Sunday, April 27, 2008

RIP Humph

I suppose you could call Humphrey Lyttelton the acceptable face of Old Etonians, in contrast to the likes of David Cameron and Boris Johnson.
It was always said that his passing would mean the end of 'I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue' and I hope that proves to be the case. There's nearly forty years' worth of archived programmes for us to continue enjoying.

I don't wish to rain on the eulogies but those wonderful introductions to the programme and the filthy innuendoes about Samantha and Lionel Blair were not written by Humphrey Lyttleton. He simply read them out, albeit with impeccable timing.
A documentary a few years ago revealed that it was the job of the producer to write all the jokes and Humph would rehearse reading them with a straight face just before the recording. But you wouldn't guess this from all the tributes to his wit.

This illustrates the wider point about the shameful way that writers are treated in television and radio and the way that many performers take credit for other people's work.
Harry Hill's TV Burp has just won two BAFTAs. The Radio Times recently published a letter praising the way Harry Hill extracted humour from the week's TV programmes. Yet Harry Hill writes very little of the programme and depends on a team of writers and researchers. To his credit he once admitted this when receiving a previous award.

It's still the case that programme credits often name writers as 'Programme Associates' rather than writers in order to disguise the fact that the highly paid star has done nothing more than read an autocue. (Another traditional device was 'Additional material by....', which meant the presenter/comedian had written just the words 'Good evening').

Television in particular is a medium built on deception. Generations of quick-witted game show hosts have employed people to write their 'ad-libs' for them. The panellists on 'Have I Got News For You' are shown the questions in advance to give them time to think up jokes. Even that secular saint David Attenborough tracks down a rare reptile which (we now know) has been brought from a zoo and placed in front of him just before the camera rolls.

So I'm not launching a posthumous attack on the great Humphrey Lyttelton. He may not have written the material but he brought to the party his world-weary urbanity and flawless delivery and timing.
And 'I'm Sorry...' was just a diversion from his day job as a great jazz musician and nobody would criticise him for interpreting tunes written by someone else.
But I'd also like to pay tribute to all the producers of 'I'm Sorry....' who have written hundreds of introductions, puns and doubles entendres without ever getting any credit for it.

My niggle above has been eloquently remedied by Jeremy Hardy in today's Guardian obituary:
"He was furnished with great scripts by Britain's best jokewriter, Iain Pattinson, but only his delivery and persona could have done them justice: he would play around with lines and add flourishes of his own, maintaining his austere demeanour, but visibly delighted when something new went well."


At 7:50 PM, Blogger Vicus Scurra said...

I have to take issue with you. I doubt whether there were many of us who thought that he made up his stuff. Neither do we believe that the panelists weren't given the questions well before the recording.
Neither should we think that the double entendres are particularly brilliant. Many of them were repetitious and unsubtle. If you or I were to read them out, they would only be funny if the audience were half wits or drunks. It was Humph's comic timing that transformed them, his ability to appear to be the establishment figure unaware of the filth that he was spouting.
So I don't think it is particularly timely of you to make this comment.
I shall miss Humph the broadcaster and the jazz musician. His jazz programmes, even though much of the music did not appeal to me, had the same warmth that characterised his comedy broadcasts.
I know that you are intending to applaud the writers, but you can do this at any other time.
We should this week pay tribute to one of the very few great "celebrities" who was too young to die at 86.
(Nice to be able to disagree with you once in a while)

At 8:36 AM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

I hoped I'd made it clear that I wasn't having a pop at Humph, whom I greatly admired.
I've now added Jeremy Hardy's comment from today's Guardian.
I was simply making a plea for this kind of 'transparency'.
And I don't agree that most people knew he was reading a script. I wasn't sure myself whether he wrote his own jokes until it was revealed in a TV programme, and I don't think I'm particularly stupid!

At 8:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Vicus, Willie. You may as well just complain about the artifice of showbusiness in its entirety. Joke-writers will always be the backroom boys. The genius of a joke is in its telling.

At 9:18 AM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

wyndham: it goes beyond show business. Most party leaders have their speeches written for them (and their newspaper articles) and Thatcher rarely understood the jokes that were written for her.


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