The current run of ‘Just a Minute’ on BBC2 (6pm, weekdays) is not, as Nicholas Parsons implies in the introduction, the first TV version. There have been three other attempts at it (not including unaired pilots). What it is, however, is the first version to stick rigidly to Ian Messiter’s format.
As Parsons points out, ‘Just a Minute’ has been going on the radio for 45 years. Paul Merton, who arrived after the death of Kenneth Williams as a shockingly young new regular, has now been on the show for more than half of its lifetime.
And, as is pointed out in the introduction to all versions, the game really is quite simple. Players have to talk for just a minute on a subject without hesitation, repetition or deviation. If they break the rule, other players can buzz in.
Previous TV productions have tampered with the format. One version put the players in teams, which just doesn’t make sense. There was also a mystery object round, presumably because TV producers thought Nicholas Parsons reading a word off a card wasn’t visual enough.
This version, which I approached with the cynicism of a lifelong listener to the game, dispensed with any attempt to make the programme “more visual”. And so it actually worked. It’s filmed as a live performance: as well as standard shots of the panelists, there are shots from the back of the audience and pans across the stage. There are, in short, no distractions.
‘Just a Minute’ is always about the words, about listening intently. You get drawn into one of Paul Merton’s flights of fancy, or Sue Perkins’s anecdotes because you are listening so hard. If someone is doing well, you’re hoping they don’t mess up because you want to hear more. If someone is doing badly, you groan in empathy. (Peter Jones, probably most familiar to Shiny readers as the Voice of the Book in the original ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’, was such a bad player of the game that I used to suspect he was messing up on purpose.)
So filming a TV version without any flash visual elements allows you to focus on the words. It’s fun to see the players interact. For example, Paul Merton and Julian Clary’s long running rivalry contains a lot of non-verbal wind-ups. But that’s a bonus rather than a distraction.
For the first time, I want to see more. But please invite Sheila Hancock as she’s one of my very favorite players.