The birth of ITMA 

10 October 2016 tbs.pm/9308

Excerpted from Tommy Handley by Ted Kavanagh,[1] first published December 1949 by Hodder & Stoughton.

The Mayor of Foaming-at-the-Mouth (Tommy Handley) is menaced by Funf (Jack Train)

The Mayor of Foaming-at-the-Mouth (Tommy Handley) is menaced by Funf (Jack Train)

In 1938 (Munich Year)[2] Tommy’s position in the radio world was a peculiar one. He had now been broadcasting regularly since the earliest days of Savoy Hill,[3] and, of the pioneers, only he and Leonard Henry[4] had maintained their lead in the comedy field. Popular though he was, however, the day of the solo comedian was fast declining, the comedy series was on its way and, so far, no series was in sight for him. He was not broadcasting as much as usual, most of his time was spent on tour, but he made regular appearances in B.B.C. Music Hall and various other single spots at frequent intervals. I knew that he felt that he had new fields to conquer, provided he found the right idea, but at the moment the appropriate medium eluded him.

Again, the B.B.C. had grown greatly since Savoy Hill days — the Variety Department now had vast ramifications, and in the comedy field a host of rivals sprang up. Competition increased and a new type of show was introduced—the idea of a series being the prevailing fashion. One must be found for Tommy, insisted John Watt[5] who had now replaced Eric Maschwitz.[6] Eric had resigned in order to devote himself to authorship and was destined to win international success with “Salalaika,” “Paprika” and many other romantic musical comedies. Under Eric’s guidance the Variety Department flourished. His flair for entertainment amounted to genius, and his energy was colossal. He had the ability to inspire both his own staff and the artistes he engaged—he may well be called the Father of Variety as we know it to-day. With Charles Brewer as his first lieutenant the Variety Department had become one of the most active in the B.B.C., and, when John Watt took over, its growth was greatly accelerated. To these three — Maschwitz, Brewer and Watt — Tommy owed a good deal. Right through his career they had helped and encouraged him and remained his firm friends always. Later I will quote what Eric said about him — one of the best expressed of the many tributes paid to him by those amongst whom he spent his radio life.

It is difficult to-day to realise that in pre-war days the show-with-a-story was a radio novelty. “Band-waggon”[7] pioneered the idea with the Wednesday night activities of Arthur Askey[8] and Stinker Murdoch[9] in their B.B.C. Flat. The planners at Broadcasting House were delighted to find that at last there was a show which seemed to please everybody. The order went out to start another series to be broadcast “same time, same station” every week, and Tommy was an obvious choice to play the lead. Over in America the same sort of formula for radio success had been discovered, with such stars as Amos and Andy,[10] Jack Benny,[11] and Burns and Allen.[12] Variety producers at the B.B.C. agreed that Tommy’s almost unique gift was that of seemingly spontaneous quick-fire patter, and that he could certainly put over a show with all the speed and verve of a U.S. broadcast. Basically, the idea, and it was not a very good one, was to create an English version of the Burns and Allen show. Film-goers will know that this act is hardly a parallel of anything in which Tommy could appear. Bob Burns[13] is a poker-faced, monosyllabic character, while Gracie Allen[14] gives every indication — as Bob mentioned on one occasion — of being vaccinated with a gramophone needle. Any English show based on this sort of quick repartee act would obviously have to reverse the characters.

Celia Eddy, a Canadian actress, was to share the microphone with Tommy, and several scripts were prepared. Tommy didn’t feel that any of them were suitable, and it was in the early summer of 1939 that he suggested I might come along with a few ideas. And so, with Francis Worsley the producer, and Tommy, we held the first of many story conferences one warm June afternoon in the Langham Hotel, the pre-war “wet canteen” of the B.B.C. just across the way from Broadcasting House, and now, regrettedly, a hotel no more.[15] This was my first meeting with Francis, with whom I was destined to work so often in the ensuing years. At that time I was writing a series called “Lucky Dip” which had had a very long run, and in which I first met Jack Train[16] and Dick Bentley,[17] both of whom were to win radio fame in days to come. Jack was a newcomer to broadcasting, but showed that great promise which later on he was to fulfil. Dick, recently arrived from Australia, was building up considerable popularity which now, in 1949 — ten years later, is greater than ever. I had not written anything for Tommy for some time, but it was typical of him that he had not forgotten me and that he sought my help when in need. The environment at that meeting in the Langham was right in harmony with the crazy character of the show we were devising. Somewhere or other there was a London conference on religious matters at that time, and the Langham had evidently been put on the list of approved accommodation for the clerical delegates. Tommy, Francis and myself, therefore, sat at a small table amid a perfect hubbub of discussion on church matters, fortifying ourselves with large lagers as we wrestled with the script that had been provided and which had a distinct American flavour.

