Just A Minute the Swedish way – but still no deviation

Just A Minute is one of the jewels in the BBC crown – and it’s been entertaining audiences on radio since 1967. But few people in the UK know its close Scandinavian cousin Pa Minuten. The show, recorded in Stockholm, started just two years after the original and sticks to the same rules – more or less.

If you’re a fan of Just A Minute, attending a recording of its semi-clone in Studio 4 at Stockholm’s Radiohuset is a fascinating experience. Not speaking a word of Swedish turns out not to be the total barrier you might expect.

Sveriges Radio has run Pa Minuten since 1969, apart from a break for part of the 1980s. Like the BBC, it records two half-hour programmes in a single evening in front of an enthusiastic live audience which clearly adores being there.

There are slight differences. The BBC uses Chopin’s Minute Waltz as theme music whereas the Swedes plumped for one of Spike Jones’ comedy numbers – and they have an on-stage organist to add further musical moments along the way. Rather than a simple bell, the panellists interrupt with a personalised comedy sound effect.

But the core of the game remains what former BBC producer Ian Messiter came up with more than half a century ago.

Four witty panellists are given topics to speak on for 60 seconds by a chairman and they try to do it without deviation, hesitation or repeating a word. Fellow panellists interrupt when they think a rule has been broken.

The topics the Swedish panel are given are more extended than in the BBC original. They included: “My suggestions for new road-signs”, “Why my right shoe and left shoe smell different” and, “Contemporary writers I’d like to hit on the jaw”.

For the last four seasons the chairman has been the writer Hans Rosenfeldt (previously a panellist). He’s known outside Sweden as creator of hit Scandi-noir series The Bridge and also wrote two series of ITV’s Marcella.

He says part of the appeal of Pa Minuten is the obvious pleasure the panel take in playing off one another. “If you listen to the early programmes from the 1970s, I think the stories were the main thing – the things the players say when they have the subject. I understand that in those days everyone met before the taping and were given the subjects. So the players could always prepare a little.”

“But as we play it now, Pa Minuten is probably more about the banter. I think it’s really important that it’s 100% improvised – the audience in the studio can feel that and I know people sense it listening at home.

“Also I think in radio habit is important. The programme goes out at 4pm on a Saturday and we have people in the audience whose parents and even grandparents have listened to us too. It’s become a bit of Swedish life.”

There are few details as to how Just A Minute crossed the North Sea. From 1951 Messiter’s format had existed on the BBC Light Programme, in a different form, in a programme called One Minute, Please. Messiter left the BBC and took the format with him to South African radio, where for the first time he used the title Just A Minute.

In 1967, now a freelancer, he and Nicholas Parsons persuaded the BBC to relaunch the programme on the new Radio Four. His son Malcolm Messiter recalls his father returning from a trip to Sweden in 1969 having sold the format to Sveriges Radio, the nation’s public broadcaster.

But radio is changing as quickly as any other medium. In the interval between the two recordings (when Sveriges Radio hands out copious free coffee and cinnamon buns) audience-members from 20 to 70 are delighted to explain in perfect English how much they love Pa Minuten.

The show clearly unites the generations but a major difference in how different age groups listen to the show emerges. For those under 35 what they’re attending is essentially a podcast: many don’t know or really care when the show is to go out on radio.

David Batra is a stand-up comic of mixed Swedish and Indian decent who’s been a panel member for almost 20 years. (His wife Anne Marie Kinberg is an MP and former leader of Sweden’s Moderate Party.) Batra grimaces as he recalls, “For the first couple of years I really sucked. Eventually I got better but it’s a very hard game. People often say it doesn’t matter who wins but I’m not sure that’s true: I think it gives structure and provides a bit of tension. When I watch a gameshow on TV and there’s no system of points, I think that’s less fun.

“The main thing with Pa Minuten is fluency – it’s a real test of how your brain works under pressure. That is a very, very hard thing for anyone to control. Being a really good writer or a very funny comedian helps but there are always three good performers ready to jump in front of you.”

Despite his many trips to the UK, Rosenfeldt admits he’s never heard an episode of Just A Minute. So I play him an extract.

He looks thoughtful. “It’s interesting that in Britain I can hear them concentrating more than we do on the story-telling. And the topics are a bit broader than the ones our producer comes up with. And your chairman is 94 and he so obviously has it under total control. That’s still not the case with me from time to time.”

The recordings were taking place in Stockholm just before this month’s General Election in Sweden. It wasn’t mentioned in the programme but it was something people were talking about. Rosenfeldt says comic series like Pa Minuten are an important part of Swedish life.

“We’re on Sweden’s Programme 1, which is the main speech network. But there’s not a lot of humour on it – it’s just us and two other series. So we are 30 minutes of pure fun with the news and current affairs all around us. It’s quite good to have us to balance all the seriousness up a bit.”

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