|Genre||Comedy panel game|
|Running time||30 minutes|
|Country of origin||United Kingdom|
|Home station||BBC Radio 4|
|Syndicates||BBC Radio 4 Extra|
|Created by||The I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again team|
|Produced by||Various (see list)|
|Original release||11 April 1972– present|
|No. of series||72|
|Opening theme||"The Schickel Shamble" by Ron Goodwin|
I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue is a BBC radio comedy panel game. Introduced as "the antidote to panel games", it consists of two teams of two comedians "given silly things to do" by a chairman. The show was launched in April 1972 as a parody of radio and TV panel games, and has been broadcast since on BBC Radio 4 and the BBC World Service, with repeats aired on BBC Radio 4 Extra and, in the 1980s and 1990s, on BBC Radio 2. The 50th series was broadcast in November and December 2007.
After a period of split chairmanship in the first series, Humphrey Lyttelton ("Humph") served in this role from the programme's inception until his death in 2008. In April 2008, following the hospitalisation and subsequent death of Lyttelton, recording of the 51st series was postponed. The show recommenced on 15 June 2009 with Lyttelton being replaced by three hosts: Stephen Fry, Jack Dee and Rob Brydon. Dee went on to host all episodes of the 52nd series later that year, and continues in that role. The chairman's script is written by Iain Pattinson, who has worked on the show since 1992.
I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue developed from the long-running radio sketch show I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again, the writers of which were John Cleese, Jo Kendall, David Hatch, Bill Oddie, Tim Brooke-Taylor and especially Graeme Garden who suggested the idea of an unscripted show which, it was decided, would take the form of a parody panel game. A panel game with no competition was not itself a new idea: the BBC had a history of successful quiz shows designed to allow witty celebrities to entertain where winning was not important. Examples include Ignorance Is Bliss, Just a Minute, My Word! and My Music on the radio and Call My Bluff on television.
The pilot episode (at that time titled I'm Sorry, They're At It Again) opened with Graeme Garden and Jo Kendall singing the words of "Three Blind Mice" to the tune of "Ol' Man River" followed by Bill Oddie and Tim Brooke-Taylor performing the lyrics of "Sing a Song of Sixpence" to the melody of "These Foolish Things". Dave Lee, who was bandleader on I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again, was at the piano and a number of rounds were introduced by a short phrase of music. Other rounds included "Dialogue Read in a Specific Accent" and "Songs Sung as Animals". In 1974 Bill Oddie was replaced by Willie Rushton, with Barry Cryer as Graeme Garden's teammate, and Humphrey Lyttelton as chairman, and the personnel remained constant from this point until Rushton's death in 1996, although occasional guest panellists appeared in the 1980s and early 1990s (see below). Since then the fourth seat on the panel has featured a variety of guest comedians.
The show has over two million listeners on Radio 4 and its recording sessions typically fill 1500-seat theatres within a week of being advertised. At least one recording for the spring 2006 series filled all its seats within three hours of the free tickets being made available, and the London recording of the autumn series in that year sold out in ten minutes. Although there are twelve Clue shows broadcast per year these are the result of just six recording sessions, with two programmes being recorded back-to-back. The show was recently voted the second funniest radio programme ever, after The Goon Show. It has a large following among professional comedians such as Armando Iannucci, who turned down opportunities to work on it as he preferred to remain a listener.
The official, authorised history of the show and ISIRTA, The Clue Bible by Jem Roberts, was published by Preface Publishing in October 2009.
Humphrey Lyttelton, primarily known as a jazz trumpeter and bandleader, was invited to be chairman because of the role played by improvisation in both comedy and jazz music. In the first series Lyttelton shared the role of chairman with Barry Cryer but he made it his own (especially once Cryer replaced Cleese as a regular panellist) and continued as chairman until his death on 25 April 2008. He read the script introducing the programme and segments in an utterly deadpan manner. He claimed the secret was just to read what was in front of him without understanding why it was funny. He adopted the grumpy persona of someone who would really rather be somewhere else, which he attributed to worrying that, surrounded by four professional comedians, he would have nothing worthwhile to chip in. He did occasionally depart from the script, however, often bringing the house down with an ad-lib. He was credited by the regular panellists as being the chief reason for the show's longevity.
