The success and longevity of Just a Minute is something of a puzzle. The BBC’s long-running comic game show – in which panellists must try to speak on a particular topic for a full minute without hesitation, repetition or deviation – is far too gimmicky and silly to make for an intellectual listen, and yet it’s mentally demanding enough that its participants are often concentrating too hard on monologuing to be spontaneously, laugh-out-loud funny (in fact, less practised guests are often almost deliberately dull).
And yet Just a Minute endures; because it endures. Having remained almost unchanged for more than 50 years – with the same rules and theme tune, familiar panellists and even, until recently, one long- running host – its fixed formula is the key to its appeal.
Stepping into the shoes of Nicholas Parsons, who died in 2020 after more than five decades of continuous chairing, must be a daunting prospect for Sue Perkins, despite her many years of experience hosting programmes as high-profile as The Great British Bake Off. After taking on a few episodes as a guest host alongside Jo Brand, Stephen Fry and the popular panellists Paul Merton and Gyles Brandreth, Perkins was announced as Parsons’s permanent replacement earlier this summer.
[See also: BBC drama Vigil is brutal, bonkers and chilling]
But in her first episode as chair (Monday 6 September, 6.30pm), she proves herself a deeply reassuring choice: slick, enthusiastic, unwaveringly professional. Joined by the actress Shelia Hancock, Jan Ravens of Dead Ringers, first-timer Daliso Chaponda and the veteran Merton, she doesn’t over-perform, makes her panellists feel at ease, and drops in the occasional joke. She is the ultimate professional.
“One should never, ever, ever feel sorry for applying a format to a show,” Perkins quips, when Ravens is apologetic in her challenging of Chaponda. Here is someone who clearly understands her assignment and the appeal of the series more generally. “I haven’t lost the thrill of it,” she says of listening to Hancock complete a full minute, uninterrupted, as the episode comes to a close, “and I hope I never do.”
Just a Minute
BBC Radio 4
This article appears in the 10 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Labour's lost future