All clued-up for Humph's manna: Radio

The following words were delivered on Radio 4 at about 6.31 last Monday, from a travelling radio show which found itself, last week, in Nottingham, and in front of an audience. "It's well documented in official records that the city's original name was Snottingham or `home of snots', but when the Normans came, they couldn't pronounce the letter S, and so decreed the town be called Nottingham, or `the home of notts'. It's easy to understand why this change was resisted so fiercely by the people of Scunthorpe."

Yes, it could only be I'm Sorry, I Haven't A Clue. It announces itself as "the antidote to panel games", and when I was much younger I used to get fantastically irritated by this as not only did the show seem to be steeped in self-congratulatory whimsy, it seemed to be very much a panel game, with four people being asked questions and required to answer them for points. Besides, what was wrong with panel games?

As I say, that was very long ago, shortly after the invention of the wireless I believe, and since then the quality of other Radio 4 material has plummeted, or at least slipped rather nastily, so what used to be a faint star in the broadcasting firmament is now impressively, embarrassingly bright. And as for what happened to the calibre of panel games ... I believe I have gone on about that before in this column, and need not repeat myself.

The I'm Sorry... team knows all this. They really are on song at the moment, and almost every second of it is a delight. The week before last, they had a crack at those very panel games, as well as the schedules re- organisation. Last week the biggest laugh of the programme - after the one they got for the Scunthorpe gag - was for this: "One show that goes from strength to strength, despite all the recent changes, is the Today programme. Ten minutes of top news and current affairs, packed into three and a half hours (huge burst of laughter and applause), packed into three and a half hours of trails."

This is more than just a joke; it is a howl of despair from a section of the country trapped in the decaying hell of Radio 4, people who cannot escape, because everywhere else is - worse. It is the giddy laughter of the damned, the exhilaration of the prisoners as they crazily set fire to their own mattresses.

Then again, I'm not sure that it did get the biggest laugh of the programme (which means, effectively, given the somewhat precarious and rudimentary state of radio comedy, probably the biggest laugh of the week). Some jokes came from the round in which the panellists - Barry Cryer, Graeme Garden, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Jeremy Harding - were asked to supply the most unlikely quotations they could imagine from famous people: "I'm sure there's a perfectly rational scientific explanation for all this." (Saint Paul) "Please! I'm married!" (Bill Clinton) "Of course, I'm no expert on this subject ..." (Jonathan Miller)

Or imagine the warped mind that will ask someone else to sing "Postman Pat" to the tune of "Robin Hood" (it works) or Madonna's "Hanky-Panky" to the tune of "Land and Hope and Glory" (it works even better. Try it yourself: "Treat me li-ike a bad girl,/Even whe-en I'm good ...").

The interesting thing about this is the way that it encourages the participants to humiliate themselves in a way they would not do, one imagines, over dinner in the privacy of their own homes. (Unless Jeremy Hardy is putting it on, his is the worst singing voice I've ever heard.)

At one point, the compere, Humphrey Lyttelton (known as "Humph"), decided to get everyone to play Hunt the Slipper. There followed his long explanation of the rules ("after a few seconds' slipper-passing, I shall call out `slipper search on' and then I'll open my eyes"), then a pause, and a genuinely-embittered-sounding "I'm 78, for Christ's sake". The game itself lasted about five seconds. "Should, um ... Humph ..." said Graeme Garden, "should somebody have brought a slipper?"

"What would have been the point of that?" said Humph, rather shortly.

There was more surreal humour on Radio 3's lunchtime concert from the Aldeburgh Festival. In common with many men in the autumn of their years, Alfred Brendel has decided that he is not only the greatest piano player in the world, he is also something of a poet. So while he got Pierre-Laurent Aimard to play piano music by Ligeti and Gyorgy Kurtag, he recited his own poetry between pieces.

The effect was rather like ... well, rather like something from I'm Sorry, I Haven't A Clue. One of the piano compositions - I don't know whether it was one of Ligeti's or one of Aimard's - was, strictly speaking, a composition for hands drumming on closed piano lid. That was sweet, really, but I draw the line at Brendel's own poetry. I cannot quote any, as I wasn't taking notes when the programme was broadcast, and my own complimentary copy of Brendel's poetry (called One Finger Too Many) I had decided, after a quick skim, to sell for drugs.

It wasn't too bad - after all, it doesn't really hurt your reputation as a poet to be pre-eminent in your field and have a charming mittel-European akzent to boot - but being in the audience would have been excruciatingly painful. The urge to shout out "don't give up the day job, Alf" would have been unbearable.