OOn 11 April 1972 at 12.25pm BBC Radio 4 started between a ‘You and Yours’ discussion on ‘What’s New in Gaming Equipment’ and a World at One report on the Labor Party uproar over the Common Market referendum a comedy game show.
The chairman, jazz trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton, was an unusual choice and he seemed appalled by the format, peevishly setting the length of a competition at “two minutes or as long as I can stand it”. The rounds included team members having to sing Three Blind Mice to the tune of Old Man River. Other challenges were improvising rhyming lines. After 30 minutes, the sad presenter explained the first show had come to a “merciful end”.
Fifty years later, I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue is still in the same slot. The chair seems just as desperate to be somewhere else, despite being Jack Dee now. And the show is such a broadcaster that its half-century edition is taped at the Royal Albert Hall.
Graeme Garden, who developed the show, is surprised by its longevity. “I sometimes say that Clue took three years too long,” he says. “But it was the first three.”
The fact that Lyttelton did an additional 43 runs of a show in five decades on the airwaves, Garden believes, is due to a change in his original, all-impromptu approach that was “a little too casual.” Producers Paul Mayhew-Archer (1982-86) and Jon Naismith – showrunners since 1991 – are widely credited with making Clue a super format by introducing tight scripts that were a trampoline for ad-libs.
It’s an approach that was captured in the show’s most famous one-liner. On April 13, 2002, during a round of the Uxbridge English Dictionary – in which old words were given new definitions – Stephen Fry offered: “Countryside – to kill Piers Morgan.”
Radio 4 stations are barred from even saying “the C-word” if child listeners ask adults to spell the word. But at 12:52 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon, a punchline from Radio 4 landed the most taboo word on the airwaves — using Clue’s signature blue-chip filth trick, where the rudeness isn’t visible in the script but is made audible in the transmission.
“We’ve always tried to make the show like this,” says Garden, “as if there was still pretty strict BBC censorship and we were being forced to spread the dirty jokes through innuendos rather than saying the words directly. Because then you can say, if you think that’s dirty, that’s your opinion – not our words.”
Plenty of genius puns involve Samantha, the show’s imaginary scorer, to whose personal life Lyttelton would allude. Arguably the second most legendary smut report, after Countryside, is an account of Samantha’s visit to a gastropub, where “she wasn’t into the barman’s sausage, but said she really liked his tongue in cider.”
Mayhew-Archer’s view is that “on Clue we were able to get away with jokes that other shows couldn’t because of Graeme and Tim [Brooke-Taylor of The Goodies] and the others were worshiped. But I think there was also a sense that when Humph said that stuff, it couldn’t possibly be as rude as it sounded because he was so respectable.
While the show’s inventive innuendos are one of its major draws to fans, some consider the jokes too rude or sexist. Garden recalls: “We had a complaint about Samantha, which the BBC took incredibly seriously and promised to remove her from the premises. Which we thought was incredibly unfair as nobody had ever complained. Also, Samantha was usually the instigator of these alleged events – she was never exploited – and after all, she didn’t exist.’ Matters were finally settled by alternating her duties with Sven, an equally lecherous man.
Allegations of homophobia stemmed from a two-century running gag about Lionel Blair, dancer and host of ITV’s charade-based game show Give Us a Clue. Although Blair was straight, his camp manners and balletic skills sparked a radio pantomime game in which the punch lines alluded to gay sex.
How did Blair take this weekly misrepresentation of his sexuality? Garden says: “He told Barry Cryer he loved those jokes; he enjoyed the publicity. But there was a later message that his wife and family were upset and the BBC would put our minds at ease. So I think the BBC leaned on us. But it wasn’t long before he died [in 2021].”
Perhaps encouraging complaints about “pupil” humor was the fact that — despite the early involvement of Jo Kendall — the standout panellists were blokes for a long time. Thankfully, that changed over the years with the introduction of female regulars, including Victoria Wood (who was identified as a future mainstay before she died aged 62).
One of the first women to make her mark, as the show might put it, was Jan Ravens. “It was like the golf club,” she says. “When I started Clue, I was aware that people were saying, ‘We’d better hire some women,’ but there was no reason to make me feel unwelcome or awkward. I think the Clue guys were very pleased to have new people on board.”
One of the other main characters of the series is Colin Sell – the resident pianist since he was recruited as a student in 1975. He’s key to the 50-year-old circuit One Song to the Tune of Another, highlights of which include performances such as Rob Brydon singing the Spider-Man theme to Bring Him Home from Les Misérables and the heroic tone deafness of Jeremy Hardy.
“We go through the songs once in rehearsal,” says Sell, “so I can change the key and speed up their tempo. But practice still makes it a bit like a wall of death. With Jeremy, the reason he was so bad was because he had never sung in public. After doing a few stage tours, he started singing in unison, which pretty much spoiled the effect. So I rehearsed it a key and then cranked it up a bit on the record to throw it.”
In the 50 years, the series seemed close to the end only twice. When Garden and Naismith made plans for the first live tour in 2005 (partly to top up Radio 4’s paltry royalties), the BBC tried to stop them by asserting copyright claims – until legal counsel said that neither the BBC nor Garden the show possessed what was “not a format but a series of formats”.
During this dispute, the issue of low wages was also raised. Garden recalls a meeting with then-BBC Director-General Mark Thompson, at which Thompson exclaimed, “Double everyone’s pay!”
The fees have remained unchanged since then, insiders say. Naismith recalls the regulars saying they would “keep going until Humph leaves,” and after Lyttelton’s death in 2008, recording of Series 51 was shelved. “But then the BBC got in touch with Jon Naismith,” Sell recalls, “and said emails were coming in from listeners who were getting them back.”
Now that Dee has replaced Lyttleton – due to a similarly audible reluctance to sit there in the chair – the only threat to the show could be tightening censorship, which could result in Samantha and others being fingered by Radio 4 bosses .
In his first 17 years as a producer, Naismith says he was “the only one who heard the show before it ended.” But in 2008, after Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand sent an abusive phone call to actor Andrew Sachs, the BBC introduced layers of “compliance management”. “Suddenly we had all these people listening to the shows,” says Naismith. “I found that very frustrating. Someone in middle management says, ‘I’m not so sure about this line’, then someone else isn’t either.”
During the pandemic lockdown, Clue was included in an emergency slate of shows handpicked by then general manager Tony Hall to “cheer people up”. After selecting a dozen from the archives, Naismith had “eight notes from management on things that needed trimming, and I’m happy to say I’ve successfully challenged all but one”.
Clue has also survived the technical challenge of lockdown footage on Zoom. Sell on his living room piano “could hear the panelists, but because of the time lag, they sang a half bar behind. Then I thought, that happens a lot in the recordings.”
One of the new stars, Pippa Evans, recalls “a crazy lockdown recording where Barry Cryer kept taking his headphones off and we couldn’t get his attention. So me and Harry Hill wrote signs that said, ‘Barry!’ and held her up. Eventually we had to call Barry’s son to call Barry’s wife and tell him to put his headphones back on.”
Having weathered a pandemic, the show might survive an even greater global catastrophe in some form. “Someone told me,” Garden says, “that the BBC has a collection of programs that play in the event of a nuclear war, and Clue is one of them.”
The last thing Brits ever hear might be brilliant references to Piers Morgan or Samantha? “Yes. But we wouldn’t get the repeat fees.”
50 Years Without a Clue airs April 16 at 8pm on Radio 4 and BBC Sounds
This article was amended on April 11, 2022 to correct the date Stephen Fry’s “Countryside” joke first aired.