Humph – A Tribute 

22 June 2008

I’ve mentioned in a previous article here that when I was about nine or ten years of age, my Uncle Harry (I had the luxury of two – this was my mother’s brother) gave me a little two-band AM radio in a mock-leather case of curious design and even more curious smell. I’m pretty sure that it was on that very miracle of rice-cheap East Asian consumer electronics that I first heard Humphrey Lyttleton, who died in April at the age of 86.

I had previously been allowed to take my parents’ bulky Marconiphone up to bed with me if I had been a good boy, but that set had always been removed from me at the appointed hour. My new acquisition couldn’t be taken away from me so easily, provided I observed some fairly basic precautions. One, keep the volume down: this meant the set was pressed to my ear (no earphone socket); two, stay under the bedclothes; this would mean having to surface from time to time due to the combination of lack of air and the peculiar aroma of the radio’s PVC case.

Because of another of that set’s oddities (a dodgy band selection switch), most of my listening was to Radio 2 which was still on 1500m Long Wave in those days. If what is left of my memory still serves, the period between nine and ten in the evenings on Radio 2 at that time was when they broadcast what would more recently be called ‘specialist music’ programmes. So I would listen regularly to shows such as “On The Latin Beat” (was its presenter called Leopoldo Mahler? That’s what sticks in my mind, anyway) or Wally Whyton’s “Country Style”. Not that I ever cared from either style of music particularly: it was just so that I could listen to something with that thrill of the illicit. Besides which, pop and rock music held very little attraction for me.

Another programme which aired in the same slot was “The Best Of Jazz”, presented by Humphrey Lyttleton. I knew nothing about jazz at all. My parents were of an older generation to the parents of most of my school friends, but the genre was a closed book to them as well. Jazz may have been considered ‘dangerous’ by some, but it was just a cacophony to my parents, so it was never heard in our house. Besides which, it still suffered with the stereotype of being the preserve of bohemian types with beards and corduroy jackets with leather patches on the elbows who were probably being serially unfaithful to their wives. And to add insult to injury, the beat boom of the early- to mid- sixties had pushed jazz back to the margins whence it had come and – with the exception of the more experimental composers and performers – was now regarded as passé, hence it being limited to a handful of hours a week spread between Radio 2 and Radio 3.

So I listened to Lyttleton’s programmes in much the same way as I had listened to the other programmes I’ve mentioned: non-committally.

My early reaction to the presenter himself was of the callow nature one would expect of a pre-teen brat. First off, “Humphrey” was a totally ludicrous name – for anyone. And this was some years before Unigate Dairies warned us that there was “A Humphrey about”!

(Look, ask your mum, OK?)

I don’t think that I found his patrician accent (slightly tempered by years of contact with the demi-mondains of the jazz world) in any way incongruous, howeve. After all, this was still the era when the ‘BBC accent’ or its minor variations was to be heard on every network, from the newsreaders on early Radio 1 (“Here is the news – in English”) to the impenetrable mountain fastnesses of Radio 3. John Curle and Robin Boyle were still in regular employment with the Corporation and memories were still fresh of the legendary announcer whom I thought (as a result of having heard his name but never having seen it written down) was called ‘Al Varley-Dell’.

Nor did I think it odd that someone from so obviously elevated a background should be talking about a style of music which was associated with a very different milieu. For one thing, he conveyed a great deal of knowledge about the records he played. For all I knew he was reading it off the sleeves of the LPs, but he sounded as if he knew the stuff anyway. That of course turned out to be the case, as many of the people he mentioned were musicians he had worked with or been influenced by. But I knew nothing of his background at that time; nothing of his pioneering band in the early 1950s, his involvement in the move away from ‘trad’ to broader ranges of jazz, nor even of his hit with “Bad Penny Blues”. He just enticed me in with an enthusiasm which, whilst deep-seated, was not – as I’m afraid they say nowadays – ‘in your face’, but communicated in a laid-back manner by a man who was obviously full of his subject matter.

As to the music itself, I warmed to some of it but the more raucous stuff (be it from the 1920s or from the modern era) left me tuning out until the damn racket had finished. My po-faced fastidiousness may have caused this nine-year-old to miss the point, but much of jazz was – to my ears – completely alien in its sounds and forms. And, moreover, so much of it came from that mystical land called America and so much of that was made by black people. I lived in an industrial village in North Wales (some silly old bat called Mrs Trellis lived just across the road, by the way); I’d never even seen anyone a different colour to me, so how could I understand where that music was coming from?

None of this was Humph’s fault, of course. Nor was it any of his doing when I abandoned music radio almost completely not long thereafter for a diet consisting almost entirely of Radio 4. But it was there that I was to come across him again, in a very different context.

Again, I never found any dissonance in the notion that someone who made programmes on jazz should turn up hosting a comedy panel game. Knowing little – even by that time – of the towering figure ‘Humph’ cut in jazz circles, I merely thought that he was a jobbing broadcaster who needed the work. So when I first heard “I’m Sorry, I Haven’t A Clue” (“ISIHAC”) early in its second series, I never gave a thought to the idea that there was anything odd about his role in it.

