The Clue Bible strikes again! As the official history of I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again and I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue is about to be resurrected on Audible to mark the beloved Antidote to Panel Games' Golden Anniversary, author Jem Roberts apologises...
With tongue positively poking through cheek, I used to lay significant blame for my career as comedy historian on Barry Cryer. It seems less fair now that he has no way of defending himself.
Still, it was during one of those famous comradely Cryer phone calls of which we have all heard so much that the roots of The Clue Bible, my first weighty slab, covering over 50 years of British comedy history, first found soil. Back in the mid-2000s, I was a veteran videogame journalist who in my spare time performed sketches in a double act, and tried to get my children's stories published. Although a rapacious devourer of comedy history from Wilmut, McCann, Ross, Dessau and co, it was never my plan to join them. But when my Peter Cook obsession led to me becoming a contributor to Kettering: the fanzine of 'Elderly British comedy', there was one field of virgin snow I demanded to trudge through - the entire I'm Sorry story, from the antics of the Cleese-Oddie-Brooke-Taylor generation of the Cambridge Footlights, through over 100 episodes of I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again - the greatest explosion of youthful comedy of the 1960s, the original 'Comedy Is The New Rock & Roll' - to today's universally beloved Antidote To Panel Games, the indomitable I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue.
It was just a question of joke preservation to me - take any sample of journalism written about the show and you should see what I mean. All Clue's precious in-jokes torn to shreds, secrets spoiled without any care for their intricate construction. Someone would end up writing a whole book in that mercilessly mirthless style, unless I stepped in to find a more silly way of going about it. Baz rang to give his warm approval to the articles I wrote in this vein, and my admission that I could have gone on a lot longer led him to wonder, "Why don't you, then?" The omnipotent creator of the game, Graeme Garden's subsequent championing of me as Clue chronicler led to a meeting with their regular publisher Trevor Dolby, and the fully authorised history of ISIRTA and ISIHAC finally tiptoed into shops in 2009.
The honour of being the official historian of this daft grab-bag of old gags will remain with me forever - not long ago a photo surfaced taken by Tim Brooke-Taylor on stage at their triumphant Hammersmith Apollo show in 2008, and there I am in the wings, my whole head pulsating with grins. Over the years I have been cheered by continued contact with the teams, presenting Barry with the Bath Comedy Festival's Bath Plug Award, and cheering on Tim, Graeme and Bill in their cameos on the I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again Again tour, which I was chuffed to be instrumental in helping to stitch together.
All these years later, to mark the Golden Anniversary of this ultimate radio anti-depressant, this Easter The Clue Bible will rise again, brought back to life in audiobook form. The epic history launches on Audible following on from the 50th anniversary of the first series being unleashed upon Radio 4 listeners (on 11th April 1972) - and despite all the heartaches and disasters, it's very much a living biography.
Besides the treat of hovering around backstage at the Apollo and getting to spend time with some of the finest comic minds of our times discussing the silliest things, the construction of the original Bible turned out to be a heartbreaking baptism of fire. Humphrey Lyttelton had actually volunteered to pen the foreword, before tragedy struck, and he finally left the Chairman's chair for good halfway through the book's creation. I had also carried out the very final interviews given by two of the greatest backroom boys in comedy history, Sir David Hatch and Geoffrey Perkins. It seemed like some kind of curse had been placed on our lightly blasphemous celebration of radio comedy.
I can only apologise, but it had never occurred to me that this dread curse would be revived upon the creation of the audio version, with its fully updated epic 'Clue Bible Ephemera' conclusion, covering 14 years of Jack Dee grumpily manning the hooter between the classic Clue teams. Once again I had dared to shake the bones of those old, old, grey-headed jokes stretching back to Radio Prune, and the tragedies were cropping up all over again.
Updating the story was already going to be tragedy-packed enough, with the losses of Jeremy Hardy, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Iain Pattinson still to be even remotely processed by Clue's loving fanbase. But something had to be done to mark such an astonishing milestone in the show's grand history of being given silly things to do.
When I first dared to contact Graeme and producer Jon Naismith after all these years, there was something of a stand-off - it wasn't so much that nobody had noticed that the big 5-0 was on the horizon, but the fact that Clue isn't owned by Garden & Naismith's Random Productions and remains a BBC Studios property, and Auntie hadn't yet mentioned it, made the quandary rather like arranging an 80th birthday for a beloved elderly relative - you can't expect mum to throw her own party, can you? It actually took a nudge from me for both sides to finally begin to think about how to celebrate the world-beating comedy's 50th.
