I’m Sorry, I [Still] Haven’t a Clue … how radio’s smuttiest show has beaten the censors for 50 years

Innuendo, tone-deaf singing and dreadful wages: as the cherished BBC panel game celebrates its half century, we look back at its finest moments – and its future

On 11 April 1972 at 12.25pm, between a You and Yours discussion on “What’s new in playground equipment” and a World at One report on Labour party turmoil over the Common Market referendum, BBC Radio 4 launched a comedy game show.

The chairman, jazz trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton, was an unusual choice, and he seemed appalled by the format, testily setting the length of one contest at “two minutes, or as long as I can stand it”. Rounds included team members being required to sing Three Blind Mice to the tune of Old Man River; other challenges included improvising rhyming lines. After 30 minutes, the doleful host declared that the first show had come to a “merciful end”.

Fifty years on, I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue is still in the same slot. The chair seems equally desperate to be elsewhere, although he is now Jack Dee. And the show is such a broadcasting institution that its half-century edition will be recorded at the Royal Albert Hall.

Graeme Garden, who devised the show, is surprised by its longevity. “I sometimes say that Clue went on three years too long,” he says. “But it was the first three.”

Clued out … former long-serving ISIHAC panellists Barry Cryer and Willie Rushton.
Clued out … former long-serving panellists Barry Cryer and Willie Rushton. Photograph: Piers Allardyce/Shutterstock

That Lyttelton did another 43 runs of a show marking five decades on air is due, Garden believes, to a change to its initial, completely improvised, approach which was “a bit too casual”. Producers Paul Mayhew-Archer (1982-86) and Jon Naismith – showrunner since 1991 – are generally credited with making Clue a super-format by introducing tight scripts that were a trampoline for ad-libs.

It’s an approach that has captured in the show’s single most celebrated one-liner. On 13 April 2002, during a round of Uxbridge English Dictionary – in which new definitions are given to old words – Stephen Fry offered: “Countryside – to kill Piers Morgan.”

Radio 4 broadcasters are discouraged from saying even “the C-word”, in case child listeners ask adults to spell the word out. But, at 12.52 on a Thursday afternoon, a Radio 4 punchline landed the most taboo word in broadcasting – using Clue’s signature trick of blue-chip filth where the rudeness isn’t visible on the script, but is made audible in the delivery.

“We’ve always tried to do the show,” says Garden, “as if there were quite a severe BBC censor still in existence and we were obliged to get in the dirty jokes through innuendo rather than saying the words directly. Because then you can say, if you think that’s dirty, that’s your mind – not our words.”

Harry Hill, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Colin Sell, Humphrey Lyttelton, Jon Naismith, Graeme Garden and Barry Cryer in Oxford for a recording of I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue in 2005.
Did anyone say Mornington Crescent? Harry Hill, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Colin Sell, Humphrey Lyttelton, Jon Naismith, Graeme Garden and Barry Cryer in Oxford for a recording of I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue in 2005. Photograph: BBC

Many ingenious puns involve Samantha, the show’s imaginary scorer, to whose private life Lyttelton would allude. After “countryside”, the second most legendary piece of smut is probably a report of Samantha’s visit to a gastropub where “she didn’t fancy the landlord’s sausage but said she’d really like his tongue in cider”.

Mayhew-Archer’s view is that “we were able to get away with jokes in Clue that other shows couldn’t because Graeme and Tim [Brooke-Taylor of The Goodies] and the others were revered. But I think there was also a sense that, as Humph was saying this stuff, it couldn’t possibly be as rude as it sounded because he was so respectable.”

While the show’s inventive innuendo is one of its great attractions for fans, the jokes are considered too rude or sexist for some. Garden remembers: “We had one complaint about Samantha, which the BBC took incredibly seriously and promised she would be removed from the premises. Which we thought was incredibly unfair, as no one else had ever complained. Also, Samantha was usually the instigator of these alleged events – she was never taken advantage of – and also, finally, she didn’t exist.” The matter was eventually settled by alternating her duties with Sven, an equally libidinous male.

New voices … Pippa Evans is now a regular on the show.
New voices … Pippa Evans is now a regular on the show. Photograph: Aemen/Jiksaw

Accusations of homophobia resulted from a running gag, straddling two centuries, about Lionel Blair, dancer and team captain of ITV’s charades-based game show Give Us a Clue. Although Blair was heterosexual, his camp manner and balletic skills seeded a game of radio mime in which the punchlines alluded to gay sex.

How did Blair take this weekly misrepresentation of his sexuality? Garden says: “He told Barry Cryer that he loved those jokes; he relished the publicity. But there was a later communication that his wife and family were upset and would the BBC calm us down a bit. So I think the BBC leaned on us. But that was not long before he died [in 2021].”

