Just a Minute

One of my favourite radio programmes is Just a Minute. This half hour show, hosted by Nicholas Parsons airs on 92-95 FM between 6:30 and 7:00 pm, GMT on a Monday evening, usually in blocks of eight weeks. Frustratingly, I often discover that it is once again being broadcast with only a few more episodes left to run. Fortunately, a person can listen again on BBC Radio 4 during the seven day period following the presentation of an installment by clicking here.

I adore this show because I love words and clever, witty people with a wry sense of humour. Just a Minute fits the bill to perfection. I serendipitously found this programme when I used to drive to a 7pm appointment whilst living in Scotland. I used to time my arrival so that I could sit in the car for a half hour and listen to the show.

Just a Minute was devised by the late Ian Messiter who came up with the idea on the top of a number 13 bus. He suddenly remembered being given the horrible task of speaking for one minute without hesitation or deviation by one of his school masters.To this, he added a rule disallowing players from repeating words (other than those in the subject title), as well as a scoring system based on panellists’ correct and incorrect challenges.

Producer David Hatch put the pilot show before a BBC development board who were sceptical that the series would run for more than six programmes.

Thirty-five years later, Chairman Nicholas Parsons continues to attempt – and mostly succeed – in keeping control over a roll-call of celebrity contenders attempting to talk on a subject for sixty seconds without hesitation, repetition or deviation. Over the years, the application of these rules has changed:

  • “Repetition” originally meant not repeating a particular idea or concept, but is now understood to prevent repetition of any word or phrase, although challenges based upon very common words such as “and” are generally rejected except in extreme cases (for example, when repeated half a dozen times or more). Words contained in the given subject are exempt unless repeated many times in quick succession. Disagreements often occur over such things as homophones, plurals, and different forms of verbs: the rulings do not seem to be consistent. Repeating the same word but pronouncing it differently (as Ross Noble did with “Diplodocus” on the 11 September 2006 episode) does not count as repetition. The general rule as stated by Nicholas Parsons is that Just a Minute is a radio show so they must go on sounds alone, which is why saying “BBC” is considered repetition. Skilful players make full use of obscure synonyms in order to avoid repeating themselves.
  • “Hesitation” is watched very strictly: even a momentary pause before resumption of the subject can give rise to a successful challenge, as can tripping over one’s words. Even pausing during audience laughter or applause (known as Riding a Laugh) is not usually permitted. There is, however, often controversy over what actually counts as hesitation, and what can be explained as merely “elongation”, or purely pausing for breath.
  • “Deviation” originally meant only deviating too far from the subject, but is now more broadly interpreted, allowing speakers to be challenged for “deviating from the English language as we know it”, “deviation from grammar as we understand it”, deviating from the truth, and sometimes even logic, although some of these are applied inconsistently. For example, in one episode broadcast in 2005, Paul Merton was not challenged for deviation even though he claimed that sudoku was “invented by a man called Alf Roberts”, who “used to be the mayor in Coronation Street, but he got fed up of that” and had also been “a car, an opera singer and also a plate of beans”. The panel understood he was just joking, so allowed him to continue, until he was stopped with one second to go, for repetition of “hoop”.

A panellist scores a point for making a correct challenge against whoever is speaking, while the speaker gets a point if the challenge is deemed incorrect. However, if an “incorrect”, but witty, interjection amuses the audience, both the challenger and speaker may gain a point, at the chairman’s discretion. A player who makes a correct challenge takes over the subject for the remainder of the minute, or, more likely, until he or she is correctly challenged within the rules of the game. A panellist also scores a point if he is the person speaking when the 60 seconds expires. An extra point is always awarded when speaking for the entire minute without being challenged.

The difficult part of the game is to continue to speak within the three cardinal rules for any substantial length of time, whilst remaining coherent, and hopefully also being amusing. Therefore, to speak for the full minute without being challenged is an honour. Below is an example of a speech given by Sheila Hancock which lasted for a full minute without being challenged. The subject was, “How to win an argument”.

“Well it varies according to the person you are arguing with. Should it be a child you are having a contretemps with, the ideal is deviation tactics. For instance Lola Lupin who I mentioned before won’t eat her dinner. So what I do is say, “yes it is rotten food, let us sing a song”, making sure that that particular chanson has a few vowels in it which require her to open her mouth! During which I pop the spoon in and I have won the argument. However if it is an argument with a person who knows their subject what I do is nod sagely and smile superciliously, let them ramble on, and at the end I say “well I’m sorry, I think you’re completely wrong”, turn on my heels and leave. I…”

The points system means that great rewards may go to those who make entertaining challenges, even if they do not speak for very long. An often rewarding time to challenge is a few seconds before the minute ends. Here, one could get a point for a challenge, not have to speak very much, and get another point for speaking “as the whistle went”. The game is scored and a winner declared, but the attraction of the show lies less in the contest than in the humour and banter of its participants.

The audience participation is great too. One day, I hope to laugh, applaud and boo along with a radio audience during a recording of this very British comedy programme.


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