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Tommy and Mrs Mopp? Ai don't mind if Ai do.

Byline: Dan O'Neill

OCTOBER 1939, a month offering our first share of wartime shocks. A U-boat slipped through the "impenetrable" defences of the Scapa Flo naval base and torpedoed the battleship Royal Oak. More than 800 men died.

At the same time German aircraft attacked another naval base on the Firth of Forth - the first air raid of the war, making us wonder when Cardiff's turn would come.

Meanwhile, Hitler assured Holland and Belgium of his eternal friendship - wartime's equivalent of football's dreaded vote of confidence in the manager.

But there was one infallible escape from the gathering storm. Behind their blackout curtains, the fire banked up, 2S 0 million people settled by their wireless sets at 7.35 on Tuesday nights, tuned into the old Home Service and waited for...

"It's that man again, yes that man again, yes sir Tommy Handley is here... mother's pride and joy, Mrs Handley's boy..."

And another ITMA was under way. ITMA - It's That Man Again, the headline whenever a far from comic character called Adolf thought up some new scheme.

A perfect introduction, too, for Tommy Handley and 70 years ago this month those words were part of the national consciousness, signalling a show famous for catchphrases that endure to this day.

A squadron of Spitfires peels off. Then the quavering voice of the Squadron Leader: "I'm going down now, sir," and from every other pilot the chanted response: "Don't forget the Diver... don't forget the Diver."

A London street, a boy buried beneath his blitzed home. As they dig down towards him he shouts, "Can you do me now, sir?" A Royal Command performance.

The Queen is told the series is finishing but would return in the autumn. "I see," she murmurs. "You go. You come back."

So ITMA linked fighter pilots and bomb victims and royalty to every other man, woman and child in Britain during the darkest days of war, doing as much for the nation's morale as any Churchill speech.

You could also say that this supremely surreal show opened the gates for the Goons and everything that followed, although Supergoon Spike said he thought it "unsophisticated". Mind you, he also said radio had better pictures than TV behind your eyelids and ITMA was packed with those pictures.

So those millions of fans had their own idea of what Funf, the sinister spy looked like as his catchphrase echoed in every pub and playground, deep, hollow, threatening - "It is Funf speaking". People would pick up a phone to hear, yes, "It is... " often spoken into a glass to get the right resonance.

The first series introduced Tommy as Minister of Aggravation at the Ministry of Twerps, surrounded by a band of characters as bizarre as anything the Goons would offer later. This gallery of grotesques spilled out of the nation's radios each week, refugees from Looking Glass Land, following each other in and out of the script at dizzying speed - writer Ted Kavanagh aimed at 100 jokes in the 18 minutes of dialogue (the other 12 for music and sound effects).

Among them Lefty the Gangster and his simple sidekick Sam Scram, whose constant refrain was "Boss, boss, sump'n terrible's happened." Ali Oop, the peculiar pedlar who slipped away after yet another failed sale with "I go. I come back." Echoed by the Queen. There was the Diver. Always Going Down now, sir, and Mona Lott who, after some particularly doleful reminiscence told in a miserable monotone, would tell Handley, "Yersss, it's bein' so cheerful as keeps me going", another phrase that entered the language.

Jack Train was the saloon bar soldier Col Chinstrap, interpreting every question as an offer of a drink - "Ai don't mind if Ai do," standard response in Cardiff pubs 70 years ago. You'd hear ITMA's characters imitated every day but the most memorable catchphrase of all belonged to the charlady Mrs Mopp, who bequeathed her name to a generation of cleaners.

No, it wasn't "Can I do yer now sir" as she entered Handley's office (remember the small boy in the blitz). It was her words as she departed: "TTFN" - Ta-ta for now. It was reported at the time that TTFN was often the farewell message from people dying in hospital, while one woman with a sense of humour wanted it carved on her tombstone.

By that first wartime Christmas, ITMA had 20 million listeners and it would go on for another 10 years. On January 8, 1949, Tommy went to his club, the Savage, after recording the 311th ITMA. He did not feel well. The following day a stunned nation heard: "The BBC regrets to announce the death of Mr Thomas Handley, the comedian."

Thomas? Never! He was Tommy to the millions he had helped laugh through the war. But without him there could be no more ITMAs. Instead of TTFN it was Ta-ta for ever.

CAPTION(S):

Tommy Handley and Dorothy Summers' Mrs Mopp from the ITMA (It's That Man Again) team that helped a nation get through the ravages and hardships of war with a smile
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Publication:South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Oct 6, 2009
Words:846
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