‘ROUND THE HORNE’
And suddenly – Radio Comedy is back, in a big way.
As stage presentations of favourites such as ‘ROUND THE HORNE’,
‘THE GOONS’, and ‘MORECAMBE & WISE’ are starting out in
new West End productions, and playing to full houses.
ANDREW DARLINGTON catches up with them in Leeds...
‘BEYOND OUR KEN’...
“My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen
Master of the Hounds, Mistress of the Ostler,
Stable-Boys and Un-Stable-Boys,
Ladies in Waiting, Ladies who’ve given up waiting,
Whippers-in and Whippers-out, please be up-standing…”
That stage up there is a giant radio, dull nut-brown with a luminous-lime tuning band. At the same time it’s also a sound-stage in the basement of ‘Paris Studios’, Lower Regent Street, the BBC annexe to the towering edifice of Broadcasting House. There’s a sound-effects booth stage-left, while overhead-panels illuminate, informing the audience to ‘APPLAUSE’ when necessary. And to the right, another dual sign that alternates ‘RECORDING’ with ‘REHEARSAL’.
‘We start with the answer to last week’s photographic question,’ drolls Kenneth Horne, with only the barest hint of lurking humour. ‘Which was… that the big one belongs to Sean Connery, and the little one belongs to Cliff Richard.’ He’s talking about pens, of course, but this is a quiz to which no-one ever got to hear the question, and it’s a question that’s not previously been posed anyway. But after all, a photographic competition – on radio, is itself a surreal absurdity. Yet it sets the tone for the rest of the evening as laughter-detonations equal – and exceed the high expectations of a capacity-packed Leeds Grand. There’s always the risk of legendary radio-comedy becoming static during its translation to the stage. After all, this mismatched rabble of an audience have come on an impossible mission… to rekindle their years spent beside that radio the stage is designed to resemble. Yet no-one’s disappointed.
Stephen Critchlow looms large as obligatory straight-man host Kenneth Horne, the ultimate foil around whom all else orbits. But Paul Ryan and Jonathan Moore ignite a riptide of applause the moment they mince ‘Hello, I’m Julian and this is my friend Sandy.’ They seem genuinely shook-up by the audience-wave of instant recognition (‘he gets touched, he gets easily touched… and moved, touched and moved, every time he goes to the Theatre he wilfully suspends his disbelief…’). Arguably theirs is tonight’s most daunting task, for the camp duo remain the show’s most recognisably memorable characters... unless, perhaps Rambling Syd? But this eerily accurate take on the limp-wristed bona pair, out of work ac-tors ‘between engagements’ who fill in with ‘Bona Drag’ or ‘Renta-Chap’ (‘domestic chores undertaken’), succeeds in eroding your most stubborn critical instincts. And how bona it is to vada their jolly old eeks again! Although – to be fair, the whole show is never less than a team affair, with Stephen Boswell as bumbling announcer Douglas Smith and Sherry Baines as Betty Marsden both punching above their weight. Surreal jokes rattle off like Gatling-gun fusillades, leaving no time for breath before the next wave of ‘insinuendoes and catch-penny horseplay’.
Just five microphones. Five actual performers. Surely not. My imagination is populated by dozens of outlandish characters. But of course, they were – they are created from the voice-pool of just five people. I always knew that. But knowing is an unreliable instrument when placed against the mind’s eye. Surely, Rambling Syd Rumbo is a kind of sleazy version of Donovan, all faded denim jacket, frayed cap, guitar and harmonica harness, singing “The Ballad of the Loom-Bogglers Boom” or “The Toddle-Groper’s Dance”. I see him now in my head exactly as I could see him then. Only, it’s not like that. ‘Kenneth Williams’ steps up the mike in his suit and does the vocal ‘dangle-oh my dearies’ stuff on “What Shall We Do With The Drunken Nurker”. Those weirdly dialected lacerations of Folk songs dug from his ‘ganderbag’, for which no-one knows exactly what he means but everyone has a damned good idea. And of course, that’s how it really was. Despite everything your brain tells you to the contrary.
