It's That Man Again
In 1938 the top brass of the BBC decided that they should have a regular weekly comedy show, along the lines of the George Burns and Gracie Allen Show which was very popular in the United States. It was to star Tommy Handley, a well-known Liverpudlian comedian, whose first broadcast was a relay from the London Coliseum of the Royal Command Performance of December 1923.
Several scripts were prepared, but, not being very keen on any of them, Tommy asked a friend to see if he could come up with something. The friend was Ted Kavanagh, and the something was ITMA, soon to become the most popular radio series of the 1940s.
Tommy and Ted, together with producer Francis Worsley , retired to the Langham Hotel in Portland Place, opposite Broadcasting House. Here they devised the format over pints of beer amid a packed conference of clergymen.
They decided to name the show after a topical catchphrase associated with a short moustached Nazi who seemed to be causing quite a stir internationally. Whenever Hitler made some new territorial claim, the newspaper headlines would proclaim 'It's That Man Again'. That looked fine in print, but was a bit of a mouthful to repeat over the microphone. Something snappier was called for, and once again inspiration was to be found in contemporary issues. At the beginning of the war everyone seemed initial crazy. People spoke of the R.A.F., the A.R.P., E.N.S.A and many others, so the programme title was shortened to ITMA.
A trial series of four shows began fortnightly from 12th July 1939. The setting was a pirate commercial radio ship, from which Tommy Handley sent his choice of programmes. He was assisted by Cecilia Eddy as his secretary Cilly, Eric Egan as a mad Russian inventor, Sam Heppner and Lionel Gamlin. These early editions broadcast from London, were modelled on the ground-breaking Bandwaggon, starring Arthur Askey and Richard Murdoch. However, they weren't considered a success, and ITMA seemed destined to end there.
Ironically, the aforementioned Herr Hitler deemed otherwise. The outbreak of war shook up the BBC schedules and ITMA returned on 19th September 1939 for a weekly series of 21 episodes. These were transmitted from Bristol, where the BBC Variety Department had taken up residence, hoping to avoid the heavy bombing raids directed at London.
A pirate radio ship was not considered to be a suitable subject during wartime, so a new scenario was sought. In the early days of the war, new Government Ministries sprang up like mushrooms, almost overnight. It was decided that for the second series Tommy Handley should be Minister of Aggravation and Mysteries at the Office of Twerps. A brand new supporting cast was enlisted, amongst them Vera Lennox as his secretary Dotty, Maurice Denham as Mrs. Tickle the office char and Vodkin the Russian inventor, Jack Train and Sam Costa. In the second episode, Jack Train created Funf, the elusive German spy, whose catchphrase 'This is Funf speaking' was to work it’s way into many private telephone conversations over the next few years. It all who helped to make the German propaganda machine seem little more than a wireless joke.
One of the regular features in this series was Radio Fakenburg, send up of Radio Luxembourg which had stopped broadcasting for the duration.
Increased popularity led to a couple of stage shows which briefly toured the country. Unfortunately they lacked the impact of the radio shows and folded when the blitz destroyed many of the theatres.
Meanwhile Bristol had also suffered from German bombing, so the BBC Variety Department was once again on the move, this time to Bangor in North Wales. With escalating bad news for the allies abroad, take-offs of Government Departments would no longer be acceptable. Instead, it was felt that ITMA should provide an escape for a war weary public.
The show was renamed 'It's That Sand Again' and began a six week summer season on 20th June 1941. It was set in a seedy seaside resort called Foaming at the Mouth, with Tommy Handley as the town's Mayor. Vera Lennox and Maurice Denham had departed, and in their place came Sydney Keith, Horace Percival, Dorothy Summers and Fred Yule. Several soon-to-be-famous characters were launched: Lefty and Sam, the gangsters (Train and Keith); Deepend Dan the Diver (Percival), (based on a man that Tommy Handley once saw seeing diving off the pier at New Brighton and collecting money from ferry passengers), Claude and Cecil, the over polite handymen (Train and Percival) and Ali Oop (Percival), a Middle Eastern vendor of saucy postcards and other dubious merchandise.
