I’ve just finished a very readable biography of the late Kenneth Horne, one of the comedy greats of the 20th century, written by Barry Johnston (son of the late cricket commentator Brian Johnston). I’m sure, however, for many readers of this blog outside the UK or who did not grow up in the 50s and 60s, the name of Kenneth Horne will mean little if nothing at all. But he was the lynch-pin, so-to-speak, of some of the most successful comedy series on BBC radio in the 1940s, 50s and 60s until his untimely death from a massive heart attack at the age of 61 in 1969.
Kenneth Horne was the youngest of seven children of inspirational preacher Sylvester Horne (later a Liberal MP) who died when Kenneth was seven. In the 1920s he enrolled for an economics degree at the London School of Economics, but not prospering there, one of his uncles – a Pilkington of the glass making company – managed to secure him a place at Cambridge University (also to study economics). But Kenneth was more interested in sport (it seems he excelled at a whole range of sports), and never finished his degree. He then went into business, joining the Triplex Safety Glass company based in Birmingham. Over the years he rose through the ranks, becoming marketing director.
I discovered a number of things about Kenneth Horne that I had never been aware of.
All the while he was a radio (and then TV) personality, he combined this career with one in the glass business (and later toys).
He appeared on a whole raft of radio and TV shows (Twenty Questions, Top of the Form, and many others), many of which I’m sure I used to listen to or watch without ever making the connection with the comedian who fronted two of the most successful shows to be broadcast on the radio: Beyond Our Ken and Round the Horne.
During the Second World War he saw ‘active’ service in the Royal Air Force (RAF) at the Air Ministry in London rising to the rank of Wing Commander. But he also combined his war duties with a serious broadcasting schedule, joining forces with comedian Richard ‘Dickie’ Murdoch in the wartime comedy hit, Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh, set in a fictional RAF station, which continued right into the 1950s.
He was married three times, first to a daughter of the Duke of Newcastle, and during his second marriage he lived in the village of Burcot, about 2 miles from where I live in north Worcestershire.
But Kenneth Horne will be best remembered for the two iconic comedies Beyond Our Ken (which ran over seven series between July 1958 and February 1964, with 123 episodes) followed by Round the Horne (broadcast over four series from March 1965 to June 1968, and 67 episodes). Both had strong writing teams, with Eric Merriman, Barry Took, Marty Feldman and others involved. Just think how many episodes were broadcast in a single series. Today we’re luck if we hear or see any more than half a dozen (or fewer) in a series.
And there was a strong supporting cast: Kenneth Williams, Hugh Paddick, Douglas Smith, Bill Pertwee, Maurice Denham, Ron Moody, Betty Marsden and Pat Lancaster among others. The format of each show, with its introduction, sketches and musical interludes hardly changed over the various series. But the writers (and performers) did push the boundaries of comedy and were increasingly accused of peddling filth on the radio, and scripts becoming more and more ‘smutty’. However, if you read the scripts there was nothing to complain about (then BBC Director General Hugh Greene was asked to intervene and ban the shows but, admitting to enjoying a little bit of ‘dirty comedy’, did nothing to curtail the broadcasts) – it was all in the delivery, and how the cast milked the scripts for every last laugh and innuendo. They were wonderful. Broadcast on a Sunday afternoon or evening, Beyond Our Ken and Round the Horne attracted listening audiences in the millions – making them possibly the most successful radio comedy shows of all time.
With the various characters on the show having strange (and often suggestive) names, such as folk singer Rambling Syd Rumpo and J. Peasemold Gruntfuttock (played by Kenneth Williams), Dame Celia Molestrangler (played by Betty Marsden) and ‘ageing juvenile’ Binkie Huckaback (played by Hugh Paddick, as well as the outrageously camp Julian and Sandy (played by Williams and Paddick) – who spoke in polari, a slang often used by gays in the theatrical profession (when homosexuality was illegal in the UK), each show was a riot of mirth and laughter. It’s clear that the cast got on famously together. What shone through in Johnston’s biography was Kenneth Horne’s humanity – he was an extremely kind and generous person. And listening to the shows 50 years after they were first broadcast is the vitality, the freshness, and the earthiness of the humor.
I’m no prude when it comes to bad language in the media, and I’m not averse to using the odd word myself for emphasis from time-to-time. What I don’t find funny, however, is gratuitous ‘effing and blinding’ that seems to be the norm today of many stand-up (so-called) comedians (such as the awful Frankie Boyle), unless of course, your name’s Billy Connolly and his bad language is just part of his Glaswegian vernacular. Beyond Our Ken and Round the Horne were in a different league. There was never a hint of bad or explicit language.
It’s impossible to describe these shows in detail. Here, however, is a clip that you just might enjoy. I did, and whenever I hear them on BBC Radio 4 Extra, they never fail to bring a very broad grin to my face. Happy childhood memories!