Saturday, 10 August 2019

Not the A to Z of Radio Comedy: H is for Hot Club


The Hot Club was a blink and you'll miss it 6-part series broadcast on Radio 2 in 1990 and not heard again since.

Billed as "wit, spit, music and madness" it starred Arthur Smith, at the time familiar face at the Edinburgh Fringe and on Channel 4 and a familiar voice on radio's The Good Human Guide and Peter Dickson's Nightcap. With Smith were Comedy Store alumni musician and comedian Ronnie Golden with Josie Lawrence and Richard Vranch, both regulars on Channel 4's improv show Whose Line Is It Anyway?

Previewing the series for the Radio Times in January 1990 David Gillard wrote:

Putting the heat on in Radio 2's newly opened Hot Club are compere Arthur Smith and singing comics Ronnie Golden, Richard Vranch and Josie Lawrence. each week they'll be bringing their wit to bear on a different topic - from Romance and War to Holidays and Horror. There'll be pastiche musicals among the gags and sketches - 'all in a variety of styles: heavy metal , protest, flamenco, Mowtown, that sort of thing' explains Richard. There'll also be original numbers by the cast - like Josie's off-beat antidote to all those gushily Gallic songs of springtime sentimentality, Paris in March.   
Both she and Richard came to comic prominence through TV's Whose Line Is It Anyway? and London's Comedy Store. Richard has been the music director of the Cambridge Footlights revue whilst Josie has appeared on TV as an ad-woman in Campaign and a murder victim in Poirot before moving  on to the comic road. Wary of being pigeonholed, she insists: 'I'm an actress who happens to be doing comedy, not a comedienne.'
Meanwhile it's sizzling songs and sketches that are keeping both on the boil. Hot stuff, indeed.
There are some now familiar names amongst the writing credits: Mark Burton and John O'Farrell who jointly received the BBC Radio Comedy Writers Bursary in 1988 and worked on Week Ending and Spitting Image. Also from the Week Ending writer's room are Mark Brissenden, Simon Bullivant, Michael Dines,  Alan Whiting and Bill Matthews.

The producer is Lissa Evans.

I only have the third episode in my collection, taking war as its theme. This was broadcast on Radio2 on Tuesday 30 January 1990 and gets its first airing in 29 years.

Saturday, 20 July 2019

The Eagle Has Landed



Fifty years ago the world was going space crazy. All eyes were on what was going on 'up there' as three intrepid astronauts blasted off on the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. Back on earth we just couldn't get enough of all things astronautical. You could send away for a Weetabix Solar System Chart and as a young lad I well remember collecting small plastic models of the command and lunar modules found lurking in the bottom of packets of Corn Flakes. I too had a copy of the Ladybird book of The Rocket from the How it works series. 


Watching on our black and white telly- the pictures from Apollo 11 were in black and white anyway  - coverage of the moon landing itself went through the night of Sunday 20 July into Monday 21 July. I've a vague memory that my parents got me up super early to watch some of the historic event before setting off for school.  

Scheduled to run from 6.15 pm to 1.00 am the evening programme on ITV 

On ITV it was ITN that provided the programmes with Alastair Burnett presenting and Science Editor, Peter Fairley (I've still got one of his Peter Fairley's World of Wonders annuals)  and Paul Haney, a former voice of NASA's Mission Control. And because the final approach and moon landing happened on a Sunday evening London Weekend were in charge so we had the added glamour of David Frost and a 'starry' array of show business folk including Lulu, Cliff, Engelbert and Cilla. 


The commercial offering was a decidedly more glitzy affair than the Beeb's offering. Also on hand was Eric Sykes, Roger Bannister, Desmond Morris, Chris Bonnington, Dame Sybil Thorndike and the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. There was also David Threlfall, the man who back in 1964 had made a 1000-1 bet at William Hill that there'd be a lunar landing by 1970. During the show he was presented with his £10,000 winnings and promised half to his parents whilst with the remainder he'd take a Caribbean holiday and invest the rest. Tragically he died in a car crash in November 1970.  

The BBC1 evening line-up for Sunday 20 July 1969

Over on the BBC, mainly BBC1 but with some colour simulcasts on BBC2, it was Cliff Michelmore, Patrick Moore and James Burke in the Apollo Space Studio and Michael Charlton at Houston Mission control. No showbiz shenanigans here, though on that Sunday evening you could've watched The Black and White Minstrel Show and over on BBC2 the Show of the Week featured Lulu (again).