The popular seaside setting was continued in the fourth series which ran for 32 weeks from 26th September 1941. The show reverted to its original name. The team were joined by Dino Galvani as Tommy Handley's Italian secretary Signor So-So and Clarence Wright as the commercial traveller who never made a sale but didn't seem to care. In October, Dorothy Summers introduced the famous office char, Mrs. Mopp, sent by the ,Labour, to dust the Mayor's dado with much clattering of bucket and brush. She later progressed to her own series, 'The private life of Mrs Mopp' in 1946.
In April the cast were honoured to be invited to perform a special show at Windsor Castle to celebrate the then Princess Elizabeth' s 16th birthday. This was the first such event for a BBC programme. A recording was made, which has never been broadcast, but still exists in the BBC Sound Archives.
Another high point was the release of a film version of ITMA starring Tommy Handley as the Mayor of Foaming at the Mouth, putting on a show to save a bombed theatre. This was to prove quite successful, but like the stage show, the visual characters lacked the appeal of their radio counterparts. Like many later radio shows, Ted Kavanagh’s creations worked best in the mind of the listener.
By the time they had returned to the airwaves in September 1942, Foaming at the Mouth was graced with a war factory. It was never made clear what, if anything, it was producing - even the workers didn't seem to know. The famous Colonel Humphrey Chinstrap made his first appearance, and rapidly became one of the most popular characters. The colonel was a dipsomaniac army officer who turned almost any innocent remark into the offer of a drink with his catchphrase 'I don't mind if I do'. The following season saw the war factory turned into a spa, a holiday camp, a hotel and other similar things.
By October 1943, the worst of the air raids were thought to be over, so the BBC Variety Department packed up and made it’s way back to London. The seventh series, with Tommy now Squire of Much Fiddling, was recorded without Jack Train who was seriously ill, but with the addition of Jean Capra, discovered by the first ever auditions for the show.
A special edition was broadcast early the following year from the Navy base at Scapa Flow. Not to be outdone, this was followed by episodes allocated to The Royal Air Force (held at the Criterion Theatre in London) and the Army (from a garrison theatre ‘somewhere in England’).
Jack Train returned in September, and with a new voice named Mark Time, an elderly, depraved character who answered all questions with 'I'll 'ave to ask me Dad', newcomer Diana Morrison played Miss Hotchkiss, Tommy’s domineering secretary, was named after a make of machine gun. The end of the war was celebrated by the VE edition on 10th May 1945.
A decision was made that the first post-war series should have a completely new look, and most of the familiar characters were dropped. Dorothy Summers, Sydney Keith and Dino Galvani departed, while Carleton Hobbs (later to become radio’s Sherlock Holmes), Hugh Morton, Mary O'Farrell, Michele de Lys and Lind Joyce joined the cast. Clarence Wright returned after leaving at the end of the fifth series.
As a reward for his war work, Tommy Handley was appointed Governor of a newly discovered South Sea island called Tomtopia. During the month-long sea cruise to the island. During the journey Tommy met Curly Kale (Carleton Hobbs), the chef who hated food but loved terrible puns; George Gorge (Fred Yule), a glutton who could eat any quantity of 'lovely grub' and Sam Fairfechan (Hugh Morton), the contradictory Welshman. Accompanying them on the journey was Colonel Chinstrap, who made straight for the Jungle Arms on arrival at their destination.
The local population included Bigga Banga (Fred Yule), the native chief who spoke only Utopi language, his daughter and translator Banjeleo (Lind Joyce); Wamba M'Boojah (Hugh Morton), another Tomtopian native whose Oxbridge accent was the result of a spell as an announcer with the BBC's Overseas Service and Major Munday (Carleton Hobbs), an ex-British army officer who had lived in isolation since the Boer war and now believed that England was exactly as it had been in the nineteenth century.
