Stefan Reynolds pays tribute to the newly crowned greatest radio comedy of all time
Lockdown has been a great period for the radio. Who can fail to have been helped along with cheerful music, a decent play or some wonderful comedy? It was such a great shock when the magnificent Tim Brooke-Taylor succumbed to the horrible virus in the spring, but he would have been heartened by the news that, quite rightly, I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue has been voted the greatest radio comedy of all time in a Radio Times poll. As was I.
This show captivated my attention the very first time I heard it, and went on to make me laugh like nothing else since. It has quite frankly given me the most enormous pleasure for more than a quarter of a century.
I don’t remember how I got to hear about “the antidote to panel games” and can only think I must have tuned in to Radio 4 at a fortuitous time and was immediately hooked to a show that first appeared in 1972. The infectious joy of Tim Brooke-Taylor, Barry Cryer, Graeme Garden and Willie Rushton being given “silly things to do” by the then Chairman, the jazz trumpeting, bandleading Humphrey Littleton, was never anything less than perfect. Tim was paired with Willie ‘against’ Barry and Graeme, with Samantha and occasionally Sven providing the scores (or not). The lovely, and very put upon, Colin Sell was at the piano – and he’s still there.
In 1996, the loveable Willie Rushton died and was never formally replaced. Over the years, a host of guests were invited to join Tim including, among many others, Tony Hawks, Andy Hamilton, the late Jeremy Hardy and Linda Smith as well as one of my absolute favourites, Sandi Toksvig. I can’t forget one episode where Sandi completely corpsed with laughter for what seemed to be well over a minute, which was happily kept in the final cut – on hearing it again, I almost never fail to follow suit. The joy of laughter!
It would be invidious to single out any of the original panel as being the ‘best’. All had their talents and all worked so well as a cohesive whole, which happily didn’t change after Willie died. But it is undeniably true that Tim became the ‘court jester’ figure, the one who got all the hardest/worst songs to sing, the one always asked to reprise the role of the Queen or other ladies – he could do a fine Lady Bracknell… and of course he performed it all brilliantly.
It was well after Rushton’s death that I first applied to see a recording. No easy feat. Having joined their mailing list, you are alerted to where the shows are being recorded, two at a time. Usually a weekday or Sunday evening, they tend to be at provincial theatres and tickets are very reasonably priced. What you don’t understand at first is the sheer demand for tickets. Released at an allotted time, if you do not phone at the exact moment and possess a great degree of luck, you stand no chance of getting a ticket. Even now, given the ability to buy via the internet, tickets remain like gold dust and so hard to get. My most recent recording was late last year in Portsmouth. I got one of the last 4 tickets available, despite getting in as early as I could.
The first recording I attended was at The Anvil in Basingstoke. It was the night of the US Masters final – which I gave up for Humph and the gang. I was in heaven. The recordings take around 2.5 hours and of course feature some rounds that don’t make it to the final edit, and what The Guardian would call ‘corrections and clarifications’ when the sainted producer has to ask for retakes. But to be there in front of such comedy class alongside hundreds of fans, almost always laughing at the same time, is akin to watching live sport. Magical.
The biggest loss to ISIHAC was the death of Humphrey Lyttleton, who died in 2008 at the ripe old age of 86, still in the chair so to speak. What a class act he was. He chaired the show in a wonderfully deadpan manner, giving listeners the impression he really would rather be anywhere else, as he delivered his wonderfully fruity script – seemingly unaware of the double and indeed triple entendres that ensued hilarity. But it was when he deviated from the script that he could really bring the house down, with perfectly timed ad-libs that pointed to a comedy genius, at least as good as the panellists on either side of him.
I was fortunate enough to be at one of his last recordings. Once the show had finished, he retook to the stage with his trumpet and proceeded to give us a solo performance that I will never forget. The standing ovation was extraordinary and emotionally draining. What a man. And yes, I did name my dog after him…
After Humph’s death, and some reflection, it was announced that Stephen Fry, Jack Dee and Rob Brydon would host two shows each, to be recorded in April, May and June 2009. I saw the Jack Dee recordings at the Mayflower in Southampton and when Jack Dee took the chair permanently afterwards, I did feel that the right choice had been made. He had and still has shades of Humph and his manner of chairing, which is what the show needed.
The show has continued to this day with six recordings a year, which take place all over the country. If I am honest, the jokes have been tamed a bit and a degree of PC has emerged, but it still remains one of the best things on radio. Through the power of the internet, I have a recording of almost every show recorded, which enables me to revisit it as often as I like. Even though I have heard most of the recordings so many many times, they still never cease to give me pleasure. I’m afraid the rest of you will have to make do with the BBC website, which sadly only has some limited episodes, although others are available to buy. Please visit www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qnwb for more information.
It was with great sadness that I raise a large glass to Tim back in April, who joined Willie and Humph in the comedy pantheon. I don’t know what will become of my favourite- and indeed now the best – radio comedy. I do hope they can celebrate their 50 years – and continue to thank everyone involved for so successfully turning so many of us into such uncontrollable, hysterical laughing wrecks.
I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue Series 73, which features the last appearances of Tim Brooke-Taylor, starts on Monday 30th November.
Please click here for a full list of the winners