As we now know most of the live television coverage was either not kept or just wiped and some of what does remain comes from off-air recordings. However, it's great to hear and see James Burke back again and his radio appearances include tonight's Archive on 4 called James Burke: Our Man on the Moon. Last week James was selecting his favourite music and talking about science and his love of all things Italian to Michael Berkeley in Private Passions.  

What of the radio? Perhaps surprisingly most of the live coverage was on Radios 1 and 2 with only some shared output on Radio 4. That station wasn't yet as news driven as it would become but the Apollo mission was covered on Today, The World at One and Radio Newsreel and some news coverage is in the archive. I'm not aware of any surviving recordings of the Radio 1 and Radio 2 programmes but off-air recordings must surely be in a box in someone's loft.

To give a taste of the what you might have heard here's a rather ropey recording made during the Apollo 12 mission in November that year with Arthur Garratt and science correspondent David Wilson covering the second moon walk during Paul Hollingdale's Breakfast Special.


The Apollo 11 mission Moon Special radio programmes were presented by Arthur Garratt and Colin Riach with Reginald Turnill at Mission Control. Reg became very well-known as the BBC's aerospace correspondent and, on his retirement in 1976, he continued to keep young viewers to Newsround informed. Arthur and Colin would continue to present the radio coverage of the Apollo missions through to Apollo 17 in 1972. Colin went on to produce Tomorrow's World and Young Scientist of the Year. Arthur presented science programmes on BBC tv and radio for about 30 years and he was on hand for the radio broadcasts of the Skylab launch in 1973 and the Apollo Soyuz mission in 1975. 
Unfortunately BBC Genome doesn't show these panels online so here's the detail for
Sunday 20 July 1969

The Radio Times panel for Monday 21 July 1969


For more on the first moon landing listen to the excellent World Service podcast 13 Minutes to the Moon.
See also the BBC Archive page on the moon landings.

Monday, 1 July 2019

Arwisgiad Tywysog Cymru


With BBC Parliament re-showing the Investiture of The Prince of Wales from exactly 50 years ago I thought I'd look at how BBC radio covered the event.

Unlike today's royal event coverage we didn't have hours of build-up speculation and talking to the folk in the crowds in Caernarvon, at least not on the radio, BBC television started their programmes at 10.30 am. The afternoon ceremony, lasting a little over two hours, was, perhaps surprisingly, relayed on Radio 3 sandwiched between Test Match Special (with the fifth day of the second England v West Indies Test from Lord's). Commentating on the ceremony itself was the well-known broadcaster and entertainer Alun Williams, with Raymond Baxter describing events in Castle Square.   

Listeners to Radio 4 in Wales could hear commentary in both Welsh and English from Emyr Jenkins, John Darren and T. Glynne Davies. Elsewhere Radio 4 was providing coverage from Wimbledon (it would move over to Radio 2 the following year) as well as updates on the Test Match.

Radio 4 did, however, broadcast a 45-minute edited version of events that evening and, by a stroke of fortune, David Mann has contacted me to say that he still has his recording of that programme. So for those interested to hear the pomp, pageantry and Prince Charles's rather dodgy Welsh accent here it is. Recorded on long wave and missing the opening announcement I think I can safely say this hasn't been heard since.



The television coverage was in the safe hands of Cliff Michelmore. who'd taken over the mantle of these big events following the death of Richard Dimbleby. With Cliff were Richard Baker and Emlyn Williams. The BBC1 pictures were in black and white but if you could afford a colour set BBC2 offered a colour version.

ITV were also in Caernarvon that day with renowned broadcaster Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, who'd joined HTV a couple of years before. Wynford, a former BBC commentator and war correspondent, had covered royal events since 1937 when he provided the Welsh commentary of the Coronation of King George VI. Also heard that day were Brian Connell and Richard Burton. Burton was to return to royal duties 12 years later for BBC radio's coverage of the marriage of Charles and Diana.    

With thanks to David Mann.

Monday, 3 June 2019

The Voices of D-Day


Operation Overlord had been months in the planning. A vast allied onslaught of men, machinery and armaments onto the beaches of Normandy that eventually got the go-ahead on D-Day Tuesday 6 June 1944. The official announcement on BBC radio came at 9.30 a.m. with the reading of Communiqué Number 1.

"This is London. London calling in the Home, Overseas and European services of the BBC
and through United Nations Radio Mediterranean, and this is John Snagge speaking.
Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force have just issued Communiqué No. 1.
Under the command of General Eisenhower, Allied naval forces, supported by strong air forces, began landing Allied armies this morning on the northern
coast of France".

Facing something on an editorial dilemma the Corporation had already broken the news at 8 a.m. to forestall any rumours that may have started to circulate following an early morning announcement on German radio that had been recorded by the Monitoring Service in Caversham.


The logistical planning for Operation Overlord had started in early 1943 with a target set for the following May. By the end of the year SHAEF (the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) had been established and General 'Ike' Eisenhower appointed as Supreme Commander.

The BBC was playing its part too and in May 1943 established the War Reporting Unit with the team of correspondents undertaking courses of physical training, reconnaissance, weapons training, signals, aeroplane and tank recognition and map-reading. Before D-Day they were deployed so that they could cover every phase of the landings. On the day itself the first eyewitness accounts from onboard a bomber were heard after the one o'clock news.

That evening saw the first edition of War Report which pulled together first-hand reports from the War Correspondents. The voice of John Snagge was heard again: "War Report number one, the story of D-Day. Throughout the day the British Broadcasting Corporation has been telling the world that allied forces have crossed the Channel into France. With every arm of the liberating forces went a BBC correspondent and soon after the assault was launched reports began to come in."

The following day, D-Day+1 a new radio service, the Allied Expeditionary Forces Programme, was launched by Franklin Engelmann complete with its famous Orange and Lemons theme.


Over the years BBC radio has regularly commemorated the events of that day, most notably for the 50th anniversary in 1994 when there was a whole bunch of extra programmes.  

Some notables programmes over the years include:

The Story of D-Day (Home Service 6 June 1948)- an account of events produced by Laurence Gilliam of the BBC Features Department and written by former war correspondents Chester Wilmott and Robert Barr. This retelling contained no actuality and accounts were read by actors. 
Five Years After (Home Service 5 June 1949) -memories from the war correspondents who reported at the time including Richard Dimbleby, Stanley Maxted and Colin Wills.
This Was D-Day (Light Programme 7 June 1953) - "A sound-picture ... compiled entirely from on-the-spot recordings made by War Correspondents and men of the Allied Forces"
D-Day Anniversary Programme (Light Programme, 6 June 1954) - a number of programmes throughout the day to mark the 10th anniversary
Dawn of D-Day (Home Service 14 June 1959) with Lt-General Brain Horrocks narrating
OK! Let 'Er Rip (Radio 4 4 June 1974) - taking its title from the supposed invasion order given by Eisenhower
D-Day: 6 June 1944 (Radio 4 6 June 1984) - see below
Overlord  (Radio 4 18 & 25 May 1994) - Christopher Cook tells the story of the military and diplomatic preparations
D-Day A Moment in History (Radio2 6 June 1994) - a collection of eye-witness accounts from British, allied and German ex-service personnel.
The People's D-Day (Radio 4 5 June 2004) - a two-hour sequence, presented by Libby Purves, of "short features and stories told by the people who made D-Day happen".
From Dunkirk to D-Day (Radio 4 5 June 2004) - Charles Wheeler recalls "the epic of survival and strategic success that made cross-Channel victory possible".


The finest of these commemorative programmes must be the 1984 documentary, D-Day:6 June 1944,  compiled and written by Alan Haydock and Dan Kelleher. It relies almost entirely on the voices of the men and women that were involved in the planning, logistics and invasion of the Normandy beaches, all recorded especially for the programme. They tell their story in a matter of fact way, and is all the more powerful for it.  There's minimal narration, in this case from actor Frank Windsor (of Z Cars fame) and only a little archive material with reports from Frank Gillard, Richard Dimbleby, Chester Wilmot and Colin Wills.



From that same day, 6 June 1984, comes this clip from Radio 4's Six O'Clock News marking the 40th anniversary of D-Day. Newsreader Eugene Fraser introduces reminisces from John Snagge and reports by Philip Short, Geoffrey Wareham, Clive Small, Martin Sixsmith and David Smeeton.  




