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Radio review: Brevity is the soul of wit, even when it lasts over half a century

Darragh McManus on Just a Minute, BBC’s flagship radio comedy presented by Sue Perkins


Just a Minute host Sue Perkins. Photo by Stephen Perry

Just a Minute host Sue Perkins. Photo by Stephen Perry

Just a Minute host Sue Perkins. Photo by Stephen Perry

Why isn’t there more comedy on radio? It’s a great medium for it. Unlike, say, radio drama, which is a trickier business — actors’ faces and bodies, even sets or costume, convey a lot of the message in drama — plenty of comedy in general, from stand-up to audiobooks, works on the purely audio level. You don’t need pictorial accompaniment to make people laugh.

But for some reason, programmers don’t do it enough. Or at least, not enough for my liking; if I were in charge, comedy would be roughly 80pc of all radio, if nothing else as a distraction from the dreary horrors of much of reality.

BBC Radio 4, in fairness, has always flown the comedy flag more than other stations. (Yes, we have Callan’s Kicks on Radio 1 and Mario Rosenstock on Today FM etc; still, not enough of it here in Ireland.)

Just a Minute (Mon 6.30pm) is probably the flagship BBC radio comedy, if not quite its best. (Though comedy tastes, more than almost anything else, are very subjective.)

It’s hosted by Sue Perkins, who took over in 2020 after the late, great Nicholas Parsons had done a staggering 52-year stint at the helm. If you’ve never heard Just a Minute — where have you been for the last 55 years? — the basic gist is: it’s a game where panellists must talk humorously for 60 seconds on a given subject, “without hesitation, repetition or deviation”.

Rivals can buzz someone out, mid-spiel, because of silence or stumbling or any one of a multitude of other sins. Making a case over interpretation of the rules, like the most pernickety of Jesuits, is a lot of the fun.

This week’s show featured regular and veteran panellist Gyles Brandreth, alongside actress Lucy Porter and comedians Ria Lina and Rhys James. Their incredibly random list of subjects featured Wordle, the Incredible Hulk, faking your own death, unflattering selfies and “a terrible bottle of wine”, Take That, Harry Kane, revenge, swing dancing and broken New Year’s resolutions.

There were some decent gags, often outside of the actual “routines”. I liked Perkins’ backhanded compliment to Brandreth — that he was good at stalling for time with a drawn-out “mmmm… like an ad for gravy” — and Porter’s quip about the members of Take That having specific jobs: “Gary wrote the songs, Robbie was the charismatic one, and the other three I presume moved the instruments when they were on tour”. James had a funny little observation: that we recommend New Year’s resolutions to each other, rather than choosing for ourselves.

It’s all quite “tasteful Middle England”: Just a Minute feels like it could have been dreamed up by mildly alternative Oxbridge undergrads, who were clever and clever-clever, and loved debating and reciting poetry. You’d imagine the stereotypical Guardian reader would delight in this stuff (while eating organic lima beans and tutting about the Tories).

Brandreth’s voice, meanwhile, is so fruity and rumbling and rrrrrich, he sounds almost like a parody of a semi-posh Englishman — think Stephen Fry’s General Melchett in Blackadder Goes Forth, but even more exaggerated.

But there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of that. And while this mightn’t be my favourite kind of comedy, Just a Minute is entertaining enough. A half-century of popularity, I guess, is fairly hard to argue with.

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