At first, so many things seemed possible, beyond just a simple rash of Radio 4 Extra repeats - perhaps there could even be a live show at the Albert Hall? The cogs were only just beginning to turn when news broke about Barry.
It wasn't like Barry Cryer to be the slightest beat out when it came to timing - but, just as we were beginning to wonder whether copious lager and twenty menthol fags a day might be the secret of eternal life, the unthinkable happened, and Baz bowed out of the show just months short of the big 50th. Neither Jon nor Graeme had the heart to plan a big celebratory bash with only Dr Garden remaining of the original veteran gang. But you never know - let's hope that a live spectacular honouring not just Barry, but Tim, Iain, Jeremy, Humph, Willie and all the greatest players of the games that we love to hear played, may still follow after a relatively respectful period. The show will return no matter what.
There are, however, a few celebratory repeats in the offing, plus a special BBC Radio 4 Archive hour on Saturday 16th April, for which I was blown away to be invited to take part. The months I had spent 15 years earlier listening to every single non-wiped episode of the show, taking random notes and transcribing the best gags, made my archives a god-send to Graeme and Jon, who had of course just spent decades getting on with it, looking back only with caution, lest the programme be pensioned off. Now that this fate is unthinkable - the very idea of Radio 4 with no Clue, no matter how the comedy has to evolve to survive, being a horribly hollow prospect - nothing prevents us from celebrating the 500+ plus half-hours of daft piss-taking they've got in the bank, loudly and proudly.
Graeme, Jon and I ultimately ended up with a fusion of our three personal Top 25 moments from 50 years of the show, with numerous pleasing overlaps - those epochal moments amid the endless rounds of silly gamespersonship: Jeremy Hardy's singing debut, the first time Mornington Crescent was played on BBC Radio 4, and... a few others which I won't give away now, and spoil the surprise of tuning in to the Archive programme.
When Barry died all of The Clue Bible had already been recorded, he was still in the present tense throughout. But as his passing was swiftly joined first by a comedian as crucial to the story as ISIRTA legend Jo Kendall, and then her fellow early Clue player Denise Coffey, we had to wrap up the audiobook update quickly before the curse struck yet again.
Jon and Graeme also aided me in constructing the final chapter of The Clue Bible for audio, with more recent memories of the show's recording and touring up and down the country with Jack in charge, and young upstarts like Rachel Parris and Miles Jupp on kazoo/swanee whistle duties. I hope this freshly updated official audio history of the whole I'm Sorry legacy will be enjoyed once again as the gag-packed loving tribute to Barry, Tim, Jo and the whole Clue family that it was always intended to be.
But don't worry - the story doesn't end there. After half a century of ridiculous ramshackle panel game tomfoolery, it's still business as usual, and as long as there's a radio arena for the best comics to mess about in audio without any interest in scoring points, I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue abides. Amen.
The I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue Bible - the official history of ISIRTA and ISIHAC - is available now from Audible (see below).
50th anniversary audiobook version of the official history of BBC Radio 4's classic comedy series I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue - one of the UK's most popular and long-running radio shows, which has featured the best British writers and comedians of the past half century, including members of Monty Python, The Goodies, Stephen Fry, and countless others.
Back in 1972, people had never heard of Samantha, Sven, nor Mrs Trellis, and had no idea of the rules of Mornington Crescent, nor what points are for. The year 2022 marks 50 years of radio insanity - of the nation's finest comic minds being given silly things to do, with some of them set to music.
Celebrate the Golden Anniversary of the greatest radio comedy of all time, the antidote to panel games, with the epic and exhaustive, fully authorized history of both I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again - the groovy youth comedy explosion of the '60s - and its beloved spin-off, I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue.
Originally published in 2009 in full collaboration with Graeme Garden, Humph, and the Teams, plus Jon Naismith, Sir David Hatch, John Lloyd, Simon Brett, Stephen Fry, Colin Sell, and so many of the greatest comedians of the last half century or more, this audio bible features an all-new update on everything Jack Dee and the Teams have been up to in the last 14 years.
First published: Wednesday 13th April 2022
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