Attempts at re-conjuring past showbiz magic carries a high risk of failure. But this combination has already ‘done several exciting things in the West End, now we want to do something risky in Leeds’ to paraphrase Julian & Sandy. Now:
‘Jules and I are going to do something we’ve always wanted to do, we’re going to mount a musical…’ ‘Mount a musical what?’ enquires Horne disingenuously.
‘Well, it’s too early to tell…’
Really, it’s all in the delivery, the voices loaded with multiple-meaning, but hear it in its original and it’s enough to turn your lallies to water! Yet this stage version pulls it off better than most, because it’s largely made up of original material tweaked by Brian Cooke, the last surviving member of the original writing team. And it’s the scripts that are the genuine stars. Even if, for long-term devotees, it still takes some getting used to seeing performers other than Kenneth Horne, Kenneth Williams (in the original stage-version played by Robin Sebastian), Hugh Paddick, Betty Marsden and Douglas Smith delivering the bawdy jokes and smutty puns that so shocked Mary Whitehouse and disgusted MP’s. During its original radio-runs, J. Peasemould Gruntfuttock – ‘the world’s dirtiest old man’, drew predictable complaints from the Mary Whitehouse tendency while MP Sir Cyril Black raised questions-in-the House over Gruntfuttock’s free-wheeling lack of religious regard.
And just perhaps – according to their own repressive Right-wing agenda, they had a point? Perhaps there is artful subversion in there? The tie-in radio docu-programme (BBC3, Sunday 13 June 2004) is preceded by a ten-minute exploration of ‘Polari’, the secret dialect adopted by the 1960s gay scene – pre-Wolfenden Report, which is used to such outrageously ‘bona’ effect by ‘Round The Horne’. And at a time when homosexuality was still illegal, Julian and Sandy’s camp sauciness does allow suburbia to laugh openly along with what had been strictly taboo. ‘OOOO – in’he BOLD!’ But – as Barry Took observes, ‘if you find some of the references in the show baffling just think how puzzled the hierarchy of the BBC were back in 1967’.
‘YOU’RE NEVER ALONE WITH A SPLIT PERSONALITY...’
‘Round The Horne: For the young at heart, and the weak in the head…’
Meanwhile, over at the ‘West Yorkshire Playhouse’, you could be watching ‘Ying Tong’ written by Roy Smiles and produced by Michael Codron. A homage to ‘The Goons’, and especially the deranged genius of Spike Milligan, it sees Spike under increasing pressure to create The Goon Show to end them all, while simultaneously planning his escape from St Luke’s Psychiatric Hospital dressed only in pyjamas. Losing his grip on reality even further he applies to the British Museum to get his marbles back, while threatening to murder Eccles, the most notorious of the Goons menagerie of characters. And on. While later, here at ‘The Grand’, there’s ‘The Play What I Wrote’ replicating Morcambe & Wise, elaborated from Eddie Braben’s original scripts by Hamish McColl and Sean Foley. That same Braben, you recall, who penned for the duo for fourteen years. Originally produced for its West End run by Kenneth Branagh, there’s a vague plot-line in which Kim (Wall) has wrote a play – an epic set in the French Revolution called ‘A Tight Squeeze For The Scarlet Pimple’. While Clive (Hayward), on the other hand, wants their double act to continue. He believes that by performing their tribute to Eric & Ernie, Kim’s confidence will be restored and their act will go on. But first Clive needs to persuade a guest star to appear in the play what Kim wrote… you know the routine. Own up. You know you do. But, taking these three stage productions together – alongside Rhys Ifans impersonating Peter Cook in Channel 4’s Xmas 2004 ‘Not Only But Always’, the biopic written and directed by Terry Johnson around the careers of Pete and Dudley Moore, there’s definitely something stirring. A preoccupation with days of comedy past. And, at least on a two-thirds basis, with radio comedy.
