Liverpool entertainer Tommy Handley was so popular during the Second World War that the whole nation stopped to listen to his radio programme.
In fact, a member of the Royal Household said if the war were to end between 8.30 and 9.00pm on a Thursday evening, no-one would dare tell the King until the broadcast had finished!
The programme was ITMA, short for It’s That Man Again. It was widely credited with being a major boost to morale across Britain and the Commonwealth when it was needed most.
Handley’s ‘roguish Liverpudlian twang’ and quick-fire delivery may have been incomprehensible to American troops – but it went down a storm in Australia and Canada.
Tommy Handley was born in Toxteth Park in January 1892. His father John ran a dairy business and died when Tommy was a baby.
Handley junior first earned his living as a salesman, but became a professional singer in 1916.
He was in a touring production of the operetta The Maid of the Mountains before serving with the Royal Naval Air Service. But he found his niche when he joined a concert party to entertain the troops in 1917.
After the war, Handley plied his trade in the music halls. He performed in musical comedies and sketches, honing his trademark patter.
One sketch proved particularly popular. Called The Disorderly Room, it was a parody of military life set to tunes of the day. One commentator reckoned it must have been performed in every music hall in the country!
In 1924, The Disorderly Room was chosen to be part of the Royal Command Performance at the London Coliseum.
More importantly, the show was broadcast on radio. Handley had arrived.
His career took off as a radio personality, particularly when he teamed up with scriptwriter and producer Ted Kavanagh. The two worked together on sketches and comic revues that were the forerunners of ITMA.
Handley also performed with comedian Ronald Frankau from 1935 onward in an act called Mr Murgatroyd and Mr Winterbottom. They were portrayed as ‘Two minds with not a single thought.’
Frankau’s Old Etonian voice was the perfect foil for Handley’s harder accent in their fast-paced routines.
Comedy writer Barry Took described their act as ‘a sophisticated crosstalk of quick-fire word and idea association’.
ITMA arrived on the scene in 1939 when the BBC was looking for a replacement show for Band Waggon starring fellow Liverpool comedian Arthur Askey and actor and entertainer Richard Murdoch.
Kavanagh and Handley got their title It’s That Man Again from a newspaper headline about Adolf Hitler and decided to set the show on a pirate radio ship.
The crew would all have eccentric characters and appear in various sketches throughout the half-hour programme. The pace was fast – too fast for British-born movie star Bob Hope who said he couldn’t keep up!
Hattie Jacques played Sophie Tuckshop and Joan Harben portrayed the lugubrious laundress Mona Lott, whose much copied catchphrase was: ‘It’s being so cheerful that keeps me going.’
Jack Train was the incompetent German secret agent Funf, and Dino Galvani played Handley’s secretary Signor So-So.
Wallasey actor Deryck Guyler portrayed Frisby Dike, named after the Liverpool department store, and Dorothy Summers played the cleaner Mrs Mopp. She proved to be one of ITMA’s favourite characters with her catchline: ‘Can I do you now, Sir?’
During the war, ITMA performed all over the country and even gave a show at Windsor Castle for Princess Elizabeth’s 16th birthday in 1942. It regularly attracted more than 20 million listeners.
ITMA’s final broadcast went out on January 5th 1949, four days before Handley’s sudden death from a cerebral haemorrhage at the age of 56. The cast felt there was no point in carrying on without him.
The King and Queen sent a message of sympathy to Handley’s widow, the actress and singer Jean Allistone.
Thousands lined the street for his funeral procession to Golders Green Crematorium in London. A memorial service was held in Liverpool on January 30th.