In its current form, Just A Minute began on BBC radio in 1967.
The show is a comedy panel game, created by Ian Messiter and chaired by Nicholas Parsons. The panellists have to speak for one minute on a topic nominated by the chairman, without hesitating, repeating any word, or deviating from the subject.
Points are scored by successfully challenging the person speaking, for the offences of hesitation, repetition or deviation; and for being the person who is speaking at the end of the sixty seconds. A bonus point is scored for speaking for the entire sixty seconds without being successfully challenged. Nowadays, the chairman awards additional bonus points at his discretion for particularly humorous interjections.
The series originally had a core of four regular panellists: Clement Freud, Peter Jones, Derek Nimmo and Kenneth Williams. The comedian and raconteur Kenneth Williams was the most popular panellist, and used the most outrageous tactics in his attempts to win each week.
In the early years the format usually had either all four regulars on the panel, or three of the regulars and one guest. In some of the earliest shows there were only three panellists, and in later years the format was slightly varied by having a panel comprised of two of the regulars and two guests.
I’ve followed the show since the mid 1970s, and have heard recordings of many editions which were broadcast even prior to that.
The programme has never had a serious purpose. It has always been light entertainment. And the rules were always chaotic. In its very earliest days, it was not even certain what amounted to repetition: chairman Nicholas Parsons made arbitrary rulings in many early shows, and – for instance – often allowed panellists to repeat particular words a certain number of times.
The rules were so arbitrary that at one stage, in the early 1970s, repeating even the words on the card (i.e. the words of the subject) was forbidden.
Gradually, more precise rules began to emerge from the chaos of those early years, but it took a long time. By the late 1970s a body of recognised rules existed. Today, most of those same rules are still recognised, at least in theory.
But in my opinion the players of today tend to lack the erudition and skill of the original foursome. The rules have been largely abandoned, in favour of the “bonus points” scheme. All intelligent discourse has been lost, and the surreal style of Paul Merton has changed the show out of all recognition.
The players in the 1970s could talk intelligently about the subject on the card, particularly Kenneth Williams and Derek Nimmo. Nowadays, most panellists talk rubbish (or surreal rubbish). It may be funny, but you never come away knowing more about the subject itself. The game used to be played at a much higher intellectual level; yet it was still hysterically funny.
Was it more “serious”? The subject on the card was often serious; but Kenneth Williams could make absolutely any subject funny, and yet do so in such a way that you actually came away knowing something about the subject which you hadn’t previously been aware of.
I like Paul Merton. He would have fitted into the show nicely in the old days, as a contrast to the others. But the show loses something now that nearly all the other panellists are emulating him by affecting a surreal style too. It can work when only Paul is doing it; but it does not really succeed if all the other panellists are doing it too.
The problem lies in too many of the panellists being stand-up comedians. In the old days, none of the panel were. Not even Kenneth was a stand-up. Sadly, there has been a certain dumbing-down, such that the 1970s are now looked back on as being “serious”.
At the time, they were not.