The Lost BBC: ITMA


IT probably doesn’t sound all that funny now, with its catchphrases and topical references, but ITMA (It’s That Man Again) helped Britain get through the war. It was a shared experience which encouraged listeners to forget their worries by poking fun at the hazards and privations they all endured.

The show was created as a vehicle for Tommy Handley. He was born in Liverpool in 1892 and started his career singing in a touring production of the operetta The Maid of the Mountains. In 1917 he was called up into the Royal Naval Air Service and joined a concert party. After the war he toured music halls, starring in a sketch called The Disorderly Roomwhich was chosen for the Royal Command Performance in 1924. From then on he was a BBC variety mainstay, with many of his scripts written by New Zealander Ted Kavanagh. In 1929 he married a singer, Rosalind Henshall. They had no children.

It is not clear how It’s That Man Again got its name. Some accounts say it came from newspaper headlines when Hitler annexed more territory (it seems extraordinary that such serious events in Europe could be treated with levity); others say it referred to United States President Franklin D Roosevelt’s introduction of various ‘New Deal’ policies.

The first show was broadcast on 12 July 1939 as part of a trial run of four programmes. The scripts were by Handley and Kavanagh. It was not considered a success, and the BBC were believed to be considering scrapping the programme. Then war was declared on 3 September.

On a slightly chaotic website (I am not even sure what it is called) I found a fascinating piece which has no byline or date, but which I deduce was written in 1945 by the ITMAproducer Francis Worsley. He described the turmoil at the BBC:

‘All advertised programmes were scrapped at once and a state of emergency existed. The Variety Department dispersed according to plan and went to Bristol. A new set of programmes to meet the changed conditions was put into operation in a creditably short time and among them was an item which read on the schedule, “Tuesday 19th September, 1939 – 9.30 to 10 p.m: It’s That Man Again. Cast – Tommy Handley, Jack Train, Maurice Denham, Vera Lennox, Sam Costa, and Jack Hylton’s Band. Producer Francis Worsley”. That was all.

‘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 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 – seven 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.’

The piece is well worth reading in full.

Handley, Kavanagh and Worsley would form a solid partnership through more than 300 programmes over the next decade. ITMA followed the adventures of Tommy Handley in a series of situations where he worked with comic characters. First he was Minister of Aggravation and Mysteries at the Office of Twerps, then the Mayor of seedy seaside resort Foaming-at-the-Mouth; later he was Governor of the South Sea island Tomtopia. Many gags were dependent on current news – the scripts were written only a few days before production. Handley’s natural instinct for delivering a line perfectly and immaculate timing kept the show at the peak of professional excellence.

Here is part of a programme from 1942, filmed by Movietone:

The series introduced dozens of characters (not all of them politically correct) and catchphrases. Among them were Funf the German spy, whose line ‘This is Funf speaking’ became wildly popular. Francis Worsley observed: ‘Almost everyone who had a telephone had also a humorous friend who never failed to open the proceedings with this.’

There was Mrs Mopp, the office charlady, whose entrance was accompanied by ‘Can I do you now, sir?’; she departed to TTFN (‘Ta Ta For Now’), the ultra-polite handymen Claude and Cecil (‘After you Claude’ – ‘No, after you Cecil’, which gained widespread usage amongst RAF pilots in combat), Ali Oop, a Middle Eastern vendor of dubious postcards (‘I go, I come back’) Mark Time, an elderly man who answered all questions with ‘I’ll ‘ave to ask me Dad’, Wamba M’Boojah, a Tomtopian whose Oxbridge accent was the result of a spell as an announcer with the BBC’s Overseas Service, Major Munday, an ex-British army officer who had lived in isolation since the Boer war and believed that England was exactly as it had been in the nineteenth century, and Mona Lott, whose tales of woe ended with ‘It’s being so cheerful as keeps me going’.

Then there was Colonel Chinstrap, 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’. He was played by Jack Train, who recalled how the character was created. Train was in the office of senior BBC announcer John Snagge when the door opened and a slightly bleary-eyed gentleman entered, being introduced as a retired Indian Army officer. He turned to Snagge and said: ‘John, I have just done the most marvellous piece of business. I’ve bought a water-heater on ten years’ hire-purchase and what the gas company doesn’t know is I am drinking myself to death.’

Train and Kavanagh developed this into Colonel Chinstrap. The officer on whom the colonel was based heard the programme and commented: ‘Wonderful character. I knew silly buggers like that in India.’

Nine years and five months after the first meeting, Train received a telegram: ‘THE COLONEL BEAT THE GAS COMPANY BY SEVEN MONTHS – SNAGGE.’

ITMA had a hectic pace, with Handley ‘on stage’ almost constantly, interacting with other characters as they came and went. As the series became more popular, getting audiences of 12million a week, ITMA began to go on stage tours. A film version was also made, which you can see here:

In 1942 the cast performed a special show for the Royal Family at Windsor Castle. Handley also appeared in Tommy Handley’s Half-Hour, designed for overseas reception, and other programmes.

Here is an ITMA show from 1945:

After the war ended the show carried on, constantly evolving with new situations and characters.

Here is a Pathe film from 1946 featuring many favourite characters:

On 28th October 1948, ITMA celebrated its 300th episode with a plot involving Handley visiting Madame Tussauds, entering a room marked ‘The Hall of ITMA’s Past’ and being reunited with the show’s older characters.

On Sunday 9 January 1949, just after the 5pm repeat broadcast of the latest episode ofITMA, there was a newsflash: Tommy Handley had died from a brain haemorrhage at his home in London. He was 56. This is the BBC announcement:

Here is that last episode:

It was known that he had been suffering from high blood pressure and many believed it was the unrelenting pressure of work that killed him. The episode that was intended to be broadcast on 13th January was replaced with a tribute programme, and no more ITMAswere made.

On the day of Handley’s funeral, mourners lined the six-mile route between a chapel at Westbourne Grove and Golders Green Crematorium, and two memorial services were held – one at St Paul’s Cathedral and the other at Liverpool Cathedral.

I will leave the last line to producer Francis Worsley: ‘ITMA’s 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”.’

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *