Just A Minute – Can women play the game?

Women have appeared in ‘Just A Minute’ since the very first episode, in 1967, when Wilma Ewart and Beryl Reid faced off against Clement Freud and Derek Nimmo.

The entire first series had two male and two female panellists. And in its beginnings the show was looked on (to judge by remarks which chairman Nicholas Parsons used to make in the earliest episodes) as being, more than anything, a male-vs-female competition.

As time went by, the four male regulars (Clement Freud, Derek Nimmo, Kenneth Williams and Peter Jones) became established, yet this never entirely disrupted the original intention of having both men and women on the show.

Series 2 had Geraldine Jones as a regular throughout. She faced Clement and Kenneth on her own, in an experimental format, with only three panellists instead of the usual four, and the same three people appeared in every show.

The format of series 3, where the show returned to having four on the panel, saw Clement, Kenneth and Derek alongside one female panellist, who was usually Geraldine. And this pattern became the norm, in the years when there were only three male regulars.

Only when Peter Jones arrived, in series 6, did the balance start to shift. But at first Peter was simply substituting for a year for Derek, who couldn’t appear as he was touring Australia in a long-running play, so there was still room for a permanent female presence in the fourth chair.

Aimi MacDonald, my favourite female panellist of all time, regularly took the female spot. She was such a popular panellist that she lasted for years, rotating with Andree Melly and Sheila Hancock.

It wasn’t until series 7, in 1972, that the first all-male panel was featured: in the third programme of that series. But only four of the shows (out of 26) had an all-male panel that year.

And throughout series 8, 9 and 10 – between 1973 and 1976 – the regular male foursome alternated among themselves, to leave room for one guest panellist; although series 8 saw male guests alternate with the established female players for the first time, in that fourth seat.

This format continued throughout series 11 to 13 in the late 1970s, when the semi-regular female players also included June Whitfield, Joan Bakewell and Janet Brown.

For series 13 to 15 there were occasions when the four male regulars appeared together; but for the most part, the practice of rotating them to keep one chair open for a guest continued. And after 1982 it was common for two guests to appear alongside just two of the regulars.

Not until series 20, in 1984, did male guests outnumbered female guests for the first time; and then for a couple of years Sheila Hancock was almost the only female panellist still appearing on the show. But after that, a lot of new female players emerged: Wendy Richard being the first of them.

Overall, despite the perceived domination of the panel by the four male regulars, the years prior to Kenneth’s death in 1988 saw female panellists give a good account of themselves, notwithstanding the popularity of the regular four. The female players were so much an established feature of the programme that Kenneth was frequently moved to utter his famous put-down, ‘We shouldn’t have women on the show!’

Of course, Kenneth used the phrase humorously. He was not seriously asking for women to be banned from the show!

Although billed as a panel game, ‘Just A Minute’ is really an improvisational comedy, in much the same genre as ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’ Just as Paul Merton and the stand-ups do today, Kenneth’s role in the show (when he was first added to the panel in series 2) was to provide comedy, in the form of spontaneous wit.

The other panellists quickly adopted the same approach. Those who couldn’t cut the mustard, so far as humour was concerned, fell by the wayside. Clement Freud turned out to have a devastatingly filthy line in humour; Peter Jones had a slightly subversive and actor-ish humour; and Derek Nimmo, an assured raconteur, had, like Kenneth and Peter, cut his teeth as a comedy actor.

These people didn’t choose to become the regulars, they simply became regulars by default, because they were the best players. The panellists were thus self-selecting. The show rapidly became the survival of the fittest, and the name of the game was wit.

Wilma Ewart and Beryl Reid were not suited to surviving in this type of show, and rapidly disappeared. Likewise Geraldine James. It’s been said that Aimi MacDonald was the butt of the jokes, but she lasted more than ten years on the show. And, really, she was no worse at the game than Peter Jones.

But the men were more successful in their use of humour. They simply were funnier than the women. In my opinion, some of the women were only there on sufferance; perhaps Aimi was one of those. I’m not sure that she was, although she obviously used different tactics from the four regulars.

However, the show was never about the sort of laddish culture seen on the likes of ‘Never Mind the Buzzcocks’. Although Clement employed somewhat risque material at times, the show never approximated the approach of someone like Phill Jupitus, in the years while Kenneth was alive.

Under Kenneth and Derek, in particular, the show had an intellectual content that’s completely absent from all other comparable shows – well, those that don’t have Frank Muir in! It also had, as I say, wit. Sadly, many of the female – and male! – guests, who filled the fourth chair, couldn’t contribute in either of those ways.

It is simply a hard game to play well. It’s definitely a game anyone can play; but not everyone who has tried has succeeded at it. Most of the guests in the fourth chair spent 60 seconds boring the pants off the audience, at least until they’d played a dozen or more shows. Wendy Richard, bless her, was never able to play it at the level that Kenneth or Peter or Derek achieved.

Viewed simply as improvisational comedy, it has to be admitted that no woman ever played the game to the same standard as Kenneth Williams. So the question (“Where is the woman who said: we shouldn’t have men on the show?”) becomes a purely rhetorical one.

But there was no bias about the show. The cream simply floated to the top; and the cream was Kenneth, Clement, Derek, and Peter. Lots of women – and lots of men – were tried out, and didn’t do as well. That’s life!

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About StephenPoppitt

Jimmy Clitheroe site webmaster: http://myweb.tiscali.co.uk/bridip/clitheroe
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