In 1939, the expression "It's That Man Again" referred to two people. One was Adolf Hitler, for whom the newspapers ran the headline "It's That Man Again" whenever he made a new territorial demand in Europe.
The other man was Liverpudlian comedian Tommy Handley, whose comedy radio show It's That Man Again (better known simply as ITMA) was the most successful comedy series to be broadcast during the Second World War. It was a catchphrases driven show, with pretty much everyone around the country knowing the key phrases.
The series was co-written by Handley and Ted Kavanagh, and produced by Francis Worsley. It originally began as a four-episode-long trial run, with episodes broadcast every fortnight, starting on 12th July 1939. The setting was a pirate radio station on a ship where Handley, playing himself, chose the programmes. He was assisted by his secretary Cilly (played by Cecilia Eddy) and Eric Egan as a mad Russian inventor. The four episodes also starred Sam Heppner and Lionel Gamlin.
When it was first broadcast, ITMA was not considered a success, and the BBC were believed to be considering scrapping the programme. However, thanks to Hitler declaring war on Britain, the schedules were hastily changed. As a result, ITMA has given a commission of a new series lasting 21 episodes. These recordings took place in Bristol in order to avoid the Blitz.
The setting for the new series was changed too, as it was thought that a pirate radio station was not suitable for wartime. Instead, Handley became Minister for Aggravation at the Office of Twerps and new cast members and characters were brought in to support this premise. These included a new secretary called Dotty (Vera Lennox), Mrs Tickle the office char (Maurice Denham), Vodkin the Russian inventor (Denham), and Funf (Jack Train), a German spy whose catchphrase, "This is Funf speaking", became very popular and helped to satirise German wireless propaganda. Another regular joke in the series was Radio Fakenburg, a parody of Radio Luxembourg. The announcer was also played by Denham.
As the series became more popular, ITMA began to go on stage tours. However, these were not considered that successful as they lacked the impact of the radio shows. Also, the fact that the Blitz had destroyed many theatres by this point, made things difficult. Even Bristol suffered from the bombing and, as a result, the recordings of the on-going radio series moved to Bangor, North Wales.
As war began to rage ever heavier, it was decided that the setting of the next series should be changed, because attacking government departments was no longer considered acceptable. To provide a source of escape for the listeners, the writers decided to change the setting this time to a run-down seaside resort. Thus, Series 3, which ran for six episodes in the summer of 1941, became It's That Sand Again, with Handley playing the mayor of dilapidated seaside resort Foaming at the Mouth
Between Series 2 and 3 Lennox and Denham had left, and so new cast members were brought in. They were Sydney Keith, Dorothy Summers, Fred Yule and Horace Percival. New characters included gangsters Lefty and Sam (Train and Keith); Middle Eastern vendor of dubious merchandise Ali "I go, I come back" Oop (Percival); Deepend Dan the Diver, who had the catchphrase "Don't forget the diver!" (Percival); and over-polite handymen Claude and Cecil, whose joint catchphrase was "After you Claude - no after you Cecil" (Train and Percival).
Foaming at the Mouth continued to be the setting for the fourth series, which ran for 32 weeks and returned to its original title later in 1941. In Series 4, Dino Galvani played the role of Handley's Italian secretary Signor So-So, and Clarence Wright played an unsuccessful commercial traveller. However, the most iconic character to come out of this series was Mrs Mopp (Summers), the office char lady whose catchphrase "Can I do you now, sir?" quickly became one of the show's most well known.
It was during this time that ITMA reached new heights of fame and popularity. In April 1942, ITMA became the first BBC show to perform for the Royal Family, with an episode being recorded at Windsor Castle to celebrate the 16th birthday of Princess Elizabeth (now Elizabeth II). The episode has never been broadcast, but it still exists in the BBC Sound Archives. A film version of ITMA was also made but, like the stage shows, proved to be not nearly as successful as the radio episodes.
By the fifth series, which began in September 1942, Foaming at the Mouth was the home to a new factory, although what it made was never clear. Another iconic character was also introduced at this point. Colonel Chinstrap, played by Train, took even the most innocent remark as the chance to ask for a drink, accompanied by his catchphrase "I don't mind if I do". Over the next series, the factory became a spa, a holiday camp, a hotel and various other locations.
