I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue

Brighton Dome Concert Hall, Church Street, Saturday, January 30

IT began as a spin-off from the anarchic radio sketch show I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again.

But Graeme Garden’s antidote to panel shows has become one of the BBC’s longest running radio shows – and has a second life outside the studio as a touring creature.

Long-time panellist, and one-time host, Barry Cryer is being joined by founding panel member Tim Brooke-Taylor, host Jack Dee and guest panellists Miles Jupp and Jeremy Hardy for two shows at Brighton Dome.

Cryer talks to Duncan Hall about the show’s 44-year history, Humphrey Lyttleton, and the importance of comedy.

The Guide: How does the live tour differ from the radio recording sessions?

Barry Cryer: It looks similar, but we do a sketch in the middle which we wouldn’t do on radio. When we sing to a different tune we don’t just sit and sing – we have a spotlight and have to go to the microphone. It’s like a greatest hits, it was put together by our producer John Naismith as a collection of favourite routines through the years.

So a lot of this show is prepared in advance?

The stage show is a solid format – although we do mess about, it’s the same running order every time which the radio recordings aren’t. I always say the show is at its best when it is falling apart!

We’ve never said the recorded show is totally adlibbed – we do get advance notice of topics so we can prepare, although most of the time we don’t know what each other is going to do. You are always surprised by what everyone else does, it keeps it fresh. When you’re working with old friends like Graeme and Tim it’s like telepathy – we never tread on each other. We have an instinct what someone is going to say and who will chime in on something.

And the addition of new blood with a special guest every week must be invigorating too?

We love it. Sometimes they feel a bit daunted, with these old guys who have been doing it for years. You have got to welcome them, we relax them very quickly and we hope they enjoy it. We’ve never had anyone say: “Never again!”

What do you think of the recent BBC decision that every panel show should feature a female comic?

We’re not an old misogynistic show – Jo Brand and Victoria Wood fought us off for a while when we wanted them on the show, but when they did it they wanted to do it again. Now we get people like Sandi Toksvig and Susan Calman taking part. We have got the best producer we have ever had – and he stands firm on things – he said we have a format. We have a guest slot every week to fill, and we always ask women as well as men. I think we were ahead of the game.

And of course there’s the lovely Samantha [the unheard assistant who keeps the scores]?

Yes – she’s looking good too. I’m not going to tell you how old she is, but she’s worn well.

Do you think it would be difficult to get such an anarchic show as I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue made today?

It was originally commissioned from I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again [the radio sketch series featuring John Cleese and members of The Goodies] - the BBC wanted another series from them.

Graame Garden wanted to do a show that didn’t need a lot of rehearsal and learning of scripts. It was a show where we could improvise and mess about as oppose to the usual panel games.

Apart from Clue my life is mainly based around live gigs and performing – I’m out of the game of writing for the BBC. I do hear stories about BBC committees sitting on everything, I’m glad I’m out of it. In my time it was people like Bill Cotton. One day he was sat in his office and thought Dave Allen hadn’t been on television for a while. So he rang him up, took him to lunch, went back to his office and announced there was going to be six episodes of the Dave Allen show that afternoon. Now it would take a committee and three months with no decision. Monty Python and Spitting Image wouldn’t have happened without people like Bill Cotton or Lew Grade who had performed, and understood performers. Now you have people who have never done it telling you how to do your job.

Groups like Monty Python used to take the mickey out of the programme planners in their sketches.

They always bowed their heads in respect to Spike Milligan who broke the mold. He was one of the first to say: “This is what I’m doing” and the bosses realised that with The Goons he knew what he was doing. He got the licence to run off with an idea, which wouldn’t happen in the same way today.

Were you lucky to even be able to take the show out on the road?

When we were about to do our first stage show I told a journalist about it. The BBC came back and initially said we couldn’t use the title – we used to joke about what we could do instead: Clue! The Musical and silly titles like that.

We didn’t want to be just London-based – we like to go out into the towns and see other people, and hope they want to see us. We get a good welcome – it’s marvellous, like an old rock band. It’s amazing the crowd that comes – they’re of all ages, we get youngsters saying they grew up with us.

How has Jack Dee becoming host after the death of Humphrey Lyttleton in 2008 changed things?

I think Humphrey is smiling down on him.

When Humphrey died we didn’t do the show for a year – we said it was over, we’d had a long, happy run. The BBC came to us and said they wanted us back. We did some shows with various hosts [including Stephen Fry and Rob Brydon] and Jack Dee did a couple. We said: “That’s it!”. He laughs a lot, which is bad for his image!

You weren’t tempted to take on the chair?

When I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue started we had people like John Cleese, Bill Oddie and Jo Kendall in the pilot who wanted a script – it wasn’t regarded as a success. Producer David Hatch suggested we put the pilot out on Christmas Day as everyone would be p***ed.

When they went ahead with the first series Humphrey couldn’t get to two of the recording days, so I stepped in. I have a yellowing cutting from the Radio Times of this man with black hair in the chair!

I have done chairing and MCing before, I’d done the show Joker’s Wild on television as a host. But it was something special filling in for the great Lyttleton. By nature I’m a panellist.

What do you make of the state of comedy today?

It’s interesting – things go in cycles. We had the old men pontificating, we had satire, and then we had alternative comedy, which was invented by journalists.

Dennis Norden says comedy is as funny as it ever was, but not as much fun. With Morecombe and Wise and Tommy Cooper there was an ‘aah’ factor, a feeling of warmth. Now you get a lot of brilliant comedians talking about themselves and making observations, but there’s not quite the same feeling of ‘aah’. There are exceptions – Bill Bailey and Ross Noble are superb.

There will never be another Eric and Ernie though. It’s not like the days when there were two or three channels and they got figures of 28 million people watching one Christmas special. Now there are 100 channels and people are flitting about watching stuff on their phone.

Every generation produces its own comics. I have a theory that it’s part of human nature to laugh at things. In Zimbabwe there will be people doing Robert Mugabe impressions. There will be some brave souls in Syria doing Assad jokes. Back in the 1930s there were German club comics doing Hitler impressions – some were never seen again when he got into power.

It makes me very proud of my business.

Starts 2.30pm and 7.30pm, tickets £26/£23. Call 01273 709709.