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The Review - BOOKS
Published: 27 November 2008
Humphrey Lyttelton shares a cuppa with influential jazz star Duke Ellington
Humphrey Lyttelton shares a cuppa with influential jazz star Duke Ellington
Clues and the blues in life of star Humph

Jazz pioneer and radio host Humphrey
Lyttelton struggled with the fame his many talents brought him, writes Gerald Isaaman
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IF you haven’t played a trumpet, a trombone or even a tuba it’s difficult to appreciate how holding a brass instrument to your lips can transform your life.
Humphrey Lyttelton fell in love with the trumpet as a lad and played it all his life. His embouchure was an extension of his delightful personality that kept him swinging until his death, at 86, in April this year.
Like the Bad Penny Blues which gave him a record hit in 1956, Humph always returned to the bandstand to play an encore, and this anthology of his thoughts, diaries and writing is very much a warm and rich legacy to a man who enjoyed a remarkable life.
The strange thing is that – apart from aficionados of jazz – Humph was another figure altogether, not only a man with a generous sense of humour he displayed in his writings, his calligraphy and in his cartoons, but also the droll and much-loved chairman of Radio 4’s comedy quiz show I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue.
And it is in that role he is remembered by most generations of the public, the more so because it lasted for 36 years, Humph becoming a reluctant celebrity he might have wished the BBC had banned for his ultimate drollery and perfect comic timing.
Indeed, in his poignant introduction to his father’s autobiographical medley, Humph’s son Stephen reveals how reaching such a status disturbed him. “Every now and then the constant recognition would get the better of Dad,” he writes, telling the story of a time when Humph protested at being stared at in a restaurant by a German couple, he did so by calmly pulling his tie up under his glasses and putting one of his size 13 desert boots on his head.
Humph considered the hilarious offbeat show too self-indulgent and dreadful to become a hit when the first pilot was aired in 1972. Even three years later he wrote: “I’m not sure that this game show hasn’t finally run its course – this has been a good series with better games than before, but there have been moments when it floundered. I shan’t be sorry if it expires. I’m rather tired of people coming up and saying ‘I enjoyed your programme the other day’ and finding out they mean this bit of nonsense!”
Such are the miracles of life that I’m Sorry went on and on, perhaps propelled in some part by the arcane Mornington Crescent game that nobody understood but which produced buckets of laughter for the cognoscenti who claimed they did have a clue to all its machinations. Some of them even left flowers at the Northern Line Tube station when Humph died.
You might say that Humph had too many talents – his illustrious upper-class forebears included one of the executed Gunpowder Plot victims – as Stephen discovered when sorting out his effects. He trawled through files, drawers and supermarket bags packed with mementoes, among them unseen autobiographical writings and diaries for a seven-year period.
Certainly he had a great talent for friendship, in particular with fellow musician and Trog cartoonist, Wally Fawkes, the clarinettist who played alongside him for decades and the creator of great political cartoons, plus the Daily Mail Flook strip cartoon, for which Humph wrote the words for a while.
He was a man of manners, a gentleman with a concerned social conscience and one with an innate wit and wisdom he displayed at the very end. “When I visited my father in hospital the night before his operation, he could not have been in finer spirits, sitting upright in bed wearing his jalabiyah and receiving his many visitors with that characteristic glint in his eye,” recalls Stephen.
“You would have been forgiven for thinking he was in there for an in-growing toenail rather than a life-threatening operation. If he was fearful he kept it to a few private moments, showing more outward concern for his visitors and fellow patients.
“His last words to me that evening were a testament to his philosophy on life. ‘This is a win-win situation for me. If the operation goes to plan then I will wake up with you all around me. If it doesn’t, then I will know no different but you will also be OK.’”
Humph’ will not want us playing the blues for him this Christmas. He was a triumphant man who played a triumphant trumpet, an admirable bandleader and pioneer of jazz in this country, who earned the love and respect of Satchmo and all his kind. Young and old man with a horn, his is a last chorus to remember.

Last Chorus: An Autobiographical Medley. By Humphrey Lyttelton.
Robson Books £18.99.

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