On 18 April 2008 the producer of I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue, Jon Naismith, announced that, owing to hospitalisation to repair an aortic aneurysm, Humphrey Lyttelton would be unable to record the scheduled shows and that they would have to be postponed. The final show of the 2008 Best of tour on 22 April would be presented by Rob Brydon. Following Lyttelton's death there was speculation that the series might be cancelled because replacing him would be extremely difficult if not impossible. In a eulogy in The Guardian, Barry Cryer did not allude to the future of the programme but said that there's "got to be an agonising reappraisal" and that Lyttelton was the "very hub of the show". Cryer, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Graeme Garden all ruled themselves out as hosts: Cryer did not think the programme would work if a panellist became chairman and it "would need somebody of stature to be parachuted in". Jeremy Hardy also ruled himself out, saying "Humph had big shoes to fill and I wouldn't do it."
In the Clue mailout for September 2008 Naismith stated: "Despite the rumours, we've made no decisions about possible replacements for Humph, and are unlikely to make any decisions this year at least. Certainly I don't envisage us selecting anyone on a permanent basis for several series." It was announced that the show would continue recording beginning in 2009. The first new shows would be hosted by rotating guest presenters (similarly to the format of Have I Got News for You) before a permanent replacement host was decided. In the Clue mailout for February 2009 Naismith announced that Stephen Fry, Jack Dee and Rob Brydon would host two shows each, to be recorded in April, May and June 2009 respectively. The programme returned on 15 June 2009, chaired by Fry with the usual panellists and special guest Victoria Wood. Every series since then has been chaired by Dee.
The regular panellists for much of the show's history were:
The show has had a number of producers over the years:
Early episodes featured Dave Lee, who provided piano accompaniment on I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again. However, Colin Sell now usually fills this role. He is often the butt of jokes about his musical ability to which he is unable to respond as he has no microphone. For example: "When music experts hear Colin's compositions, they say he could have been another Berlin, Porter or anybody else employed by the German State Railway." Guest pianists are called in when Sell has been unable to attend (or the ISIHAC team have "won the coin toss" as Lyttelton once said on the show), including Neil Innes, Denis King and Matthew Scott. Lyttelton's band also appeared on a couple of Christmas specials. Once when Innes was guesting Lyttelton outlined the musician's career, concluding that this "has brought him to where he is today: standing in for Colin Sell." In another appearance Innes sang along to his own composition "I'm the Urban Spaceman" during a round of "Pick Up Song".
Guests have included:
Raymond Baxter was occasionally drafted to commentate on sessions of Mornington Crescent and also presented the one-off special Everyman's Guide to Mornington Crescent. Both Judi Dench and Alan Titchmarsh took part in "Celebrity What's My Line?". Judi Dench and Michael Gambon performed the Mornington Crescent drama The Bromley by Bow Stratagem. Alan Titchmarsh also played every questioner (that is, famous gardeners) on a 2012 show which featured Victoria Wood. A 2013 episode featured a round of Useless Celebrities, a parody of Pointless Celebrities, and featured Richard Osman as the co-presenter (this was broadcast three years before Osman appeared on the panel). A 2017 episode featured a spoof of The Chase which featured Anne Hegerty, one of the Chasers from the show.
On one occasion Humph announced that they had a very distinguished actor as a guest who would join in the game of Mornington Crescent. When the game started, after great ceremony, the penultimate player, the last of the panellists, won on his first move, thus denying the distinguished guest the opportunity to make a single move. The chairman apologised but explained that this was an unavoidable possibility and the guest left without having uttered a word. The show was allegedly inundated with complaints at the treatment of Sir Alec Guinness as on the actual recording Lyttelton can be heard to say, "Well I'm very sorry about that. Rather unfortunate. We would like to go on and ask you a few things about what you're doing currently, Sir Alec, but we do have to hurry on to the next game." This story became a favourite of Lyttelton's, who claimed in interviews that the "distinguished actor" had never actually been named on the show.
