ITMA is a mass entertainment radio programme designed specifically as a vehicle for a particular radio comedian, Tommy Handley. This obvious fact is sometimes obscured by its enormous success - and the consequent growth of a kind of Itma mythology. I hope to show that there is nothing magical about this success if you accept the element of luck, which plays a part in all show business. Itma's success has indeed been enormous - the average listening figure on the last series being rather more than 12 million a week. This figure is arrived at by the BBC Listener Research Department after a sort of Gallup Poll survey. In any case, you only have to travel about the country to realise that this radio programme with its brilliant comedy lead and wealth of queer characters, interpreted by a cast of purely radio names, has become a popular institution and is all unconsciously the commedia dell'arte of modern times. As an entertainment it appears to break all the rules. It is quick and English audiences have the reputation of being slow - it is fantastic, and any showman will tell you that the British Public is allergic to fantasy except of the well-tried Peter Pan type. It is satiric, and satire is notoriously bad box office. Yet, it has been a raging success. What is the secret?
In the first place, I am convinced that part of the secret lies in the difference between radio and any other entertainment medium. The radio audience is composed of individuals, untouched by mass suggestion or the sense of occasion which is implicit in a visit to a cinema or theatre. Seiondly, I believe that the low mental age of any given audience is an idée fixe of the entertainment industry and that their 'slowness' is a legend which dies hard.
There are three well-defined
stages in the listener's reaction to radio entertainment. When it first started, people were overwhelmed
with the sense of its novelty and of its miraculous quality. The thrills of a voyage of discovery were
accessible to anyone who could ply a catswhisker, and
who will forget the great moment when
The first real 'big-time' serial radio show was 'Band Waggon', designed as a vehicle for a then comparatively unknown comedian, Arthur Askey. The outstanding success of this show was obvious to all - its sayings became household words, and great masses of people began to make a date with their radio. It was designed as an hour's entertainment, with features placed between the comedy spots. Indeed, it was more of a 'magazine' programme like "Monday Night At 8", except that the comedy team was resident and there was continuity in their adventures. In the summer of 1939, it was decided to give Tommy Handley, by then a well-established single turn and radio revue comedian, a starring vehicle on the same lines. In July of that year, the first of these programmes, under the title "It's That Man Again" was broadcast. It wasn't in the same street as "Band Waggon" and what would have happened to it in that form, no one will ever know because, after the fourth broadcast, the war started.
All advertised programmes
were scrapped at once and a state of emergency existed. The Variety Department dispersed according to
plan and went to
"Tuesday 19th. September, 1939 - : "It's That Man Again". Cast - Tommy Handley, Jack Train, Maurice Denham, Vera Lennox, Sam Costa, Jack Hylton's Band. Producer Francis Worsley". That was all. One thing the war had already done was to put out of fashion the full hour show and the shortened period gave what was to become the Itma team, Tommy Handley, Ted Kavanagh and myself, the chance to drop the 'features' which had been part and parcel of the "classic" light entertainment 'Band Waggon' and to evolve a show which concentrated on a theme and a given set of characters. Oddly enough, we did this reluctantly, and the first two or three still contained an entirely extraneous 'feature', so strong is tradition - even if it is only a few years old. But then a few years, in a rapidly developing industry like radio, is a long time.
The Variety Department was carrying a large proportion of the BBC's output, so a completely new set of programmes had to be thought of, written, and put into production almost overnight. Naturally, this meant a terrific strain on producers, writers, musical arrangers and that devoted band of comics, crooners, comediennes and soubrettes who were known as the BBC Variety Repertory Company. Their number was small - every performer had to be okayed for broadcasting by by the newly-formed Ministry of Information, so that these few - these unhappy few - worked as actors have never worked before. Two, three and sometimes four radio shows a day were the normal output - 7 days a week - and it must be remembered that these artists were risking something more than a nervous breakdown by appearing so often, in hastily thrown together material : they were risking their professional reputations. They did a great job.
This confusion, this fury of work against time in strange and cramped surroundings, was the atmosphere in which ITMA first saw the light. We sat down, unscrewed our fountain pens and reviewed the situation. What was the public thinking about at the moment? The nation was in the uncomfortable process of changing from a peacetime life to that of wartime. New regulations, restrictions and prohibitions filled the air. Every post seemed to bring a new crop of forms to be filled in. In fact, a new life was beginning for all.
