The object of the game is for panellists to talk for sixty seconds on a given subject, "without hesitation,repetition or deviation". The comedy comes from attempts to keep within these rules and the banter among the participants. In 2011 comedy writer David Quantick ascribed Just a Minute's success to its "insanely basic" format, stating, "It's so blank that it can be filled by people as diverse as Paul Merton and Graham Norton, who don't have to adapt their style of humour to the show at all."
Throughout its four-plus-decade history, the show has, in addition to its popularity in the UK, developed an international following through its broadcast on the BBC World Service and, more recently, on the internet.
The idea for the game came to Ian Messiter as he rode on the top of a number 13 bus. He recalled Percival Parry Jones, a history master from his days at Sherborne School who, upon seeing the young Messiter daydreaming in a class, instructed him to repeat everything he had said in the previous minute without hesitation or repetition. To this, Messiter added a rule disallowing players from deviating from the subject, as well as a scoring system based on panellists' challenges.
The format was first used in One Minute Please, chaired by Roy Plomley, broadcast on BBC radio between 1951 and 1957. Whilst the fundamental rules were the same, the game was played in two teams of three rather than with four individual contestants. Other early incarnations of the show, all created by Messiter, include a 1952 version on South African radio, and a television version on the DuMont network in the United States.
The pilot for the show was recorded in 1967, featuring Clement Freud, Derek Nimmo, Beryl Reid and Wilma Ewart as panellists. The chairman was originally planned to be Jimmy Edwards but he was unavailable on the proposed recording dates and was replaced by Nicholas Parsons. Although executives at the BBC disliked the pilot, its producer, David Hatch, threatened to resign if he could not oversee a full series. Not wishing to lose Hatch, the BBC acquiesced.
The show's theme music is Frédéric Chopin's piano Waltz in D flat major, Op. 64, No. 1, nicknamed the "Minute Waltz" (which, despite its name, lasts longer than the 60 seconds taken to complete a round of Just a Minute; the nickname actually refers to "minute" as in "small" rather than the unit of time).
The panellists are invited, in rotation, to speak for one minute on a given subject (which they are normally not told in advance), without "hesitation, repetition or deviation". Over the years, the application of these rules has been inconsistent, and theirINTERPRETATION is the focus of much of the comic interplay between those appearing, who often challenge the chairman's rulings.
In the early years the rules were more complicated, as special rules were sometimes tried out in addition, on a one-off basis: a ban on the word "is" might apply in a round, for example. But the three basic rules have always applied.
"Hesitation" is watched very strictly: a momentary pause in speaking can give rise to a successful challenge, as can tripping over one's words. Even pausing during audience laughter or applause (known as "riding a laugh") can be challenged.
"Repetition" means the repetition of any word or phrase, although challenges based upon very common words such as "and" are generally rejected except in extreme cases. Words contained in the given subject are now exempt unless repeated many times in quick succession, although this was a later addition to the rules. Skillful players use synonyms in order to avoid repeating themselves. For example, the term "BBC" must be avoided, as it can be successfully challenged for repetition of "B".
"Deviation" originally meant deviating from the given subject, but gradually evolved to also include "deviating from the English language as we know it", "deviation from grammar as we understand it", deviating from the truth, and deviating from logic. Nevertheless, leaps into the surreal are usually allowed.
A panellist scores one point for making a correct challenge against whoever is speaking, or the speaker gets a point if the challenge is deemed incorrect. If a witty interjection amuses the audience, but is not a correct challenge, at the chairman's discretion the challenger can nevertheless be awarded an extra point (the "bonus point" rule). A player who makes a correct challenge takes over the subject for the remainder of the minute, or until he or she is successfully challenged. The person speaking when the whistle blows after 60 seconds also scores a point. An extra point is awarded if a panellist speaks for the entire minute without being challenged.
It is rare for a panellist to speak within the three cardinal rules for any substantial length of time, whilst both remaining coherent and being amusing. Therefore to speak for the full minute without being challenged is a special achievement. However, if a panellist is speaking fluently on a subject, staying reasonably within the three rules, and seems likely to speak for the whole minute, the other panellists often refrain from challenging. On occasion a similar courtesy has been extended by the whistle-blower, who will refrain from indicating the end of the minute so as to not interrupt a panellist in full and entertaining flow (this once led to Paul Merton speaking for one minute and forty seconds on the topic "Ram-raiding"). There are also occasions when players choose not to buzz because the speaker is amusing the audience by performing badly.
Below is an example of a speech given by Sheila Hancock which lasted for a full minute without being challenged. The subject was "How to win an argument".
"Well it varies according to the person that you are arguing with. Should it be a child that you are having a contretemps with, the ideal is deviation tactics. For instance Lola Lupin who I mentioned before won't eat her dinner. So what I do is say, "yes it is rotten food, let us sing a song", making sure that that particular chanson has a few vowels in it that require her to open her mouth! During which I pop the spoon in and I have won the argument. However if it is an argument with a person that knows their subject what I do is nod sagely and smile superciliously, let them ramble on, and at the end I say "well I'm sorry, I think you're completely wrong", turn on my heels and leave. I..."
On rare occasions, panellists will challenge themselves, usually by mistake or for laughs. The gameREWARDS those who make entertaining challenges, even if they do not speak for very long. If successful, last-second challenges can be especially rewarding, as they allow one to speak for a short time but earn two points—one for the challenge and one for being the last speaker.
The game is then scored and a winner declared, but the attraction of the show lies less in the contest than in the humour and banter among participants and the chairman.
Clement Freud was a panelist on the show from 1967 to 2009, making him the longest-serving guest.
Nicholas Parsons has chaired the show since its inception. On nine occasions he has appeared on the panel, and others have acted as chairman including Clement Freud, Geraldine Jones, Andrée Melly and Kenneth Williams. Ian Messiter was chairman on one occasion in 1977, when Freud arrived late and Nicholas Parsons took his place on the panel. Parsons has appeared on every show, either as chairman or panellist.
Each programme features four panellists, with the exception of six shows in 1968 and another at the end of the 1970–1971 season when there were only three.
Ian Messiter, the show's creator, set the subjects for every show until his death in 1999. Until 1989 he also sat on the stage with a stopwatch and blew a whistle when the sixty seconds were up. He has been replaced by a succession of different whistle-blowers, a role which now falls to the production assistant. Trudi Stevens is the current incumbent.
There have been five regular competitors in the show's history: Clement Freud, Peter Jones, Derek Nimmo, Kenneth Williams and Paul Merton. Freud and Nimmo appeared from the first programme in 1967, while Williams joined in the show's second series in 1968. Jones made his début in 1971. After Williams' death in 1988, Merton (a long-time fan of the show) contacted the producer at Nicholas Parsons' suggestion and was invited to participate during the following year. Nimmo died in 1999, Jones in 2000 and Freud in 2009, leaving Merton as the only regular, albeit he is not in every edition.
Each of the regulars brought their individual style to playing the game. Clement Freud liked to make lists and to challenge with only a few seconds to go. He was among the show's more competitive players, regularly referring to the rules and deprecating any deviation from them. Derek Nimmo often improvised descriptions of his experiences abroad, many derived from his extensive theatrical tours. He too was highly competitive, and was known for berating the chairman frequently. Peter Jones once said that in all his years playing the game, he never quite got the hang of it; nonetheless, his self-deprecating, laconic style suited the essential silliness of the show. Kenneth Williams was often the star of the show: his flamboyant tantrums, arch put-downs, and mock sycophancy made him the audience's favourite. Williams often stretched out his speeches by extending every syllable to breaking point (some words lasting for up to three seconds), and his outbursts of mock-anger regularly included his catchphrase "I've come all the way from Great Portland Street", as though he had journeyed for miles, when in fact his home was just around the corner from the BBC studios where most recordings took place. Merton frequently launches into surrealFLIGHTS of fancy and fantasy, such as claiming to have had unusual occupations or to have experienced significant historical events. He also often wins points by challenging just before the whistle or for humorous challenges.