Saturday, 25 May 2019

If you have been, thanks for listening


Long-time listeners of BBC Radio 4 who have been enjoying Greg James's new series Rewinder may have an unerring sense of deja-vu. Yes, for a programme that makes a virtue of dipping into the Beeb's sound archives it's a recycled idea. For the best part of twenty years Radio 4 offered listeners a regular Monday morning archive programme. And the voice most associated with that slot was John Ebdon.

Ebdon came to radio in 1962 after his voice was heard by BBC producer Denys Gueroult at the London Planetarium where Ebdon was providing commentaries (he later became the director). He has asked to make occasional broadcasts for the programme, A World of Sound (Home Service then Radio 4 1960-69) which featured recordings from the Sound Archive linked together by Ebdon, adopting a style which would later be described as "whimsical musings with which he threaded carefully excavated conversational snippets."  Essentially adopting a storytelling role, a similar series developed specifically for Ebdon, Nonsense at Noon (Home Service 1966-67), followed and he also gave talks on Woman's Hour and Home this Afternoon.

Some of the A World of Sound programmes filled the post Today gap at quarter to nine on Monday mornings when Yesterday in Parliament wasn't on and they usually consisted of sound archive material with presenters like Robert Stannage, Ann Meo, Alan Keith and Harold Abrahams with Memories of the Month), as well as John Ebdon. When Radio 4 came along that 15-minute slot was variously filled by short, usually humorous talks as well as more mining of archive from a clutch of presenters that included Ebdon (see below), eventually adopting the long-running Radio Times billing of "John Ebdon, in which continues his investigation of the BBC Sound Archives but once again comes to no serious conclusion".  His opening greeting "How do you do?" and sign-off "If you have been, thanks for listening" became catchphrases.    

From 1968 until the end of 1986 John's rummage amongst the archive clips aired every 3 or 4 weeks. Though only 15 minutes long they were carefully crafted and involved hours of research and writing that John totally immersed himself in.    

In Hello Again! Simon Elmes recalls how John worked: "Slim, feline and svelte, John would pace into the office and, in exactly the same almost reproachful and tentative manner he adopted on air, greet us with a cheery 'hello'. He would then head off for days of incarceration in his favourite eyrie in the Archive, mining for fragments of old recordings which he could lift in order to 'illustrate' his lightly witty narratives"

John's real life Siamese cat Perseus (surely the inspiration for Ed Reardon's Elgar?) was an unseen and unheard presence in many of the broadcasts and was often used to voice some of his more contentious opinions. When Perseus passed onto kitty heaven it made the Radio 4 news and a newspaper obit.

Ebdon, born in 1923, had since boyhood had a passion for Greece and its history and culture. As one of his producers of the Monday archive programme, Angela Hind recalls he was "So educated; so brilliant, so bonkers.  He was obsessed with Greece - he'd lived there for years and loved the place.  He reminded me of Byron in that respect.... anything Greek he absolutely adored.  He was the only man I knew (back then it was most unusual) - to wear a kaftan when he was relaxing at home"

The programmes, produced by the Archive Features department under Head Producer Helen Fry (the department was also responsible for Pick of the Week,  Bookshelf, Enquire Within and The Year in Question) required only a light touch from whichever producer was assigned to the quarter to nine Monday series. Angela Hinds told me "I never had to do anything much at all.  He chose the subject, researched the archive, chose the bits he wanted and wrote the script - which he then ran past me with timings all neatly written in the margin.  I was quite amazed that I had any role at all, especially as a producer! I learnt a lot from him really too - as the scripts were punctuated with quotations, observations about life and extraordinary facts.  Which by the way - I never checked.  I just assumed he knew what he was talking about".

"The programme that John presented, was really just a platform for him to indulge his passion (finding the archive); and to be totally in charge of something in his golden years.   A really lovely chap - and producing the programme really wasn't producing at all.  Just had to be a sounding board for someone who seemed to know what they were doing". 

His obituary in The Times picked out one of Ebdon’s best archive programmes was "an example of his more serious social comments" and was based on Budget speeches. "He listened to every budget speech between 1931 and 1968. Whether the Chancellor was Chamberlain, Cripps or Jenkins, in Ebdon’s view the speeches were meaningless, saying the same things in clichés. He cut and reassembled fragments from them which told you all you need to know about political speeches".

John stepped down from regular broadcasting in 1986 and a special John  Ebdon's
Silver Archive
aired in December 
John stepped down from the archive programmes in 1986 though he continued writing and also working for the Planetarium for another 3 years. He suffered for many years from cancer of the spine and died in 2005.

I don't have an exact date for this recording but it's probably early 1986. Here John pokes some gentle fun at the medium itself and moves into Jonathan Hewat bloopers territory with some broadcasting slips of the tongue and corpsing.



Other broadcasters heard on the Monday morning archive slot on BBC Radio 4 from 1967 until it ended in 1989 included Wilfrid Thomas, David Franklin, Norman Turner, Steve Race, Christopher Matthew, Rene Cutforth, James Cameron, Ray Gosling, Miles Kingston. Glyn Worsnip, Ian Skidmore, Phil Smith and Andy Kershaw. As well as Angela Hind producers included Helen Fry, Brian Cook, Anne Howells, Andrew Parfitt (later Controller of Radio 1), Fran Acheson and Kate Fenton.

With thanks to Angela Hind and Tessa Kulik

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Not the A to Z of Radio Comedy: I is for Injury Time


BBC radio has (or certainly had) a long association with the Cambridge Footlights, with the student drama club providing a rich source of on-air comedic talent and radio producers.

The cast of Injury Time were all Footlights alumni with three of them being past presidents: Jimmy Mulville in 1977, Martin Bergman in 1978 and Robert Bathurst in 1979.  The other two participants were Emma Thompson and Rory McGrath.

The sketch show Injury Time was one of the those Radio 4 shows that used to be dropped into the schedule to fill the summer recess when Week Ending was taking a holiday. Some lucky ones enjoyed more than one series - Injury Time was one such and ran over three years (1980-82). 

To add to the show's comedic pedigree, and overseeing proceedings, was producer Geoffrey Perkins (Oxford University) and contributing to the scripts were Guy Jenkin, Jon Canter, Douglas Adams, Clive Anderson and Stephen Fry (all Cambridge University, with Canter being Footlights President in 1974 and Anderson in 1975). For the second (1981) and third series (1982) Martin Bergman was replaced by another Footlights graduate Griff Rhys Jones, who'd already served time as a producer on Week Ending and the scholastic quiz Top of the Form.       

From 1 August 1980 comes my off-air recording of the first ever edition of Injury Time.  At the time this series seemed to offer something fresh but listening back it does play safe, certainly safer than The Burkiss Way which it name checks in the closing credits - even if there is a Burkiss-style jokey continuity announcement  at the end. It's nearest influence was probably Not the Nine O'Clock News and its perhaps no coincidence that Griff appeared in both.   

Listen out for an impression of the now persona non-grata Clement Freud "one of the few Liberal MPs not to be accused of... (Buzz) Deviation" and a short sketch using the Play School theme voiced by Emma Thompson whose Dad was, of course, on the pre-school programme in the 60s. The Musicians Union sketch references the industrial action taken as a result of BBC cutbacks to its in-house orchestras (and the dropping of Waggoners' Walk). The gymkhana sketch has Emma in Joyce Grenfell mode and to prove we're on Radio 4 there's a longer piece that relies on the audience's knowledge of Kafka.

Mulville and McGrath went on to write and star in the Channel 4 sketch show Who Dares Wins and to found, with Denise O'Donoghue, the influential Hat Trick Productions company. Mulville continued to work mainly behind the scenes while McGrath tended to spend a lot of time on panel games. Bergman married US comedian Rita Rudner and has worked in Hollywood. Bathhurst appeared in the underrated Joking Apart and has spent years playing David Marsden in Cold Feet. As for Emma Thompson, she was never heard of again!  


This is the first in an occasional series of posts, i.e. when I can be bothered and/or find the time in which I'll dart around the alphabet in no particular order and delve into my archive of old comedy shows. I'll be picking those shows that rarely, if ever, get a repeat on Radio 4 Extra.    

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Radio Lives - Kenneth Horne


For the nearly three decades Kenneth Horne was one of Britain's best known entertainers. His warm personable style endeared him to radio and television audiences alike. His versatility and manner meant that producers were happy to employ him as a compere, panellist, quizmaster or merely to help sell products in one of the popular admags.  And to top it all he gave his name to two of the best remembered, and oft-repeated, radio comedy shows: Beyond our Ken and Round the Horne.

Show business wasn't in Kenneth's blood but his father was the renowned orator, the Reverend Charles Silvester Horne, so at least, sitting watching and listening in the pews, he learnt how to handle an audience.