Perhaps encouraging complaints about “schoolboy” humour was the fact that – despite the early inclusion of Jo Kendall – the stand-out panellists were for a long time blokes. Fortunately, this changed over the years, with the introduction of regular female guests including Victoria Wood (who had been identified as a future mainstay before she died at 62).

Jan Ravens.
‘I think the Clue boys were quite pleased to have fresh people in’ … Jan Ravens. Photograph: Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images

One of the first women to, as the show might put it, hold her own was Jan Ravens. “It was like being at the golf club,” she says. “I was aware, when I started Clue, that it was a case of: ‘We’d better get some women on,’ but there was no sense of making me feel unwelcome or awkward. I think the Clue boys were quite pleased to have fresh people in.”

One of the series’ other crucial personnel is Colin Sell – the resident pianist since being recruited as a student in 1975. He is key to the 50-year-old round One Song to the Tune of Another, whose highlights include performances such as Rob Brydon singing the theme from Spider-Man to Bring Him Home from Les Misérables, and the heroic tone-deafness of Jeremy Hardy.

Jo Kendall …
Early member of the team … Jo Kendall, who died this year. Photograph: Ronald Spencer/ANL/Shutterstock

“We go through the songs once in rehearsal,” says Sell, “so I can change key and pick up their pace. But one practice still makes it a bit of a wall of death. With Jeremy, the reason he was so bad was that he had never sung in public. After he did a few of the stage tours, he started to sing in tune, which rather spoiled the effect. So I’d rehearse it one key and then, in the recording, put it up a bit higher to throw him.”

Across the 50 years, the series has only twice seemed close to ending. In 2005, when Garden and Naismith made plans for the first live tour (partly to supplement the paltry Radio 4 fees), the BBC tried to stop them, claiming copyright – until legal advice said that neither the BBC nor Garden owned the show, which was “not a format, but a series of formats”.

During that dispute, the issue of low pay was also raised. Garden recalls a meeting with then BBC director general, Mark Thompson, at which Thompson cried: “Double everyone’s pay!”

Fees have remained unchanged since, say insiders. Naismith recalls the regulars saying that they would “carry on until Humph goes” and, after Lyttelton’s death in 2008, the recording of series 51 was cancelled. “But then the BBC got in touch with Jon Naismith,” remembers Sell, “and said emails were flooding in from listeners who needed it back.”

Now, with Dee having replaced Lyttleton – owing to a similar audible reluctance to be there in the chair – the only threat to the show might be an increase in censorship, which could lead to Samantha and others being fingered by Radio 4 bosses.

For his first 17 years as producer, says Naismith, he “was the only one to hear the show before it went out”. But, in 2008, after Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand broadcast an offensive phone call to the actor Andrew Sachs, the BBC introduced layers of “compliance management”. “Suddenly, we had all these people people listening over the shows,” says Naismith. “I found it very frustrating. Someone in middle management says: ‘I’m not so sure about this line,’ then someone else isn’t sure, either.”

During the pandemic lockdowns, Clue was included in an emergency list of shows chosen by the then director general, Tony Hall, to “cheer people up”. After Naismith selected a dozen from the archives, he had “eight notes from management on things that had to be cut, and I’m pleased to say I successfully disputed all but one”.

Clue also survived the technical challenge of lockdown recordings on Zoom. Sell, on his living-room piano, “could hear the panellists but, due to the time delay, they were singing half a bar behind. Then I thought, that’s what often happens in the recordings.”

Graeme Garden, Humphrey Lyttelton, Barry Cryer and Tim Brooke-Taylor in 2001.
Graeme Garden, Humphrey Lyttelton, Barry Cryer and Tim Brooke-Taylor in 2001. Photograph: Stuart Sadd/BBC Radio 4

One of its new stars, Pippa Evans, remembers “a mad lockdown recording, where Barry Cryer kept taking his headphones off and we couldn’t get his attention. So me and Harry Hill wrote signs saying: ‘Barry!’ and held them up. Eventually we had to call Barry’s son to call Barry’s wife and tell him to put his headphones back on.”

Having got through a pandemic, the show may yet survive, in some form, an even greater global catastrophe. “Someone told me,” says Garden, “that the BBC has a vault of programmes to be played in the case of nuclear war and Clue is among them.”

So the last thing Britons ever hear may be ingenious innuendo about Piers Morgan or Samantha? “Yes. But we wouldn’t get the repeat fees.”

  • 50 Years Without a Clue is on Radio 4 and BBC Sounds on 16 April at 8p

• This article was amended on 11 and 13 April 2022. Stephen Fry’s “Countryside” joke was first aired on 13 April 2002, not on 4 February 2010; and Lionel Blair didn’t host Give Us a Clue, but was a team captain.


Mark Lawson

The GuardianTramp

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