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Millions haven't a clue what they'll do without Humph

That old showbiz cliché 'irreplaceable' may for once be true – cult show may well die with him. David Randall reports

There was a growing feeling last night that I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, widely regarded as the funniest radio programme since The Goon Show, will pass away along with its chairman and innuendo-peddler in chief, Humphrey Lyttelton, who died on Friday at 86.

A BBC spokesman said that it was far too early to comment on the future of the show, which regularly attracts audiences of two million. But last year, when asked about the 36-year-old programme, one of its veteran panellists, Tim Brooke-Taylor, said: "Humph is the most important component. Willie Rushton [a founder panellist, who died in 1996] and I talked about it once and we agreed that if, Humph isn't there, it's not worth doing." When Lyttelton fell ill recently, the show's spring series was cancelled, rather than be recorded with a substitute chairman.

It is certainly difficult to imagine anyone other than the courtly Lyttelton getting away with the outrageous double-entendres that ran through the show like a chorus girl being chased by a stage-door Johnnie – especially those referring to "Samantha", the show's mythical but fun-loving scorer. ("She's looking forward to going out for an ice-cream with her Italian gentleman friend. She says she's looking forward to licking the nuts off a large Neapolitan.") Colin Sell, the show's pianist also came in for weekly stick, as in: "I'm very pleased to announce that the BBC have arranged a special collection of Colin's entire work... they've bagged it up and the council are sending some men round for it on Tuesday."

The enormous affection that listeners had for Lyttelton was evident on the BBC website yesterday. By 6am, less than eight hours after his death, there were no fewer than 35 pages of tributes. David from Towcester wrote: "They better book the biggest church in the country for the memorial service because we'll all want to be there – and get the foundations checked, because the place will literally shake with laughter in his memory." To which Brian Rogers from King's Lynn added: "I trust the memorial service will be held in the true spirit of the programme: Colin Sell at the piano, hymns displayed on the giant laservision scoreboard, 'Nearer My God to Thee' sung to the tune of 'Penny Lane', late arrivals at the undertakers' ball, an empty chair for Samantha, 'Jerusalem' played on kazoo, and one final glorious game of Mornington Crescent!"

Lyttelton was an intensely private man, few of his jazz or radio colleagues even having his phone number. His wife Jill died in 2006. His passions in life were jazz, calligraphy, bird-watching and getting away with ever filthier remarks on his beloved radio show. "And so," as he once concluded a show, "as the still-warm seat of eternity is lifted by the charlady of time, before she brandishes aloft the Toilet Duck of destiny, it's time to go." Farewell.

Tales of the lovely Samantha

The activities of Samantha, Humphrey Lyttelton's fictional but ever-ready companion on 'I'm Sorry, I Haven't a Clue', were charted in some of his best asides. A selection:

* Samantha went along to the gramophone library earlier to collect the teams' records. It's pitch black down there, so Samantha and the elderly archivist have taken to searching the shelves by candlelight, which can be messy, so while Samantha passes down the discs, the nice man holds the ladder while he cleans the dust and wax off in the dark.

* Record researcher Samantha has made one of her customary visits to the gramophone library where she runs errands for the kindly old archivists, such as nipping out to fetch their sandwiches. Their favourite treat is cheese with homemade chutney, but they never object when she palms them off with relish.

* As usual, Samantha has been down in the gramophone library researching the teams' records, aided and abetted by the two kindly old archivists, Curly Smith and Chalky White. Samantha was saying she's been helping them rearrange their work rosters recently. Chalky was getting a bit worried that Samantha might reduce his overtime shift, but cheered up when instead he saw her shorten Curly's.

* DJ Samantha has been doing her usual extensive research down in the gramophone library, aided by the kindly old archivist. It's hard work, and she says they both get quite weary, so the archivists have a fold-up bed to take a nap in the afternoons, and has provided Samantha with a comfy reclining armchair so that she can put her feet up while he gets his head down.

* Samantha spent a few hours down in the gramophone library researching the teams' discs earlier, and took her little dog with her. She likes to dress the little thing in her own stylish canine clothing range, and the elderly archivists say they all appreciate her doggy fashion.

* Samantha has to nip off to the National Opera, where she's been giving private tuition to the singers. Having seen what she did with the baritone, the director is keen to see what she might do for a tenor.