Nicholas Parsons and I once both talked non-stop for ELEVEN hours, reveals GYLES BRANDRETH

After 50 years at the helm, and not missing a single episode of Just A Minute, Nicholas Parsons took a day off. He left me to chair a couple of episodes — being broadcast this and last week — of the Radio 4 panel game that is, and always will be, quintessentially his.

It was an honour and fun, for me, but deeply daunting too, stepping in at the last minute to fill the shoes of a man who has been doing the job with such inimitable style for more than 900 episodes.

Chairing Just A Minute is not nearly as easy as Nicholas makes it sound.

Cheers! Old pals Gyles and Nicholas enjoy a glass of wine

For a start, the concentration required is alarming — and the rules far more complicated than you realise when you are simply playing the game. It is exhausting: you have to listen so carefully; you have to come to a judgment so quickly.

Just A Minute is recorded in real time — that minute-clock is genuine and it ticks remorselessly. After my first broadcast as chair, Nicholas phoned me and was typically generous. ‘You were too good,’ he joked. ‘You’re too kind,’ I said — and I meant it.

We are very old friends and Nicholas, 94, is my role model — always generous, always courteous, the consummate professional who never stops working because, like me, he goes along with Noel Coward’s famous line: ‘As a rule, work is more fun than fun.’

Nicholas Parsons has been part of my life for almost 50 years.

I first heard him on the radio, hosting Just A Minute, on Friday, December 22, 1967. I first met him two years later. I was a 21-year-old student at Oxford University and president of the Oxford Union debating society.

I had invited Fanny Cradock, the husky-voiced no-nonsense TV chef (Mary Berry with attitude), to be one of the speakers at an end-of-term debate. Generously, she then invited me and my girlfriend to her Christmas party.

My diary records: ‘Tuesday, December 23, 1969. Michèle and I went to the Dower House, Grove Mill Lane, near Watford, Herts, for Fanny and Johnnie Cradock’s Christmas party. It was our first “showbusiness party”: everyone was there — even Lionel Blair. (Joke of the night, inspired by the film of the year: “Yes it’s Fanny and Lionel — Butch Casserole And The One Dance Kid”.)

‘The champagne flowed and at 11pm, Fanny clapped her hands and announced that it was “cabaret time”. Turning to Nicholas Parsons, she declared: “Nicholas will now entertain you!”

‘He did — with a very funny routine involving a lot of Scottish gobbledygook as well as lampooning Italian and French cinema. It was beautifully observed and completely hilarious.’

And, amazingly, it still is. I know because, 44 years later, in his 90th year, he reprised it for me at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Like Nicholas, it had stood the test of time.

After Fanny’s party, our paths crossed next in 1971 when I had a BBC Radio 4 panel game of my own to host. It was a word game based around rhyming.

My diary recalls: ‘Thursday, June 24, 1971. To the BBC, Portland Place, for the Press conference to launch the summer season.

‘We trooped up to the roof garden to have our photos taken and I was much chuffed to be included in the “star” line-up: Kenneth More [Reach For The Sky and Doctor In The House among numerous acting roles], the blonde, bubbly and brilliant actress Liza Goddard, Kenneth Williams (who was genuinely funny in his outrageous way) and Nicholas Parsons…’

This was my first meeting with Kenneth Williams, who later became a real chum. He was not part of the original Just A Minute line-up, but once he had joined the programme, in September 1968, he became one of its linchpins, recording a total of 346 episodes until his death in 1988.

Nicholas was on the BBC roof to promote his new Radio 4 chat show, Look Who’s Talking.

Throughout the Seventies, I kept appearing on Radio 4 panel games and crossing paths with Nicholas, but without being invited to take part in Just A Minute

Throughout the Seventies, I kept appearing on Radio 4 panel games and crossing paths with Nicholas, but without being invited to take part in Just A Minute

Three months later, I was a guest on the show, alongside Paul Raymond, magazine publisher and promoter of sex shows.

After the recording, Raymond said: ‘Shall we have a glass of champagne?’ He drove me to the Whitehall Theatre (in his very comfortable Rolls-Royce) and there, at the back of the stalls, champagne saucers in hand, we stood and watched the second half of his show, Pyjama Tops.

