From author's collection of Liverpool autographs

HANDLEY, Thomas Reginald  [1892-1949]

To gain an understanding of Tommy Handley’s immense status in the hearts of the British people watch the British Pathé newsreel reporting his funeral in 1949. The scenes of thousands lining the route and assembled at the crematorium would nowadays only be seen for royalty. Yet here they were paying homage to a comic. Of course, he was to them much more than a gagster, for throughout the darkest days of the war his radio show ITMA had brought cheer to millions and had symbolised the dogged determination of the nation to soldier on whatever fate threw at them.

Tommy Handley was born at 13 Threlfall Street L8 on 17th January 1892, the son of John and Sarah (née Pearson). In his biography of Handley Ted Kavanagh refers to his father as a ‘dairy farmer’ but census records cite the slightly more humble occupation of ‘cow keeper’. His father died, aged just 31,  while he was still a baby. The 1901 census finds Handley and his mother, with older brother John, living in their grandmother Hannah Pearson’s house in Aigburth at 10 Brentwood Avenue L17. By 1911 they had moved the short distance to No. 26 in the same road. Tommy Handley was shown as a clerk working for a “baby carriage manufacturer”. In electoral records from 1919 until about 1924 he lived with his mother and brother at 9 Milner Road L17 before moving to London. His mother continued to live there until the 1940’s, moving to a house bought by her son at 2 Riversdale Road L17. The site of the house is now a small housing development, Handley Court.

From an early age he was attracted to performing and had a fine voice, singing in the choir of Toxteth Congregational Church were his uncle, Mr Kelly, was the choirmaster. His first real step forward was joining an excellent amateur dramatic society who performed in St Anne’s Paris Hall. After the outbreak of the First World War he joined a concert party to entertain at forces camps, canteens and hospitals around the city. On one occasion he was unable to attend a concert at St Michael’s in Aigburth so asked a friend to stand in for him – the friend was a very short man named Arthur Askey.

On 11th November 1917 he was enlisted into the Royal Naval Air Service and posted to a kite balloon section at the Crystal Palace. However, it was not long before the powers that be realised that Handley’s best contribution to the war effort lay in lifting morale and he spent most of his time in the forces in a concert party.

After the war Handley toured with a variety of shows and, having come to the attention of Jack Hylton, his career blossomed, especially after he began working for BBC radio. The show with which he will always be linked, ITMA, was first broadcast on 12th July 1939. The title referred to the phrase “It’s that man again” which was often used about Hitler in the 1930’s when he perpetrated some new outrage. In fact the phrase had been borrowed from the USA, where it was used pejoratively by the Republicans about F.D. Roosevelt. Initially the show was set on a ship with Handley as the controller broadcasting to the world. At first it was not a great success and was cancelled after the war broke out in September. However, when the BBC moved its operations to Bristol, the show was given a second chance. This time Handley was depicted as the head of the Ministry of Aggravation and Mysteries, where he worked in the Office of Twerps. Apart from an 18-month spell when the show was taken on a nationwide tour, it continued to be broadcast until 1949, attracting audiences as high as 15 million. It spawned a host of catchphrases such as “can I do you now sir ?”, “don’t forget the diver”, “after you Claude, no after you Cecil”, “I don’t mind if I do” and “it’s being so cheerful that keeps me going”. The cast included many unlikely sounding characters, including Mona Lott, Ali Oop, Mrs Mopp, Colonel Chinstrap. When Hattie Jacques joined the cast in 1947 she portrayed Ella Phant and Sophie Tuckshop. The Liverpool-born actor Deryck Guyler played Frisby Dyke, taking the name from a Liverpool store.

Handley died suddenly on 9th January 1949, aged 56. He had married (Rosalind) Jean Allistone in 1929, they had no children.

10 Brentwood Avenue L17

Handley's home at the time of the 1901 census

26 Brentwood Avenue L17

The Handley home in 1911

9 Milner Road L17

Handley's home from about 1919-1924


Handley's scriptwriter and friend Ted Kavanagh wrote a biography shortly after his death and this is the most detailed account of his career from the perspective of someone who saw it at close quarters. A short biography by Bill Grundy was published in 1976. Editions of ITMA are sometimes broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra. There is a book by Francis Worsley entitled ITMA [Vox Mundi 1948] which tells the story of the programme - copies usually to be found on Ebay for less than £10. ( I was delighted to find the copy I acquired was autographed by Handley, as well as Deryck Guyler and other cast members.) There are many references to Handley on the internet, including Wikipedia and IMDB, plus material on YouTube.