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Sir Clement Freud, grandson of Sigmund, Liberal Member of Parliament, chef, scribe, and deadpannist extraordinaire, has died at 84, reports the BBC, the Guardian, and everybody else.
To me and to many of my British classmates, Freud was that disembodied, side-splitting monotone that punctuated the best moments of the hit radio show, “Just a Minute.” The show’s format was simple: four celebrities (“panelists”) would take turns trying to speak for 60 seconds on a subject suggested by host Nicholas Parsons; instances of “repetition, hesitation, or deviation” from the subject were penalized when opposing panelists buzzed in. This basic framework allowed for a genial and droll parry-thrust between panelists (I don’t know if wit is still in such currency on British radio, not having listened to the Home Service in over a decade), and Freud was the show’s guru; in one episode my sixth-form year, he spoke for 90 seconds without interruption from Parsons or anyone else (frequent panelists included Paul Merton, Stephen Fry, Graham Norton, Derek Nimmo, and a host of others nobody in the U.S. cares much about). Sure, it sounds like tying one’s shoelaces. Until you try ad-libbing a monologue on the word “critic” without pausing for breath, switching subjects mid-riff, or saying the same word twice.
The show lives on, but Freud does not. Among today’s eulogies, check out the BBC’s phone interview with Stephen Fry, who recalls Freud’s uncanny intelligence, his Soho indiscretions, and the one time he was “outgrandfathered.” The Guardian, meanwhile, has compiled an abbreviated greatest hits from “Just a Minute” (clip below). Freud was a man of infinite resource, the rare public intellectual who balanced the roles of media personality, aristocrat, and libertine, all without breaking a sweat or spilling his martini. One imagines him trading barbs with Oscar Wilde somewhere in that great salon in the sky.