‘Look,’ he said proudly, pointing at the leading lady, “small ti**ies. This is family entertainment.” ’

Throughout the Seventies, I kept appearing on Radio 4 panel games and crossing paths with Nicholas, but without being invited to take part in Just A Minute.

We met in unlikely places — once, in May 1975, at the London Palladium where assorted personalities gathered to encourage people to vote ‘Yes’ in the forthcoming referendum on Britain staying in the Common Market.

Nicholas turned up looking immaculate. (He always looks immaculate.)

Not so Andrew Lloyd Webber. According to my diary, Andrew wore ‘an open-necked floral shirt under a crumpled old sports jacket. Grubby trousers, belt with a huge buckle and terrible posture’. I am not one to talk about poor posture — but I am one to talk. And so is Nicholas.

And it was through non-stop talking that our friendship developed.

We were both supporters of the charity Action Research for the Crippled Child and it had the bright idea of getting different people to break different records to raise money.

My diary again: ‘Monday, May 17, 1976. At the Mayfair Hotel, London, I established a new world record when I talked non-stop for four hours 19 minutes and 34 seconds. Yehudi Menuhin [the violinist] and [Wombles author] Elizabeth Beresford each sent £10, ditto Bob Monkhouse, the Marquess of Londonderry and Nicholas Parsons.’

Nicholas was not just there to lend his support. He was there to size up the competition.

Soon he had taken my record from me — talking non-stop for seven hours, eight minutes and 34 seconds. Eventually, the charity organised a play-off:

‘Tuesday, February 14, 1978. Last night, I arrived at the Hyde Park Hotel to make my second attempt on the world record for the longest-ever after-dinner speech. Nicholas and I, in adjacent rooms, vying to see who could speak the longer.’

My real anxiety had been the matter of going to the loo. I was confident I could talk through the night, but could I survive the night without needing a pee?

My dilemma was resolved by Action Research who sent me to John Bell & Croyden to be fitted with a surgical appliance. Given this extraordinary contraption, I was told: ‘This isn’t just for the incontinent. This is used by generals and field marshals on parade grounds when taking the salute. Wear this and you can stand out in the freezing cold for hours without having to worry about a thing. The Duke of Edinburgh has one.’

Essentially, the device is a lengthy piece of rubber tubing that you attach to your member and then strap to your leg. It has a four-pint capacity and a ‘no spillage’ guarantee.

All strapped up, ready and willing, a little after 7.30pm, Nicholas and I shook hands, smiled for the cameras, bowed to the toastmasters and adjudicators, and moved into our separate dining rooms.

It began well. It continued well. My voice held. I paced it nicely. At about two in the morning I began to feel the need for the loo. I began to think: ‘When am I going to do this? What will it feel like? How much is four pints?’

The more I thought about it, the more eager I was to pee and the more inhibited I became. The problem, I think, was knowing that I would be peeing in front of people. Of course, they wouldn’t be able to see what was happening, but would they be able to tell? And would there be a noise — a terrible swooshing?!

I thought I’d ‘go for it’ at the end of a story, on the punchline — letting it happen ‘masked’ by laughter or applause.

Anyway, the moment came. I finished the story: there was laughter, a smattering of applause and I said to myself: ‘Now, now, Gyles — now! Let it flow.’

Then I looked down and suddenly saw it — a long, thin sausage-skin of pale white rubber tubing snaking its way from my left trouser-leg and slowly moving across the floor.

My contraption had shifted its moorings and come adrift.

At once (and, oddly, without difficulty) I put the notion of peeing right behind me and forged on with the speech.

But the pee that didn’t come in the night was not the worst of it. The worst of it was this.

At about 6am, one of the Action Research people passed me a note asking: ‘Are you ready to stop?’

I read it out loud and declared I was just warming up. Another note came, then another.

Apparently, Nicholas was still going strong and so was I.

The organisers therefore decided we should both stop, simultaneously, at 7am and share the new world record: 11 hours.

And so we shared a place together in The Guinness Book Of Records — until one night in April 1982 when my naturally competitive nature had me reclaim the record for myself, talking non-stop for 12 and a half hours.