We at least had a title: “It’s That Man Again!” It was a 1938-1939 catch phrase which fitted any of the periodic rantings and ravings of the Führer in Berlin. The Daily Express ran the phrase as a headline every time the call for Lebensraum went up from the Third Reich, and people were saying it to one another in that half-fearful, half-amused manner which was a symptom of the queasy feeling that preceded the outbreak of war.

The scene of our new series was on board a ship, a sort of mad hatter’s “Strength Through Joy”[18] cruising vessel, in which Tommy would be in charge of the festivities. He would have Celia as his dumb blonde secretary nicknamed Cilly, and for no particular reason one of the passengers would be a mad Russian inventor named Vladivostooge, played by Eric Egan. That was the kernel of the show, and it says much for the B.B.C.’s faith in Tommy Handley as a reliable broadcaster that this sort of skit was, with reservations, approved by the administrative sections. It can well be imagined that with the whole of Europe like the proverbial tinder box the B.B.C. had to be very careful not to give offence. Even a slight deviation from the script might have caused another crisis, and would certainly have created a spate of letters from the usual indignant readers grinding the axes of their own pet “isms” of the period. But in all his career Tommy had never been known to extemporise through excitement or “artistic licence.”

Jack Harris’s Band from the London Casino was engaged for the music, with Pat Taylor as the singer. There were two features in the show — a “Guess or No” charade run by Lionel Gamlin[19] and “Man Bites Dog” by Sam Heppner[20] — in which mundane situations were reversed to give them audience appeal.

After a lot of work and discussion it was agreed that the general idea looked promising enough to warrant a short series, and the programme schedule gave six fortnightly shows through the summer season. The first one was to be from 8.15 p.m.-9 p.m. on Wednesday, July 12th.

The programme was broadcast from the large studio at Maida Vale. The first words that were said after the programme announcement came from Tommy. They were spoken on the telephone : “Hello! Is that Turner, Turner and Turtle? It is? Then good morning, good morning, good morning, good morning. It’s that man again. That’s right, Tommy Handley!”

It was quite a nice little show, and was followed by three more. There was a gap scheduled after this because Radiolympia was running from August 23rd onwards, and special broadcasts had been arranged for this period. We were down for a resumption of the cruise on September 5th. Needless to say, this edition never reached the air.[21]

By early August Tommy, in common with other stalwarts of broadcasting and the B.B.C. staff, had received confidential orders on what they must do if a state of emergency should arise. Those in the know were told of a secret signal. As soon as the announcements preceding the news bulletin changed from “This is the National Programme” to “This is London,” it meant that the key people were to make their way by any means at their disposal to Bristol. On that sunny Sunday morning of September 3rd he heard the sentence that was to send him packing off to Bristol, and he arrived the same night—to find this small regional centre of the B.B.C. a chaotic mess of hundreds of people all eager to see that the show went on — as indeed, from top level orders, it was officially ordained that it must.

Conditions for broadcasting were quite unfamiliar; security was of paramount importance, for it will be remembered that at the beginning of the war there were many rumours about ingenious systems of getting messages to the enemy via some innocent item. The stories ranged from simple pre-arranged codes based on words in talks to involved arrangements whereby a few piano notes revealed the entire movements of the British Navy to gentlemen wearing head-phones in a listening post in Bremen. They were all very silly, but there was, of course, a germ of possible sense in them. After all, Tommy and everyone else scrambling for billets in Bristol had come there by means of a radio code.

I was not with the advance party as I had not been chosen as a member of the Variety Repertory Company, but I had been given a hint to stand by should war break out. As I had not been “vetted” by the Home Office I could not write anything for broadcasting, but when a wire came from John Watt “Come at once” I knew I had passed scrutiny, and made my way to Bristol at once.

