Photo: Nicholas Parsons presenting an edition of BBC Radio 4's Just a Minute. Steve Bowbrick (Flickr)

How "Just a Minute" and "I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue" taught me what it means to be English

Games, like sport, operate according to subtle moral codes
March 4, 2020

One of the features of being an expat is that you have to work out the rules to other people’s games. Even after living here for 20 years and watching whatever sport you can watch for free on terrestrial TV, I couldn’t tell you why, in rugby, one team sometimes gets a penalty. It makes me wonder what other cues I’m missing, when there isn’t a ref around to blow the whistle. Because if you’re willing to stretch the definition, almost everything looks like a game—a trial whose outcomes don’t matter much, except that it serves as a test of qualities that do.

The problem is that England has a lot of different cultural subgroups that play slightly different versions of the same game. A friend of mine recently described a visit to someone’s house in the country. They’re the sort of people, she said, who, when you get there, give you a job to do—fetching wood, feeding the furnace, walking the dog… The sort of people she preferred, by implication, are the kind who offer you a drink when you arrive. Of course, both of these are tests in a way. Are you the kind of guest who mucks in? Are you the kind of guest who adds to the general jollity? Maybe neither?

Manners are one kind of game, but it works the other way around, too: most games also involve some unexpressed code of behaviour. When I first started living here as a semi-grown-up, in grad school, I used to listen to the late Nicholas Parsons on Radio 4’s Just a Minute but had to stop for stress-related reasons. All that buzzing and interrupting—you imagine yourself sweating through the minute on air, trying to think of fluent things to say.

What makes all this worse is that you don’t really win the game by winning the game. Contestants let all kinds of deviations, hesitations and repetitions slide, if they can’t think of anything funny to object to. But at the same time you have to want to win, otherwise the faint thread of tension that holds the thing together goes slack. In other words, to play it right you have to try to win but not so hard that you actually do.

Part of the point of these subtleties is to exclude outsiders—at least, that’s part of the effect. Insiders tend not to notice that this is going on. They just think some people don’t get the joke. The classic example of playful exclusion (from another BBC radio comedy show, I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue) is Mornington Crescent, a game whose sole purpose is to appear impenetrable to outsiders. In fact, the real subtlety comes from knowing when to end it. Too soon, and the game seems a damp squib; too late and boredom sets in. The rules for gauging the moment are almost as complicated as the imaginary rules by which people pretend to play.

The advantage of sport, by contrast, is that anyone can understand the point. Winning—and not by graceful gestures of self-deprecation but by scoring the most points. How you score those points is written down in the rules. Anybody can play if you’re good enough, you just have to figure out how to score.

But that doesn’t mean that sport doesn’t also operate according to subtle moral codes that have the tendency to push aside people who don’t understand them. For a sport-crazy child, the kind of kid who drives you nuts is the one who just wants to have fun.

It’s Saturday afternoon and your parents have dragged you to their friends’ house and the friends have kids which means you’re stuck with the kids. They’ve got a garden and a football and you start to play, but one of them keeps shooting whenever he gets the ball so if you want to win you have to stop passing him the ball. A couple of other kids are actually friends and just want to talk to each other, even though they’re on opposite teams. Eventually a divide sets in, between the kids who just want to have fun, and the kids for whom the fun comes from trying to win. Across that divide, I suspect, each set of kids has annoyed, superior thoughts about the other.

It’s like the old Shaw line: It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him. Or pick up a ball or flip a card or turn down a drink.