Humphrey Lyttelton - They called him Humph

This weekend saw a BBC tribute to Humphrey Lyttelton, jazz trumpeter, band-leader and much-loved Radio 4 presenter who died in April. Pat Parker was privileged to conduct one of his final interviews, in which he spoke candidly about his life

IT WAS just before Christmas last year that I interviewed the great Humphrey Lyttelton. He hadn't been terribly well but was as genial, gentlemanly and generous as always. The previous year, 2006, had brought sadness. His wife, Jill, whom he had nursed for many years, died after a long degenerative illness. But 2007 saw him more active than ever: he had been featured on The South Bank Show, and hailed in one newspaper as a national treasure, cited as "trumpeter, broadcaster and purveyor of blue-chip filth to the nation". He was rather chuffed by that.

And, at 86, he had been gigging with his eight-piece jazz band with the energy and enthusiasm of a teenager. "My band is on a roll," he told me. "I'm having the best time of my life."

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In addition, I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue, the anarchic 'antidote to panel games' which he had chaired on Radio 4 since its inception in 1972, had gone on tour to massive, sell-out audiences. It toured again this year, though Humph was unable to attend the last performance because he was in hospital for a heart operation to repair an aortic aneurism.

He died of complications following the surgery on 25 April, and the nation mourned as if it had lost a dear friend.

Humphrey Richard Adeane Lyttelton, cousin of the 10th Viscount Cobham, was born on 23 May 1921, at Eton, where his father George taught English literature to George Orwell and Aldous Huxley.

"My ancestors started the title Viscount Cobham," he said. "I broke away and remained plain Mr Lyttelton." The ancestor he seems to have been most proud of, however, was another Humphrey Lyttelton, one of the Gunpowder Plotters. Humph shared his rebellious streak.

Before being sent to Sunningdale preparatory school, his early life was spent with his four sisters in the nursery, where there was evidence of the young Humphrey's natural talent for music. One of his earliest playthings was a toy dulcimer, on which he learnt to pick out the tunes he heard the nursemaids singing.

He was unsure where his musical prowess came from, "but my father, who was a big man, loved Wagner, and my mother loved dance bands."

An uncle, a vicar in London's East End, gave him a drum, which he taught himself to play. His mother, eager to encourage his talent, recruited a former drum major, a Mr Glass, to tutor him. "I remember my mother proudly telling him I'd taught myself. He said, 'Well, we'll soon unlearn him of all of that.' He became my mentor."

At Eton, Humph formed his first jazz quartet, initially playing harmonica. His old friend Ludovic Kennedy was on drums. One weekend, he bunked off to Charing Cross Road in London, where his mother bought him a trumpet. "It was a 4 package deal: the trumpet in a lovely case, the mute, and one free lesson on the Monday. I practised over the weekend and by the time of the lesson, I could already play the scale of C. I must have been terribly precocious. The teacher said, 'You really are going great places, Humphrey!'"

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Apart from that one lesson, he was entirely self-taught. "There was no tuition in jazz in the early days. You just bought all the jazz records and played along with them."

After a brief spell working in a south Wales steelworks, which persuaded him of the virtues of socialism, the declaration of war saw Humph enrolling at Sandhurst, then seeing action in North Africa and Italy as an officer in the Grenadier Guards. He took part in the Allied invasion of mainland Italy at Salerno in September, 1943, famously wading ashore with a pistol in one hand and a trumpet in the other. His trumpeting brought some cheer to the troops. "I used to play a hot jazz version of the Last Post, the call for lights-out."

On VE Day, in May 1945, Humphrey unwittingly made his first broadcast to the nation. Celebrating outside Buckingham Palace, the BBC recorded him playing his trusty trumpet while being pushed around in a wheelbarrow. It was an early example of the proclivity for silliness that never left him.

By the time he was demobbed in his mid-twenties, he was more easily able to challenge his father's expectations.

"After the war, he wanted me to take a diploma in Geography at London University. When I broke the news that I had no interest in learning about the Earth's crust and the gulf stream, he said he had come to the same conclusion."

