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  • Writer's pictureDavid Lloyd

Without Hesitation, Repetition or Deviation - a tribute to Nicholas Parsons

Without hesitation, it's clear that Just a Minute is insufficient to pay tribute to Nicholas Parsons.

The strains of 'The Minute Waltz' meant that you were about to witness the confident, timeless performance of a true radio great, on-air with Radio 4 still into his nineties. 

To master radio is to master words – and Nicholas Parsons ruled.

Born in 1923, as the BBC itself rattled off its first printed letterheads, Nicholas was to continue into the digital age. Like Mrs Thatcher, this dyslexic boy with a stutter hailed from Grantham, indeed his dad was said to be the doctor who delivered her. And like another PM’s family, he nursed an early fascination for the circus.

His acting hopes dismissed by his parents, Nicholas's working debut was as an apprentice in a pump and turbine firm on Clydebank, but his earlier childhood impersonations of his teachers, much admired by his classmates, were to afford a better clue to what would make the Parsons name famous. As a welcome distraction from the noise and routine of his 9-5, he took full advantage of Glasgow's theatre and arts scene.

Radio was to play an early role in his showbiz life, with a short live performance in 1941 from the Paris Cinema on Regent Street, with a bit-part in Carroll Levis Carries on, a programme, according to the Radio Times, "dedicated to the workers and Forces of Great Britain" .  Further appearances ensued, including the Happy Go Lucky Hour.

Alongside an impressive variety of work on stage, in film and grainy appearances on black and white TV, he returned to radio in 1952 as the BBC re-invigorated its Drama Repertory Theatre, being heard on 'Wednesday Matinee' on the Home Service. He was later heard in the cast of the famous ’Much Binding in the Marsh’ in 1954 ; and on the pioneering ‘Listen to this Space/Hear this Space’ which was to tread new ground in topical satire.

His TV career, which had begun in 1951 with 'The Eric Barker Half Hour', was to be a highly-visible home for the quick-thinking smart-suited performer through the whole seventies and into the 80s.  The reputation was earned through the Anglia TV show ‘Sale of the Century’, a programme memorably heralded with ‘…and now – from Norwich...’.

Alongside the toasters and tea trolleys on this TV game show, for which he was to prove a consummate host, Nicholas quietly launched a new radio series on 22nd December 1967 – ‘Just a minute’. He was to host every single edition to the present day.

As with so many success stories, it was very nearly not to be.  Nicholas had been cast as a panellist when One Minute please was revived under its new name.  His accidental chairmanship on the pilot, however, was recognised as the success it would prove to be. The programme also risked not being commissioned, until resignations were threatened and Auntie relented.

The chairmanship of Just a Minute is a job which demands a quick wit; acting generously to fellow comedians; and flawless, yet selective, policing of the rules, which demand no hesitation, repetition or deviation. He suggested that the way his mind had coped with dyslexia was the key to his enviable command of the format.

Nicholas attributed his longevity in showbiz, in part, to his grounding in the rough and tumble of his early Clydebank days. Whereas so many other performers were felled by familiar demons, prompted by the stresses and strains of an uncertain career, his varied career endured.

As with so many broadcasters, the Parsons voice has barely changed through the years: “I do some voice exercises which help, but the truth is I am just lucky . I love being part of the show and that’s what comes across‘.

It did.

Farewell, Nicholas Parsons.

Enjoy radio history?

Enjoy my very personal and candid wade through the last fifty years of this great medium, as a listener - then a presenter and ultimately a manager, in my book 'Radio Moments'. True insight - and fond recollections of what life was really like caught up in this colourful analogue age - with its changes, challenges and rich characters.

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