This was obviously an opportunity to launch a show that would really grip the imagination of the public. But how best to do this? The flood of forms, cards and all the official paraphernalia gave the first clue. Tommy must be an issuer of forms, cards and official paraphernalia. A civil servant? No, something bigger than that - a Minister of the Crown? - that was it! And so was born the Ministry of Aggravation and Mysteries, housed, naturally enough, in the Office of Twerps. It was unfortunate that the Office of Works was almost next door to the BBC - it led to confusion later on! Then came the question of title. Tommy must have a title - something topical and easily remembered. Again the prevailing fashion gave the clue. The game of initials was being played by everybody : old friends like R.T.O. crept out of the crevices and new ones like M.O.I. and E.N.S.A were being born every minute. M.A.M. was the obvious one using the initials of the fictitious Ministry just created. But somehow it just wasn't right. It was Handley himself who solved the problem. As he sat doodling on a piece of paper, he happened to pick out the first letters of the title "It's That Man Again" - ITMA! Thus our initial problem was solved. We wrote a script round this crazy new Ministry and in due course the first Itma programme went on the air. By sheer good luck we had hit upon a magnificent vehicle for a really fine radio comedian.
It would, of course, be nonsense to say that Itma made Tommy Handley. Wireless fans in their thousands had known him as a leading radio personality for many years. As far back as 1924 Ted Kavanagh had been supplying him with material and over the years he had built up a big reputation. There is an incisive but friendly quality of voice which is irresistible. No matter how great a rogue his radio character might be, you cannot help liking him, and this public affection is the first essential quality to greatness on the air.
Arthur Askey has it. Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Charlie McCarthy, Fred Allen - they all have this one common denominator that they sound attractive, amusing people whom the listener would welcome to his home. Handley, too, is creative - his quick mind and ear are ever on the alert for a phrase, a "twist", a sound that will translate itself into a comedy sequence. He is a fine raconteur whose amusing tales come mostly from life and not The Stock Exchange. He is an immensely hard worker and puts the whole of his considerable energy into the making of radio comedy.
Handley, the man then, is a hard-working, first-rate professional, but what of Tommy Handley the radio character? The picture built up in Itma is something very different - a swashbuckling, plausible, quick-witted rogue; a racketeer, slick but not very successful : all his schemes go crazily wrong. There is something Elizabethan in his reckless attitude to life and his zest for the colourful, something very British in his refusal to admit defeat, something very admirable in his contempt of humbug and bumbledom. A Falstaffian boaster, the firm voice of his secretary, Miss Hotchkiss, reveals the Pistol hidden underneath. As with all other likeable rogues, it is his ability to cope with the appalling social situation with such enviable nonchalance, which is endearing. Perhaps, too, we have a sneaking admiration for the individualist who defies Society - the sort of sympathy that goes out to the escaped prisoner, particularly if the jail break has been daring and the likelihood of incommoding us personally is fairly remote. He is the eternal anarchist whose delightfully mad schemes are near enough to man's own plans to have satirical significance. He is topical - up to the minute with a bon mot, he summarises succinctly the latest news headline or pillories the latest foolishness. He is a creature of fantasy with his feet firmly planted on the ground - a North Country Ariel who likes black puddings and Blackpool Rock. This character has been built up gradually. It was not an entirely conscious development - we started with a droll in an unusual situation and finished with a temporary 'immortal'. How has this happened?
The story of Itma
The ordinary listener, if asked to give his or her impressions of Itma, starts at once by naming a favourite character - the Colonel perhaps, or Mrs. Mopp (always spelt with two Ps). The success of these characters has been one of the outstanding features of Itma. But it would not be true to say that the story of Itma is the story of its characters. The show is a wartime phenomenon and its course has moved in a corresponding curve to the course of the war.
The early days (the period called the "phoney war") saw its birth. As I have indicated, it was the confusion of the period, the turnover from a peacetime to a war economy, which gave us our setting. Handley, the Minister of the Crown, was as confused as anybody, but rode the storm with a delightful imperturbability. His right-hand man at the Ministry of Twerps was a permanent 'civil servant' called Fusspot, who found the Handley idea of running a Government office most irregular.
The other characters of this period were from stock - the Pantomime Dame, Mrs. Tickle the charwoman, played in the tradition by a man (Maurice Denham), the comic foreigner, Vodkin, played by the same actor. The rustic farmer Jollop (Jack Train), the "silly secretary" (Vera Lennox), the "vulgar office boy" (Sam Costa) and so forth. But the topsyturvydom of this whole set-up was "contemporary" and this quality was one of the causes of its immediate success.