When I arrived I went straight to Francis Worsley’s office, and found Tommy there. Francis had been taking a short holiday when war broke out, and considering his delayed arrival in Bristol — he had come all the way from his town in the Home Counties by taxi on September 3rd because someone had forgotten to tell him about the code signal — his office was not at all bad. It was in a study in one of the Houses of Clifton College. It was there that, with pictures of college sports teams still on the wall, that all three of us started plans for a new version of the show, having first chewed it over in the garden in Whiteladies Road where the B.B.C. canteen now stands.

"I've brought this for you, sir" - Mrs Mopp (Dorothy Summers) makes one of her many offerings

“I’ve brought this for you, sir” – Mrs Mopp (Dorothy Summers) makes one of her many offerings

Conferences were held at all hours of the day and night, for there had been a tremendous rush to get normal programmes going after a day or two of bulletins, gramophone records, and marathon performances by Sandy Macpherson[22] on the organ. Tommy was appearing in almost every kind of light entertainment going out from Bristol, and Francis had two or three programmes a day to produce. To add to our difficulties, everyone lived two or three miles from everybody else. I shared a billet with Tommy, and we spent hours discussing the future.

The programme planners took the strong-arm method of simply stating that “It’s That Man Again” would be broadcast on September 19th. They gave us thirty minutes, and a strong supporting cast — Jack Train, Maurice Denham,[23] Vera Lennox,[24] and Jack Hylton’s[25] Band, conducted by Billy Ternant,[26] with Sam Costa[27] as vocalist. Jack Train was not in the Variety Repertory Company, but I wired him and he came straight away.

It was obvious that the cruise idea would have to go. Holidays at sea were as passé as peace. Suddenly there was the strange outbreak of initials on every car on the road—the labels presumably being intended to get priority of passage. Everyone remembers the sort of thing: A.R.P., R.A.F., M.O.F., R.N.V.R., VET., W.V.S., W.D., and so on. Half the initials were private ideas born of pomposity and self-importance, and I admired the girl who used to run around Bristol in an old two-seater with a large label on the wind-screen bearing the words “JUST ME.”

There did, however, seem humorous possibilities in this epidemic of abbreviations. There was also the phenomenon of gigantic Ministries which, though planned secretly months before, seemed to the newspaper reader and listener to bloom overnight. After every evening news bulletin came a spate of orders issued by these Ministries.

And as it is the British temperament never to be awed by such matters even though the greatest war of all time was allegedly going to wipe their cities out in a matter of a week or so, the trio planning the new programme thought that the Ministry craze should get some topical publicity too.

What a card! Tommy Handley with Lind Joyce, Diana Morrison (Miss Hotchkiss), and jean Capra (Naieve)

What a card! Tommy Handley with Lind Joyce, Diana Morrison (Miss Hotchkiss), and jean Capra (Naieve)

On scraps of paper the new Tommy Handley emerged — as Minister of Aggravation and Mysteries, provided with accommodation by courtesy of the Office of Twerps.

I can claim no credit for the title of the show. It caused a lot of brain-searching, for we knew that it should certainly cash in on the initial vogue. M.A.M. was no good ; O.O.T. was hardly worth consideration; nothing could be done with T.H. One day, while we were racking our brains for something easy to say and easy to remember, Tommy was doodling on the blotting paper, as he usually did at our conferences. He wrote out the name of the show with large artistic capitals— I t’s T hat M an A gain. The title was, of course, staring right at him. When he said ITMA, we knew our search was over. We just wondered why we hadn’t thought of it earlier.

Continuity with the earlier shows was vaguely maintained. The broadcasting ship was scuppered at Scapa, and Cilly was replaced by her sister Dotty. Vernon Harris ran the Guess or Know Feature. The Russian inventor changed his name from Vladivostooge to Vod-kin. The rest of the details of that first war-time show, the first ITMA, belong to another chapter. For the time being it must suffice to say that the script was written, altered, revised, and re-written and sent away for duplicating. It came back stamped in red PROGRAMME CENSORED without a single word deleted or altered, and we were ready for the Air.

On the morning and afternoon of September 19th we rehearsed, and then at 9.30 that evening we went on the air from the Clifton Parish Hall before a small audience composed mainly of B.B.C. staff. Tommy was back once again in a “fit-up.” A black-out system which would have delighted Heath Robinson had to be negotiated before one reached the oasis of light in this tiny building. There was a fanfare, the announcer gave the magic initials I.T.M.A., and the familiar signature me by Michael North[28] began. We were off on a ten year’s run.


