Review: Just a Laugh a Minute at Cheltenham Literature Festival


It’s no secret that I love Nicholas Parsons. I even have a shrine to him, so naturally I was excited when I found out that he had a one man show at the literature festival. Dragging along two friends, I was worried that they wouldn’t love Nicholas, especially given that we’re in our early twenties and that the rest of the audience had grey hair.

It was off to a delightful start. The show was on his 94th birthday, so as he came onto the stage we all sang Happy Birthday to him, and seeing him beam over us warmed my heart.

Despite not being in the target demographic, my friends and I all had a terrific afternoon. This was a truly unique experience full of joy, wit, and sharp humour. For the age of 94, he’s still incredibly sharp. His age does show however, since he performed an impression of former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, and was the only person in the room who was able to remember the announcement of the war. Don’t be put off by the great swathes of time being covered, because it doesn’t feel like a dry trip down nostalgia lane for older people, but rather an exploration through the life of a man who’s had the time to do so much.

The show began with Nicholas recalling tales from his childhood, his aspirations to become an actor, and the period of time he worked in Scotland and heard language he’d only ever come across in lavatory walls. His tales of boarding school sounded like they wouldn’t be out of place in a Roald Dahl book, and even from this point it was obvious that he was born to entertain the nation, and go on to do great things.

For me, the most entertaining of his stories was about a time he was on stage, and had an incredibly drawn out kerfuffle with a prop gun. The drawing out of this situation only added to the laughter, and brought the wonderful punchline “You didn’t tell me the gun was poisoned”. Alongside this section came some stories from the long running quiz show Sale of the Century, which included another of my favourite anecdotes, regarding a man confessing to his less than legal ways of making money without realising the other contestant was a tax inspector.

One aspect that’s somewhat shocking to regular listeners of Just a Minute was hearing him swear. It wasn’t frequent by any means whatsoever, but rather a cheeky delight for what I imagine to be quite a reserved audience.

The one thing that I think the whole audience was anticipating was his tales of Just a Minute, the monolith of radio that’s now a grand 50 years old. His stories didn’t disappoint, and he gave an insight into the genesis of Just a Minute. Surprisingly, from what he recalls, the pilot sounded awful. They hadn’t even decided what they meant by the rules of no hesitation, repetition or deviation, something which has been engrained into the minds of Radio 4 listeners that it seems elementary. Yet the charm of Nicholas is what saved the pilot from being dropped by the BBC, and subsequently in his position of power as the chair allowed him to make Just a Minute evolve with the media landscape and keep it going. It was a great surprise to me upon learning that bonus points for enjoyable interruptions or chivalry are recent additions to the show. It always seemed to me that it was just Nicholas being affable, but he’s a cunning silver fox.

Every word that left the mouth of Nicholas Parsons was fascinating to listen to, and I wish it could have been the full two hour show, rather than one hour. Getting to meet Nicholas afterwards and having him sign his book on the history of Just a Minute was quite possibly the best moment of my life.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *