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

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