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Clued-up for a new start

The 'antidote to panel games' is back on air next week – this time without Humph. Alice Jones assesses the show's new hosts

On Monday night, at 6.30 sharp, the familiar strains of Ron Goodwin's wonky, circus-style version of "Deutschland über alles" will ring out in kitchens and cars across the country as I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue returns to Radio 4 for a new series.

All the old favourites will be reassuringly present – Swanee-Kazoo, the Uxbridge English dictionary, Pick Up Tune – daft games puppyishly engaged in by old-time panellists Graeme Garden, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Barry Cryer, with scoring provided by the lovely Samantha or her Scandinavian stand-in, the rippling Sven. But this time the tortuous and incomprehensible journey to Mornington Crescent will unfold without the lovably cantankerous chairman Humph in the driving seat.

It's a testament to Humphrey Lyttelton's popularity, skill and distinctive timbre as the host of the supremely silly quiz that when he died in April last year, aged 86, many thought that the show would perish along with him. As it is, after a seemly period of mourning, the show is back for a six-programme run, with not one, but three comedy heavyweights drafted in to take the place of the dearly departed anchor.

Between them, the rotating replacement hosts Stephen Fry, Jack Dee and Rob Brydon offer a high-class mix of erudition, grumpy satire and quirky observation, as well as years of experience on the stand-up circuit and behind the buzzers on panel shows. Still, it's unlikely that their three heads will be better than Humph's one. Just as Clue is dubbed "the antidote to panel games", Lyttelton was, par excellence, the antidote to game-show hosts. He brought a unique blend of urbanity, smut and world-weariness to the role. Though his deadpan introductions – "Hello and welcome to I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, the wireless programme that takes a lucky dip into the bran tub of comedy and... unfailingly pulls out a handful of bran" – were scripted by Iain Pattinson, the old jazz pro could bring the house down with an improvised caustic aside or an impeccably timed silence.

More, though, than his faux irritation at presiding over a show, "where games and laughter go together like boiled beef and parrots", it was his deft way with double entendres that charmed audiences. His forte was delivering what he called "blue-chip filth" – "Sadly Samantha is suffering from housemaid's knee in both legs, but it's alright, knees apart, she can't be faulted..." – and yet still come across as plummily genteel. Humph's voice was a comforting reminder of old-fashioned wit, the BBC of giggly cricket commentator Brian Johnston ("the bowler's Holding, the batsman's Willey"), rather than the new vulgarity of Sachsgate.

Lyttelton's secret, he revealed, was to simply read out what was put in front of him. "If you suspect something has a double meaning, don't pause. Don't put on a leery vocal expression, if you know what I mean. Don't do anything other than read it. And if people see something rude in it, well, very few of them write into the BBC because to do so, they would have to confess that they saw something rude in it. So they don't."

Humph hosted the show – one of the station's longest-running and most popular – for 37 years, though he shared duties in the first series with Cryer. The task of finding his replacement fell to the show's producer, Jon Naismith, and Caroline Raphael, Commissioning Editor for Comedy and Entertainment. Careful not to upset the loyal and exacting fans and aware that well-established shows such as Countdown and Have I Got News for You have struggled to find their tone after losing their host, they decided to wait, to give the team time to grieve. Initially, there was a flurry of blogging that the show couldn't possibly continue without Humph at its heart. Then, slowly but surely, thousands of emails started to trickle in, begging for Clue's return.

All three new hosts have appeared before, in the "fourth chair" reserved for guest panellists, while Brydon also stood in as chairman on the last date of the live tour when Lyttelton was taken ill. But chipping in with the odd quip from the safety of a team chair is quite a different kettle of fish from controlling the action. "It's a heck of a thing to move into. Humph's style was all over the show," says Raphael. "If you're used to being the alpha-male funny guy on the panel, it's a different job entirely being in the chair. You have to sit on your hands. You have to know when to shut up." Eventually, she hopes they will settle on a single host, rather than rotating endlessly in the style of Have I Got News For You. "The idea is not to put anybody straight in. This isn't a beauty contest. It's not one strike and you're out. We're taking it slowly and carefully."

Long-time panellist Cryer initially called for a woman chair who couldn't possibly be compared to "the great Humph" and who would "take the piss out of all these old men". "It wasn't apprehension or worry I felt," he says of the return to recording. "It was interesting. You've got to do your own thing. That bored, patrician air that Humph had was brilliant. The way he'd deliver what he called 'blue-chip filth' and then give a look of injured innocence when the audience laughed. Rob Brydon put it beautifully when he said that you can't fill Humph's shoes, you've just got to try and do his job."

Certainly in the first of the new series – the only episode pre-released so far – that's exactly what Fry does. It's a workmanlike performance: Fry sensibly refrains from imposing too much of the smug, donnish air he has when presiding over the television panel show QI and delivers his lines pretty straight. There's a lingering sense that he's saying words which have been written for Humph's delivery, but he gets an appreciative laugh for a little light flirting with the imaginary Sven, "sitting on his left hand". Victoria Wood, meanwhile, who resisted going on the show for nine years, sparkles in her debut in the fourth chair, not least with her suggestion for the builders' film club, "I know what you didn't do last summer".

The audience laughs along as hysterically usual, greeting the return of each regular feature like old friends, with a half-groan, half-roar. As for Dee and Brydon, time will tell. Dee has the hang-dog expression and deadpan delivery to rise above the japes of the panel, Humph-style, while Brydon – as anyone who has seen his Uncle Bryn in Gavin and Stacey will know – has a winningly innocent way with innuendo.

"If we ever felt that this wasn't working and if ever the team didn't feel comfortable, we'd stop," says Raphael. "But that's not what I'm hearing at the moment." Cryer agrees. "It did feel very strange. But not for very long. Once the show was up and running, within a few minutes it was like it always was. Minus the great man, of course."