12th July 1939. ITMA.
Today a Wednesday in 1939 the first BBC radio comedy ‘ITMA’ was broadcast between 8.15 and 9.0 pm from the Maida Vale Studios, London.
The name was taken from a newspaper headline which referred to Hitler as, ‘It’s That Man Again’ (ITMA), and brought a legion of eccentric characters into the national consciousness.(1)
One named after a department store was ‘Frisby Dyke’ (Deryck Guyler), whose accent had been accidentally overheard by Handley at audition, the first time a Liverpudlian had been heard on the wireless. The Programme was listened to regularly by audiences of 10 million.
Radio came into its own in wartime as the little BBC TV out-put there was, had ceased in 1939. Now people were glued to BBC Radio News for any restricted information they might glean about the war.
Radio comedy was a great morale booster in those early dire days of wartime, with Monday Night at Eight (originally Seven), and ITMA with Tommy Handley and cast using the British weapon of ridicule against Hitler. The Brains’ Trust catered for the more ‘highbrow’.
In early August 1939 Handley and others of the BBC Light Entertainment Dept., had received confidential orders on what to do when a State of Emergency arose, being told of a secret signal preceding the News changing from: ‘This is the National Programme’ to ‘This is London’.
Key people were to move from London by any means to Bristol. Thus on a sunny Sunday morning on the first day of war, the 3rd September, Handley and others departed.
The BBC Symphony Orchestra had departed the previous day after hearing the coded signal after tuning into the 9 o’clock news on the Home Service.
They went firstly to Bristol and later to Bedford, the beginning of a wider dispersal of the BBC. Many went to Evesham, Worcestershire and Bangor in North Wales for the ‘duration’ of the War.
The Radio Times by August 6th 1941 were advertising ‘entertainment’, including at 4.00 pm Happidrome with Walter Widdop and Cheerful Charlie Chester followed by Welsh News.
7.00 pm saw Under Your Hat, a magazine programme for the Civil Defence Force, along with the Hillbilly Swingers of the Dover Auxiliary Fire Service, followed at 7.30 pm by news in Norwegian. Were the BBC trying to kill listeners with boredom?
The more adventurous tuned into the defector Lord Haw-Haw (William Joyce) broadcasting from Hamburg with 30% of the listening public being said to listen in for entertainment, forcing the BBC to put out more popular programmes after the main evening news.(2)
One of the most abiding memories for the Author is of listening to the Radio whilst sitting in a zinc bath in front of the open fire.
(1) ITMA was an acronym for ‘It’s that man again’ and first used in a Daily Express article by Bert Gunn on 2nd May 1939 referring to Hitler. It ran for 10 years to 1949.
(2) Joyce was executed in 1946.
Tommy Handley, Ted Kavanagh, Hodder & Stourton, London 1949.