The panel game Just A Minute has been running on BBC radio since 1967. Its most famous – and most contraversial – panellist was the late Kenneth Williams, who was a regular on the show throughout its first 21 years on the air.
He was noted for (even notorious for) his emotionally-charged performances on the show; but in reality he was a consumate professional, not the egocentric maniac his on-air “rants” sometimes suggested. The show was, after all, controlled by the BBC producer, not by the panellists; so whatever Kenneth might say during a recording would never make it onto the broadcast tape if the producer didn’t want it there.
In fact, the Producer had an arrangement with Kenneth, whereby if he felt a recording was becoming too dull he would give Kenneth a signal to raise his game, whereupon Kenneth would go into one of his rants. On receiving another cue, he would shut up again.
It was a measure of his ability that he could raise the show whenever it needed it, though this production trick could actually have the effect of making him look somewhat schizophrenic. He would be improvising off-the-cuff, so might attack Peter Jones in one edition only to praise him the following week. But he was not striving for consistency: the panellists were only trying to entertain.
The show, of course, is comedy. Panellists are free to say anything which will get a laugh, and boring the audience is the only sin. It isn’t a court of law, and their remarks aren’t given under oath; so Kenneth didn’t have to believe in what he was saying, and it didn’t have to be true. It was said merely to achieve a comic effect.
Paul Merton’s flights of surreal fantasy in later years were plainly only flights of fancy. Kenneth’s rants were not so obviously made-up. But it would be a mistake to treat Kenneth’s rants as being serious, when he was merely trying to be funny.
Kenneth knew how to get the audience going, and how to work them up to fever pitch; and no one else on the panel could do that – then or now. But Kenneth could make even the dullest subject funny.