By then, I had made my first appearance on Just A Minute.

‘Wednesday, December 2, 1981. Went to the BBC Paris Studio in Lower Regent Street to record two editions of Just A Minute.

Nicholas Parsons said the only reason they hadn’t asked me before is that I sound too like Derek Nimmo and they didn’t want to “confuse the listeners”.’

I was only there because Kenneth Williams badgered them on my behalf. He arrived for the recording with his mother in tow — he called her Louie — and installed her in her ‘usual seat’ in the third row.

The other panellists were the actor Peter Jones (wonderfully droll) and Sheila Hancock (sharp and good at the game). Kenneth stole the show (of course) but I acquitted myself reasonably.

Indeed, I won the first game, though I know that’s not the point. Being funny is the point. (People don’t necessarily like you if you win.)

From the start, I loved playing Just A Minute. I have taken part in scores of panel games on radio and TV and even devised a few, but Just A Minute is my favourite.

The trouble with most shows — e.g. Have I Got News For You and QI — is that they record two hours and more and then edit it down to 28 minutes, so when you are doing it, somehow it doesn’t feel ‘real’.

Pictured: Nicholas Parsons, presenter on 'Just A Minute'. With Just A Minute, every word counts ¿ and, of course, by definition, you¿ve got just a minute

Pictured: Nicholas Parsons, presenter on ‘Just A Minute’. With Just A Minute, every word counts — and, of course, by definition, you’ve got just a minute

With Just A Minute, every word counts — and, of course, by definition, you’ve got just a minute.

When I play, I play to win. I can’t help myself — even though I know that, sometimes, I should.

Clement Freud also always played to win — and usually managed to win, too, by fair means or foul. He was the master of coming in with a challenge with just three seconds to go.

He was also a master of gamesmanship. Once, deliberately, he spilled a glass of water onto me just as I was hitting my stride. He was an odd cove, incredibly funny, alarmingly intelligent, but quite difficult to know.

I think Clement may have felt he had in some way wasted his talents and not realised his potential.

Kenneth Williams used to feel that, too. Certainly, by the end of his life, he had painted himself into a corner professionally.

He had once been a ‘proper actor’ — appearing with Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles. By the end, he was known for his funny voices, his funny stories, the Carry Ons and Just A Minute.

He told me he had wasted his life ‘making a noise that floats up into the air and disappears’.

The joy of Derek Nimmo is that he managed to enjoy life completely. Amazingly, he would bring his own footman to the studio — truly: a fellow in knee breeches would come to the green room after the recording and serve Derek proper wine in a proper silver goblet while the rest of us were quaffing warm white plonk from paper cups.

Derek was a true bon viveur. On his gravestone he is summed up in four words: ‘Actor, wit, life enhancer.’ That’s exactly what he was.

‘The best kind of evening,’ he once said to me, ‘is the one you spend eating with beautiful people, drinking with beautiful people, and sleeping…with a clear conscience.’

Appearing on Just A Minute in the Eighties, I made some good friends — Martin Jarvis, Tim Rice and Barry Cryer among them.

In the Nineties, I gave up panel games (and woolly jumpers) to concentrate on my political career. It did not last long. I was an MP until the people spoke — the ba****ds! [Brandreth was Tory MP for Chester from 1992 until voted out in 1997.]

What surprised me about the show when I returned was to find it was as good as ever — if not better. I had rather assumed that the likes of Kenneth Williams, Derek Nimmo and Peter Jones were irreplaceable. Not so.

A new generation of funny folk were now playing the game and it was being produced by bright young things who hadn’t even been alive when I first tuned in in 1967.

There were two constants, of course.

One was Ian Messiter’s simple format of genius. The other was Nicholas, with his unique ability to encourage newcomers, discipline the obstreperous, and get his own laughs while never failing to listen (with incredible care and remarkable accuracy) to everything that everybody says on the show.

Let me say without hesitation (and it bears repetition): Nicholas is the true secret of Just A Minute’s longevity.

I think the BBC invited me to host the show this week and next simply to prove what we all already know: Nicholas Parsons is irreplaceable.