Since 18 May 1985 (in the same episode as Kenny Everett made his debut) the show has included a fictional and completely silent scorer "whose job is eased by the fact no points are actually awarded", usually "the lovely Samantha" who sits on Humph's left hand. There is a seat with a microphone next to the Chairman which is "used" by Samantha. During the introductory music Humphrey Lyttelton would stand up and "help" Samantha into her seat. In practice the seat and microphone were only used by the producer to welcome the audience, to introduce the participants and to give any other information to the audience such as the expected date of broadcasting, and to supervise re-recordings of fluffs made in the programme.
Lyttelton would describe Samantha's social activities, usually in an apology received from the unseen character who had been detained, often with a "gentleman friend". His comments included sexual innuendo and double entendres, like "Samantha likes nothing better than a little potter in the woodshed in the morning", though many were far more daring and explicit. During early episodes of Samantha's appearance on the show, it was not completely clear that she was a fictional character, garnering complaints about the sexist and humiliating treatment she received. Producer Jon Naismith recalled "when we [Naismith and Iain Pattinson] took over the show we used to get quite a few letters accusing us of sexist references to Samantha" (the character was named after the page 3 topless model Samantha Fox). Samantha's inabilities as score-keeper often form the basis for humour; in a programme from 1997, Humph said: "It's just occurred to me that Samantha hasn't given us the score... since 1981."
Samantha has sometimes been replaced by a Swedish stand-in, Sven, or occasionally another substitute, Monica. When Margaret Thatcher left office in 1990 Lyttelton introduced a scorer named Margaret. In an episode in November 1991 both Samantha and Sven were present but occupied with each other and unable to award points.
The programme's scoring is completely nonexistent. Most of the show is scripted, but in rounds such as "Sound charades", where one team of panellists have to guess the charade of the other team, the answer may be obvious (usually a pun) but the opposing team are now actually not told the answer. In recording, it has taken them many minutes to come up with the correct answer, most of which has to be edited out before broadcast.
In rounds in which the panel must not see what the audience sees, there is the "advanced laser display-board" (actually a sign with the answer written on, held by Jon Naismith), sometimes described in more elaborate terms and "so generously funded by our hosts" but these of course do not exist: they are conveyed to "listeners at home" by the "mystery voice", alluding to the 1960s radio programme Twenty Questions.
A regular feature on the programme, preceding the game Mornington Crescent, is a fictional letters section which begins with the chairman's comments ("I notice from the sheer weight of this week's postbag, we've received a little over no letters" and "I see from the number of letters raining down on us this week that the Scrabble factory has exploded again"). The invariably single letter each week is from "A Mrs Trellis of North Wales", one of the many prompts for a cheer from the audience, whose incoherent letters usually mistake the chairman for another Radio 4 presenter or media personality. "Dear Libby" (she writes), "why oh why ... very nearly spells YOYO", or "Dear Mr Titchmarsh, never let them tell you that size isn't important. My aunt told me that, but then all my new wallpaper fell off."
The chairman introduces the show with remarks such as:
"Hello and welcome to I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue. Tonight, we promise you a nail-biting contest. Which will be followed by a nose-picking contest."
and continues by providing a little background material, usually derogatory, about the show's location:
"Hastings joined with Romney, Hythe, Dover and Sandwich to form a brotherhood of coastal towns in 1067, intended to defend England from any cross-Channel invasion; they took the crest of a running horse rampant and stable door bolted."
Then the teams' introduction:
"The Dorset coast is also famous for its sedimentary deposits dating from the Eocene Age, and the curious still come here in search of fossils and even obscure little-known dinosaurs...Let's meet the teams..."
The teams are often mocked at their introduction:
"As I introduce the teams today I must say we couldn't have asked for four better comedians. So that's answered your next question..."
