Radio comedy: Are the golden days gone?

The cast of ISIHAC

The regular cast of I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue: (l-r) Tim Brooke-Taylor, Humphrey Lyttleton (chairman), Barry Cryer, Willie Rushton and Graeme Garden

The other day I wrote a piece about Week Ending the weekly satirical programme on BBC Radio 4. Little did I know that the next day Radio Times, my old journalistic alma mater, would publish the result of a poll it conducted to find the greatest radio comedy of all time.

Such lists are the food and drink of newspapers and magazines. Readers (especially me) love such lists. They make great fodder for a pub discussion. Or would do if the pubs were open. Still, there’s always the chance of a family argument.

Top of the list is I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue (ISIHAC), which I am very happy about as I think it’s one of the best things on radio. And it has been since 11 April 1972 when its first episode was broadcast.

This “antidote to panel games” grew from the much-loved sketch show I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again which starred John Cleese, David Hatch (later head of Managing Director of BBC Radio), Graeme Garden, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Bill Oddie and Jo Kendal.

It doesn’t take much to see that I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again was the breeding ground for The Goodies and Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Garden, Brooke-Taylor, Oddie and Kendal made up the four panellists of ISIHAC under the chairmanship of Barry Cryer, who became a long-running member of the panel. Humphrey Lyttleton became the chairman soon after Cryer and served as such until his death in 1996. His place was taken by Jack Dee after attempts by Stephen Fry and Rob Brydon in the chair for two shows each.

There are some who will argue that ISIHAC has lost a little of its bite with the cleaning up of its act. Gone are the double entendres about Lionel Blair. The round called ‘Sound Charades’ was regularly introduced by a joke at Blair’s expense.

(The experts’ expert on Give Us A Clue, was Lionel Blair. Who can ever forget opposing team captain Una Stubbs sitting open mouthed as he tried to pull off Twelve Angry Men in under two minutes!)

(The game is based on the TV show Give Us A Clue, where the teams score points by miming film titles against the clock, & who can forget that breathtaking finish when Lionel Blair came from behind and had Dirty Harry licked in under two minutes?)

Although the show toned down it smuttiness (something the programme makers deny they have done) it is still the funniest thing on radio. It has won three Gold Sony Awards and a Best British Comedy Award among others.

The Lionel Blair jokes have stopped and it is known that the 91-year-old actor, choreographer, tap dancer and television presenter grew tired of them.

The show has also featured since 1985 a silent scorer Samantha who sat on Lyttleton’s left hand and subsequently Dee’s. Samantha is silent because she doesn’t exist. But her “introduction” to the audiences at recordings of the programme are always met with great cheers.

She too is a source of some ribald remarks.

“Samantha has to nip out now with her new gentleman friend. Apparently, they’ve been working on the restoration of an old chest of drawers. Samantha is in charge of polishing, while he scrapes the varnish and wax off next to her.”

“Samantha has just started keeping bees, and already has three dozen or so. She says she’s got an expert handler coming round to give a demonstration. He’ll carefully take out her 38 bees… and soon have them flying round his head.”

“Samantha has to nip out now to spend time with her new gentleman friend. They’re going on a driving tour of Wales. She says he’s looking forward to showing her Cardiff and Cardigan Bay, before going on to Bangor in the back of his van.”

That’s the joy of radio. The written script, as above, may look innocent enough but when spoken takes on a whole different meaning.

Radio comedy may have seen its best days but we’re lucky because of various recordings on CD, we can enjoy many of them again. BBC Radio 4 Extra plays some the classic comedy shows but it chooses what you can hear and when you can hear it. For example, a show that thrilled me as a young boy every Sunday lunchtime was The Clitheroe Kid. It is also a glaring omission from Radio Times‘ 40 Best Radio Comedies. Oh, it’s listed on BBC Radio 4 Extra’s web presence but no episodes are available.

Also missing in Beyond Our Ken, although its sequel Round The Horne is there at No 3 (and rightly so).

Big fan as I was of Kenny Everett, why are his Radio 1and later Radio 2 shows included? They were not comedy programmes; they were a music shows presented by a very funny and inventive guy.

And do dramatisations and readings of comic works count as radio comedy? I don’t know and so the inclusions of Just William and What Ho, Jeeves are debatable.

But that’s the thing about lists, they are subject matter for debates. I feel sure the readers’ letters of Radio Times will be inundated with correspondence from readers whose own personal favourites have been omitted. I know my letter has already been sent in.

The top 20 shows as judged by the panel
1) I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue
2) Hancock’s Half Hour
3) Round the Horne
4) On the Hour
5) The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
6) The Goon Show
7) Mark Steel’s in Town
8) Cabin Pressure
9) Blue Jam
10) John Finnemore’s Souvenir Programme
11) Ed Reardon’s Week
12) Count Arthur Strong’s Radio Show!
13) The Shuttleworths
14) The Kenny Everett Show
15) The News Quiz
16) Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge
17) Dead Ringers
18) Hello Cheeky
19) Ladies of Letters
20) The Ricky Gervais Show (with Karl Pilkington)