Classic Radio Revisited: I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again

What was it all about?
A noisy, fast-moving revue show with silly voices, mild smut and excruciating puns. It was schoolboy heaven. Principal writers were John Cleese and Graeme Garden.

When was it on?
From 1964 to 1973 on BBC radio, a total of nine series. In 1989 the cast reassembled for a 25th anniversary show which was broadcast on Radio 2 on Christmas Day.

Who were the star turns?
John ‘Otto’ Cleese, Bill Oddie, Tim-Brooke-Taylor, Graeme Garden, Jo Kendall and David Hatch. The first series of three shows featured Anthony Buffery instead of Garden.

Any regular items?
The fourth series included a serial, The Curse of the Flying Wombat, starring Tim Brooke-Taylor as ageing dowager Lady Constance de Coverlet, a woman determined to recapture her youth…if only she could find him. Her signature tune was Happy Days Are Here Again.

Series seven boasted a new serial, Professor Prune and the Electric Time Trousers, a send-up of Dr. Who. Radio Prune — and its legendary founder, Angus Prune — frequently cropped up on the show.

Who wrote it?
John Cleese and Graeme Garden were the principal writers although the whole team pitched in. Johnnie Mortimer and Brian Cooke (creators of Man About the House, George and Mildred etc) also cut their teeth on I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again.

How did it come about?
The gang met at Cambridge University and collaborated in a 1963 Cambridge Footlights revue called Cambridge Circus, extracts of which were broadcast on the Home Service on 30 December 1963. The first series a year later was billed as ‘three diversions round Cambridge Circus’. The third series was described as ‘a radio custard pie’.

Where did the title come from?
I’m sorry, I’ll read that again was a phrase used by radio newsreaders after making a blunder. The show was originally to have been called Get Off My Foot. Don’t ask why.

Who tuned in?
ISIRTA (as it was known) became a cult show for students who made up a large part of the studio audience. They would cheer wildly at the good jokes and boo and groan at the awful puns.

John Cleese felt the audience went too far. ‘The audience changed,’ he said. ‘It started getting like playing at the Cup final. Instead of having a nice audience that laughed, suddenly there was a football crowd atmosphere.’

What about a sample joke?
‘Here is a warning to all motorists driving on the A35 to Cambridge: the A35 doesn’t go to Cambridge.’ What did you expect — biting satire?

Didn’t David Hatch become a BBC big-wig?
A vicar’s son, he joined the BBC in 1964, mainly as a producer, but rose to become Controller of Radio 2 in 1980 and Managing Director of BBC Network Radio in 1987.

On the 25th anniversary show of ISIRTA John Cleese played the BBC Director-General who, discovering that shows such as Derek Jameson’s were damaging the ozone layer, ordered David Hatch in his role as Radio MD to recycle lots of old programmes in order to repair the damage.

Any distant cousins?
Some of the ‘Goodies’ ideas were first aired on ISIRTA, notably Bill Oddie’s fascination with gibbons. His country and western song Stuff That Gibbon was a worthy forerunner of The Funky Gibbon. When ISIRTA ended, Tim Brooke-Taylor joined forces with Barry Cryer and John Junkin on another pacy radio pun-fest, Hello Cheeky.

As the gibbon was to Bill Oddie, so the ferret was to John Cleese. During ISIRTA his character revealed an obsession with ferrets which would resurface on At Last the 1948 Show when Cleese performed that moving ballad I’ve Got a Ferret Sticking Up My Nose.

Alastair James is the editor in chief for Memorable TV. He has been involved in media since his university days. Alastair is passionate about television, and some of his favourite shows include Line of Duty, Luther and Traitors. He is always on the lookout for hot new shows, and is always keen to share his knowledge with others.