Weaver's Week 2008-05-04

Weaver's Week Index


Mournington Crescent

The eternal flame of hope has been put out by the fire officer of destiny.

Humphrey Richard Adeane Lyttelton, the jazz trumpeter, comedy foil, purveyor of blue-chip filth, and italic handwriter, died on 25 April, aged 86.

The bare bones of Humph's life are simple: born 23 May 1921 to George, a housemaster at Eton, and his wife Pamela. A childhood spent visiting stately homes, with endless changes of costume, ensured that he would avoid pomp whenever he could. He took up the trumpet in 1938, buying his first instrument while he was supposed to be watching the cricket match against Harrow. Briefly worked in a Welsh steel mill, then joined the Grenadier Guards in 1941. Stormed the beach at Salerno threatening to fire the pistol and/or blow the trumpet at any resistance, and playing "Roll out the barrel" on the official BBC transmission of VE day. After the war, Humph took up an army grant to attend Camberwell School of Art. There, he met fellow jazz musician Wally Fawkes, who would eventually swap the clarinet for the pen, becoming the cartoonist Trog; the connections allowed Humph to draw some cartoons for a national paper.

During the war, the American Armed Forces Network had appeared on UK radio sets, and spent much of the time playing jazz revival records: those recorded by migrants from New Orleans to Chicago in the 1920s. Spotting an opportunity, George Webb – a piano player and factory worker – re-created this style for his band, the Dixielanders. In 1947, Humph and Fawkes joined the band, lifting it from a gentle pastiche to a near-facsimile of the original.

By the early 1950s, the Humphrey Lyttelton Band had been formed, and cashed in on a fashion for revivalist jazz. His settled home would become the basement room at 100 Oxford Street, where he encouraged dancing and celebration. Jazz aficionados found the band to be the best in Britain. By 1953, Humph was beginning to feel trapped by the 1920s revivalism, and the band slowly moved to the small-ensemble swing pieces popular in the early 1930s. This didn't go down well with the fans: at one concert, fans raised a banner protesting against the inclusion of a saxophonist. Shortly afterwards, his touring group included three of the instruments, and a big band followed by the end of the decade.

Over the years, Humph continued to evolve musically, briefly making avant-garde tunes in the early 1960s, securing a surprise top 20 hit with "Bad penny blues"; the rhythm and basic chord structure of the song was later used by obscure composers McCartney and Lennon in their short-lived group The Beatles. Humph worked in the backing band for touring stars and the "Salute to Satchmo" show, and recognised the great potential of Helen Shapiro, an overnight success in the 1960s who still tours and records. During the 1990s, he was the honorary Professor of Music at Keele University, a post that demanded a lecture each term. He received lifetime achievement awards at the British Jazz Awards in 2000 and at the inaugural BBC Jazz Awards in 2001, and continued to take his trumpet on the road until earlier this year.

Though it was his mainstay, jazz wasn't the only string to Humph's bow. Over the years, he wrote for Punch about anything, and for Vogue on restaurants. A lifelong socialist, Humph worked on a 1959 Labour party commission for young people, which recommended lowering the voting age to 18, raising the school leaving age to 16, and proper sex education. He was a keen ornithologist and calligrapher, someone who believed in the power of an early night, and a notoriously private man – not only was his telephone number ex-directory, but he would change it should someone find out the number. He summarised his thoughts as, "If you phone me it means that you've decided that what you want to talk to me about is more important than what I'm doing at the time. I'd rather keep that decision to myself."

His bemusement at the ways of the world can be seen in this letter to The Times, written in 1974

"Sir, I have just received a questionnaire from the London Borough of Barnet, addressed to The Occupier followed by my full address. The first question asked me to supply (1) The Occupier's name in full and (2) The Occupier's address. I solemnly copied out the address to which the questionnaire had been sent in the first place. The form then required my signature as Occupier and my address.
"They now have confirmation in triplicate that the house which I occupy and my address are indeed one and the same place. If there's anything else they'd like to know, I hope they'll know where to find me."

