Iain Pattinson obituary

Longstanding chief scriptwriter for the much-loved Radio 4 panel game I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue

In 2020 Radio Times magazine conducted a poll to find the greatest radio comedy show of all time. The No 1 spot that went to I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, Radio 4’s long-running “antidote to panel games”, was as much a tribute to the show’s main scriptwriter, Iain Pattinson, as it was to any of its cherished voices.

Pattinson, who has died aged 68 from leukaemia, was described by Clue’s longtime producer Jon Naismith as “the best radio comedy scriptwriter of his generation”. His career on the show spanned the last 16 years of Humphrey Lyttelton’s chairmanship of it, and the first 11 of Jack Dee’s.

His talents were in demand right across TV and radio comedy. Shows with which he was associated included Week Ending and The News Quiz on Radio 4, and on TV, Would I Lie to You? and an early Graham Norton vehicle, Bring Me the Head of Light Entertainment (Channel 5, 1997-2000).

He wrote scripts for Stephen Fry, Jonathan Ross, Clive Anderson and Chris Tarrant, among many other acts, and on rare occasions appeared on air himself. But Clue – on which he was the sole scriptwriter for two decades from the mid-1990s onwards – was his true home.

It was Pattinson who wrote intros and links for Lyttelton and Dee, specialising in jokes that offered a cod history of whichever location around the UK the programme was being recorded in. “By the 1890s, Wimbledon was well established as a commuter town,” went one intro, “with regular horse buses running to the city. However, when the electric tramline arrived in 1907, the horses went to London on that instead.”

Pattinson was a master of disguised vulgarity. He turned innuendo into an art form, much of it centred on the Clue chairman’s mythical assistant, “the lovely Samantha”, and in spite of the disarming effect of the deadpan delivery characteristic of both Lyttelton and Dee, in 2014 the BBC Trust was required to adjudicate on a complaint that the BBC had “failed to keep abreast of changing social attitudes and values relating to the non-acceptability of sexist humour and the sexual objectification of women”.

Humphrey Lyttelton chairing a TV recording of I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue in 2008

There was an anxious wait before the trust decided that Samantha “was a skit on both the misogynist and sexist programmes which were predominantly popular some years ago and the attitudes that led to them which still exist today”.

Samantha was free to carry on with her pursuits, one of which, Pattinson dreamed up, was keeping bees. “She already has three dozen or so,” the audience learned. “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 around his head.”

Another of Clue’s fictional characters whom Pattinson brought to life was the inveterate letter-writer Mrs Trellis, who would send in missives such as “Dear Mr Titchmarsh, The liner in my garden pond has developed a leak. Could you please send a lifeboat to get the passengers off? Yours in haste, Mrs Trellis, north Wales.”

Grandiosity and bathos combined to form the sign-offs that were a feature of the Clue chairman’s performance. “And so, ladies and gentlemen, as the Goldfish of Time swims round the Bowl of Fate, before being flushed into the U-bend of Eternity, I notice it’s the end of the show.”

Born in Sidcup, Kent, Iain was the son of Geoffrey, a D-day veteran who worked in shipping, and his wife, Audrey. He went to Chislehurst and Sidcup grammar school, leaving before his A-levels to take up a job at Shell, where he worked his way up to become a marketing executive.

Pattinson had shown a creative streak by playing the guitar well enough to perform in bands and pick up session work. Then in the late 1980s he quit Shell and started pitching work to the BBC radio comedy department, which, at that time, according to Naismith, was “pretty much happy for people to walk in off the street and have a go”. Few made the grade, but Pattinson was one who did.

He was a major contributor to both the 2008 book Lyttelton’s Britain and the book of I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue that was published to mark the show’s 40th anniversary in 2012. Over the course of his career he won three Sony Gold awards, a British Comedy award, a Broadcasting Press Guild award and a Viewers and Listeners award.

The last two editions of Clue that Pattinson worked on – recorded in Huddersfield in early 2020, just before lockdown – were also, as it turned out, the last to feature the much loved panellist Tim Brooke-Taylor, who died a few weeks later.

Pattinson was a motor enthusiast who spent much of his time at his second home in the Dordogne in France. Tucked away in the garage was an AC Cobra sports car.

He is survived by his mother and his sister Edwina.

• Iain Lionel Pattinson, comedy writer, born 12 January 1953; died 14 February 2021


Simon O'Hagan

The GuardianTramp

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