The format of the show was created by Ian Messiter and producer David Hatch, who put the pilot for the new game show before a BBC development board, who weren't sure that the series would run for more than six episodes. However, 50 years later, the show is still one the station's most popular programmes.
The rules are simple - sticking to them is not. The object is to talk about a given subject, for just a minute, without repetition, hesitation or deviation.
Messiter is said to have created the rules of the game when he was riding on top of a No. 13 bus. It was inspired by his Latin master at school, who would punish him by getting him to speak on the subject he was talking about without hesitation or deviation. Messiter added the rule about repetition, as well as a suitable scoring system.
Before Just a Minute, Messiter tried a similar format in the show One Minute Please, hosted by Roy Plomley. The difference in that format was that there were two teams of three, split by gender, and a jury decided on the points.
Parsons has chaired almost every game (in some early episodes, the host and the panel swapped positions). The theme music to the show is The Minute Waltz by Chopin, which actually - if allowed to play in full - lasts longer than a minute.
In Just a Minute, the panellists talk on a given subject, but obey three rules while doing so. They must avoid:
- Repetition: Originally, this meant not being able to repeat a certain idea or concept. However, due to challenges over time, it now means not being able to repeat words or even letters (For example, 'BBC' is considered repetition because of the two B's). Certain words such as 'The' or 'And' are usually allowed except under extreme circumstances (say, when repeated five or six times). The given subject on the card is however allowed to be repeated.
- Hesitation: The speaker must speak continuously, without any pauses. Even if the audience is laughing, you have to continue talking.
- Deviation: Originally meaning deviating too far from the subject in question. Now the concept is considered in a broad context. Examples include deviation from the English language, grammar, truth or logic.
If a person challenges correctly, the challenger scores one point and takes control of the subject for the rest of the minute, unless someone else challenges them correctly. An incorrect challenge results in the speaker being given a point and being allowed to continue for the remaining time left. However, bonus points are given for amusing challenges, even if they are wrong.
Whoever is talking when the minute is up scores a bonus point. If someone manages the rare feat of talking about the subject for a whole minute, unchallenged, they score another bonus point. Below is an example of this being achieved, performed by Sheila Hancock on the subject of 'how to win an argument'...
Well it varies according to the person you are arguing with. Should it be a child 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 ne has a few vowels in it which 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 who 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...
However, there have recently been complaints that the show is becoming too competitive, with panellists buzzing in on the most petty of challenges, such as people repeating a very small word such as "we", or challenging a hesitation which is deemed to be very small. One proposal, given by Rupert Read to Parsons on the Radio 4 complaints show Feedback was to introduce negative points for wrong challenges. After discussion, it was decided not to change the rules - although noticeably the panellists don't buzz so often now.
The show originally had a set of players who were regular contributors, referred to as the 'Gang of Four'.
- Clement Freud: Freud was known for giving out long lists and challenging whenever there were a few seconds left on the clock. He was also mocked by the other players during his time as an MP. Clement was the longest serving panellist, playing the game constantly up until his death in 2009. He appeared in a total of 544 episodes.
- Kenneth Williams: Considered the star of the show when he was alive. He would often make long speeches, stretched out words and used comic voices, while mocking others and throwing fake tantrums. He appeared in 346 programmes.
- Derek Nimmo: Would often tell stories about trips abroad, normally on some kind of theatrical tour. Of all the regulars, he was the rudest to Nicholas.
- Peter Jones: Would often deliver quick one-liners as amusing challenges. Although considered one of the regulars, he once commented that he never quite got the hang of the game.
However, there are many players today who have help maintain the show's popularity. These include:
- Graham Norton: Norton often uses innuendo in his performances to get his humour across.
- Stephen Fry: Adopts the strategy of buzzing himself whenever he makes a mistake, resulting in him not only scoring points but also keeping the subject.
- Ross Noble: Uses a stream of rambling surrealism in order to keep going for as long as possible.
- Gyles Brandreth: Delivers verbose rants using 'flowery' language, and always ready to counter any challenge with a counter-argument that he should keep the subject.
Over 800 episodes of Just a Minute have been broadcast on the radio, with no signs of the programme ending anytime soon (its popularity around the world ensures another series is pretty much automatically re-ordered by Radio 4).
It should be noted that some sources may provide a different count as to how many series of Just a Minute there have been. This is because in 1982, 1983 and 1984 the BBC opted to record two episodes in an evening across 10 evenings, thus generating a total of 20 episodes for each series. However, as these episodes were broadcast in two separate periods (for example: one batch of 10 in the spring, the other batch in the autumn) some people have labelled these as separate series. However, British Comedy Guide has stuck with the BBC's numbering of the series, which groups these 20 episode blocks together as just three series.