The first show in 1967 was recorded in the Playhouse Theatre in central London, and the 35th anniversary show was also recorded there, and broadcast on New Year's Day 2003.
Most shows in the first 30 years were recorded in the Paris Theatre in central London. In 1992, the then-new producer, Sarah Smith, took the show outside central London and recorded some shows in nearby Highgate. A year later, the show left Greater London for the first time; the first such shows broadcast were recorded in Bury St. Edmunds and Llandudno. The show started going to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1993 and has been there every year since. Currently most shows, though not all, are recorded at the BBC Radio Theatre in Broadcasting House in central London.
In February 2012, two episodes of the show were recorded at the Comedy Store, in Mumbai in India, the first time the show has recorded outside Britain. The programme played for many years on the World Service and is said to have a large following in India.
Several television versions have been attempted. Two pilot episodes were recorded for television in 1969 and 1981 but never broadcast, except in documentaries about Kenneth Williams.
In 1994, 14 shows were broadcast on Carlton Television, ITV in London. Two additional variations were added: a round in which the team were presented with a mystery object to talk about, rather than a subject, and another round where the audience suggested a topic. Nicholas Parsons chaired the show, and Tony Slattery featured in all programmes. Other panellists were Tony Banks, Tony Blackburn, Jo Brand, Ann Bryson, John Fortune, Clement Freud, Mariella Frostrup, Jeremy Hardy, Tony Hawks, Hattie Hayridge, Kit Hesketh-Harvey, Helen Lederer, Pete McCarthy, Neil Mullarkey, Derek Nimmo, GrahamNORTON, Nick Revell, Ted Robbins, Lee Simpson, Arthur Smith, Jim Sweeney and Richard Vranch.
In 1995, fourteen more episodes were broadcast. Just a Minute became a team game, with the Midlands and London playing against each other, under team captains Tony Slattery and Dale Winton. Each player earned individual points, which were totalled for each team at the end of the show. Nicholas Parsons again chaired the shows. The gimmick of the audience choosing a subject was abandoned in this series. Other panellists were Tony Banks, Tony Blackburn,Craig Charles, Clement Freud, Mariella Frostrup, Liza Goddard, Jeremy Hardy, Kit Hesketh-Harvey, Helen Lederer, Carolyn Marshall, GrahamNORTON, Su Pollard, Wendy Richard, Arthur Smith, Jim Sweeney and Richard Vranch. Both this series and the series before were produced by Mike Mansfield.
In 1999, the BBC televised the show, with 20 episodes recorded during a single week in Birmingham. Nicholas Parsons was again the chairman. There were no regular panellists but those appearing were Pam Ayres, Clare Balding, Isla Blair, Jo Brand, Gyles Brandreth, Ken Bruce, Michael Cashman, Barry Cryer, Stephen Frost, Liza Goddard, Tony Hawks, Peter Jones, Maria McErlane, Richard Morton, Tom O'Connor, Su Pollard, Steve Punt, Wendy Richard, John Sergeant, Brian Sewell, Linda Smith, Richard Vranch and Gary Wilmot. The series was produced by Helena Taylor.
In March and April 2012, the BBC broadcast 10 episodes, recorded over a week at the BBC Television Centre in London, to mark the 45th anniversary of the programme. For the first time, the shows were shown in prime time at 6pm each night over two weeks on BBC Two. Nicholas Parsons again chaired the programme and Paul Merton appeared in all episodes. Other panellists were Gyles Brandreth, Hugh Bonneville, Marcus Brigstocke, Julian Clary, Stephen Fry, Tony Hawks, Ruth Jones, Phill Jupitus, Miles Jupp, Shappi Khorsandi, Josie Lawrence, Jason Manford, Stephen Mangan, GrahamNORTON, Sue Perkins, John Sergeant, Liza Tarbuck and Russell Tovey. No changes were made to the format of the game. The shows were produced by Andy Brereton and Jamie Ormerod.