Formats Unpacked: Just a Minute
How a quiz format has remained virtually unchanged for fifty four years
I often wonder how many times in the first few decades of Desert Island Discs was the show under threat from the network controller who suggested replacing it with something ‘fresher’.
We don’t get promotions or awards for ‘more of the same’. ‘More of the same’ doesn’t get headlines either. It a realy pity. What ‘more of the same’ does do is build audiences. It builds habit. It builds loyalty. Some formats don’t necessarily build the largest of audiences but those that stick around do tend to build the loyalist of audiences.
This week frequent contributor Rob Mansfield returns to unpack a format that has been around since the late sixties. Rob is a content strategist from Brighton and has previously unpacked Big Brother, Pass Notes and Fighting Fantasy. He has a great newsletter that you really should subscribe to.
Over to Rob…
What's it called?
Just a Minute (radio show)
What’s the format?
A radio panel show in which the object of the game is for the panellists to talk for 60 seconds on a given subject, "without hesitation, repetition or deviation".
If an opponent identifies an infringement of any of these rules, they can buzz in to interrupt and take the subject. Points are gained for speaking when the minute is up, correctly interrupting, or being wrongly interrupted.
What’s the magic that makes it special?
Remarkably for a format that is now well into its sixth decade, practically nothing has changed on Just A Minute. The game was devised by BBC radio producer Ian Messiter in the 1950s and finally got a Radio 4 pilot in 1967.
At the heart of the show’s success are two things: the simplicity of the game is number one. From its premise emerges surreal and clever humour, wondrous flights of fancy, brilliant wordplay, fierce competition and gentle, funny radio.
As with many simple things, it sounds easy… until you try it yourself. After all, anyone can talk for a minute about something, can’t they? The ability to talk fluently on a random topic without “repetition, deviation or hesitation” is actually remarkably difficult. A quick brain and a wide vocabulary are essential.
Subjects from the first-ever episode of JAM (as it’s affectionately known) could quite conceivably be given today: 'Things to do in the bath', 'The many uses of bubble gum' and 'Excuses for being late'.
The Holy Grail of the game is to achieve the feat of speaking for an entire minute uninterrupted. This rarely happens more than once per episode and more often than not it’s now Paul Merton who does it.
But the subjects take a back seat to the wit and ingenuity of the panellists, and that’s the second reason for the show’s success.
The host from the beginning was Nicholas Parsons purely by chance. The original choice – Jimmy Edwards – couldn't make the recording dates, so Parsons took the job reluctantly, because he originally wanted to be one of the panellists. The pilot was, however, widely acknowledged as a bit of a disaster. However, the producer David Hatch persuaded BBC bosses to make a series, providing Parsons remained as the host.
As he told Paul Merton back in 2017, “David Hatch said: ‘I’ve got a series. I know I promised to put you on the panel, but the one thing they quite liked about the pilot was your chairmanship.’ I replied: ‘But David, I was awful,’ and he said: ‘I know, but so was everyone else!’”
The rest, as they say, is history. Nicholas Parsons proceeded to host the show uninterrupted for the next 50 years! He presented his final show in September 2019, before his death in January 2020. After a break, the show has recently restarted with Sue Perkins now taking the reins as permanent presenter.
The cast list over 50 years is enormous, proving that although anyone can play Just A Minute – whether they’re any good is a different matter.
In the early days, the line-up was predominantly male. Regular panellists were Clement Freud and Kenneth Williams, joined by a revolving-door cast including Derek Nimmo, Peter Jones, Pam Ayres, Patrick Moore and Sheila Hancock (who incidentally is the only player from that first series back in 1967 that still makes appearances).
In the modern era, the panel nearly always includes Paul Merton, who first took part in 1989. He’s acknowledged as the current master of the game having made around 400 appearances, but it’s the remaining, ever-changing cast that ensures the comedy remains fresh.
The likes of Josie Lawrence, Gyles Brandreth, Ross Noble, Graham Norton and Shaparak Khorsandi are regular returnees and their diversity makes the show – in my humble opinion – a good deal more entertaining than it was in the 70s.
As with most successful formats, familiarity is also part of the magic. Each week starts in a familiar fashion, the Minute Waltz fades away and the four panellists are introduced. The first subject is always given to Paul Merton. Thereafter, although the topics change, as do some of the voices, the challenge remains the same. Each week is somehow the same, yet different – and all wrapped up effortlessly in under 30 minutes.
There have been attempts to modernise the show. Four TV series – two on ITV, two on BBC – were attempted, but it never felt quite right being transferred to a visual medium. The joy of listening (and concentrating) on the wordplay makes it perfect for radio.
After more than 900 episodes, it’s almost impossible to pick one. I grew up in the 70s and 80s and first remember hearing JAM on car journeys with my dad. I always had a soft spot for Kenneth Williams but, listening back to archive clips of that era, I’m struck by how staid they now sound.
So instead, here’s a more recent example. Having explained how difficult it is to speak for 60 seconds uninterrupted, this marvellous episode featuring David Tennant’s joyous debut appearance is worthy of a listen.
Although there were previous examples of panel shows in UK broadcasting history, the emergence and longevity of Just A Minute has inevitably influenced other radio and TV shows.
The equally-celebrated Radio 4 stalwart I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue was written specifically to parody the likes of Just A Minute, which makes the shared appearance of the likes of Barry Cryer, Jack Dee and Willie Rushton a touch ‘meta’.
It’s hard not to assume that Radio 4’s News Quiz (based on a Nicholas Parsons idea!) didn’t have some origin in the success of Just A Minute. That itself led to Have I Got News For You?, featuring none other than Paul Merton (who was by that point a regular on Just A Minute).
There will, however, only ever be one Just A Minute.
Consistency is a bit of an obsession of ours. Over the summer I had to take a break from Formats Unpacked, as well as the Storythings Newsletter, which is almost a decade old. Whilst it’s nice to know you’re missed I hated breaking the rhythm. I love a good habit and publishing a couple of weekly formats is a habit I can recommend if you’re interested in building a loyal audience.
At this point I should thank you all. Not just for loyally reading every week, but also for sharing, talking about or writing for Formats Unpacked. I couldn’t do it without you.
See you all next week,