On 19th September 1946, back from a few months off the air, Mrs. Handley’s boy was rather closer to home, resting at Castle Weehouse in Scotland. Here he met Tattie Mackintosh (Molly Weir), Dan Dungeon the castle guide and fellow Liverpudlian and Frisby Dyke (both Deryck Guyler). Following a misdirected attempt to visit the moon in a rocket, he found himself back in Tomtopia for the rest of the series.
A year later Tommy was appointed the Governments adviser on industrial and scientific affairs. The position led to investigations into the radio industry and industrial psychology, organisation of a fuel saving campaign and a PR programme for England. Hattie Jacques debuted as Sophie Tuckshop, the greedy schoolgirl, whose prandial excesses were invariably followed by a giggle and 'but I'm all right now'.
The twelfth, and final, series began on 23rd September 1948. Down on his luck, Tommy was now a permanent resident at Henry Hall (the tramps guesthouse), run by Miss Hotchkiss. For the milestone 300th episode of 28th October the setting was Madame Tussaudes Waxworks in London. Here passing through a door marked 'The Hall of ITMA's Past', Tommy was reunited with many favourite characters from Foaming at the Mouth and Tomtopia, with Dino Galvani, Horace Percival, Clarence Wright, Lind Joyce and Dorothy Summers all making guest appearances.
The last ITMA went out on 6th January 1949. Tommy Handley died suddenly of a cerebral haemorrhage three days later. The news was conveyed to a stunned public immediately after the usual repeat broadcast. Tommy had been suffering from high blood pressure for some time, and his death seems a direct consequence of his dedication to work.
Thousands of mourners and sightseers lined the six mile route from a private chapel in Westbourne Grove to the Golders Green Crematorium, where the scene looked more like the Palladium on the night of a Royal Variety Performance than a funeral. Crowds of sightseers cheered as each celebrity arrived for the service, and several people took flowers from the tributes as souvenirs.>
Two memorial services were held. One at St. Pauls Cathedral in London and the other at Liverpool Cathedral. At the St. Pauls service the then Bishop of London said that 'he was one whose genius transmuted the copper of our common experience into the gold of exquisite foolery. His raillery was without cynicism, and his satire without malice....... From the highest to the lowest in the land, people had found in his programme an escape from their troubles and anxieties into a world of whimsical nonsense.
The Radio Times shows that there was an ITMA show scheduled for 13th January, but this was to be replaced by a special tribute programme. Later in the Light Programme magazine show 'Mirror of the Month', sound effects boys Brian Begg and Johnny Ammonds reminisced and demonstrated some of the ITMA effects. The item ended with the suggestion 'Shall we close the door for the last time?'. They did, and this was followed by a five second pause. One radio critic thought this the most poignant tribute of the all.
Many editions of ITMA were recorded, but only small percentage have survived. Listening to them now, they seem very dated, and it is often difficult to see why the show was so immensely popular, sometimes with forty percent of the British population tuning in. But it took people's minds off the horrors of war and produced a sort of nationwide family spirit. This was helped by the liberal use of catchphrases, many of which passed into the language. Characters would a knock at the famous imaginary door, enter, exchange funny lines with Tommy Handley at machine gun speed, deliver the unvarying closing remark and exit to enormous applause - almost like a factory production line.
The popularity of the catchphrases is demonstrated by a letter which Tommy Handley received from a little girl who had been taken to see the Tempest in Manchester. At one point an unfortunate actor playing Ariel had to say the fatal words 'I go, I go', which was followed by the whole audience shouting 'I come back' -the catchphrase of Ali Oop.
After the death of Tommy Handley the BBC wisely decided to let the show die with him. The only surviving character was Jack Train's Colonel Chinstrap. In 1950, the Colonel appeared in a long forgotten series called The Great Gilhooly. A documentary about his life was broadcast on 1st January 1954 and he appeared in two episodes of a series which was to achieve the same popularity in the 1950s (and beyond) that ITMA had enjoyed a decade before……The Goon Show.
Many thanks to Tony Lang for the basis of these pages.