Humphrey Lyttelton, jazz trumpeter, band leader, radio celebrity panel game show host and journalist, died on 25 April 2008. He was 86.
The Guardian takes the unusual step of publishing three tributes rather than its more conventional obituary followed by brief tribute format. The main one was written by George Melly before his own death in July 2007:
When it came to dealing with the press, Humph played his cards close to his chest. He would talk or write freely about his musical life and the quirks of the musicians he had employed or, in the case of Americans, accompanied, but when it came to his social origins, the area which naturally attracted journalists, he gave them nothing beyond three stories which, for want of anything else, were repeated in almost every article or interview.
Unsurprisingly, all three of the stories Melly mentions feature in the other quality papers’ obituaries: how he bunked off the annual Eton v Harrow cricket match (he was at Eton, where his father was a housemaster) to go and buy a trumpet in London’s Charing Cross Road; how he landed at Salerno in 1943 with the Allied invasion forces with a pistol in one hand and his trumpet in the other; and how he spent VE Night being pushed in a handcart to Buckingham Palace, playing his trumpet all the while.
John Fordham comments:
Much has been said about Humph’s immaculate comic timing, but as if talents for comedy and jazz inhabited separate worlds. He was far too modest to dwell on his own gifts, but I don’t think he would have seen it this way… Humour, Humph thought, was frequently a necessary refuge or reassurance for any beleaguered minority anyway, and jazz has spent much of its life in the bunker.
I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue regular Jeremy Hardy writes:
Having spent so many hours in traffic surrounded by lorries, and being in possession of an irrepressibly energetic mind, he acquired the ability to read backwards very quickly, noticing on the way to Harrogate that Warburtons backwards is “snot rub raw”. He was very pleased one night to read the word “stratagem” in the script and realise that written backwards it is “megatarts”.
The Times carries a more conventional obituary, but makes up for this with more quotations from the man himself. On Lyttelton’s work as an award-winning restaurant critic for Harpers & Queen:
“In a moment of self-doubt, I said to George Melly, who had been doing the film reviews for The Observer, ‘I’m sure they’re going to find out one day that I know nothing about it.’ His answer was convoluted but true: ‘Yes, but in my experience, by the time they find out you know nothing about it, you will know something about it.'”
The Independent likewise focuses on quotations from the man himself. Here’s what he had to say about his time on I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue:
“Nowadays when people say to me ‘I enjoy your show’, they’re more likely to mean I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue than the Monday night record programme [The Best Of Jazz] that I’ve presented for so many years,” he said. “If it wasn’t for the fact that I took out my trumpet and played at the end of each gig, thousands of people would have thought of me as the chairman of I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue without knowing that I was a trumpet player.”
Perhaps it was his musicality that gave Humph his glorious comic timing. Here was a man who could get a laugh not just from speaking but from silence. A sketch would conclude and the audience would applaud. Humph would then sit in a silence until he finally declared “Hmmm” as if he had never been more bored in his life and the house would once again rock with laughter.
(Humphrey Richard Adeane Lyttelton, born 23 May 1921 in Eton, Berkshire, died 25 April 2008 in Barnet, Greater London.)