Indeed his part in the show seemed at that time to be much the same as his counterpart MacDonald Hobley on “Does The Team Think…?” (which I also listened to regularly); that is, to be the small hub of normality around whom the comedy could revolve. Although he would make self-deprecating introductions to the programme, often along the pattern of “The programme that does for comedy what x does for y”, and would make the odd interjection to express displeasure, impatience or boredom, Lyttleton seemed content with letting the comedians get on with doing what they were there to do and not try to compete with them, even though he was a man noted by friends, colleagues and concert-goers alike for his sharp wit. Indeed, he had formulated that policy from the outset, presenting himself, “…as somebody who has come in the midst of all these people and there’s a slight hint that he doesn’t really want to be there and slightly grumpy about everything. And I’ve done that for 30 years now.”

I drifted away from the show a few times over the next twenty years or so, either through my own varying tastes or due to my feeling that the programme was becoming stale, in-group-ish and predictable – a terrible fate for a programme which was intended to be exactly the opposite. It took the coming of Jon Naismith (and his recruitment of Iain Pattinson as ‘programme consultant’, i.e. gag writer) in 1991 to shake “Clue” from the torpor I had perceived it to be in and, in doing so, they also turned Humphrey Lyttleton, jazz legend into Chairman Humph, the comedy star.

Pattinson has gone on record as saying that when he came to the show, he felt that Lyttleton wasn’t doing enough merely because he wasn’t being ‘given silly things to do’. Or, rather, to say. He and Naismith felt that the chairman’s dry delivery style was perfect for a somewhat saucier style of humour (or, if you want to avoid euphemism, ‘knob gags’).

Although Samantha the delightful scorer had appeared in the show prior to Naismith taking it over, Humph’s references to her had been very mild indeed compared to what followed; scarcely racy at all, in fact. Taking full advantage of the talent on offer, it seems that Pattinson went to great lengths to see how far he could go with her. The answer was, quite a long way. In fact, both he and Lyttleton found that Samantha would bend over backwards in order to provide entertainment, and thus what could have become a tired and tiresome conceit became the (hard)core of the proceedings.

The keys to the success of this new element in the show were entirely Humph’s: firstly, the exquisite sense of timing which one would expect from a top-notch musician (especially one steeped in a style of music which was seldom played from a score and thus relied upon instinct and experience to hold it together); and secondly his clear understanding that, in order to be most effective, such material had to be delivered with a totally straight-faced innocence, without any hint in expression or voice that the person uttering it knew exactly what he was saying. This cut both ways: Umberto Eco has apparently claimed that inversion is the essence of comedy, but the conjunction of opposites must run it a close second. A strong contrast between the delivery and the material being delivered heightens the effect, and when the most outrageous of double entendres was delivered in the voice of a staid and somewhat confused-sounding old curmudgeon, the effect was often to produce what I as a one-time amateur folk-singer/comedian call a ‘woofer’ – that explosion of laughter which takes even those making it completely by surprise. The second advantage to this method is, of course, that it succeeds in deflecting complaints at the material – any filthy implications can plausibly be blamed on the listener. Humph’s ‘act’ even went to the extent of looking genuinely mystified when the audience became marginally incontinent at one of his lines.

That this material and the manner of its delivery worked so well together can be demonstrated by the reaction of the members of the “Clue” team to it. These are all hardened comedians who have just about heard it all; nonetheless, the laughter they produced following Lyttleton’s lines was as spontaneous and unforced as that of the audience. Indeed, some of his introductions to Sound Charades invoking the perverse fates of Lionel Blair in that parallel universe reduced Sandi Toksvig to hysterics more than once. All in all, it was a masterclass in technique on a par with anything Humph produced with his trumpet.

What with “The Best Of Jazz”, “ISIHAC” and his appearances on the much-missed “Jazz Score” (where, apparently, he was the only contestant not to be fed the answers in advance, because he not only knew so much anyway but could also be relied upon for an amusing anecdote), he was a consummate broadcaster, of the type we’ve lost all too many examples of in recent years (Cooke, Peel, Nick Clarke), and he did it all with a quiet enthusiasm, wit and integrity. Although we rightly mourn his passing, we can take comfort from the fact that, to the very last week of his long life, he was able to continue doing the things he loved, and that he has left us six decades of great music and more than forty years of fine radio.

Goodbye, Humph; give Satchmo our regards.

You Say

2 responses to this article

Walter Crawford 22 March 2015 at 12:34 am

I discovered your website quite by accident and have now added it to “My Favourites”.

Congratulations on the details and research which must have been carried out in the making of the site. You now have another happy visitor and I shall pass on the good news to my friends.

Many thanks.

Walter Crawford.

Chris Burton 25 September 2020 at 8:47 pm

Only recently encounteres your website but mighty glad I have. I too have been Toksvigged!!’ several times by Humph’s dry reaction to a Lionel Blair joke. As you say, a consummate broadcaster whose humour, like Wogan and those you cite, was aided by high literacy and low cunning!

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