The first show hosted by Humph that we could find was in the My Kind of Jazz series on Saturday 18 April 1953, immediately after another radio institution, Sports Report. He was best known as the presenter of Radio 2's Best of Jazz programme from 1968 until March this year. In 1972, he was approached to host a new programme for Radio 4, a spoof on the cosy panel games that dominated the schedules at the time. The regular panellists – Barry Cryer, Graeme Garden, Bill Oddie, Tim Brooke-Taylor, and Jo Kendall – had worked on the hugely successful I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again, and the idea was to tap into that vein of anarchic nonsense. Humph's link to this was, apparently, that the show was all about improvisation, and jazz music was all about improvisation. Maybe someone had heard his 1951 recording, "One Man Went to Blow", in which he played trumpet, clarinet, piano, and washboard.

Whatever the reason, it's fair to say that the show, entitled I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, wasn't an instant success. The first episode was repeated on BBC7 a few years ago, having been recorded by an attentive listener who rather expected the BBC to chuck out most of the episodes, and it's fair to say that it's not the strongest foundation for a dynasty. Billed as "an unlikely panel game", introduced by a Very Silly Voice, in which "the four contestants are invited to make utter fools of themselves", the episode featured Jo Kendall's canary-like giggle throughout. The first round, almost inevitably, was Singing Words To The Wrong Tune, a game in need of a slightly snappier title, and perhaps a little more in the way of explanation. There followed a Reading Script In A Silly Accent round, a Singing a Song As An Animal nonsense, and so it went on. The cast also found this to be a draining experience, and after the recording vowed, "Never again."

By 1975, the panel had settled down to Cryer, Garden, Brooke-Taylor, and William Rushton, with Colin Sell at the piano. By now, the Censored Songs round was played, as was Charades, that Word Disconnections game, and Spliced Films. The traditional game of Mornington Crescent came to radio during the 1970s, though the energy crisis of 1973-4 put paid to plans to broadcast the rules overnight, every night for three months. Even that would only have been an abridged set, of course.

A scorer, Samantha, was appointed in 1985 to help Humph award the points, and liaise with the folk at the BBC Record Library. By 1990, ISIHAC had become part of the broadcasting establishment, having had a series just about every year, and being repeated on Radio 2 over two years after the original broadcast, making a nonsense of the topical references. Two series were recorded in 1990, as happened every year since. Apart from 1993, for reasons never quite explained. The show was named Best Radio Comedy in the 1995 British Comedy Awards, and Humph took a Gold Award in 1993 for Services to Broadcasting.

Celebrations for ISIHAC's silver jubilee in 1997 were muted, for regular panellist Willie Rushton had passed away the previous December. A succession of guest panellists completed the quartet, with no permanent replacement appointed. Some argued that ISIHAC never quite recovered from the loss of Rushton, with the jokes becoming so predictable that they could be seen coming a mile off, and only the various singing talents of Rob Brydon and Tony Hawks providing light and shade.

Still, there was great acclaim when the 30th anniversary rolled around in 2002; Radio 4's schedule was re-written to allow for an hour-long special edition, Raymond Baxter provided a live commentary on Mornington Crescent (though we still reckon move six was a ghastly error), and Stephen Fry slipping into the Fourth Chair. Hour-long Christmas specials followed in 2003 and 2007, and a stage tour of ISIHAC had been going almost permanently since last autumn. While Humph was in hospital, Rob Brydon deputised for a date in Bournemouth. Barry Cryer wrote, "What Rob didn't know was our great producer Jon Naismith got Humph to record an introduction in hospital, and what the audience heard was: 'Good evening. This is Humphrey Lyttelton. I can't do the show tonight because I'm in hospital; I wish I'd thought of this earlier. Will you give a big welcome to Rob Brydon?'"

The affection in which the British public held Humph was encapsulated by Brian Rogers from King's Lynn. He wrote on the BBC message board, "I trust the memorial service will be held in the true spirit of the programme: Colin Sell at the piano, hymns displayed on the giant laservision scoreboard, Nearer My God to Thee sung to the tune of Penny Lane, late arrivals at the undertakers' ball, an empty chair for Samantha, Jerusalem played on kazoo, and one final glorious game of Mornington Crescent!"

Ultimately, the success of ISIHAC stemmed from the relationship between the chairman and the panel. Humph was a sage, able to sit in his chair, watch all the silliness and buffoonery unfold around him, then cap it all with a raised eyebrow, an inquisitive "hmmm?", or just a moment of complete silence. The final new broadcast summed up the show: for fifty series, Humphrey Lyttelton had been in a Wonderland, where nothing was quite as it seemed, and life was silly.