Around the time the comedy ‘New Wave’ was erupting it was fashionable to denigrate such stuff, Ben Elton referred derisively to radio shows made up exclusively of catch-phrases, ‘The Fast Show’s ‘Ken & Kenneth’ deliberately satirise punch-lines that aren’t funny and only become funny through relentless repetition. But in ‘Round The Horne’ it’s easy to spot prototypes for much of the BBC comedy that’s followed. Critic Stephanie Merritt points out that ‘where would ‘Little Britain’s ‘only gay in the village’ be without the pioneering innuendo of Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick as former chorus boys Julian and Sandy?’ (‘Observer’ 9 January 2005). Of course, she’s right. This is family tree material from which everything else grows.
Radio comedy still exists. Often it’s very good. Although sometimes not quite as smart as it thinks it is, with clumsy supposedly-satiric stabs at George Bush and Tony Blair to denote its alleged topicality. It’s just that then… way back then when the Goons and the ‘Round The Horne’ crew were at their peak, television had yet to completely dislodge radio as the dominant source of home entertainment. It defined its own time simply by being there. Radio could demand the most highly-regarded writers, performers and production teams. The kind of talent soon to be creamed off by TV. There were other programmes, equally as legendary. Tony Hancock, Sid James and Kenneth Williams in ‘Hancock’s Half-Hour’. Leslie Phillips and Jon Pertwee in the chaotic nautical escapades of ‘The Navy Lark’. A mischievous Jimmy Clitheroe in ‘The Clitheroe Kid’, all of which briefly – and with varying degrees of success, transfers to black and white TV. Plus Ted Ray starring in ‘Ray’s A Laugh’. And Jimmy Edwards as the devious headmaster in ‘Wacko’, which didn’t.
So, what brings the audiences trolling in ‘ere?’ Well, ‘Round The Horne’ was always that bit different. Avuncular’s always the easy term to describe Mr ‘Orne, a benignly indulgent uncle, a ‘master of the revels’ to the anarchic misfits and deviants he presides over, an impression emphasised by his stature, and his rich eyebrows which compensate for the total lack of hair above them. Essentially a solid establishment figure with a broad streak of silliness, Charles Kenneth Horne was born 27 February 1907 in Anthill Square off the Tottenham Court Road, within a stone’s throw of Broadcasting House. According to Leslie Philips he was ‘not a comedian, a singer or even an actor, he was a successful business man who had a way with words, words which he used to sell everything.’ They’d once appeared together in a stage version of Jerome K. Jerome’s ‘Three Men In A Boat’. Horne began as the youngest of seven – four girls and three boys, in the close-knit family of Congregational Minister Sylvester Horne. He went on to Cambridge and the LSE, but was ‘sent down’ in 1927 after an all-play and no-work regime devoted to rugger and tennis. For a time he played tenor sax in Dance Bands and sold records part-time while working for a Safety Glass Firm in Birmingham… before the RAF intervened.
Like many comedy-activists of his generation, National Service, the War Years and the immediate adjustment-period after provides career-opportunities. As Spike Milligan’s autobiographies indicate. So his slightest of show-biz experience determines that Acting Pilot Officer Horne is recruited to organise an ‘Ack-Ack Beer-Beer’ outside radio-show (1939-1944), where he meets up with Richard ‘Stinker’ Murdoch. They discover – apart from an affinity for irreverent humour, that they’d been Cambridge contemporaries, although they’d never actually interacted before. Yet from there, they soon graduate to working together on the cult war-time radio series ‘Much-Binding In The Marsh’, working alongside moustachioed future-DJ Sam Costa, Maureen Riscoe, Maurice Deham, and Dora Bryan. Originally part of the BBC General Forces Programme it runs to five series, and translates to both the new ‘Light Programme’ from 28 July 1945, as well as prime-time Radio Luxembourg. In a pervasively monochrome pre-TV Britain lit by this single Pop-orientated radio-channel, this strange sit-com of mildly comic songs, inoffensive running gags and catch-phrases soon becomes part of the national vocabulary, a show that hits massive response, and survives until 1954. And within which Horne and Murdock’s scripts were already exploiting the inner-CGi of pure-sound to conjure the confused ineptitude of this fictional RAF base, in ways that would escalate into what follows.