At school, and later at Magdalene College, young Kenneth was a sporting all-rounder playing cricket, rugby, tennis (Bunny Austin was a friend) as well as track and field athletics events. Musically, he had a penchant for the odd Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.  He threw himself into his sporting activities rather more than his academic studies and after missing a vital exam he was sent down from Cambridge in December 1927. When a promised job at the family firm - his uncle was Austin Pilkington of Pilkington Glass fame - failed to materialise he was recommended to a Colonel Clare, a director at the Triplex Safety Glass Company in King's Norton, Birmingham. Kenneth started on the shop floor but in time would start to ascend the management ladder, eventually becoming the Midland's sales director.  

It's odd now to think of Kenneth Horne the famous entertainer leading something of a double life and throwing himself into the world of safety glass, travelling the country on sales visits - his generous expenses effectively supplementing his meagre BBC earnings.

Even at Triplex he managed to get a taste for entertaining an audience. At motor shows he would demonstrate the effectiveness of the product by throwing a succession of objects a sheet of the safety glass. He also got the chance to speak over the microphone at the company's annual fete. He turned out to be a natural with "a clear, warm, friendly voice". 

In early 1939 he enlisted in the RAF Volunteer Reserve and as an Acting Pilot Officer was attached to a Barrage Balloon Unit at Sutton Coldfield. That posting to look after the 'Silver Monsters'  turned out to be quite fortuitous in thrusting Kenneth onto the public stage. When war was declared he soon found himself moving both up the ranks, rising to Squadron Leader, and around the Midlands. In 1940, as a morale booster, the BBC launched a variety programme called Ack-Ack-Beer-Beer, the phonetic alphabet description for the Anti-Aircraft and Barrage Balloon Commands. Looking around the regions for local talent to take part Kenneth was tasked with pulling together a show for producer Bill McLurg. Kenneth was to introduce the acts and thus found himself in a BBC studio for the first time making his initial broadcast on 16 April 1942. The verdict on the show was not that great but Kenneth had stood out, he was a natural broadcaster and from the off sounded warm, friendly and confident. He was invited back and in time became one of the regular hosts for the rest of the run when production shifted from the regions to London, with Horne himself moving to the capital when he was transferred to the Air Ministry on Kingsway.



Through a neat set of circumstances Kenneth found himself sharing an office with Richard Murdoch - 'Stinker' Murdoch of pre-war Band Waggon fame - in a section concerned with shipping Spitfires to Russia, though they  were not exactly overworked as few Spitfires were actually sent to Russia. So to pass the time they set about developing and writing the comedy set on a fictitious airbase, Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh. Now probably best remembered for its closing song - which enjoyed a long after-life, even cropping up on Frost on Sunday in 1970 -  it was unusual for the time as Horne and Murdoch both wrote and starred in Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh. Horne was cast against his real character as the slow on-the-uptake Senior Officer whilst Murdoch was the quick-thinking CO. Singer Sam Costa was drafted in as the put-upon aircraftman.

Initially the comedy made only intermittent appearances, first making it onto the air as a segment of ENSA Half-Hour and then as part of Merry-Go-Round. It really only go into its stride in 1947 by which time ex-ITMA voice man Maurice Denham joined the cast. Much-Binding continued until 1954 by which time there had also been a (not entirely successful) series on Radio Luxembourg and the setting had shifted from an RAF base to a local newspaper office.

Meanwhile Kenneth was popping up on loads of other shows such as host of Monday Night at Eight and, from 1949, starting an association with a programme that was to last almost twenty years. He first appeared as the chairman of Twenty Questions in December 1949 and subsequently acted as panellist or chairman until his final appearance in December 1968. Parallel to all this radio work he'd returned to Triplex as General Sales Manager for his day job with a punishing schedule of meetings and country-wide travel. Comedy writing and performing duties were confined to evenings and weekends. He maintained that, if asked to choose. he would have given up radio first.

I was fascinated to read that around this time Kenneth started to have some behind the scenes help with his writing from a rather unusual source. In early 1952 he received a letter from a Miss Mollie Bernard enclosing some suggested verses for the Much-Binding song. They were so good that they were used in the next programme. A week later the mystery writer turned up at the Paris Studio to watch a recording and introduce herself to Kenneth. He was astounded to learn that she was a seventeen-year old schoolgirl from Kent by the name of Mollie Sharp. Despite her youth and inexperience  both Kenneth and Richard found she had a flair for comedy writing and she continued to contribute sketches, lyrics and one-liners for Kenneth over many years including contributions for Beyond Our Ken and even writing whole articles for periodicals that appeared under Kenneth's name. She took a break from writing when she married a Salvation Army officer and began to raise her family but was back at the typewriter for the last seven years of Kenneth's career. Mollie never wanted any credit and any payments she received came out of Kenneth's fee. It was a remarkable yet hidden writing partnership.

There were business ructions for Kenneth in the mid-50s when he was appointed as the Managing Director of the British Industries Fair Limited but was given the ultimatum of staying with Triplex or joining BIF full-time, so after 27 years with the company he tendered his resignation, losing his company pension in the process. Unfortunately BIF folded after a year or so  but he was almost immediately offered the Chairman and MD role at Chad Valley, the toy manufacturers.  Meanwhile his radio, and now television appearances continued  unabated. A search on BBC Genome shows that virtually a week doesn't go by with Kenneth being on. TV performances include Find the Link and Camera One and on the radio there was Twenty Questions and Variety Playhouse.     

Although Kenneth remained loyal to the BBC for many years he was keen to take on more TV work and by the end of the 50s was regularly taking the train up to the Tyne-Tees studios in Newcastle to record one of those admags, this one titled Trader Horne, that were so popular at the time. He also appeared on Anglia TV's quiz game I Packed My Bag, the comedy offering Ken's Column and later on Westward's game show Treasure Hunt, co-hosting the woman's magazine Home and Around for Tyne-Tees, Southern TV's Happy Families and its successor Celebrity Challenge and for ABC (later Thames) Strictly for Laughs and  Horne A'Plenty.



Meanwhile back on the wireless the idea for a new comedy vehicle for Kenneth, originally titled Don't Look Now, came about during his stint as compere on Variety Playhouse when Eric Merriman and Barry Took were taken on to provide the funny lines. In the summer of 1957 Merriman set out his ideas to producer Jacques Brown: "The formula is based on a week in the life of Kennth Horne, broken into three actual spots, one to vary and the other two constant. In support we will be able to remain fairly flexible, going for either character actors with a wide range of voices or revue artistes. Meanwhile there will be two spots to break the sketches". He went on to gives ideas for suggested spots including the weekly documentary feature Hornerama. What transpired was Beyond Our Ken and the structure and cast remained fairly constant for the next decade or so throughout the life of the show and Round the Horne that followed. Joining Kenneth were Kenneth Williams, Hugh Paddick, Betty Marsden and Ron Moody (for the first series only). Bill Pertwee was drafted in as the utility man from the second series. 

The start of Beyond Our Ken - the first recording was 18 June 1958 - was nearly in jeopardy as just four months earlier Kenneth had suffered a stroke whilst on a business trip. His recovery was remarkably swift, though he now had a limp, and he was back at work on Twenty Questions just a couple of months later. However, his doctor was adamant, either give up business or give up radio. As we know radio won the day but he still maintained a fairly relentless pace of broadcasting work.

Merriman and Took created some memorable characters for the show that, thanks to many repeats over the years, remain fresh today. Williams as Arthur "the answer lies in the soil" Fallowfield, Paddick as Stanley Birkinshaw with the ill-fitting dentures and Cecil Snaith the accident-prone BBC reporter, Marsden as Fanny Haddock, Rodney and Charles, Pertwee as Hanky Flowerd and extra lines for staff announcer Douglas Smith.

Beyond Our Ken ran for seven series and 100+ programmes but after a couple of series Barry Took dropped out of the  writing duties after some disagreements with his co-writer. Eric Merriman who continued to write alone for the next five series, a remarkable output. Understandably Eric felt that  Kenneth's star status and the show's characters were very much of his making so the fall-out with the BBC in 1964 was unfortunate. Barry Took was called back along with his now writing partner Marty Feldman to come up with scripts for a new show for Kenneth. Initially reluctant to take it on they developed some ideas for a series they originally wanted to call It's Ken Again.



Round the Horne burst onto the radio in March 1965. It had many similar elements to Beyond Our Ken, not least the exact same cast, but was faster-paced, the situations were even more ridiculous and, embracing the permissive sixties, it was a bit ruder with no double entendre off limits. Took and Feldman revelled in funny names: Rambling Syd Rumpo, J. Peasemold Gruntfuttock, Chou En Ginsberg M.A. (Failed), Colonel Horrocks-Brown, Dame Celia Molestrangler, Daphne Whitethigh and so on. But by far the most popular characters were Julian and Sandy (names inspired by Julian Slade and Sandy Wilson) and their polari repartee with Horne.


Hugh: Oh hello. I'm Julian and this is my friend Sandy. I've got me articles and he's took silk.
Ken W: Frequently. Well, Mr Horne. How nice to vada your dolly old eek again. What brings you trolling in here?
Kenneth: Can you help me? I've erred.
Ken W: Well we've all erred ducky. I'm mean it's common knowledge, en it Jule?
Kenneth: Will you take my case?
Hugh: Well it depends on what it is. We've got a criminal practice that takes up most of our time.
Kenneth: Yes, but apart from that, I need legal advice.
Ken W: Ooh, isn't he bold?

During the 1960s Kenneth wasn't just going down to the Paris Studios in Lower Regent Street for recordings of Round the Horne. He also took on a plethora of both tv and radio appearances, many of which were outside London. As well as the commercial televisions shows (above), for BBC tv there was the travelling quiz show Top Firm, the panel game First Impressions and Call My Bluff.  For BBC radio as well as Twenty Questions he joined John Ellison as one of the question masters on Top of the Form, stints on Housewives' Choice and later Radio 2's World Quiz '68.

"I'm only doing what I enjoy" he would protest even though he acknowledged that he was piling on the work commitments to the detriment of his health. There was also a lavish lifestyle to fund though, as his daughter Susan commented, "he was not very good at managing his finances... the money came in and went straight out again." Perhaps inevitably he was stopped in his tracks by another major health scare when in late 1966 he suffered a heart attack. Concerned that this might scare off future employment he played it down. His doctors note merely stated that he was "unfit for work" and when a newspaper leaked news of his illness it was reported as pleurisy. It was enough to delay what was to be the fourth and final series of Round the Horne which aired from February to June 1968.


After the final Round the Horne he appeared in a couple of series of Horne A'Plenty, an unsuccessful attempt to bring the anarchy of the radio show to television but without the same cast to support him. Graham Stark took on the Kenneth Williams role providing the character parts but ultimately, despite scripts provided Took, Feldman, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and others Kenneth was uncomfortable reading the autocue and by the second series was very ill.  Kenneth believed that ploughing on was the best remedy but he also followed the advice of a faith healer and stopped taking his prescription medication, with fatal consequences.

On Friday 14 February 1969 Kenneth was booked to announce the winners at the awards ceremony of the Guild of Television Producers and Directors (now parts of the BAFTAs) at the Dorchester Hotel. The event was to be televised and shown later that evening on BBC1 with Michael Aspel as the host. Kenneth had the pleasure to announce the award of Best Comedy Script to his old chums Barry Took and Marty Feldman for the series Marty and was about to move onto the Best Scientific Award when he swayed and stumbled forward onto the dance floor. He'd suffered another heart attack. In a somewhat macabre black comedy moment one of the doctors on hand at the event was Charles Hill, the then Chairman of the BBC Governors and the wartime Radio Doctor. When the programme went out later that evening with the incident edited out Aspel baldly announced "Mr Horne was taken ill at this point and has since died". 

To sum up here's Barry Took: "No one who was involved in Round the Horne has ever been funnier - as funny possibly but never funnier - nor has their timing ever been smoother, or their delivery crisper. Kenneth Horne the super salesman, the benign managing director, the engaging companion, always got the best from anyone he worked with. Like all great leaders he commanded instant loyalty. If you asked the thousands of people who worked with Kenneth Horne, both in business and entertainment, what was so remarkable about the man, I'm sure they would talk of a special relationship that they enjoyed with him."

Such is the continuing affection for Kenneth Horne and the cast of Round the Horne that the show was voted the 3rd greatest radio show of all time in a recent (if controversial) Radio Times industry poll, and the top  comedy show.      

In 2017 Tony Barnfield talked to Horne's biographer Barry Johnston on his Cambridge 105 show Roundabout. Here's that conversation liberally scattered with archive audio gems.


Kenneth Horne 1907-1969

This blog post was sponsored by Dobbiroids, the Magic Horse Rejuvenator.

With thanks to Barry Johnston and Tony Barnfield

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...