The View From Here

Humphrey Lyttelton, 1921 - 2008

Michael Bonner

I am the proud owner of my late grandmother's radio. It's a Ferranti, bought, so my mother tells me, around 1950/1, from an electrical shop in Tattenham Corner in Surrey, where my grandparents lived at the time. Radio enthusiasts note, it's a 215 model, with a walnut-finish cabinet and, according to a quick Google, would have cost £27 back in the day, very expensive in a post war world of rationing. It carries Long, Medium and Short Wave and, sometimes, there's a rather eerie whistle running underneath the programme when it's on, like the ghost of electricity moping around in the ether.

I have other radios in the house -- from a swish, cream-coloured digital replica Roberts in the bedroom to a battered old plasterer's transistor in the kitchen -- but my grandmother's old radio, which sits in my living room, is the one that I love listening to the most. The ghosting aside, the sound has an incredible warmth to it, particularly noticeable on speech radio, that comes, I guess, from the plucky valves and transistors who've manfully converted electrical signals into sound for 60 years now, and have never, to the best of either mine or my mother's knowledge, needed to be serviced. Magnificent craftsmanship, I'm sure you'll agree. but the real reason it means so much to me, of course, is that it once belonged to my grandmother, who's long since departed this life.

My grandmother used to have the radio in the dining room of her flat in Epsom, which is where I remember it from originally. It would have been, I like to think, on that radio that my mother first heard Radio 4, and developed a lifelong relationship with the station that I have since inherited, along with the radio.

It’s entirely possible, too, that it was on that Ferranti set my grandmother first heard I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, Radio 4’s cheery “antidote to panel games” that began life on April 11, 1972, presented by the avuncular Humphrey Lyttelton who gave the teams “silly things to do” for the duration of its 50 series.

Lyttelton died last night. I must admit, I don’t really know much about his career as a jazz trumpeter, only that when marshalling the two ISIHAC teams – invariably consisting of Barry Cryer, Graeme Garden and Tim Brooke-Taylor alongside guest panelists like Jeremy Hardy or Jack Dee – he was very, very funny. He had a dry wit, and a likable way with put downs. His references to the sexual exploits of non-existent scorer Samantha, for instance, were usually hysterical, despite being singularly out of step in our more politically correct era: "In her spare time, Samantha likes nothing more than to peruse old record shops. She particularly enjoys a rewarding poke in the country section.” It was all harmless, seaside postcard sauce.

I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, of course, gave us Mornington Crescent, a game with no clear rules that’s somehow based on the London Underground map and where the winner is the first person to mention that station (following the death of one of the show’s original players, Willie Rushton, London Transport erected a blue plaque at Mornington Crescent in his honour). There are strange and arcane rules Lyttelton used to introduce before the round began – “the Trumpington’s Variations” or “Tudor Court rules” that, frankly, only made the whole thing even more surreal. There are, perhaps unsurprisingly, plently of Internet sites devoted to Mornington Crescent, where fans and such like attempt to try and fathom the game's eldritchian rules (one online poster to a site pleads: “Please can you explain the Hammersmith jink, especially when played after Broad Green?”)

I guess Lyttelton himself was one of those figures like Nicholas Parsons, the host of Just A Minute, another wonderful Radio 4 panel show, who belonged to a different generation, his voice coming through my grandmother’s radio on Sunday lunchtimes like it was being beamed from back in time, when men read the news on the radio while wearing suits and smoking a pipe. But unlike Parsons, who remains the epitome of the straight man as, you might argue, any good chairperson on a comedy panel show should, Lyttelton wasn't afraid to impose his wry, artful wit onto the show, frequently at the expense of anyone within earshot. And he made three generations of my family laugh, and for that – thanks, Humph.


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