Sad news. On Thursday I had a little email from the BBC’s audience people to say that the new series of I’m sorry, I haven’t a clue, which we’d been hoping to finally make it to see, had had to be postponed, because much-loved host, Humphrey Lyttelton, had been taken into hospital. Saturday morning, it was announced that the 86-year-old had died.
He’d been hosting the self-styled antidote to panel games for some 36 years, but he’d been presenting his legendary jazz show for over forty. It was only last month, after four decades of being the UK’s foremost jazz voice, he finally retired from the programme. Fundamental changes like that do seem to have a funny effect on people, which is why I’d wondered how retirement would suit him – but I suspect he’d say that the thing that really had a funny effect on him was an aortic aneurysm.
And he was funny. Obituaries are famously humourless things, so I won’t try to describe him – it would sound far too respectful. Comedy is like sex, I think – describing it always sounds like you’re rather missing the point. Anyone who listened to ISIHAC will have Humph’s style clearly in mind – he was a dry, hilarious warmth. He kind of made it the favourite radio feature in our house. Though, to be fair, I have no idea what he was like in bed.
Weirdly, if you listen to early recordings of the show, it sounds just the same. One or two bereavements aside, it’s the same cast. Listening again to an episode from 1975 a little while ago, I found it hard to believe that the intervening years had seen such fundamental changes to British society as humourless Thatcherism, Alternative Comedy and digital broadcasting; the gags were that old. Humph himself was the only thing to have noticeably aged in voice over the years – but this just made him all the funnier. The more he sounded like a venerable elder statesman, the more jolly effective were his sudden filthy double entendres.
The thing is, all this is enough to mourn the chap and when you hear friends’ testimonies of him, the man was clearly a rare joy. But it’s only in more recent times it’s been dawning on me what a giant talent he was.
He was considered one of the greatest UK jazz musicians of all time. But he wasn’t ‘just’ a horn player – was a prolific composer and a fantastic bandleader, performed with his group until mere weeks before he died. And as if jazz musician, composer, performer and broadcaster weren’t enough accolades, he was also a writer and cartoonist. And, of course, raconteur and bon viveur.
In short, a ruddy inspiration. Funny, talented, knowledgeable and self-deprecating.
If you’re interested, here’s his obit at the Beeb:
I wonder if Mrs Trellis will send in a card.