Starting on Monday: Wordaholics
Gyles with Wordaholic panellists Natalie Haynes, Paul Sinha, Mike Rosen and Arthur Smith
The first time I chaired a panel game for Radio 4 was forty years ago.
I was just down from university and the then head of BBC Light Entertainment - a splendid man called Con Mahoney who had been in the navy and wore blazers with brightly polished buttons - evidently thought I was the early-1970s answer to Jack Whitehall. (Well, you can't win them all.)
The show was a word game I'd devised called "A Rhyme in Time" and because I was a new boy to radio comedy and all too obviously wet behind the ears, Mr Mahoney decided he had to pack the rest of the show with what he called "safe hands".
As the senior panellist, he chose Cyril Fletcher, a brilliant, erudite and very funny actor, writer and comedian (the word "stand-up" didn't exist then) - the Stephen Fry of his day - who had been going since the 1930s. He was one of the first faces on BBC Television when TV started in Britain before the Second World War. As the bright young spark on the show, Mr Mahoney picked Graeme Garden, who was just starting out on The Goodies and had that quirky way of thinking (and looking at life) that I associate now with a comic genius like Milton Jones.
Even in 1972 (years before any of us had thought Meryl Streep might one day be prime minister) we realised that we had to have a female on the team and Mr Mahoney selected the Natalie Haynes of the day, a funny and deeply knowledgeable columnist and writer called Caryl Brahms. Among other things, Miss Brahms was the co-author of a wonderful (and then quite famous) series of comic novels. (If you've never read No Bed for Bacon by Caryl Brahms and S. J. Simon. You are in for a treat. Guaranteed.)
We recorded the programmes in London, at the Playhouse Theatre, underneath the arches by Charing Cross Station. (The Playhouse was then leased to the BBC. Later it was acquired by Jeffrey Archer. Now it's the home of the musical, "Dreamboats and Petticoats".)
At the first recording, Caryl Brahms gave me a tie as a good luck present. It was a truly hideous tie: bright orange with brown swirls. Fortunately, she had left the receipt in the bag so I was able to change it. When I arrived at the tie shop, the manager said at once, "You"re one of Miss Brahms's young men, aren't you? They all come back to change their ties.")
We had a lot of fun making "A Rhyme in Time". David Hatch produced the first series. He went on to head up BBC radio and was knighted. The second series was produced by Simon Brett who went on to write the most marvellous murder mysteries about a drunken actor-turned-detective called Charles Paris. (More treats guaranteed.)
They were happy shows and we did a series or two before I introduced Cyril to Esther Rantzen and he went off to be on That's Life. Graeme Garden graduated to I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue. Caryl Brahms died. (I wore the tie she gave me to her funeral.). And I went on to TV-am and Countdown and a couple of decades in colourful jumpers.
And now, here we are in 2012, forty years on, back on Radio 4 with another word game. It's a little different ... No Cyril Fletcher, Graeme Garden or Caryl Brahms on Wordaholics, but plenty of amazing words, a lot of laughs and me and the actual Jack Whitehall and Stephen Fry and Milton Jones among others. Oh, yes, and Natalie Haynes, too. We recorded the programmes at the BBC Radio Theatre in Portland Place and if you want to see the tie that Natalie Haynes gave me at the first recording I'll be wearing it soon on The One Show.
Gyles Brandreth presents Wordaholics
PS Wordaholics is a new show that travels the highways and byways of the English language. It's produced by Claire Jones, the David Hatch of her generation and the series starts on Monday. And speaking of Monday and word games, can you take the six letters in the word MONDAY and rearrange them to form another everyday English word... Well, can you?