Horne graduates to hosting the BBC’s follow-up – ‘Beyond Our Ken’, despite the interruption of a violent stroke in February 1958 which necessitates speech therapy. He’s joined by ENSA and Stage School-graduate Betty Marsden, by Kenneth Williams – already what Leslie Phillips calls ‘a refugee from the Hancock purge’, and the rest. Linked by the continuity of Horne’s rich, urbane and genial tones, it’s an instant success. Until, after a falling-out with the BBC in 1964 writer Eric Merriman opts out of the show – taking the title with him, so collaborator Barry Took – commissioned to create a replacement, teams up with a young Marty Feldman. Hence the first fifty-ish scripts of ‘Round The Horne’ are created by the Took/Feldman team. With a final season involving Johnnie Mortimer, Brian Cooke and Donald Webster – although Marty is still on call for consultation over the ‘Julian & Sandy’ sketches.
Horne also finds time to DJ for ‘Housewives Choice’, guests with Ted Ray on ‘Does The Team Think’ – a kind of panel-game precursor to ‘Have I Got News For You’, and reads ‘The Art Of Coarse Acting’ for ‘Woman’s Hour’, although his deteriorating health mean he’s by now on long-term anti-coagulant drugs and physiotherapy – and even has consultations with a Faith Healer. But it’s the two shows operating around elements of his name that define his celebrity. And after its full four seasons, plus occasional Xmas specials, and a peak audience of fifteen-million, ‘Round The Horne’ is only brought to a halt by Horne’s untimely death. He falls off the podium mid-speech at the ‘Annual Guild of TV Producers Presentation’ at the Dorchester Hotel, and dies shortly afterwards. It is 14 February 1969.
‘KEEP TAKING THE (ROMAN) TABLETS…’
‘That sinful city of ancient times, the seat of a corrupt empire which
wallowed in bacchanalian orgies and sadistic spectacles…’
‘Oh, Bognor?’ suggests Horne
Each radio edition of ‘Round The Horne’ has a dramatic presentation from Horne-Ographic Productions, frequently a ‘Kenneth Horne: Master Spy’ James Bond spoof, or perhaps a ‘The Palone Ranger’ Western, The Three Musketeers or a ‘Little Caesar’ Mafia quasi-epic. On stage tonight they adapt two such scripts, ‘The Lost Island Of Gonga’ – first broadcast 2 April 1967 (in association with Pound-A-Flesh Ltd, the ‘friendly loan company’), and the Movie-Go-Wrong film adaptation ‘Continuum Medicum Romanum’, from 19 May 1968. This ‘Gladiator’-style swords-&-sandals drama concerns a second-hand British slave in good nick – Frigidius Maximus (Horne), the girls call him Frigid Maxie for short (‘…but not for long!’). He’s sold to new master Glucosius (Kenneth Williams). ‘I sprawled at his feet, all I could see was the rays of the setting sun gleaming on the strap of his sandals – yes, just a thong at twilight!’ ‘Gird up your loins, I can’t bear an ungirded loin’ demands his new master, a Tribune who hopes to be a New Statesman. He ‘tugged me to my feet by pulling at my chain… I flushed!’ (a lavatorial reference that now probably requires explanation). His new role – from when he ‘sundials on in the morning until he sundials off at half-past V’ is to wait on Glucosius hand and foot ‘and any other part of me that requires waiting upon.’ Until – Russell Crowe-style, he’s sent to ‘St Hilda’s Gladiatorial School’, and from there to the arena. He whets the edge of his sword (‘well, it takes some of us that way’). Douglas Smith plays the lion – ‘growl growl, roar roar’. And an impressed Nero (same Kenneth Williams, different voice) recruits him, so he changes ‘to Praetorian Guards’. Nero is ‘a nervous man and would allow no weapons in his presence, so day and night I stood at his side with a drawn cucumber’… and on. There’s a special civic orgy, a splendid affair where ‘wine flowed like water, the fountains gushed with milk stout, and scantily-clad maidens performed wild sinuous dances – it was all I could do to keep my cucumber steady.’ Seduced by Nero’s wife Popaia (pronounced ‘Popeye’), Frigidius protests ‘but I’m Nero’s guard, Madam, love is a word that’s forbidden to me.’ ‘Oh very well’ she responds, ‘tonight is made for politics. Come with me.’ So he goes and ‘all night long I politiced her’… until they wake, ‘no, it can’t be dawn, it’s only X-to-IV’, to find Rome in flames while Nero fiddles the closing number, a square dance ‘doin’ the Appian Way’. Of course, some of the humour depends on your familiarity with now-lost cultural references. Toilets that flush when you pull the chain. TV cigarette-ads. And cheesy old Pop hits.