The succes fou of this first series, however, was
the character "Funf" - in fact, this might
almost be called 'The Funf Series'. In the first confusion of war, there were
innumerable spy scares. Every village
had a sinister foreigner, there were stories of flashing lights along the
cliffs, unfortunate refugees from
The Office of Twerps went
through all the trials and tribulations of a government office in wartime. It was evacuated, it
was commandeered, finally, in the last programme in February, 1940, it set out
in a chain of caravans fror a destination
unknown. This was oddly symbolic, for
when the show returned to the air in 1941, the scene was grimly changed (the
'phoney war' was over) - the Wehrmacht stood at the
Channel Ports, the Luftwaffe was battering at the heart of
We made Tommy the Mayor and began to lampoon municipal politics and local graft. What we really did was to start the Itma myth, to create characters and catchwords which became household names all over the world wherever the voice of the BBC penetrated, and to comment light-heartedly, in a purely escapist framework, on the course of world-shattering events as they affected a small community. For over 2 years in 3 series we stayed at Foaming-in-the-Mouth and it was the birthplace of many famous Itma characters : Mrs. Mopp, the Beloved Char (Dorothy Summers), Signor So-So (Dino Galvani), Ali-Oop, the Oriental Pedlar (Horace Percival), Claud and Cecil, the polite odd-job men, whose rhyming talk became a minor craze (Jack Train & Horace Percival), the Commercial Traveller (Clarry Wright) with his "good morning - nice day" which became another of the Itma catch-phrases, The Diver (Horace Percival) and so on. Since then, Tommy has been war factory manager, a landowner (Squire Handley, the farmer pestered by the Min. of Ag & Fish), the Post-War Planner and the Prospective M.P.
All these developments
followed the great events of the war and even in the bald list the rising tide
of optimism can be traced. But the form was never kept rigid, so that
at any particular moment the whole broadside of Itma
could be turned on any particular situation or problem without upsetting the
continuity of the show. When we were
asked by the Admiralty to go to
The Itma Characters
It is not easy at first glance to understand the
overwhelming popularity of these oddities.
There have been on stage, screen and radio, dozens of charwomen,
hundreds of retired colonels and thousands of funny foreigners, so why have
Mrs. Mopp, Colonel Chinstrap and Signor So-So caught
the public imagination so thoroughly?
They are basically all stock characters and all go back in the history
of the English stage almost as far as one can trace dialogue. The foreigner having difficulty with the
English language, for instance, has been a stage figure ever since this country
has been an asylum for political or religious refugees from the Continent. One reason is, I think, that they have had a
long run on the air but this is not sufficient in itself Had they not been "right",
they would not have lasted. Firstly,
they are all real people - the Colonel for instance is not just an advanced
'alcoholic with a funny moustache'. He
is a serio-comic figure. Behind him, you feel real breeding gone to
seed (the world of his youth has crumbled away), there is always a hint of
having seen better days and so you have the same sympathetic feeling towards
him as to the central character in the film The
Life & Death of Colonel Blimp.
He is a failure and knows it, but he still retains some of the pride and
dignity which his early training instilled, a perfect example of the tragedy of
decay. It is, of course, a brilliant
characterisation by the actor Jack Train; it could have quite easily have
degenerated into an ordinary "stage" Colonel and then I think it
would not have lasted. So-So, as the comic Italian,
is different from most of his predecessors in this line of comedy, in that he
is played by a real Italian, Dino Galvani. This gives his mistakes and mispronunciations
an authentic touch. Mrs. Mopp, a tough, vital, indomitable Cockney stood, at the
We have had many enquiries as to how you evolve a successful catchphrase. It has been a feature of British light entertainment for years - "get your hair cut", "Ginger, you're barmy" being olde worlde examples. I don't think it is possible to give any real recipe but one or two points are worth noting. A catchphrase is, by definition, something which people use and repeat in ordinary conversation. Now, one of the most difficult social feats is how to get out of a room gracefully or at least not awkwardly. Most overstayed welcomes are due to this difficulty. If you think out and popularise a phrase which helps people over this social hurdle, you are almost sure of success. Itma phrases which do this are : "I go - I come back", "T.T.F.N" and "After you, Claude".
people suffer the greatest embarrassment when entering a room full of people -
"Good morning, nice day" for example gets you into the room nicely. You can go further and say that most British
people when in the company of strangers are rather tongue-tied - if there are
current catchphrases which bridge awkward pauses in sticky conversations, they
are seized on eagerly. Swift, you will
remember, once wrote a series of "Polite Conversations", composed
entirely of clichés, most of which survive to this day, which shows that this
sort of social embarrassment is no new thing to these
We have deliberately tried out many catchphrases in Itma which did not register - we have dropped some in casually which have had an enormous success, so there is no Golden Rule. Reiteration in itself is not enough but what the real secret is remains a mystery. Here is a list of the most successful of them. I doubt very much whether it is possible to find a common denominator.
