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I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue
Ye’ll have had your tea?
Every generation recasts the cultural canon, but the Boomers, with their socio-political firepower, blew it all up. From Monty Python to Spike Lee, from Prince to Wolf Hall, they scorned the old orthodoxies, rediscovered forgotten gems and created a whole canon. And then never stopped going on about it. But were their choices… ok?
OK, Boomer: I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue (1972 onwards)
The fundamental premise of the BBC’s entirely mad long-running Radio 4 comedy is right there in the scripted intro to the show, read by the continuity announcer and unchanged for decades: it’s ‘the antidote to panel games’. In 1973, the team behind the radio comedy show I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again were looking for a project that required a little less writing to a weekly deadline. Preferably no writing, in fact. Which is how they hit on the idea of a parody panel game.
Radio 4 panel games were then, and still are, a byword for high-concept, middle-brow, low-effort entertainment. Timeworn formats like Just A Minute have been endlessly repeated - with little deviation and no hesitation - for decades, peopled by interchangeable non-specific celebrities. They are cosy, unthreatening and very much in the business of taking a wry, sideways look at the prospect of being funny.
So: a panel game that wasn’t a panel game. A panel game that revelled in not being a panel game, that sent up and subverted the whole idea. A show that made the games themselves ludicrous. They took, for example, the central idea of Just a Minute - in which contestants must talk about a subject without repeating any words - and applied it to inevitably repetitive pop songs lyrics in ‘Just a Minim’.
Early shows often started with a game called ‘What’s Your Name?’ in which contestants had to say their own name, for points, or a version of ‘Guess Who’ in which the panellists would ask each other questions such as ‘Do you kill people for money?’ and ‘Is that your own hair?’ It went on to include games that have crossed over into British cultural lore: ‘Swanee Kazoo’, in which panellists play instrumental versions of deeply serious songs such as ‘Chanson D’Amour’ on the swanee whistle and the kazoo or the national pastime of making the late, lamented, tuneless Jeremy Hardy sing.
The show featured comedians so good they had actually killed people; one viewer of The Goodies (BBC, 1970-82) - created by panel members Graeme Garden, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Bill Oddie - had laughed so hard that he died of a heart attack. In I’m Sorry, their aim was to make a panel game that had a similar, if non-lethal, effect. By 1974 the format had gathered the core personnel it would retain for the next few decades: Oddie left, Willie Rushton and Barry Cryer joined, and in the chair there was Humph.
When Second Lieutenant Humphrey Lyttelton came ashore outside Salerno as part of Operation Avalanche in 1943, he carried his pistol in one hand and, in the other, his trumpet. His very first, inadvertent performance on the BBC was during the VE Day (‘victory in Europe’, May 1945) celebrations, when the microphones captured him tootling away while sitting in a wheelbarrow.
Gen X grew up with grandparents who had lived through, if not actively served, in the Second World War. This was a generation who had taken part in a global struggle for the future of civilisation, who had survived bombing, campaigning and terror. And yet all the popular culture they handed down to their grandchildren was deeply silly, full of weird noises, daft songs and clowning: The Goons, Flanders and Swann, Norman Wisdom.
It was as if, having been sent around the world to take part in events of existential gravity, they just wanted to go home and be ridiculous for a bit. The Goons? They were in the Royal Artillery and the RAF. Michael Flanders served in the Royal Navy and Donald Swann drove ambulances as a conscientious objector. Norman Wisdom was an Army boxing champion, of all things. It seemed that a whole generation had realised quite how serious it was, to be alive and enjoying yourself. Humph had been to school at Eton and then joined the Guards; he was the epitome of the English establishment. But he was also a cartoonist and a leading light of the trad jazz revival of the ‘50s (Louis Armstrong himself said that Humph ‘swings his ass off’).
Boomer comedians grew up steeped in the silliness of their parents’ entertainers, and perceived in it the possibilities for the anti-establishment satire that you find in Beyond the Fringe and Monty Python, or the Zen Buddhist koan-like reality-hijacking of John Lennon and Oz magazine. With this absurdism they could subvert and outmanoeuvre the powers that be, who wouldn’t even recognise what was happening.
But their silliness needed the stuffy setting, the dumb shackles against which they strained. One running joke in I’m Sorry concerns the show’s ‘scorer’, an entirely fictional young woman called Samantha. TV game shows of the ‘70s and ‘80s almost always featured glamorous young women as ‘scorers’; like those women in bikinis at boxing matches they were there purely there as mute eye candy. I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue’s treatment had at least four levels: the meta joke of having a glamorous (imaginary) scorer on the radio; the poking of fun at ludicrous entertainment conventions; wince-inducing double entendres; and the sheer fun of making Humph, this apparently refined old man, say the most awful things.
Samantha tells me she has to nip off now as her trusted aged gardener is coming round to identify the mysterious trailing plant that's growing in her privet. Obviously she's keen not to miss him if there's a chance she may have an Old Man's Beard in her bush.
