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The art of innuendo

Graham Norton, Denise van Outen, Stephen Fry and Kenneth Williams


By Neil Hallows

From Chaucer to Carry On to Clary, Britons have long lapped it up. So to speak. And a master such as the late Humphrey Lyttelton made almost anything sound unspeakably filthy.

When Humphrey Lyttelton was described in a newspaper as the "purveyor of blue-chip filth to middle England", he took it as a compliment. And it was meant as one.

Humphrey Lyttelton on Samantha's exploits

The presenter of the panel show I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, who died last Friday, would get a roar from the audience every time he mentioned its most popular game, Mornington Crescent. But when he began: "Samantha tells me she has to nip out now..." there would be the silence of delicious anticipation. It felt like Lyttelton's solo.

What followed was often so smutty that the BBC felt it could only be heard on Sunday lunchtimes, weekday early evenings, and by millions of people who would otherwise claim not to know a single dirty joke.

Samantha is the show's fictional scorer, and has an active social life. She once trained opera singers - "having seen what she did to the baritone, the director is keen to see what she might do for a tenor," as Lyttelton put it - while her baking instructor "popped her bread rolls straight into his mouth and he's promised to try her muffin next week". Of a builder, "she was pleased to see his tender won, but was startled when it suddenly grew to twice its size".

Equally startled was Lyttelton, who every week managed to seem the victim rather than the perpetrator, a nice old man who had been slipped a verbal whoopee cushion by the impertinent comics he was reluctantly forced to keep in line.

Samantha is a croupier and often works at an exclusive Soho club where gamblers pay top money to play roulette all day and poker all night
Humphrey Lyttelton

Barry Cryer, a panellist on the Radio 4 show since it started, and a friend of Lyttelton's for more than 50 years, says: "He had this tired, patrician air about him and he would read the lines with an air of complete innocence.

"It wouldn't have worked if he had done it in a knowing way. It was a shared experience with the audience, as he only seemed to realise what he had said at the same time as they did. He had this brilliant gift of appearing not to know what he was doing."

This became his act, but it was how the jazz musician had actually felt when he was unexpectedly asked to chair a panel game. As he drove to the first show, he felt bewildered, embarrassed and grumpy.

"I've hung on to that particular thought since 1972," he told an interviewer last year. Even though he soon grew to love the programme, the persona never changed.

So while it might not have looked like a performing style, it was a very good one.

Ooo and er

David Benson, an actor who has written and performed one-man West End shows about Kenneth Williams and Frankie Howerd, says performers have capitalised on their audience's reaction in different ways.

"Howerd [did] the mock outrage 'how dare you' approach. Benny Hill and Max Miller would give a cheeky smile as if to say 'Aha! Your minds are as dirty as mine!' There are many ways to play it, but of course it all begins and ends with good writing."

Those comedians are long gone, and were it not for Lyttelton, it would be easy to think of British innuendo as being a century or so of history that first got its end up in the music halls, rubbed up against some saucy postcards along the way, then had a final, brilliant (de)flowering with Private Widdle and co in the Carry On films.

But try this for size, Samantha. What is the "small miracle that hangs near a man's thigh, stiff, strong, bold, brassy and pierced in front"?

Shame on you. It's a key, or a sheath for a dagger. Actually, we can only guess the clean half of the double entendre because it was written by an Anglo-Saxon monk more than 1,000 years ago. Chaucer also loved a bit of innuendo, although the naughty bits were deleted from the editions at my school, and Shakespeare had a Benny Hill moment when he had Romeo's friend Mercutio saying "the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon".

The bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon
Mercutio in William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet

Innuendo has always been with us, because it has always been useful. Brett Mills, a lecturer in film and television studies at the University of East Anglia and an expert on situation comedy, says: "It allows us to refer to sex - a very repressed topic, especially in England - but as it's done comedically it doesn't have the power or impact that a serious statement about sex might have."

So while the BBC guidelines used to warn programme makers to avoid innuendo "at all costs", writers and performers have never been able to live without it. The Goon Show got round the ban with phrases like "pink oboe" and "vermillion sock", which had been used in the armed forces but of which BBC managers were ignorant.

