My life with Nicholas Parsons

After fifty years at the helm, and not missing a single episode of Just A Minute in half a century, Nicholas Parsons decided to take a day off – and last night left me to chair the Radio 4 panel game that is and always will be, quintessentially, his.  Nicholas has chaired more than 900 episodes of the show.  He let me do a couple – being broadcast this week and next.  It was an honour, and fun, 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 fifty years. 

I can tell you this: chairing Just A Minute is not nearly as easy as Nicholas makes it sound.  For a start, the concentration required is alarming - and the rules far more complicated than you realise when you are simply playing the game..  Chairing the show is exhausting: you have to listen so carefully: you have to come to judgement so quickly.  Just A Minute is recorded in real time – that minute clock is genuine and it ticks away remorselessly. 

After last night’s broadcast, Nicholas phoned me at home 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 fifty years.  I first heard him on the radio, hosting Just A Minute, on Friday 22 December 1967.  I first met him just two years later, on the night of Tuesday 23 December 1969.  I was twenty-one at the time, a student at Oxford University and President of the Oxford Union.  I had invited Fanny Cradock, the husky-voiced no-nonsense television chef (Mary Berry with attitude), to be one of the star speakers at my end-of-term debate and, very generously, she had then invited me and my girlfriend to her Christmas party.  I can be precise about the date and details because I keep a diary:

Tuesday, 23 December 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, Fanny’s buffet was amazing (she is a very good cook), and at eleven o’clock our hostess clapped her hands and announced that it was ‘cabaret time’.  Turning to Nicholas Parsons, who was standing right beside her, she declared: ‘Nicholas will now entertain you!’  He did – with a very funny routine involving a lot of Scottish gobbledygook.  He said afterwards that he had no idea that Fanny was going to ask him to perform.

But I reckon she must have known how brilliant he’d be.  As well as the Scottish gobbledygook, Nicholas did a routine lampooning Italian and French cinema.  It was beautifully observed and completely hilarious.  And, amazingly, it still is.  I know because, because forty-four years later, when Nicholas was hosting his ‘Happy Hour’ at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe I asked him if he remembered the routine – and there and then, in his ninetieth year, he reprised it instantly.  Like Nicholas, it had stood the test of time.

Our paths crossed next in 1971 – at lunchtime on Thursday 24 June to be exact.  By then I had a BBC Radio 4 panel game of my own to host.  It was a word game based around rhyming.  I devised it with the comedian and master of Odd Odes Cyril Fletcher (with a little help from David Hatch, the original producer of Just A Minute) and I had been especially excited by the project because the original producer for my show was a lovely man called Peter Titheradge - whose claim to fame (in my book) was that he was the son of a celebrated Edwardian actress, Madge Titheradge, best known for playing the part of Peter Pan. 

Thursday, 24 June 1971.  To the BBC, Portland Place, for the press conference to launch the summer season.   Peter Titheradge has had to pull out of producing my series because he has cancer.  (Clearly I overdid my sympathy note.  He wrote back saying, ‘Give me a chance – I’m not dead yet!’)  Simon Brett has taken over and seems very pleasant.  Smiles a good deal, while not giving a lot away.  He met me in reception and took me up.  It was all rather grand.  I moved straight over to Cyril for security.  He was wearing his wig and kept reminding everybody of the fact.  He introduced me to Kenneth More and Liza Goddard and we chatted.  Kenneth More told us about his technique for finding out the names of people whose name he should know but has forgotten.  He says, ‘It’s on the tip of my tongue now, come on, what’s your name?’  The other party replies, ‘Michael’ and More comes back, ‘No, no, not your Christian name – I know that.  What’s your surname?’  He gave up the technique when he met up with an old RAF chum whose surname was John.  (Clearly these theatrical types repeat the same stories shamelessly.)

            We trooped up to the roof garden to have our photographs taken and I was much chuffed to be included in the ‘star’ line-up: Kenneth More, Liza Goddard, Kenneth Williams (who was genuinely funny in his outrageous way), Liz Gebhart (whose dark glasses I accidentally walked off with) 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 lynch-pins.  I became friends with Liza Goddard, too.  We appeared together in lots of game shows on radio and TV in the 1970s and 1980s: she blonde, bubbly and brilliant, me wearing colourful knitwear.  Liz Gebhart never appeared on Just A Minute, but she should have done.  She was very funny and delightful and best known in 1971 as one of the stars of the sitcom set in a school, Please, Sir!   

I am not sure exactly why Lisa and Liz and the film star Kenneth More were on the BBC roof that lunchtime, but I know that Nicholas was there to promote his new Radio 4 chat show, Look Who’s Talking.  On 3 September 1971 I was a guest on the show, alongside Paul Raymond, magazine publisher and promoter of sex shows:

I liked him.  After the recording, he said, ‘Shall we have a glass of champagne?’   He drove me to the Whitehall Theatre (in his very comfortable Rolls-Royce – my first ride in a Rolls-Royce and I had Paul Raymond at the wheel!) and there, at the back of the stalls, champagne saucers in hand, we stood and watched the second half of his show, Pajama Tops.   ‘Look,’ he said proudly, pointing at the leading lady, ‘small titties.  This is family entertainment.’

Throughout the 1970s I kept appearing on Radio 4 panel games and crossing paths with Nicholas, but without being invited to take part in Just A Minute.   Nicholas and I met in unlikely places.  Once – on 20 May 1975 – at the London Palladium where assorted personalities gathered to encourage people to vote ‘Yes’ in the forthcoming referendum on Britain’s entry into 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.  At the time we were both supporters of a charity called Action Research for the Crippled Child and the charity had the bright idea of getting different people to break different records to raise money for the cause.