Ancient rules of ‘decency’ imposed by the BBC had required postwar radio comedies such as Round the Horne to delve deep into innuendo. In I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue the use of innuendo - which was, by this stage, feeling less revolutionary and more tired - becomes part of the joke’s texture. But the editorial restraints, which still pertained in the 1970s, were crucial; without any censorship at all you get Derek and Clive, which is at its funniest when you are fifteen and think that saying rude words is just intrinsically amusing.
I notice from our overflowing inbox that the cat has got confused again, but I did find a postcard from a Mrs Trellis of North Wales asking how to subscribe to The Metropolitan: you can just put your email address in the box below and hit subscribe. Easy as singing one song to the tune of another.
‘It’s now time to play the game called Mornington Crescent.’
‘Mornington Crescent’ is perhaps the most iconic of the I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue games. It appears to be a game in which contestants have to navigate routes around London using Tube stations, the winner being the first to arrive at Mornington Crescent. It appears to have fiendish rules, with multiple complications requiring ingenious and experienced play. None of this is true. Contestants simply name places around London until someone decides the game is over and announces ‘Mornington Crescent’. The playing is in the pretending, pretending there are rules, pretending there is strategy, pretending there is a game at all.
I have a distinct memory of playing the Mornington Crescent at university with friend of The Metropolitan Jonathan Stroud, much to the befuddlement and irritation of further friend of The Metropolitan Simon Stephens, who had no idea what we were doing and found it extremely annoying. Which is to say: I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue can be just as cosy and cliquish as any other long running show.
Radio 4 is speech radio, and as befits ‘Auntie’ - as the BBC is sometimes known - it is a very middle-class, middle-England kind of speech. Even among the vanishingly small handful of speech radio stations, to be on Radio 4 is to be among a rare and exotic elite. The station is as much a habit as a listening choice, a set of familiar voices and tropes that becomes a set of beliefs, and a byword for a certain kind of listener. I grew up in a house where BBC Radio 4 was switched on before breakfast for Farming Today and wasn’t switched off until after midnight, when the supremely sedate mid-century strings of Sailing By serenaded us to bed.
I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue is emblematic of this elitism and in-group comfort. As is probably inevitable for any long running show, it has collected its own mythology, which is relished by its fans and incomprehensible to everyone else. Any mention of Barry Cryer’s drinking or Jeremy Hardy’s singing would be greeted with a warm chuckle; mentions of entirely imaginary figures - the ‘scorers’ Samantha and Sven, random interlopers Hamish and Dougal, keen letter-writer Mrs Trellis of North Wales - would be instantly applauded. Its catchphrases were legion: ‘the laser display board’, ‘bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia’ and - of course - ‘Mornington Crescent!’
This stuff is inevitably cliquish; it is only funny because you already know it is funny. If you don’t already know that there are no rules to Mornington Crescent, you won’t find it in the least amusing that there are no rules. You will spend your time trying to work them out and getting increasingly infuriated at all the smug, bourgeois giggling going on around you.
Is it OK, Boomer?
But once you do know there are no rules to Mornington Crescent, ah, what a wonderful game it becomes.
Here is a round from 2006 plucked at random from YouTube
It begins with some liturgical call-and-response with the congregation, then there is mention of Mrs Trellis and some folderol about the putative rules of the game. And then the game starts, with the players taking turns to call out London (mostly) Tube stations (mostly).
You’ve been practising
Oh.. ( TO BARRY CRYER) Piccadilly?
You can’t confer
I wasn’t conferring, I was just asking Barry
Yes, I see your point
I’m terribly sorry, I didn’t realise it was showing
Ok… Tooting Broadway
[CROWD APPLAUDS THE MOVE]
Yeah that seems clever, but… Temple
There are three different kinds of joke in that first exchange, piling on top of each other. The first is the joke of the show itself, the feigned knowledge of and adherence to ‘rules’ in a show where the dedicated audience knows there aren’t any. The second is that asking Barry’s Cryer’s opinion cannot amount to anything as useful as ‘conferring’, something that only a regular listener would understand. Lastly, there is the whole business with Graeme Garden’s visible ‘point’, an example of what yet another friend of The Metropolitan Lucy Thomas refers to as ‘a Radio 4 joke’: a double entendre that is clearly just instinctively ad-libbed. It is simply a reflex on Garden’s part, the kind of joke that has been hardwired into his brain by a lifetime of writing and appearing on Radio 4 comedy shows.
Together these three modes form the general shape of I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue. They rely on the familiarity of the audience; they are symptomatic of its cliquey-ness. But they also explain why the show is such a gem. To listen to I’m Sorry, I Haven’t A Clue is to indulge in an act of mass improvisation. Mornington Crescent is willed into being by the audience’s active participation; it becomes real only through that pretending, through the common understanding that it is not and has never been a real game. This convivial, collective, creative silliness creates intense, joyful mutual entertainment that is found in few other places. Sporting events, perhaps; religious worship; crowd singing. It is a club, but it costs nothing to join, and once you’re in, you receive all the benefits, and contribute to them too. A cooperative of larkiness, a democratic socialism of silliness.
It’s also, of course, gloriously funny.
For more Boomer absurdism, there’s always fellow I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again cast member John Cleese’s side project: Monty Python.