January 30, 2020

There can be few practitioners of the dark arts of light entertainment who watched the final extinction of Nicholas Parsons’ flickering candle without a taint of envy to contaminate their respect. “For he who lives more lives than one, more deaths than one must die”, wrote Oscar Wilde, and it is often said of great tenors that the death of the voice is more painful than the stopping of the heart. But Parsons knew no such distinction. He was, in his own deathless phrase, still speaking when the whistle blew, having hosted Just a Minute since 1967, when radio was still black and white.

His was a record of smooth, unequalled majesty. Until 2018, when Gyles Brandreth stepped in for a couple of episodes while the Doyen recuperated from a brief illness, he hadn’t missed a single recording. He was, at that time, 94 years of age, and still had a few months in him yet, his diaphragmatically modulated manner as suave and indulgent as ever.

The only other figure who has tracked my footprints in the sand for so long – other than our Lord and Saviour, of course – has been the Queen. It is only fair to note that Her Majesty has never had to worry that her next season might be her last, at least not on the whim of some new Controller, Focus Group or Social Media faux pas. But either way, they have both projected, above all else, ineffable calm.

I was two years old when Just a Minute first broadcast. Parsons has been asking guests to speak on a given subject within certain parameters for 60 seconds since before I could speak at all. And the voices of Derek Nimmo, Clement Freud, Peter Jones and Kenneth Williams were as much a part of my childhood kitchen memories as Bejam sacks, whistling kettles and chip pan fires.

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So, how has a Host, a mere persona really, who was I imagine, a little outdated when he first accepted a challenge for Repetition, survived perhaps the most tumultuous decades of cultural revolution the Nation has known since the Civil War, and to bow out at the final curtain without having so much as rolled up the sleeves of his boating blazer?

The answer is of course – because of his refusal to change. Parsons saw off The Beatles, The Sex Pistols and The Prodigy, The Dot Com Boom and Crash, The Walkman, the fax machine and the digital watch, without so much as a gesture towards modernity. The World Trade Center rose and fell — as did the careers of Jimmy Young, Terry Wogan and of course J**** S*****. Sir Nicholas gave not one inch.

I wonder if some of our other much loved institutions could learn from this. The Crown has long understood the benefits of longevity, and with Her Majesty poised to glide pass Louis XIV, Le Roi Soleil himself, in another five years or so – it is clearly beyond reproach on this matter. The House of Lords, meanwhile, does not appear to be in a hurry to affect more than the most superficial of mollifications. Though it is always best when a genial, familiar old curmudgeon or two are dominating the benches of the Supreme Court. And I miss Denning.

But what of the Church of England. It is forever entangled in footling debates about political concerns and personnel matters — matters that have relatively little to do with the timeless anxieties of the human soul, to which it was surely established to minister. The trendy vicar trope almost precedes Just a Minute — indeed, Derek Nimmo knew how to satirise it well — but the Church gives the impression of anxious trend chasing to this day. Meanwhile, congregations dwindle and moral authority is ceded to the John Lewis Christmas Ad.

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Is it too much to suggest that staff turnover is part of the problem? Six archbishops have shared the title in the span allotted to Old Nick, and none of them were young men when they first stepped up. It has been perhaps less hectic than the comings and goings of Prime Ministers in that time (Wilson/Heath/Wilson/Callaghan/Thatcher/Major/Blair/
Brown/Cameron/May/Johnson) but still, compares poorly with the Papacy. Imagine how we would feel about the Church if there had been but one kindly but stern figure who had always been there admonishing us in our deviations and counselling against hesitation, throughout our little lives?

It might be a stretch to advise the Church to appoint a fashionable, smartly dressed Archbishop in his early forties and let the parish grow old with him, just because it worked for Just a Minute. And yet…

I remember making a parody of Troubleshooter for Radio Four years ago, which cross fertilised the wisdom of two different professions. So, to help advise a priest I visited a shepherd and found that one of the key learnings of that trade is the during lambing season, the fellow must get himself well and truly dowsed in the “juices” of the birthing process. The ewes and the lambs both respond to the familiar aroma he will thus have and will intuitively trust him as a result.

I’m not suggesting that a modern church man or woman literally steep themselves in their parishioners’ birth fluids to earn their trust. But the longer someone is on the throne — ideally through a few generations — the more familiar they seem to us in all our senses.

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This theme is touched upon in the excellent Netflix drama, Two Popes, starring Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce. It is a superbly acted and tastefully shot tale, partly fictionalised but I think well within range, of the peculiar arrangement arrived at between the two present incumbents of that, traditionally singular, role. The younger of the two makes the point that the power of the position derives in large part from the understanding that its occupant will bear their cross “unto death” – that they are in that relatively trivial regard at least, like Christ himself.

A non-Catholic, I spent much of my life regarding certain aspects of that Church as vaguely absurd, if not actually sinister. The gradual decline of the great John Paul II was a case in point – the poor chap had Parkinson’s and yet was unable to relinquish his duties and see out his days in peace. Yet now, I wonder. There was, in hindsight, something rather magnificent about this once exemplary physical specimen. He hiked, played football and even pursued weight training as a young Cardinal and was elevated, at 58, in perhaps the best condition of any new Pope in history. Yet our abiding memory is of a man being determined to exhaust every last fibre of his being on the field of battle. He too, had but one Death.

The world, it goes without saying perhaps, has changed far too much for my liking. That is pretty much a given when you are 54. The great Eastern tradition of Vipassana meditation teaches the principle of universal change — Anicca — and the necessity of accepting it if one is to have anything approaching peace on this Earth. No doubt there is wisdom in that.

But I remain enormously grateful to the familiar faces, familiar voices, familiar names that have walked beside me thus far. Even those whose views and allegiances I once detested, have to come to be — yes — familiar. Like Larkin’s Toad, I am glad to take their arm as we walk together down Cemetery Road.

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