Footnotes

  1. Tommy Handley, born Thomas Reginald Handley in Toxteth (17 January 1892 – 9 January 1949), comedian. Ted Kavanagh, born in New Zealand (1 March 1892 – 17 September 1958), writer and producer.
  2. A crisis in September 1938 where Nazi Germany demanded the right to annex the German-speaking parts of Czechoslovakia. To avoid war, France and the UK agreed. Hitler then invaded the whole of the Czech lands.
  3. The headquarters and main studios of the BBC from its founding until Broadcasting House in Portland Place was completed in the early 1930s.
  4. Born Leonard Henry Ruming in London (15 March 1890 – 6 January 1973). Actor and comedian.
  5. John Watt, born in London (27 October 1901 – 23 February 1960). Producer and Director of Variety at the BBC.
  6. Albert Eric Maschwitz OBE, born in Birmingham (10 June 1901 – 27 October 1969). Writer and broadcasting executive. Left the BBC to become a postal censor, then worked in various Special Operations during the war.
  7. Surreal topical comedy show 1938 to 1940 with the two protagonists sharing a penthouse flat on the top floor of Broadcasting House. Made into a film in 1940.
  8. Arthur Bowden Askey, CBE. Born in Liverpool (6 June 1900 – 16 November 1982). Comedian and actor.
  9. Richard Bernard Murdoch. Born in Kent (6 April 1907 – 9 October 1990). Actor. Drafted into the RAF in 1941, then seconded to the Air Ministry in 1943.
  10. Amos ‘n’ Andy, a comedy set in Harlem starring white actors Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll as stereotypical African-Americans. Ran 1928 to 1960 in various formats on NBC, and adapted for CBS television with black actors in the roles (1951 to 1953).
  11. Jack Benny, born Benjamin Kubelsky (14 February 1894 – 26 December 1974). His show, The Jack Benny Program, ran 1932 to 1955, ping-ponging between the NBC Blue, CBS and NBC Red networks. The television version ran 1950 to 1965 on CBS and then NBC.
  12. A husband-and-wife vaudeville act that moved into the movies, then into radio, alternating between CBS and NBC, before moving to CBS television in 1950.
  13. [sic]. George Burns, born Nathan Birnbaum (20 January 1896 – 9 March 1996). Writer, actor, comedian. Played the straight man role in the act.
  14. Grace Ethel Cecile Rosalie Allen Burns (26 July 1895 – 27 August 1964). Comedian. Played the surreal and loud comedic role.
  15. Now a hotel again.
  16. Jack Train (28 November 1902 – 19 December 1966). Actor.
  17. Born Charles Walter Bentley in Australia (14 May 1907 – 27 August 1995). Comedian and actor.
  18. A phrase that would have Nazi overtones after the war, but was innocent enough beforehand.
  19. Lionel James Gamlin (30 April 1903 – 16 October 1967). Actor and announcer.
  20. 29 December 1913 – 2 June 1983. Later a lyricist.
  21. Nazi Germany invaded Poland on the night of 31 August 1939. Britain and France had guaranteed Poland’s territorial integrity during the Munich crisis of 1938; both countries ordered Germany to withdraw their troops. No reply was received by the deadline – Sunday 3 September 1939 – and thus World War II began.
  22. Sandy MacPherson, born Roderick Hallowell MacPherson in Canada (3 March 1897 – 3 March 1975). Organist. The BBC had hurriedly collapsed the Regional and National networks down into a single Home Service and cancelled a host of programmes, leaving them with nothing to broadcast as the war did not properly start until midway through 1940. To fill the gap, Reginald Foort and later Sandy MacPherson played hours upon hours of music on the theatre organ at Broadcasting House, to howls of complaints from listeners.
  23. William Maurice Denham, OBE (23 December 1909 – 24 July 2002). Actor.
  24. Vera Lennox, born Vera Alyce Collis in London (22 November 1903 – 7 December 1984). Actor.
  25. Jack Hylton (2 July 1892 – 29 January 1965). Band leader and impresario.
  26. [sic]. Billy Ternent, born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne (10 October 1899 – 23 March 1977). Orchestra leader.
  27. Samuel Gabriel Costa (17 June 1910 – 23 September 1981). Singer, actor and disc jockey.
  28. Michael North (1902 – 1960). BBC producer who wrote light music as a hobby.

    Notes by Russ J Graham

 


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