Humphrey enrolled in Camberwell School of Art to study illustration, while playing jazz in his spare time.

"I was quite a disappointment to my parents. They thought I was just fiddling about in music. But once they saw my name in the papers, they changed their mind."

A clarinettist friend, Wally Falkes, who as "Trog" created the Flook comic strip, tipped him off about a cartoonist's job on the Daily Mail, and Humph made a living out of doodling. The paper also used him as a music reviewer. But playing jazz was becoming more central to his life, and he became instrumental in the late-1940s British "revivalist" movement of New-Orleans-inspired traditional jazz.

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His public-school accent found favour with radio producers. "When I did radio broadcasts with my band, I always urged them to let me announce the next number. I think talking slightly posh helped," he said.

His friendly delivery, coupled with an acute sense of timing has won the hearts of millions of radio listeners. Yet, surprisingly, he told me he hated to hear himself on radio.

"I can't stand my own voice. I hate it. Even today, if they're editing one of my broadcasts while I'm in the studio, I flee for the door."

In 1956, Humph had a hit record with Bad Penny Blues – a self-penned, rumbustious number whose catchy piano riff almost certainly influenced the Beatles' Lady Madonna 12 years later. The royalties from the hit allowed him and his second wife Jill – whom he met in the jazz club he opened in London in the early 1950s – to move into the home near Barnet, Hertfordshire, where he lived for 49 years.

As jazz became partially eclipsed by pop during the 60s, Humphrey became increasingly in demand as a radio presenter. In 1967, he started Radio 2's The Best of Jazz – a programme he presented until his death.

By the start of the 1970s he was a familiar voice on radio. In late 1971 he was invited to host the pilot of a then-untitled comedy panel show. Devised by Graeme Garden, it was meant to be a sister show to the successful I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again. The pilot was not exactly a resounding success. "They tried to do it completely ad-lib, and afterwards we asked David Hatch, the producer, whether it would be broadcast. He said, 'It might be once, on Boxing Day, when everybody's drunk, but after that, I don't think so.'"

Yet the show, finally entitled I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, did survive, beginning in April 1972. "It started off being done live at lunchtime, with an audience of just 80 people. It's my belief that most of the audience were bag ladies who saw a queue forming and thought there might be food inside!"

I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue became a comedy classic, making Humph a hero to generations of radio listeners.

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He believed the reason for its success was its unpredictability. "None of us, especially me, knows from one series to another and one programme to another what's going to happen: it's got that built-in capacity to go off the rails."

He recalled how he was once having to explain on the show the rules of Pass The Parcel, when the sheer ridiculousness of the situation struck him. "I let out this cri de cœur, 'I'm 78, for God's sake!' and (the producer Jon Naismith] left it in. He left a whole lot of things in, and it's helped me develop."

The running gags and in-jokes and, of course, the intellectually challenging game Mornington Crescent, were all integral to the show's comedy. Humph said when people came up to him at a gig to ask him to explain the rules of Mornington Crescent, he politely refused.

Did he have a favourite game? "If I'm going to be honest, my favourite game is any that goes on long enough to give me the chance to have a snooze!"

Humph spoke movingly about the long illness and death in 2006 of his wife, Jill. "I spent ten years watching her decline. She had Parkinson's Disease which developed into Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, and she lost everything. She used to like dancing, talking to friends on the telephone, but one by one they all went."

Humph nursed her devotedly for as long as he could, but by the end she had to be cared for in a home. "It's a funny thing about caring. It's such a challenge to do it, and it's no good doing it with a long face – you might as well get someone with a short face to do it for you. Jill always liked to dance. We had our own little record player in the nursing home and I played her Fats Novarro, (an American jazz trumpeter], and held her hand, and she responded to it. Life finds its own level.

"If you can spend an evening dancing with someone who can hardly move, and put a smile on her face, that's a little success."

I asked him how he was coping without Jill. His reply was upbeat. "I live on my own, but I've really got two families – my musicians have been with me a long time and the rapport is fantastic, so there's that support, and I have four children, one of whom lives nearby. So I'm really very lucky."

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