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Handley, Thomas Reginald [Tommy]free

(1892–1949)
  • Barry Took

Thomas Reginald Handley (1892–1949)

by unknown photographer

Handley, Thomas Reginald [Tommy] (1892–1949), comedian, was born on 17 January 1892 at 13 Threlfall Street, Toxteth Park, Liverpool, the son of John Handley, a cow keeper, and his wife, Sarah Ann Pearson. Tommy Handley's father, who probably ran a dairy business, died while Tommy was still a baby. On leaving school—there is no record of his academic achievements—Handley worked as a salesman but enjoyed local prestige as a singer with local choirs and concert parties. He became a professional singer in 1916 in a touring company of the operetta The Maid of the Mountains. In 1917 he was called up and he served in the Royal Naval Air Service, where his talents were seized upon and he joined a concert party.

After the war Handley undertook a series of short-term touring engagements, including a number for which Jack Hylton (who became a lifelong friend), was the musical director. He eventually devised and starred in a music-hall sketch, The Disorderly Room, a skit on army life. This proved to be a great success and remained in his repertory from 1921 to 1941. Ted Kavanagh [see Kavanagh, Henry Edward (1892-1958)] later recalled that it must have been played on every music-hall stage in the country. Part of its charm lay in the way that its words were fitted to popular songs. While playing at the London Coliseum in 1924 the sketch was chosen to appear in the royal command performance of that year. Soon afterwards Handley's broadcasting career began and he was a regular performer on the wireless from 1924 onwards, becoming a mainstay of BBC variety programmes, both as a solo entertainer and an actor in sketches.

Much of Handley's material in those days, and subsequently in the wartime success ITMA, was written by the New Zealander Ted Kavanagh. 'ITMA' (the acronym for 'It's that man again') was a saying of the 1930s relating to the aggressive policies of Adolf Hitler, but it was actually coined in the USA and was used by members of the Republican Party whenever President Franklin D. Roosevelt inaugurated some new policy in his ‘new deal’ approach to the depression. At first, in pre-war 1939, ITMA was set on a cruise ship and was not a success with listeners, but later, set more firmly on land, its mixture of quickfire patter, easily remembered catchphrases, and topical references made it the most successful BBC radio show of wartime Britain. Early in 1942 a special edition of the show was performed at Windsor Castle for Princess Elizabeth's birthday. It was the first royal command performance of a radio programme.

The poet P. J. Kavanagh, son of Ted Kavanagh, has aptly characterized Britain in 1939, at the outbreak of war, as

a time of officialdom and officiousness [with] that curious strain of self importance that a crisis brings out … and … was ripe for deflation. Tommy Handley, with the voice of a disaster-prone con-man, more bent than a six pound note and cheery with it, was the ideal man to do the deflating.

Kavanagh, People and Places, 105

ITMA was indeed a radio cartoon of daily life in the war years and, week by week, it relieved the tension of the times by the fun that it poked at the common hazards and endurances of the British public. In the office of twerps wartime bureaucrats were ridiculed for their pomposity and mismanagement. As the strain of war increased Handley, in a much-needed holiday mood, became mayor of the seaside resort Foaming-at-the-Mouth, with its famous charlady, Mrs Mopp, played by Dorothy Summers, whose catchphrase, 'Can I do you now, sir?', regularly brought the house down. Another very popular figure was Funf, the German spy. Handley later turned his attention to factory work, then to post-war planning, and after the war, taking a fresh leaf from the book of traditional satire, ITMA put on the map the island of Tantopia, where the austerities and vanished hopes of a brave new world were genially depicted.

Patrick Kavanagh sums up Tommy Handley's broadcasting style as 'so cheeky, so friendly, and so unpompous' (Kavanagh, People and Places, 10), and it is hard to disagree. Handley's style was that of an opportunist, quick-thinking man of affairs, surrounded by a gallery of odd and eccentric characters: there was Joan Harben as Mona Lott, whose lugubrious diatribes usually ended with 'It's being so cheerful as keeps me going'; Jack Train contributed, among other characters, Colonel Chinstrap, a confirmed boozer to whom every remark, however innocent, was an invitation to a drink, receiving the reply 'I don't mind if I do'. Credit for the brilliance of ITMA must also go to scriptwriter Ted Kavanagh, and to the BBC producer Francis Worsley. There were also many other regulars in a large and constantly changing cast, but Tommy Handley was the benign master of ceremonies whose crisp delivery and immaculate timing kept the show at the peak of professional excellence. Another facet of Handley's skill was demonstrated by a number of radio appearances he made with old Etonian entertainer Ronald Frankau. They called themselves Murgatroyd and Winterbottom and they jointly wrote and performed a sophisticated crosstalk of quickfire word and idea association, which was very popular on BBC variety programmes of the late 1940s.

Despite his vital and quicksilver personality, Handley remained a very private person. He was quite different from the gregarious and clubbable scriptwriter Kavanagh, whose son has depicted a professional relationship: 'they were friendly—very—but it would be difficult to call them friends. Outside working hours they hardly met.' Tommy Handley liked to go home and read: 'He was either on-stage in the public eye or invisible, gone' (P. J. Kavanagh, 105). On 19 February 1929 Handley married a singer, Rosalind Jean (d. 1958), daughter of Robert Allistone, a jeweller, and formerly wife of William Henshall. There were no children. Tommy Handley died suddenly at 29 Cleveland Gardens, Paddington, London, on 9 January 1949; he was much missed by millions of adoring listeners. He was so much the keystone and embodiment of the actual performance that ITMA died with him. Undoubtedly the greatest British radio comedian of his generation, Tommy Handley was as unique in radio comedy as Charlie Chaplin was in silent film.

Sources

  • B. Took, Laughter in the air: an informal history of British radio comedy (1976)
  • P. J. Kavanagh, People and places: a selection, 1975–1987 (1988)
  • T. Kavanagh, Tommy Handley (1949)
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.
  • personal knowledge (2004)

Archives

  • BBC WAC
  • Lpool RO, photographs and documents

Film

  • BFINA, documentary footage
  • BFINA, news footage
  • BFINA, performance footage

Sound

  • BBC WAC
  • BL NSA

Likenesses

  • E. Whitney Smith, bronze bust, 1945, BBC WAC
  • H. L. Oakley, silhouette, NPG
  • photographs, repro. in Kavanagh, Tommy Handley [see illus.]
  • photographs, BBC Picture Archive, London

Wealth at Death

£63,181 11s. 6d.: probate, 11 Feb 1949, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)
Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]