"This is Funf speaking" "Good morning, nice day" "Don't forget the diver"
"I go - I come back" "After you, Claude - after you, Cecil" "Well, for ever more"
"Missed him" "I don't mind if I do" "It's me noives"
"I'll do anything for the wife" "He's a great guy" "I'll forget me own name in a minute"
"Boss, boss, something terrible's happened" "Taxi" "Smile please - watch the birdie"
"Nothing at all - nothing at all" "Ah, there you are" "T.T.F.N" "Can I do you now, sir"
The Preparation of Itma
The basis of all good radio comedy is the script and one of the most frequently heard comments on the show is "I don't know how you keep it up week after week". The actual routine is simple enough. We meet usually the day after the broadcast - Tommy Handley, Ted Kavanagh and myself - and decide on the general shape of the next show, whether, for instance, to follow up the previous show or whether to switch the locale entirely. We never think of the theme more than a week in advance as we want to be as topical as possible. Tommy is always engaged on some enterprise which can be fitted into contemporary events. During the last series he was engaged mainly in post-war plans so that we could easily deal with any particular theme which was in the news. If a big story broke about housing, we made that the basis of the script for the week. Then Ted Kavanagh retires for the weekend and writes a draft script. On the following Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday we sit in conference on this all day, working out every line - indeed every word - until we are satisfied that we have got as much out of the situation as we can. Thursday is production day which I will come to later. This concentrated blitz of three minds on the script is one of the reasons, I believe, why we have kept the show going.
Ted Kavanagh, whose work at this
point is so important, is a New Zealander of Irish extraction. His hobby and life's work is people - he
loves them and spends every moment he can mixing with the crowd. He started life as a medical student in
This boils down to funny lines and funny noises, but a great deal of the comedian's stock-in-trade is forbidden on the radio because of the unselected nature of the audience. A list of the things you can't say looks rather like the ordinary stage comedian's 'gag' book. All these prohibitions are reasonable and proper but they make the script writer's life a burden. (Ed. Can I again remind readers that this article, written late in 1945, predated the famous "Green Book" by over 3 years) The Americans, who have as strict, if not a stricter, censorship to contend with, have invented the 'insult gag' to get round this. This form of boisterous leg-pulling, which they do superbly, never sounds right in the mouths of English actors and has very rarely been a success. The radio script writer is confined then to character study, i.e. getting laughs out of the peculiarities of manner and speech of his puppets, 'situation' comedy which without visual help presents all sorts of technical difficulties, or pure verbal word-play. This last kind has been stigmatised as the lowest form of wit - the pun.
I would like to say a few words in defence of this very English form of humour. To start with, it has been given far too wide an application and nowadays any word-twist that is disliked is condemned out of hand as a pun. Let us admit that a bad 'corny' pun is horrible, but then so is a bad anything. On the other hand, to put Saki's wordplay : "she was a good cook as cooks ago, and, as cooks go - she went" into this category is unfair and silly. The good pun or word-twist, especially when it is an idea-twist as well, is not only legitimate but very funny, and most of the conventional witticisms of the great that have survived can, by purist standards, be put in this despised class.
Itma has often been accused of making use of pun-comedy and always with a condescension and pity which is infuriating and unjustified. I admit that we use puns, word-twists, phrase-twists, ideas-twists freely and get a lot of first-rate comedy out of it. The writing of comedy, particularly for radio, is an arduous and difficult job not to be lightly undertaken. So don't think that if you have half an hour to spare on a wet Sunday, you can profitably fill in the time writing a half-hour comedy show, because it has often taken three of us longer than that to get one 'throw-away' gag right.
Production of Itma
The Radio Producer has to get his show right first
time. For him there is no provincial
tour "prior to
During the course of rehearsals, the effects sequences are evolved. There is no attempt to make these realistic - they are only used to enhance the comedy value and the normal time factor of everyday life is ignored, giving an air of fantasy and speed which is very important in this kind of show. For instance, when the door opens, it is not followed by footsteps of some character entering the room, but immediately by the voice and the exits are equally quick, so that you get a sequence like this :
Commercial Traveller : "Good morning"
Tommy : "Good afternoon"
Commercial Traveller : "Good evening"
Tommy : "Good night"
Tommy : "That was a short day!"
