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British Comedy

Sunday Times article about new series of "I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue"
24/05/2009 00:00 GMT

Posted by lisa

The following article about recordings for the new series of "I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue" (which starts on BBC Radio 4 on June 15th) appears in the May 24, 2009 issue of The Sunday Times at

From The Sunday Times
May 24, 2009

I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue after Humphrey Lyttelton

The ‘antidote to panel games’ returns after the death of its chairman, Humphrey Lyttelton

Neil Smith

My feet are size 12½ — but that’s nowhere big enough to fill the shoes of the imponderably great Humph,” says Stephen Fry. The urbane broadcaster was speaking before the first recording of I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue since the death of its long-time host, Humphrey Lyttelton. A Radio 4 staple since 1972, this self-styled “antidote to panel games” has delighted millions with its inventive wordplay, running gags and rounds, familiar to devotees but inexplicable to anyone else, such as Swanee-Kazoo, One Song to the Tune of Another and Mornington Crescent. It was the crusty, cantankerous “Humph” who held it all together, though, the veteran jazz-man’s patrician demeanour and faux-innocence allowing him to deliver the sauciest innuendos this side of a Donald McGill postcard.

When Lyttelton died in April last year at 86, it looked as if the show might perish with him. “We spent a while debating whether to bring the show back,” says Graeme Garden, a regular panellist who, along with Barry Cryer and his erstwhile fellow-Goodie Tim Brooke-Taylor, has been “given silly things to do” since it started. (The comedian Willie Rushton rounded out the quartet until his death in 1996.)

“A lot of people said, ‘Keep it going,’ which was reassuring. But a year ago was not the right time to make a decision about the future of the show, or anything else.”

The Clue team had been touring the UK when Humphrey was taken ill; in the event, the comedian Rob Brydon filled in while he underwent surgery for an aortic aneurysm in a London hospital. “We all knew it was a dangerous operation,” says Jon Naismith, the show’s producer since 1991. “He had tried to go for a safer option, which did keep him alive for an extra 2½ months. In the end one tube was just too fragile; they tried to replace it, and the whole system collapsed.”

Naismith knew replacing Clue’s figurehead might prove perilous. “But Humphrey’s partner and agent said that he would have wanted us to go on,” he says. “And his son, Stephen, said the same thing.”

“Humph once told us if he went under a bus, he didn’t want any displays of loyalty,” smiles Cryer. “He was being jovial, but we knew what he meant. We left it a while, a decent period of respect. And now we’re just going for it again.”

On the last Sunday of April at Her Majesty’s in London’s Haymarket (normally home to Phantom of the Opera), the only visible sign of the departed chairman is a man in the front row of the audience bearing his face on a T-shirt. When Naismith appears on stage to introduce the recording, though, he says what everybody is thinking: “It’s appropriate to dedicate tonight to Humph,” he declares, to thunderous applause. “Thank you for all the wonderful letters encouraging us to continue, and apologies to the few telling us not to.” When white-haired Cryer strolls on, he pays his own tribute, by telling one of Lyttelton’s favourite jokes: “The one about the blacksmith who was asked if he had ever shooed a horse. He said, ‘No, but I once told a pig to piss off.’ ”

It cannot be easy for the guest chairman Fry to officiate on such a charged occasion. But, he says, “I felt that the astounding goodwill of the audience, the brilliance of the regulars and the excellence of the format made the idea of recording a few games worth trying.” In fact, he fills in with aplomb, with the help of the regulars Colin Sell tinkling the ivories and Samantha, the imaginary scorer. Says Fry: “It was most extraordinary to be sitting in Chairman Humph’s chair, and failing to control Barry, Graeme, Tim and, in a stunning debut, Victoria Wood.”

The laughter comes freely and frequently — something Rob Brydon trusts will be repeated when he hosts a recording in Newcastle in June. (Jack Dee presents the other two editions in this series.) “I know we’re all doing it in the best spirit, with Humph very much in our minds,” says Brydon. “There’s a real family feel to the show. It doesn’t seem like work — which is good as it doesn’t pay particularly well! I’m just proud to be a small part of it.”

Once this series is over, though, could Fry, Dee or Brydon take over on a full-time basis? “Any of them could be a potential long-term replacement,” says Garden. “Equally, we’ve got a list of 20 or 30 other people. Our hope is that in time we’ll settle for a permanent chairperson of suitable standing.” Cryer, though, is happy to take one show at a time. “We would be sad if it finished — but it has been 37 years after all, and we’d have to say, ‘What have we got to complain about?’”

Stephen Fry agrees: "Damn, I had a good time,” he smiles. “If Humph was watching, I hope he wasn't too horrified. But he was probably too busy playing the trumpet with Louis Armstrong."

I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue returns to BBC Radio 4 on Monday June 15

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