Mornington Crescent appears to have first made its appearance as a game featured in the BBC Radio 4 comedy panel game I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue. The game, whose rules are never explained, seems to satirize complicated strategy games, particularly the abstruse jargon involved in such games as contract bridge or chess.
A game consisted of each player in turn announcing a landmark or street, most often a tube station on the London Underground system; the winner was the first player to announce "Mornington Crescent", a station on the Northern Line.
The humour of the game, as depicted in the show, was that while its rules were invoked and argued on the show, they were never explained.
However, despite its early satirical presentation, Mornington Crescent has become quite popular and is currently played regularly both on and off-line.
Mornington Crescent first appeared in the opening episode of the sixth series of I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, broadcast on 22 August 1978. Although five episodes transmitted in 1974-75 are still lost, Mornington Crescent makes no appearance before 1978 but was played in every surviving episode of the sixth series.
The originator of the game is not clear. One claim is that the game was invented by Geoffrey Perkins, and he has stated in an interview that Mornington Crescent was created as a non-game. According to chairman Humphrey Lyttelton, the game was invented to vex the series producer, who was unpopular with the panellists. One day the team were drinking when they heard him coming. "Quick," one said, "Let's invent a game with rules he'll never understand. Another story is that the game did have real rules when it was first broadcast, the joke being that the audience weren't told what they were. But these rules were abandoned in favour of merely pretending the game had rules.
Barry Cryer, on Radio 4's Today programme stated that Geoffery Perkins did not invent the game, which he said had been around since the sixties. In The Guardian dated 06/09/08, Bunny May, a contributor to the letters page, claims that he (along with John Junkin and David Clime) invented the game in 1970, in an actors' club on Shaftsbury Avenue called Gerry's, in order to infuriate and bemuse patrons whom they found boring or boorish.
Over time the destinations expanded beyond the Underground. ISIHAC was recorded around the United Kingdom, and the game was occasionally modified; such cases included a version in Slough, as well as one in Scotland played during the Edinburgh Fringe arts festival. In one game, recorded in Luton, moves ranged as far as the Place de l'Étoile in Paris, Nevsky Prospekt in St. Petersburg, and Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC. However, a move to Luton High Street was ruled invalid for being too remote.
Lyttelton joked that the game predated the London Underground. 'Tudor Court Rules' were described as "A version of the game formerly adopted by Henry VIII and played by Shakespeare. At this time, the underground was far smaller than at present and so the playing area also was more restricted, primarily due to plague."
Those who asked for the rules were told "NF Stovold’s Mornington Crescent: Rules and Origins" was out of print. They were also advised that "your local bookshop might have a copy of The Little Book of Mornington Crescent by Tim, Graeme, Barry and Humph."
Although some might say that the game started as satire (not of an original Mornington Crescent game but of other complicated strategy games) the game undeniably exists now. Games are played by fans on Usenet, in diverse web forums, and on the London Underground. A Facebook application has also been produced.
Many specialized variations of the game have also been developed. For example, a lively ongoing game with occasional aviation references is played on the Professional Pilots' Rumour Network Many other games such as Cress have also evolved from variations on the game.
In the 1990s, Radio 4 broadcast a Christmas special: Mornington Crescent Explained, a "two-part documentary" on Mornington Crescent, part one being a history of the game and part two the rules. At the end of part one it was announced that part two had been postponed due to "scheduling difficulties".
Two books of rules and history have been published, The Little Book of Mornington Crescent (2001; ISBN 0-7528-1864-3) by Graeme Garden, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Barry Cryer and Humphrey Lyttelton, and Stovold's Mornington Crescent Almanac (2001; ISBN 0-7528-4815-1) by Graeme Garden.