Now this plays exactly as fast as it reads, and the laugh is entirely dependent on the Timing. This is a professional term for one of the fundamentals of all acting and means the nicety of judgement which an actor shows in placing his pauses, gestures and movements to fit not only the dramatic situation, but the audience's reaction to it. Timing in radio is different to Timing on the stage (because, for instance, a pause on the air means just silence), but it is every bit as important. In Itma, the timing of the effects is rehearsed as carefully as the timing of the actors and a 'good' show is one where the timing is good.
I mentioned just now "audience reaction" and that brings me to one of the most hotly-debated of radio questions. Should there or should there not be a studio audience? My view is simply the view of an individual light entertainment radio Producer, but I give it for what it is worth. As I see it, a radio man's job is to produce the sort of sound expected by the audience to which he is directing his programme. In my case, it is to an audience which expects to be entertained and therefore I try to produce entertaining sound. I come down heavily and unashamedly on the side of a studio audience for comedy shows. In the first place, I don't believe that a professional comedian, or an amateur one for that matter, gives of his best without some reaction. Try telling funny stories for 8 minutes to a blank wall sometime and see how you feel at the end of it. There are critics who will say that a special 'genus' of radio comedians must be found who can dispense with an audience.
I suggest that this
is another way of saying that human nature must be changed - a good idea maybe,
but not easy. Moreover, surely the sound
of a real flesh-and-blood audience genuinely enjoying themselves is
entertainment, provided that the listener shares that entertainment. I was told, during the dark days of the war,
of Dutch families with no word of English, who listened to Itma,
at the risk of their necks, because they could hear people doing what was not
possible anywhere else in
Another point in favour of an audience reacting naturally to comedy is that it times the show for the listener. It also forces the performers to time their lines so that they do not "rush" the listener. Long, inane laughter at comedy which is not apparent to the ear makes very bad radio and I would not say one word in its defence, but it is possible to achieve a degree of audience reaction which is really helpful to the listener and, after all, the listeners' interest is of paramount importance to a radio show.
There has also been argument about the "musical spots" in Itma. These, especially the vocal spot, have always come in for varying degrees of criticism. Many listeners resent, and can see no reason for, extraneous music of any kind. They are enjoying the comedy and then comes a musical item and they want the comedy to go on, and so approach the music in an unfriendly state of mind. There is approximately 20 minutes' dialogue in Itma. If this were played straight on end without any break, it would start to fail after 8 minutes and bore or exhaust after 12. Radio people have found this out by painful experience. The human capacity for enjoyment of 'gag' comedy, by the ear alone, is strictly limited and therefore you must have what the film people call "resting shots". The musical items in a comedy radio show are resting shots - they give the listeners time to recover from the last spate of speech and prepare him for the next. Without music, Itma could not have run for 6 years - it would have lasted about 6 weeks. As to the choice of music, well, it is just humanly impossible to please everybody. We have tried to give two contrasted types : an original orchestral piece usually based on an old favourite or traditional tune in which a first-rate composer "lets his back hair down" and has fun; and a vocal number of a much more popular type. Oddly enough, the more serious musical item has come in for much less criticism and far more appreciation than the purely popular one.
I have tried to give here some of the presentation problems that beset the radio Producer, relating them always to Itma. In other fields, there are other difficulties, the problem of presenting a successful schools programme is obviously very different from that of presenting a "Happidrome" or straight play. But I am sure that if the Producer has firmly fixed before his eyes the picture of his audience in ones or twos or in dozens, and thinks in terms of creating good sound, he or she is on the way to success.
Itma is a generic term meaning a special way of putting over one specific radio comedian. It is based, largely, on Tommy Handley's capacity to react quickly and amusingly to curious and unexpected situations. The importance of the stooges has, I think, been over-emphasised. They come and go, fitting a certain situation or period in world history. For one year we played without any of the characters, including the Colonel, created by Jack Train (who was then seriously ill but now happily recovered). These characters were naturally missed for a time, but that series was one of the most successful we have ever done.
Itma is a creation of radio and only comes off in that medium. Attempts to stage it and film it have never been wholly successful, partly because of its ephemeral quality, but partly also because each listener has formed a picture of each 'person' in the show. No two cartoonists, for instance, have ever seen Mrs. Mopp the same. The consequent shock of seeing the actual persons and finding, in all probability, that they are entirely different from your conception of them, is liable to interfere with the enjoyment of a flesh-and-blood performance.
Itma made history by being the first purely radio show ever to have a Command Performance. It was the top Services and Civilian show throughout the war. Its popularity was well summed up by a cartoon showing a number of soldiers in a slit trench - the NCO was looking at his watch and saying : "Remember, boys - we attack immediately after the Tommy Handley programme".
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