Barry Cryer: "I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue is at its best when it’s falling apart"

As the long-running Radio 4 show returns, the stalwart panelist celebrates the late Humphrey Lyttelton, his replacement Jack Dee - and the importance of silliness

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Barry Cryer: "I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue is at its best when it’s falling apart"
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Barry Cryer

I wasn’t in the original series, which was a spin-off from I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again, but later filled in as chairman, when Humphrey Lyttelton was otherwise engaged. I still have a yellowing Radio Times cutting, showing a black-haired youth with horn-rimmed glasses – I assume it was me.

After the first series, which could hardly be described as a hit, there was an agonising reappraisal of team members, as John Cleese, Bill Oddie and Jo Kendall all decided it was too silly and chaotic. The result was that Willie Rushton and I were recruited, and stayed happily until Willie died in 1996. It’s true that, after the pilot – which nearly didn’t get off the ground but was promoted by [Radio 4’s first controller] Tony Whitby, whom God preserve – it was never regarded as a long-term project.

Forty years later, maybe the jury is still out, but we seem to have got away with it. We’re often asked, “Why does it work?” We’re just glad that it does, but I can assure you, we’re not complacent. We have the best producer we’ve ever had, Jon Naismith, who nags us for new ideas and rounds. He’s never let ISIHAC stagnate, and if there’s a reason it still works, Jon is it.

When Humph, the great Lyttelton, died in 2008, we said, “That’s it.” A year went by and then the BBC wanted us back, as emails had been coming in asking for our return. We did six shows with different chairmen, finishing with Jack Dee. It didn’t take us long to decide he was the man for the job: detached, sarcastic and yet, underneath it all, thoroughly enjoying himself. He has a flair for the perfect radio joke – one that paints a picture in the listener’s mind. In the middle of a recording, he suddenly said to me: “Barry, your dressing gown’s hanging open.” During a recording at the Rose Theatre, Kingston, a man in the audience shouted, “It’s not the same without Humphrey Lyttelton, is it?” Jack paused. "Ah, dear Humph, I wonder where he is now. I envy him.” Style.

I'm Sorry I Haven't a ClueIt’s never been a wholly ad-libbed show, in that we’re given notice of topics and subjects that will feature. But a lot of the time we don’t know what each other is going to do, so we react like the listener. I’ve always felt the show is at its best when it’s falling apart.

The parade of guests through the years has been an element in our survival, bringing their own personalities and approaches. May I say, speaking for myself (although I know we’re in agreement), we’d like more women to appear with us. Victoria Wood fought us off for a while, but then succumbed. And Jo Brand, Sandi Toksvig and the late Linda Smith have joined us, to our great delight. We’re not a bunch of old male chauvs, even if some people think we are – so come and join us.

Andy Hamilton and Tony Hawks have often appeared and we still recall Kenny Everett, having made precious little preparation, being a riot. And of course, Jeremy Hardy, our regular guest, whose singing defies belief. Tuning forks have been known to walk out when he’s in full cry.

And finally, as Humph used to say, with great pleasure, the show has only changed radically in one way. I think the pace is faster than it was years ago, in tune with the current Twitter age. I leave you with the words of the great Humphrey Lyttelton: “As we journey through life, discarding baggage along the way, we should keep an iron grip, to the very end, on the capacity for silliness. It preserves the soul from desiccation.”

Excuse me now – I have to catch a train at Mornington Crescent.


The new series of I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue starts tonight at 6:30pm on Radio 4

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