It is that rarest of breeds – a long-running comedy show that manages to reliably deliver time after time. The ultimate aural antidepressant. The antidote to panel games. I’m Sorry, I Haven’t A Clue.
The fact it was almost entitled Old Rope betrays the odd truth that this most successful of joy-bringers was first forged in a spirit of ‘greed and laziness’. Then only 29, Graeme Garden, looked around at the devoted Pandemonium of I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again and decided what was needed was a show that could ‘achieve the atmosphere and enjoyment of ISIRTA… without the chore of writing a script’. ‘It was almost as cold-blooded as that,’ he says.
Accordingly, Garden and producer ‘Boring Old’ David Hatch worked together on a format in which the well-loved regulars could gratify their devotedly raucous audience with the same gob-smacking puns, insistent innuendo and seemingly haphazard horseplay, except without the script.
Sir David chose the theme, The Shickel Shamble, or Hayden’s Austrian Hymn – which now seems incongruous in its original context, the movie Monte Carlo Or Bust. He also had a hand in casting the two try-out chairmen – Garden and Barry Cryer. And, for the very first episode, ex-Grenadier Guardsman trumpet player jazzman Humphrey Lyttelton (the supposed similarity between the show’s improvisation and jazz was reportedly also a factor).
So it was under Lyttelton’s eye, with Hatch in the producer’s chair and Dave Lee on piano that Tim Brooke-Taylor and Bill Oddie versus Garden and Jo Kendall faced off on April 11, 1972. With John Cleese tending to alternate with Kendall or Oddie, the early shows were an entertaining placebo for ISIRTA, private in-joking stretched to a half-hour.
Early games included the now defunct but long-running battle to claim a punchline, Tag Wrestling, and the one staple that has never gone away, One Song To The Tune Of Another. There were, however, less inspiring rounds, such as singing a song as quickly as possible. Concepts as basic as this would open the show up to criticism for being simplistic and complacent – a complaint not applicable to today’s Clue.
To the average listener, this prototype series was more fun and unpredictable than the scripted show – and ISIRTA staples such as Brooke-Taylor’s Lady Constance were slotted in to great approval. But the largest connection to ISIRTA came with the final game, cribbed from a regular spot: Late Arrivals, a fiendish contest for punning names.
The ad-lib nature of the show lent an edge of hysteria to performances, with the otherwise quick-witted Kendall and Oddie giggly to a fault. There was an infectious suggestion that everyone was having a good time. However, this was not the whole truth, as Garden recalls: ‘Bill and John hated the lack of structure and script. Bill used to throw up before the recordings.’
No surprise then that these original players drifted off in the first restructuring of the show. There was also the question of a permanent host. Cryer says: ‘It’s the one time I was delighted somebody else got the job because I remember thinking “No, it’s got to be Lyttelton.” So he was reinstated, and I was put in the panel and I’ve been there ever since.’
Another teething problem was the lack of preparation. The balance of the prepared and ad-hoc has been redressed considerably since then, as the best kind of comedy anarchy comes from seasoned performers who know what they’re doing.
The existing players welcomed the universally loved nonchalant satirist Willie Rushton from the third series in 1974. His apparently effortless input instantly gelled, and, with the arrival of pianist Colin Sell the next year, a solid, happy team was established that would entertain listeners for the next twenty-odd years.
This will always be the classic formula. Tim and Willie could trigger an instant woof as the Queen and Princess Margaret, and Graeme and Barry would much later cultivate their own joyfully Pavlovian responses to Hamish and Dougal. When you have the time to ferment ideas through repetition, you can get to the point when a simple ‘Ah, Hamish…’ can make an audience sound like an especially appreciative pressure cooker.
Guests sometimes joined the classic line-up: Bill Tidy, Kenny Everett, John Junkin, Paul Merton, and as early as 1987, Stephen Fry. But they were always there to cover up for one of the regular crew – the default cast was sacrosanct.
There are two institutions, however, that took a long while to appear. Is it really possible that ISIHAC had been running for the best part of a decade before they included Mornington Crescent? Introducing the first game, in the first episode of the 1978 series, the audience response is minimal, but by the end of the series, just the announcement of the game is greeted by roars of approval.
