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Humphrey Lyttleton: In memory of a Hertfordshire legend

PUBLISHED: 14:09 24 July 2010 | UPDATED: 15:08 20 February 2013

Humphrey Lyttleton

Humphrey Lyttleton

Panel show host and jazz trumpeter Humphrey Lyttleton died on Friday, April 25, at the age of 86. Here, in an interview with Hertfordshire Life conducted just two months ago, the much-loved national treasure told Pat Parker about his busy lif...

Panel show host and jazz trumpeter Humphrey Lyttleton died on Friday, April 25, at the age of 86. Here, in an interview with Hertfordshire Life conducted just two months ago, the much-loved national treasure told Pat Parker about his busy life

JAZZ trumpeter and much-loved presenter of Radio 4's I'm Sorry, I Haven't A Clue, Humphrey Lyttelton found his life busier than ever as he approached his 87th birthday.
Speaking from his Hertfordshire home in March, Humphrey enthused, 'My jazz band is on a roll. I'm having the best time of my life. Between August and Christmas, we did around 25 concerts, which is unheard of!'
Humph, as he is affectionately known, lived in High Barnet for 49 years. 'I like it for practical reasons, because on the rare occasions when the M25 is functioning, it is very convenient. But I really do find it a lovely place. It's small scale and unpretentious.'
Although he formed his first jazz band 60 years ago in 1948, he is best known for I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue, the 'antidote to panel games', which he has chaired since 1972. The show's running gags (Mornington Crescent, the lovely Samantha and her laser-display scoreboard) have made it hugely popular and Humphrey's acute sense of timing and deadpan delivery are vital ingredients. Why does the show remain so popular? 'I think it's because we, especially me, have no idea what's going to happen. It's got that built-in capacity to go off the rails. Neither team knows what the other is going to say, and that keeps it fresh - much of the laughter you hear is the other team laughing.
'I only vaguely know what's going on in some of them. To be honest, my favourite game is anything that goes on long enough to give me the chance to have a snooze!'
Not everyone gets the in-jokes. 'Many people come up after a gig and ask me to explain the rules to Mornington Crescent,' he said. 'I tell them it's a classic game dating from the dim and distant past, on a par with chess or mahjong, and I say, 'Now, you wouldn't expect me to start explaining the rules of a game as complex as mahjong, would you?'
Humph was born in 1921 into an aristocratic family. He is the cousin of the 10th Viscount Cobham. His father was a distinguished Eton schoolmaster, and for a while Humphrey was expected to follow in his father's footsteps. But he showed an early talent for music and formed a band while at Eton. During the war, he was an officer in the Grenadier Guards and endured the horrors of Salerno, where he gained a reputation for playing a 'hot jazz' version of the Last Post at lights-out.
He studied art after the war and became a Daily Mail cartoonist. His love of calligraphy continued and he was President of the Society for Italic Handwriting.
But jazz was his greatest love, and his Bad Penny Blues became Britain's first Top 20 jazz hit in 1956. It was while performing in an international jazz festival in Nice in 1948, that he was first heard speaking on radio. 'People were fascinated by me being an old-Etonian and ex-Guards officer, and they allowed me to introduce the numbers,' he said. 'I think the fact I talked slightly posh helped. People tell me I have a nice radio voice, but actually I can't stand my own voice. I hate it. '
In 1967, he launched The Best of Jazz radio show, which he presented regularly for 50 years. Then in 1971, he was asked to present the pilot for an anarchic, still unnamed panel show for Radio 4. The pilot was totally ad-libbed, and not considered a success but to his amazement, audiences loved I'm Sorry, I Haven't A Clue, and, 50 series later, it has raised Humph to the status of national treasure.
His wife, Elizabeth, died in 2006 after a long struggle against Parkinson's disease which gradually robbed her of all her faculties. Humph cared for her lovingly for ten years, watching her slowly decline. Eventually, she had to be moved to a nursing home, but Humph would play her old jazz favourites on an old record player, to try to get a response. 'Life finds its own level,' he said. 'If you can spend an evening dancing with someone who can hardly move, and put a small smile on their face, that's a small success.'

Humphrey died peacefully, surrounded by family and friends, on Friday, April 25, following surgery.


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