Sunday, April 27, 2008

Farewell Humph

[Humphrey Lyttelton, Britain's greatest jazz musician, died this weekend]

The Queen was having her lunch when Humph saved my bacon. It was on June 7th 1977, in the middle of the Silver Jubilee celebrations. In London a million people lined the pavements to see the gold state coach make its way to St Paul’s. In every village and town, streets were filled with tables and smiles. The whole country dressed in red white and blue for what was probably our last great national celebration. It’s funny how you can remember what you were doing during momentous events. I was in a television studio with Humphrey Lyttelton.

I was just 25, and I’d been given the task of directing the BBC’s Jubilee coverage: not the actual state occasion, but all the other bits that didn’t have the royal family in them. On the big day, our main role was to keep the nation amused while the Queen was lunching in the Guildhall.

According to the royal schedule, we had an hour and a half to fill – that’s an eternity for a live entertainment show. So we built a giant fairground of nostalgia, with stalls, sideshows and cafes lined with memorabilia and celebrity guests. It was called the Nationwide Jubilee Fair and in the middle was a bandstand, where we installed that great British institution, Humphrey Lyttelton and his Band. Having given Humph a brief to “keep it jolly”, we knew we could rely on a few pieces of traditional jazz to get the national foot tapping.

As we waited to start our party, we watched the Queen going on an unplanned walkabout outside St Paul’s. It was making her late for lunch. We knew we had to finish our bit at 2.30 because at precisely that moment an extra 500 million viewers from all over the Commonwealth would be joining to watch the Queen’s speech in the Guildhall. It would be one of the biggest live audiences in the history of television. So my producer and I set about cutting out chunks of script to shorten the show.

We went on air twelve minutes late. Apart from Humph there were lots of bands, celebrities and people talking with moist eyes about the past. Somehow we managed to reach our finale dead on time at 2.25. I was keeping an eye on the Guildhall so that I could organize a smooth handover, but for some reason all the cameras were pointing at the ground. “They’re cutting it fine,” I thought, as Frank Bough announced the final song.

“Standby Guildhall” I shouted above the din. No response. I called the control room at St Paul’s. An engineer told me they were still at lunch. “They can’t be”, I said. “We’re on our last item”. “Sorry mate, can’t help you”.

I frantically searched for the bits of script we’d cut out. They were all crumpled up on the floor. In front of me I could see the line “Cue Applause, Cue the Queen” which I’d written at the end of the script as a private joke. In desperation I grabbed a pencil and tore a little piece off the corner of the page. I scribbled three words on it, threw it at a runner, and waited.

At the end of the song, the applause was deafening. Humph was bowing as the note was handed to him. It read “Keep Going Humph.” He paused for a second, smiled, put his trumpet to his lips, and nodded at the band. Then, with that extraordinary intuition which all jazz musicians share, they started to play on together. And on, and on.

So it was that at half past two, 500 million people who’d tuned in for their Queen, instead, for reasons never explained, found themselves watching this wonderful, funny, giant of a man doing what he loved best: impromptu, unrehearsed, celebratory jamming. For twelve glorious minutes he entertained the world until the Queen finished her petits fours. I’m sure they loved every second of it.

Thank you, Humph, we’ll miss you.

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