By the time Porridge came on screen in the 1970s, there was much more sexual innuendo permitted, but swearing was still tightly controlled, so a new word - "nerk" - had to be invented as a term of abuse.

Still at it

But in societies that now talk about little except sex, do we still even need innuendo?

Porridge
Here come the naughty bits...

Yes, one reason being that even in places like Britain, we can't talk about it in every situation. ''There is more innuendo flying around the average office than in a decade of Carry On films," says Benson.

It also allows the odd "dog whistle" to be broadcast to an adult audience. For those who think Dr Who is just for kids, a sly reference to Captain Jack Harkness's sexuality can seem like a reward for watching.

The fact that Benny Hill's character Ernie, the fastest milkman in the West, "gets his cocoa" with Sue three times a week means that a tale of promiscuity and murder sits comfortably on my two-year-old daughter's music compilation, along with Nellie the Elephant and You're a Pink Toothbrush - although Graham Norton could do wonders with the latter.

And when she saw the size
Of his hot meat pies
It very near turned her head

Ernie (the fastest milkman in the West) by Benny Hill

Dr Mills says a less restrictive climate might make innuendo less necessary. "There's still a lot of pleasure from it - Julian Clary says very obviously rude things, to the point where there's almost no innuendo, and the pleasure is in that excess."

Cryer says there was a reaction against the innuendo-filled 60s and 70s, and a feeling that "why don't they say what they mean?" But he says that missed the point - the best innuendo still works because the audience admires its skill and enjoys working out the meaning.

He says Lyttelton's air of innocence, and his immense popularity, enabled him to take the curse off what he was saying - meaning that he defused the content - but it may also be true that he took the curse off innuendo itself for those who'd come to think of it as naff (another Porridge-ism used in place of ruder words).

As Samantha might have said, what a useful tool it is. The March Hare may have urged Alice to "say what you mean", but in our more confusing world, we will always need a way of not saying what we do mean.


Below is a selection of your comments.

Has any other culture got the beautiful comeback to a million innocuous statements, "As the actress said to the bishop"?
Terry Weldon, Basildon

The normally humourless atmosphere of this office was lifted when I told the boss that "reception just called to say you've got a big package". That was an entirely accidental innuendo, but one that had us all chortling for a long time afterwards.
Dennis Blandford, Richmond, UK

I'm a student of ceramics. When handles are attached to mugs or pitchers, some potters carve hash-mark lines into the two surfaces that are to be joined, which is called "scoring." One day my professor gave a demonstration on this. He was against scoring. He said, "I haven't scored in three years, and my nobs haven't fallen off yet."
Abigail Lundberg, Oregon, USA

I personally feel this kind of thing leaves a nasty taste in one's mouth, and that the perpetrators need to be taken firmly in hand.
Dave Lawrence, Portsmouth, Hants

I remember Alan Davies on QI mentioning a pub which has a sign saying: "Liquor in the front, Poker in the rear". Innuendo is a wonderful thing, allowing adult humour to be expressed in mixed company. Without it, many a best man's speech (my own included) would be much less funny. In my opinion, it may not be big, but it certainly is clever.
TS, Bromley, England

Re Shakespeare's "the bawdy hand of the hour is on the prick of noon" - I remember a footnote saying that "hour" at the time was pronounced similarly to whore".
Sue H, London

In the modern world where pretty much anything goes, innuendo is rewarding precisely because of the skill and humour involved. Where would we be without Terry Wogan's exquisite Janet and John stories?
Simon Beasor, Wirral Merseyside

The greatest thing about Humph was that I knew he'd leave me breathless after half an hour of fun every Monday night.
Mary Hinge, Bournemouth, UK

Innuendo and double entendres work on several levels - they are more subtle than up-front humour, they challenge the audience to interpret it. So it is interactive humour, and as the comedian is saying one thing, but it can be interpreted as something else, we are using that age old comedy device of the misunderstood - always a keystone or even foundation of comedy. We can laugh at their cunning, or laugh at their innocence, depending how it is played.
Steb, Morecambe