Monday, 17 May 1976.  At the Mayfair Hotel, London, this evening I established a new world record when I talked non-stop for four hours nineteen minutes and thirty-four seconds.   Yehudi Menuhin and Elizabeth Beresford each sent £10, ditto Bob Monkhouse.  Terry Jones, Janet Suzman, Sinead Cusack, William Franklyn and the Marquess of Londonderry each sent £10, too.   Bernard Miles sent £2.  Nicholas Parsons gave £10.

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 thirty-four seconds.  Eventually the charity organised a play-off:

Tuesday, 14 February 1978.  Last night, at 6.30 p.m., 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 in the same hotel, vying to see which of us 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?  That was my dilemma – resolved by Action Research who sent me to John, Bell & Croydon to be fitted with a surgical appliance. As JB&C’s kindly Mr Park explained, when he produced the extraordinary contraption, ‘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.  They’re invaluable.’   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 7.30 p.m., Nicholas and I shook hands, smiled for the cameras, bowed to the toastmasters and adjudicators, and moved into our separate dining rooms.  We were out of earshot of one another, but the audience could mingle between the 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.  (Interestingly, it’s now twelve hours later: I am writing this at 2.00 p.m. and still I haven’t been for a pee.  Perhaps I never will again?)

But the pee that didn’t come in the night was not the worst of it.  The worst of it was this.  At about 6.00 a.m. one of the Action Research people passed me a note asking, ‘How are you doing?  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 had therefore decided we should both stop, simultaneously, at seven o’clock and share the new world record: eleven hours.   

And we did.

We shared the record – and a place together in The Guinness Book of Records – until the night of 3 / 4 April 1982 when my naturally competitive nature (and a different charity) had me reclaim the record for myself, talking non-stop for twelve and a half hours.  Nicholas, Derek Nimmo and Kenneth Williams all came along to support me.  And by then I had made my first appearance on Just A Minute

Wednesday, 2 December 1981.  Went to the BBC Paris Studio in Lower Regent Street at lunch-time 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’.  The truth is I was only there because Kenneth badgered them on my behalf.  He is a good friend – and a good son.  He arrived for the recording with his mother in tow – he calls her Louie – and installed her in her ‘usual seat’ in the third row.  The other panellists were 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 over the past forty years, and even devised a few, but Just A Minute is by a long way my favourite.  The trouble with most shows - eg Have I Got News for You and QI - is that they record two hours and more and then edit it down to twenty-eight minutes, so when you are doing it somehow it doesn’t feel ‘real’.  It doesn’t matter what you say because most of it will be cut anyway.  With Just A Minute, every word counts – and, of course, by definition, you’ve got just a minute.  The show is recorded in real time.  When you listen you don’t hear edited highlights: you hear what happened.  That makes it a fun show to listen to and an exciting game to play.

When I play Just A Minute 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.  Clement was the master of coming in with a challenge with just three seconds to go.  He was also a master of gamesmanship.  More than once, sitting next to him, he’d find a way of distracting me just as I was about to make a challenge.  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.  Because we shared an interest in politics (we are the two MPs who have appeared on Just A Minute) now and again Clement and I met up to have lunch.  He was entertaining company, but not easy company, if you know what I mean.  He had certain obsessions – you could not smoke anywhere near him, for example – and he used to pretend that he hated Nicholas.  I don’t think he hated him at all.  I think he may have hated himself a bit.   By all accounts he was an excellent constituency MP and he was kind and generous (he remained loyal to his party leader Jeremy Thorpe when Thorpe was charged with conspiracy to murder and he sent my son one of his children’s books and a lovely letter from the House of Commons), but I think he may have felt that he had in some way wasted his talents and not realised his potential.

Kenneth Williams used to feel that, too.  I worked with Kenneth on all four of his best-selling books – including his autobiography – and he certainly felt that 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’.  I told him that he had made millions of people very happy.  He was so funny.  And so brilliant on Just A Minute.   The show suited his peculiar gifts perfectly: he could mix his amazing erudition (all self-taught) with his amazing voices and his genius as a raconteur.   At the end of his life, I reckon that Just A Minute was the one thing he still really enjoyed.

The joy of Derek Nimmo is that he managed to enjoy life completely.  He was always lovely to be with because he always seemed so happy to be alive.   My wife and I got to know him and his beautiful wife Pat quite well.  We both worked with him on the books he wrote and I did a couple of TV series with him, too.  Amazingly, Derek would bring his own footman to the studio with him – truly: a fellow in knee britches 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.  He knew his stuff.  According to one of my diary entries about an evening with Derek, ‘The Château Batailley 1961 really was outstanding.’  I am not sure where he got his plummy voice and dandified manner from.  He hailed from Liverpool and lived in a caravan when he was a young actor.   I think he told me that his turned-up silly-ass nose was the result of a nose-job that went wrong.  Like Kenneth, he died far too young.  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 1980s I had fun and made some good friends – Martin Jarvis, Tim Rice and Barry Cryer among them.  In the 1990s 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 bastards!  As I once confessed on Just A Minute, ‘In the run-up to the 1997 election I knew I had contempt for my constituents.  It came as a bit of a shock to the system to find the feeling was entirely mutual.’

In some ways it was a relief to be out of politics.  It was certainly good to be back in Just A Minute.   What surprised me about the show when I returned to it was to find that 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 whole 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.

Jimmy Edwards was slated as the original chairman for the show.  If he had been available, I think the programme would have lasted a couple of years at most.  ‘Professor’ Jimmy Edwards was quite a character: outspoken, rumbustious, alcoholic.  He would have been entertaining to listen to – he could be very funny – but he would not have been able to control the game as Nicholas does, encouraging newcomers, disciplining the obstreperous, and getting 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.

Gyles Brandreth