But then again, the show’s surreal invention was never pointedly satirical. There’s clear topicality in the person of inept chat-show host Seamus Android (Eamonn Andrews), Fanny Haddock (a survivor from ‘Beyond Our Ken’ modelled on domestic goddess Fanny Craddock), and the movie-spoofs featured in ‘Armpit Theatre’. Even Julian & Sandy were originally based (although subsequently caricature-exaggerated) on West End Musical writers Sandy Wilson and Julian Slade. You can guess at the archetypes behind ‘Charles & Fiona’, with Betty Marsden as Dame Celia Molestrangler and Hugh Paddick as ‘aging juvenile’ Binkie Huckerback, those dated cinema idols engaged in their stilted Noel Coward-style dialogue – ‘I know’, ‘I know you know’, ‘I know you know I know’, pause – ‘I know’. But among the further cast of absurd creations, from Kenneth Williams’ Dr Chou En Ginsberg MA (failed), with his ‘lovely concubine’ Lotus Blossom played by lumbering Hugh Paddick, to Betty Marsden’s seductive Daphne Whitethigh and astrologer Madam Osiris Gnomeclencher, you’re left to draw your own conclusions. All that’s now left to mention is the music of Edwin Braben & The Hornblowers. A mid-point close-harmony song from the Fraser Hayes Four. And… of course, Ramblin Syd’s “The Ballad of the Woggler’s Moolie” or his paean of praise to “My Grandfather’s Grunge” – ‘they don’t make them like that anymore, you can’t get the drippets’ he explains, ‘limply but cunning’.
And ultimately – own up, watching ‘Round The Horne’ on stage can add a shared contact-high appreciation to the experience. Giving you the chance to see, for the first time since select studio-audience’s saw it first time around, how Horne and the gang performed the show in its heyday. This is actually how it must have been. ‘Kenneth Williams’ tends to steal the show. But then Kenneth Williams always stole the show anyway. This version comes to Leeds with a lot was riding on it and a reconfigured cast from the one that made ‘Revisited’s first London run such an odd success – but, if anything, they deliver more doppelganger-accurate performances that their West End counterparts. ‘What brings you down to these parts?’ ‘I’ve got a lousy agent’. Until there are moments when it’s almost possible to forget you’re not still at home, ear pressed to your Bacolite Bush. It’s a unique experience, an event, and unbridled fun en masse. In fact, I remember one episode in which J Peasmould Gruntfuttock applies for a job with the ‘stuffy and hide-bound’ BBC intent on bringing ‘the fresh clean wind of reality up your corridors of power’, only to be told ‘your work is obviously the product of a one-track degenerate childish mind.’ ‘I suppose that means you’re giving me the sack?’ he queries. ‘Oh good heavens no, you’re just the chap we need to write for ‘Round The Horne’!’ It’s almost possible to believe that almost, just possibly, it might really have happened something exactly like that. Fantabuloso...
‘wonders will never cease, but for the time being,
‘Round The Horne’ will, so – till we meet again,
from all of us, ALL OF US, cheerio…’
‘BEYOND OUR KEN’
From Tuesday 1 July 1958 to 16 February 1964. Seven Seasons (108 episodes)
‘ROUND THE HORNE’
From 7 March 1965 to 9 June 1968. Four Seasons (66 episodes)
Complete Episode Guide: www.britishcomedy.org.uk/kwas/rth
‘SOLO FOR HORNE’
biography by Norman Hackforth
Excerpt published in:
‘SELEXIO’ edited by Andy Robson
(UK – September 2020)