The chaps at Viz comic elevated double-entendres almost to the stratosphere with their Finnbar Saunders strip - phrases such as "I've got to get Mrs Gimlet to Oldham and then I'm going to Bangor as fast as I can" - pure, utter filth, but only if you have the mindset and sense of humour to understand it. RIP Humph, Radio 4 will never be the same again.
Stewart Mercer, Milton Keynes, UK

I used to have tears or laughter running down my face some days when listening to Mark and Lard on Radio 1 - how they got away with some of their innuendos, I'll never know.
Harry White, Aberdeen

The Goons had some interesting characters which slipped past the censors. For example Hugh Jampton (huge Hamton - if you need the rhyming slang translating ask a Cockney) and the perennial baddie Gryptyne Thinn (grip thyne thing). Innuendo is also fun when, initially, unintended as in "The batsman is Holding, the bowler Willis". Or a comment on Joe Davis declining the rest during a snooker match, instead sprawling on the table: "Joe may be 68 but he can still get his leg over."
Joe, Warrington

Actually I think it was "the bowler's Holding the batsman's Willey". Vice versa works just as well.
Graham, York

Sorry to be pedantic but the versions I've heard were slightly different (and even better). The bowler in the cricket story was Peter Willey of Northants and England, to give us the line "the bowler's holding, the batsman's Willey". Joe Davis was trying a shot that he'd previously achieved by climbing partly on to the table but in view of his advancing years played the shot left-handed instead to allow the commentator to say "at the age of 68, Jo has given up trying to get his leg over and has resorted to using his left hand". Priceless.
Mark, Pontypridd

Humph's deliciously dead-pan presenting style was exactly the same as Kenneth Horne on Round the Horn. Those scripts were full of outrageous innuendoes innocently spoken by Horne in a completely normal voice, so the audience got two jokes for the price of one.
Mary, Islington

Innuendo is possibly my favourite type of comedy, which is perhaps why I love Morrissey's lyrics so much. I may just have a filthy mind though, as I find innuendo all over the place. It requires the audience to provide the punch line, so it can be lost on people of lesser intelligence - which has its own sense of satisfaction, like an inside joke. A workmate recently sent an e-mail saying "Let me know when you have checked in the changes so I can get them out" and I had to suppress my laughter for ages. It was quite hard, but I managed to pull it off.
Douglas Daniel, Glasgow, Scotland

I don't think innuendo is quite as witty as the article makes out. Suggestions that it takes a great degree of intelligence to understand? Please... wind yr neck in. I remember dying of embarrassment sitting around the kitchen table on Sundays as a teenager while my parents cracked up to Humphrey Lyttelton's little comments. Did they honestly think a 13-year-old boy would not understand? Most of it was as subtle as a brick in the face and it got tired very quickly. Innuendo is not big, it's not hard, and nobody is impressed.
Chris W, Houston, Tx

Oh, Chris W, you just don't get it do you? You just don't get it. Get it, Eh??? Get IT??? You just don't get it? IIITTT??? Eh? GET IIIIITTTTTTTTT
GET... it...
GET IT...?
No...
Er... Get IT!!!
Ask your parents.
Cameron Seddon, Morecambe

Funnily enough, this kind of humour hardly exists at all in America, where I live. You need to regard sex as embarrassing or strange to find humour in it. For better or worse this is an almost uniquely British phenomenon.
Oliver, California

In YOUR endo.
Louisa, London

I went to a cocktail bar the other day and asked the barmaid for a double entendre. She gave me one.
Stevie Bee, London, UK

My girlfriend asked me for an example of an innuendo. So I gave her one.
James Rigby, Wickford, Essex

Stevie Bee, I know that barmaid. She also sets up the microphone for bands that play there. I asked her, and she gave me ONE TWO, ONE TWO.
Allan, London UK

Isn't innuendo the Italian word for "suppository"? Rest peacefully Humph, I never go past Mornington Crescent now without thinking of you and the show.
Mike Kelly, Worthing, UK

Puerile nonsense. That poor Samantha seems such a lovely girl too.
Mrs Trellis, North Wales


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