It’s That Man Again – Jimmy Cricket recalling the comedy of Tommy Handley

with Jimmy Cricket

Celebrity comic Jimmy Cricket gives it some welly, still inviting audiences to “come closer” after 50 years

I don’t know if you heard or not readers but they found a group of pigeons on the roof of Downing Street recently. Apparently they were planning a coo!

That was the latest joke I put on Twitter because I feel people like to have a chuckle during challenging times. A lockdown is a bit like wartime. We need to keep our spirits up. One comedian who certainly did that was Tommy Handley, writes Jimmy Cricket.

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Big wartime BBC comedy star

Tommy’s BBC Radio Comedy series ITMA ran from 1939 to 1949, and he was the pivotal figure around which all the other characters orbited. ITMA was short for It’s That Man Again – a reference to Hitler. As well as Tommy’s fast talking patter, he would boost everybody’s morale as a cheerleader for Winston Churchill by singing songs like “I’ll Follow The Big Man Who Smokes The Big Cigar”

Tommy came from where else? Liverpool. He learned his trade in Music Hall. When Radio beckoned he was a natural. In 1926, the New Zealand born writer Ted Kavanagh sent him a comedy sketch that ignited a lifelong partnership. Thirteen years later together with Producer Francis Worsley they conceived ITMA.

Creating chuckles during WWII

Although the first series was recorded in London, with the outbreak of the War the BBC Variety Department moved to Bristol for the Second Series. When the German bombing campaign put Bristol on their hit list, everyone then moved lock, stock and barrel to Bangor in North Wales, where Tommy became the Mayor of the fictional seaside resort of Foaming-At-The-Mouth.

Even here the ITMA team didn’t totally escape the enemy for during programme five of the fourth series listeners heard the explosion of two naval mines that had been dropped in Bangor landing half a mile from the studio.

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Smash radio hit

By now the show was attracting 16 million listeners and was the most popular programme the BBC Variety Department had ever produced. In April 1942 ITMA provided a Command Performance at Windsor Castle in the presence of George V1 and his Queen on the occasion of the 16th birthday of Princess Elizabeth (present day Queen).

Each 30 minute episode had two musical interludes which left an average of eighteen-and-a-half minutes dialogue. Writer Ted Kavanagh would furnish Tommy with 100 gags, which worked out at a laugh every eleven seconds. In between his quick fire delivery there would be a stream of recurring characters to feed off.

Each character would have an easily recognisable catchphrase that listeners could identify right away. There was the charlady Mrs Mop, wheeling her brush, saying “Can I do you now, sir?” The usually inebriated Colonel with his “I don’t mind if I do. There was even an incompetent German Spy who would ring up saying “This is Funf speaking”.

Tommy would finish his show with nifty little nuggets of advice like “Remember folks, never kiss a baby ‘til you’re sure it’s the right way up” and “Keep your pecker up, your eiderdown and never wash your windows with a soft boiled egg”.

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Sad end

Sadly, Tommy Handley died suddenly of a cerebral haemorrhage on January 9 1949 during the 12th series. Thousands lined the streets for his funeral procession. All were there to pay their respects to a much loved comedian who did so much to cheer them up during the dark days of the Second World War.