Many games are played on I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, some frequently and dozens less often. A few have been played only once, either because the joke works only once or because they were not particularly successful. Popular games include "One Song to the Tune of Another", "Mornington Crescent", "Sound Charades", "Late Arrivals", "Double Feature", "Cheddar Gorge" and "Uxbridge English Dictionary". "One Song to the Tune of Another" is always introduced using a complex analogy, despite its self-explanatory title, often ending with a joke at the expense of Colin Sell.
The panellists play as individuals or as two teams. "Celebrity What's My Line?" completely destroyed the intent of the original — for players to guess the occupation of a third party by asking yes/no questions. The I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue version once employed the famous actress (and fan of the show) Dame Judi Dench in this role and the renowned television gardener Alan Titchmarsh. Each began by performing a mime illustrating their occupation, giving a cryptic clue to the panel (appearing to a radio listener as a short silence punctuated by exclamations from the panel and laughter from the studio audience), before fielding apparently serious questions from the teams (e.g. "Is that your own hair?" or "Do you kill people for money?"), who pretended not to know who they were.
Musical games often involve incongruities such as singing "One Song to the Tune of Another" or playing a song using only a swanee whistle and a kazoo. In "Just a Minim" – a parody of Radio 4's Just a Minute – panellists must sing a specified song avoiding repetition, deviation, or hesitation: the chosen songs often have extremely repetitive lyrics.
Humour is derived from wordplay such as puns or mockery of styles of speech. For example, in a round based on suggesting television programmes from biblical times:
In "Uxbridge English Dictionary" the panellists contribute humorous redefinitions of words; "Puny: the Roman Catholic equivalent of tennis elbow". More puns are found in the "Arrivals at the Ball" section, of the form "Mr and Mrs X and their son (or daughter)...." the child's name forming a pun, preferably laboured and feeble. This grew out of the "drama" section of later shows in the I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again series, for example, at the Criminals' Ball, "Mr and Mrs Knee, and their Swedish son, Lars Knee".
According to Tim Brooke-Taylor twenty per cent of the show is ad-libbed. According to Willie Rushton, it is more like fifty per cent, but he didn't think that a bad thing.
The show draws to a close with the chairman imparting some final words of wisdom intended to evoke time, destiny, fate and eternity, undercut with silliness. For example: "...And so, as the hunter of time blasts the moose of eternity, and the dairy counter worker of fate sighs and grabs her mop..." Lyttelton's final sign-off on the show, shortly before his death in April 2008, was:
And so as the loose-bowelled pigeon of time swoops low over the unsuspecting tourist of destiny, and the flatulent skunk of fate wanders into the air-conditioning system of eternity, I notice it's the end of the show.— Humphrey Lyttelton, I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, broadcast 17 December 2007
Most of the humour is detached from the real world. Steve Punt cites it as one of his favourite radio shows because "there's no points being made or targets being attacked." Contemporary references occasionally made by participants are usually asides. The show does occasionally comment on the outside world, though from an innocent perspective. The game "Complete George Bush Quotes" was once played, in which the teams had to supply endings for phrases that George Bush had begun (see Bushism), the teams complaining that they couldn't be any funnier than the original.
At the close of one show, the chairman asked the teams to read the cuttings that they had brought along with them, in the manner of fellow Radio 4 show The News Quiz. The teams proceeded to read their cuttings, but only to themselves, followed by some interested murmurs from the teams and much laughter from the audience.
Self-deprecation forms a big part of the show's humour. It frequently pokes fun at itself and its supposed low quality. For example, Lyttelton was heard to exclaim at the end of a round:
According to Willie Rushton, "The show gets quite filthy at times, but the audience love it." After over forty years on the air one of the most important aspects of the show is its huge stock of running gags which, if not always funny in themselves, can elicit huge anticipatory laughter from the studio audience. The mere mention of Lionel Blair will often bring roars of laughter in anticipation of an outrageous double-entendre based on his supposed homosexuality (he is not gay). In the "Film Club" round any reference by Graeme Garden to Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is sure to cause a similar response. The game "Wobbling Bunnies" was introduced several times by Humph, often with eager anticipation by the panel and audience, but time pressures always meant the game was never actually played. Graeme Garden and Barry Cryer frequently play the characters of two Scots, Hamish and Dougal, whose skits usually begin with the phrase "You'll have had your tea?", as a stereotypical Scots miser when receiving a guest never offers any food or drink. The characters were developed into their own Radio 4 show, Hamish and Dougal. Another long-running gag involves one of the panellists putting forward a challenge of "hesitation" when another panellist leaves a long pause in the middle of speaking, a reference to Radio 4's other long-running panel show Just a Minute. (Likewise, occasionally on Just a Minute, a panellist will make a challenge of "Mornington Crescent".) Chairman Jack Dee frequently pokes fun at Just a Minute, particularly its chairman Nicholas Parsons, whom he mimics in constantly emphasising the long experience of some panellists, and the fact that the programme can be heard all over the world.
The programme has won the Gold Sony Radio Comedy Award three times:
Clue has been broadcast since 11 April 1972 on BBC Radio 4 with new series rotating with the other Monday night comedy staples such as The Unbelievable Truth, The Museum Of Curiosity and Just a Minute.
Excluding compilations and repeats, this totals 497 episodes, (including series 70,71 and 72). Some early episodes of the series, including the first, were wiped in the late 1970s. Following the BBC's Treasure Hunt appeal for missing material in 2002, several shows were recovered from off-air recordings made by listeners. Ultimately, a complete archive (barring the opening music in places) was assembled, though the quality was somewhat poor for early episodes.
In 2007, I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue: The Official Stage Tour visited 9 locations across England. While the broadcast shows are recorded on location, this was the first ISIHAC touring stage show in the show's 35-year history. It was a best of show, featuring favourite rounds from the past 35 years, and the guest panellist was Jeremy Hardy. The shows were not recorded for broadcast on Radio 4, although it was suggested that they may be recorded for release as part of the BBC Radio Collection.
In 2008, I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue: The Official Stage Tour embarked on another best of tour, with the intention of visiting many parts of the UK that were missed in the autumn 2007 dates.
The show at the Lowry in Salford was filmed and broadcast on BBC Four on 13 September 2008. Although some unaired pilots had previously been made, this was the first time ISIHAC has been shown on television. An extended version was released on DVD on 10 November 2008.
The regular panellists decided to continue the annual stage tour despite Lyttelton's death, with Jack Dee (one of the 51st series' hosts) as chairman for the tour shows. Jeremy Hardy remained as the guest participant.
Another set of tour dates, with Jack Dee as chairman and Jeremy Hardy as guest panellist, took place in 2010.
The show did not tour between 2011 and 2013, but there were a couple of one-off shows performed during this time with Dee as chairman and Hardy as guest panellist.
The touring show resumed in 2014, again with Dee in the chair and Hardy as the guest panellist.
A one-off special stage show was advertised as in January 2019 to take place the following February. Following the death of regular guest Jeremy Hardy, the special show became a tribute to him, with Cryer, Garden and Brooke-Taylor joined by several guests - Rob Brydon, Tony Hawks, David Mitchell, Rory Bremner, Sandi Toksvig and Andy Hamilton.
A ninth tour was announced in October 2019 to take place in early 2020. Jack Dee, Colin Sell and Tim Brooke-Taylor were joined by Tony Hawks and Miles Jupp on the panel, with the fourth spot rotating between Rory Bremner, Richard Osman and John Finnemore. Marcus Brigstocke also appeared in place of Jupp on some dates, and Barry Cryer made a special appearance at the Watford Colosseum show.
Episodes of I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue were included in the package of programmes held in 20 underground radio stations of the BBC's Wartime Broadcasting Service (WTBS), designed to provide public information and morale-boosting broadcasts for 100 days after a nuclear attack.
Barry Cryer, a regular panellist, who shared the chairman's duties with Lyttleton in the first series...
It was either David Hatch or Humphrey Barclay, the two producers involved in the planning of the first series, who decided it would be a good idea to put Humph in the role of chairman.
And so as the loose-bowelled pigeon of time swoops low over the unsuspecting tourist of destiny, and the flatulent skunk of fate wanders into the air-conditioning system of eternity, I notice it's the end of the show.
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