By Series 7 (October 1943), the bombings in London had reduced. As a result, the recording was moved back to London, with the central role changing to the Squire of Much Fiddling. At this point Jack Train left the show because of ill health, and Jean Capra was brought in.
In 1944, ITMA recorded special editions of the series for the armed forces. The first of these was for the Navy at Scapa Flow, followed by the RAF at the Criterion Theatre, and then the Army at a garrison theatre "somewhere in England".
Train returned for Series 8 in 1945, to play a new character: Mark Time, a depraved and elderly character who answered all questions with the line, "I'll 'ave to ask me Dad". Newcomer Diana Morrison also joined the cast as Miss Hotchkiss, Handley's domineering secretary. On 10th May 1945, ITMA broadcast a special "VE Edition" to mark the end of the war with Germany.
Following the end of the conflict, it was decided to change much of the show for Series 9, so Summers, Keith and Galvani were dropped from the cast and Carleton Hobbs (better known for his performances as Sherlock Holmes), Hugh Morton, Mary O'Farrell, Michele de Lys and Lind Joyce joined, with Clarence Wright returning for the first time since Series 5.
In this new series, Handley played the role of newly appointed Governor of the South Sea island of Tomtopia. The premise saw Handley meeting a number of new characters on his way to the island: Curly Kale (Hobbs), a chef who hated food but loved awful puns; contradictory Welshman Sam Fairfechan (Morton) and gluttonous George Gorge (Fred Yule). Colonel Chinstrap also accompanied Handley. The locals of Tomtopia included Bigga Banga (Yule) the native chief who could not speak English, only Utopi, which was translated by his daughter Banjeleo (Joyce). There was also Wamba M'Boojah (Morton), a native who spoke with an Oxbridge accent, because he once worked as an announcer for the BBC's Overseas Service; and Major Munday (Hobbs), a former army officer who lived on Tomtopia since the Boer War and thus assumed Britain was exactly as it was back in the 19th century.
By Series 10, first broadcast in 1946, Handley's character had move back to Britain, living in Castle Weehouse, Scotland. Amongst the characters for this series were Tattie Mackintosh (Molly Weir); castle guide Dan Dungeon (Deryck Guyler); and fellow Liverpudlian Frisby Dyke (also Guyler). One episode involved Handley building a rocket to the moon. The attempt failed and Handley landed in Tomtopia, where the character spent the rest of the series.
In 1947, Series 11 began, with Handley being made a government adviser on industrial and scientific affairs. Amongst his work he organised a fuel saving campaign, investigated the radio industry and industrial psychology, and created a PR programme for England. One new character introduced in this series was Sophie Tuckshop (Hattie Jacques), a greedy schoolgirl.
By Series 12, the character of Handley was down on his luck. He had moved into Henry Hall, a guest house for vagrants run by Miss Hotchkiss. On 28th October 1948, ITMA celebrated its 300th episode with a plot line involving Handley visiting Madame Tussaudes, entering a room marked "The Hall of ITMA's Past" and being reunited with the show's older characters.
On the 6th January 1949, ITMA broadcast what was to be its final episode. Three days after this episode was broadcast, Handley suffered a cerebral haemorrhage and died. The news of the death was announced after the usual repeat, to a shocked audience. It was known at the time that Handley had been suffering from high blood pressure and it was believed that it was his dedication to his work that finally killed him. The episode that was intended to be broadcast on 13th January was instead replaced with a tribute show dedicated to Handley.
On the day of his funeral, mourners and sightseers lined the six mile route between the private chapel at Westbourne Grove and the Golders Green Crematorium, and two memorial services were held - one at St. Paul's Cathedral and the other at Liverpool Cathedral.
Sadly, only a few episodes of ITMA still exist. Of these episodes, most are approaching 70 years old, and are seen as dated and unfunny. Upon hearing one of these episodes, a young listener may wonder why a series such as ITMA was so popular. However, it should be remembered that this was the show that helped Britain forget the horrors of war... which must be one of greatest achievements of any British comedy series.