I ask Merton, who worked alongside him on Just A Minute, if he would intervene were he to be made aware of any sexual misconduct. ‘Yes,’ he says immediately. ‘If I was working on a show and I saw anything, but I’ve never seen it happen on anything I’ve ever been in.’
To lighten the mood, I wonder if Parsons, who has an OBE and a CBE, would be agreeable to the idea of a knighthood?
Clever competitor and a stickler for the rules, the late EastEnders actress could be a little grumpy at times. Developed a dislike of Paul Merton, for reasons unknown.
Prince Charles would surely wield the ceremonial sword without hesitation (repetition or deviation). ‘I would accept it,’ Parsons replies. ‘I’m not a fool. If someone pays you an honour you don’t insult them.’
And where does Merton stand on being honoured by royalty?
‘I’m glad I haven’t been in the position to refuse it,’ he says, choosing his words carefully. ‘I think anybody that offered me a reward has obviously not seen Have I Got News For You.’
Parsons laughs joyfully. The veteran entertainer accepts that he may be slowing down physically (‘Sometimes when I’m staggering down some stairs, I think, God I really am getting on a bit’) but refuses to allow thoughts of mortality to dominate.
‘Do I wake up in the morning and think, Am I going to die today?’ he enquires defiantly. ‘No, I don’t. Never have.
‘Time seems more precious now,’ he reflects. ‘As you get older, you do think more about how much time you have got left.’
Merton reverts to his ‘permanently puzzled’ expression, familiar to followers of Have I Got News For You. ‘You don’t want to go to the doctor and say to him “How long have I got?” and he says, “Well, just a minute.” ’
Nicholas Parsons with Kenneth Williams in 1981. ‘I remember Kenny with such affection,’ Parsons says
They dissolve into boyish giggles. ‘That’s awfully good,’ hoots Parsons. ‘You do realise when I’m the same age as Nicholas it’ll be the year 2050?’ announces Merton, plucking the random fact from his cluttered mind.
Parsons touches his friend’s hand and airs his unofficial Just A Minute catchphrase. ‘I’ll just stop you there, if I may,’ he beams winningly.
‘Just a Minute: 50 Years In 28 Minutes’ is on Christmas Day at 6.30pm, and ‘50 Years Of Just A Minute: Nicholas Parsons In Conversation With Paul Merton’ is on January 1 at 6.15pm, both on Radio 4