It was not for another seven years that the team would hire the obliging Samantha. Some say her presence seemed to bring out the extra-bawdy in the teams. Current producer Jon Naismith says: ‘It was quite true that before my time there were several references to her breast size. However, since turning her into a raving nymphomaniac we’ve not had a single complaint.’
Entering into the fraternity of ISIHAC listeners means surrendering yourself to the sheer pleasure of laughter, be it from an unexpected sliver of satire, or the kind of knob gag that Chaucer might consider old hat. Of course, to a melancholy minority, such arguably cliquey silliness could be open to criticism.
In 1991, Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris’s On The Hour featured a mock trailer for the show, featuring a song using only the words ‘bottom’ and ‘counterpane’. Iannucci has since insisted that the sketch was affectionate. Cryer admits: ‘It’s a compliment to have the piss taken out of you.’
Graeme, on the other hand, adds: ‘I really liked On The Hour. I look forward to its 47th series.’
Criticism, however affectionate, does show ISIHAC needs a sharp eye on quality. Until 1991, when Naismith stepped in, some producers tended to think: ‘Oh these old farts, they run this show. I don’t have to do anything but just turn up and record it…’
But Naismith says: ‘Though I enjoyed ISIHAC I wasn’t a great fan. I think this helped me as I didn’t feel constrained about altering things.’
He also oversaw the release of a new range of ISIHAC audio cassettes, providing a tempting starting point for listeners to be lured into the clique. After all, how else do you pick up on all the in-jokes and traditions? Finding out why the hell a Scotsman saying ‘Hamish!’ is funny is like trying to find the end of a roll of Sellotape. To enter this world does take a little effort, as Cryer admits: ‘We just hope it doesn’t sound indulgent. Because it’s a show you’ve got to listen to more than once. I think anybody listening to it for the first time might get quite baffled.’
Perhaps the biggest, most outrageous moments of the last decade have come from Humph’s introductions to Sound Charades, bringing respectable Radio 4 closer to unmitigated filth than any other show. It’s also crucial to recognise how important Lyttelton’s delivery is to ‘getting away with it’, though. Dry and innocent, he dares anyone to find a second meaning to his statements, because he certainly doesn’t see any.
Under the guidance of Naismith, ISIHAC went up a gear. It also didn’t hinder its popularity for figures such as Merton or Fry to step in for a couple of episodes, bringing audiences who hitherto would never have tuned in to Radio 4. But the true line-up was always intact at the end of each series.
A major blow came with Rushton’s death in 1996. Could the show survive? But not long before his death, Willie had said, ‘It can go on as long as Humph’s around.’ Therefore, of course, the show must go on.
On June 7, 1997, the first post-Rushton show was broadcast, with Paul Merton in he vacant seat. The rest of the year’s shows would feature Fry, Toksvig, Tony Hawks, Fred MacAulay, Max Boyce, Phill Jupitus, Andy Hamilton and more. Jeremy Hardy’s debut in 1998 was the beginning of a new tradition - his rendition of Every Breath You Take to the tune of Knees Up, Mother Brown only hinted at the sheer horrors to come.
Cryer says: ‘Jeremy Hardy is triumphantly proud of being an abysmal singer, and we play on that. It all becomes part of the pattern, it just evolves. Because you can’t replace Willie, you don’t even try. You don’t realise it’s happening, but it is changing through the years.’
Garden adds: ‘In theory it could go on forever, but I guess the dinosaurs thought that before the meteor strike.’
There’s no real reason why Mornington Crescent should not be played by comedians currently unborn in Clue’s 100th series, continuing the show’s fine, immortal blend of saucy puns, random silliness, irreverence and, of course, a complete ignorance of point-scoring. After all – what do points mean?
Extracted from a much longer article that appears in issue six of Kettering,'the magazine of elderly British comedy'.
Also in the new edition are features on humdrum sitcoms, a lost Kenneth Williams show, a tribute to Roy Kinnear, a feature on Conservative satire and more.