Avalon for Radio 4, 6.30 Thursday

Image:Square BBC Radio 4.jpg

I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue was the antidote to panel games. What happens if we take a panel game, mix it with the antidote, subtract the pianist we first thought of, and divide by the square root of Collins and Maconie's Hit Parade? Do we get fireworks and an explosion, or thirty minutes that would make us long for the return of Anderson Country? In truth, neither.

At heart, Banter has to be the least original format we've reviewed since the brief fashion for spelling competitions earlier in the decade. Four comedians are gathered in a room, and they each draw one of four subjects. For the subject they've drawn, they have to write down their top three, and seal them in a very noisy envelope. The rest of the panel have about five minutes to debate the topic, each listing their personal favourites, before committing to a guess. What does Jenny Eclair think are the three best challenges on Just a Minute? What does Will Smith think are the three most common names in celebrity culture? What does Noel Edmonds have on his three most ugly shirts? (Sometimes, we're really glad that this is radio.)

If the panellists answers match with what's in the envelope, they score points. If they've had the foresight to play their joker, they'll double whatever points they win, because that's what jokers do. Host Andrew Collins will also award and deduct points for the strength of argument, particularly in the brief interstitial rounds. In "This or That", he invites each panellist to argue for one of two options. Sugar, or spice? Brain, or brawn? Black, or white? And in "The Audience Survey", he has personally asked the audience to vote on their favourite Spice girl, or spice in a curry, or carrier bag, or something equally debate-inducing.

Ultimately, if you're listening to Banter expecting a gripping quiz, you're hearing the wrong programme. There's no quiz here, the awarding of points is incidental to – and occasionally gets in the way of – a good natter between contributors. But then, the hint's in the title. This isn't so much of a test of predictive power as an excuse for some banter. Hence the name.

Andrew Collins is the host, but it could easily have been Stuart Maconie, or Carrie Quinlan, or any number of stars of the radio comedy circuit. And while the other contributors are very much of the moment, the show bears many resemblances to the sort of panel game that was popular in the 1970s; indeed, we can easily imagine The Sealed Envelope Game proving a hit when played by such post-war faves as Arthur Askey, Richard Murdoch, Jack Warner, and Bud Flanagan, with Thomas Woodroofe attempting to keep order and the score.

Such timelessness ensures that Banter will never be of lasting interest. We find it wonderful to listen to while it's on, but come back after the news and we couldn't tell you anything that happened in the entire show. It's like a wave breaking on a pebble beach – fascinating to watch, makes a great sound, but gone in almost no time at all.

This Week And Next

Genius is to transfer to BBC2. The show, in which people pitch inventions to Dave Gorman and a celebrity guest, has been running on Radio 4 since 2005.

Two presenters have been fired from Mercia FM in Coventry. Though the SMS machine on John Dalziel and Roisin Gibbons's breakfast show broke down, the pair found someone to pretend to be a winner.

There was some television news this week, though not much. A normally-reliable source suggested that ITV was going to be fined for its continued campaign to separate viewers from their money by deception; the number 4 000 000 was bandied about, though we weren't sure if this should be prefixed by £ or 0898. Nothing had officially been said by the end of the week, so we'll defer comment until the final report is out.

Ratings for the week to 20 April showed Britain's Got Talent gathering speed to 10.95m, miles ahead of The Apprentice (7.45m), and dragging Mr and Mrs (6.9m) in its wake. I'd do Anything trailed with 6.35m, and Beat the Star (5.25m) trailed HIGNFY (5.65m on Friday, 2.25m for the extended version on Saturday) but beat One Versus One Hundred (4.85m). The Apprentice You're Wired (3.4m) led the minor channels, where QI (2.7m) beat UC Professionals (2.6m), and Great British Menu recorded a new high of 2.35m.

Britain's Got Talent also led the digital tier, 1.175m saw a repeat on ITV2, 770,000 further audition footage. Come Dine With Me came third on 755,000, and America's Next Top Model (695,000) beat Pop Idle US (570,000). CBBC saw new highs for Trapped! (225,000) and Best of Friends (205,000).

It's BBC Young Musician week (BBC4, 8pm weeknights; also Radio 3 and BBC2 6pm tonight), and there's a new series of Through the Keyhole (BBC2, 3.15 weekdays from Tuesday).

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