When Tim Astley’s grand-father gave him a cassette of a 1960s radio comedy series called Round The Horne, it set in motion a life-long love affair with the show that has resulted in a hugely successful live staging that arrives in Edinburgh next week. Using original scripts by Barry Took and Marty Feldman, Astley’s production for his Apollo Theatre Company recreates the original live radio format to revisit an iconic programme that helped set a template for sketch comedy that continues today.
“I was twelve when I was given the cassette of Round The Horne,’ says Astley. “My grand-father said he thought it might be something I’d quite like, and it opened me up to this whole new world which has stayed with me since then. Of course, at that age, I certainly didn’t understand all the jokes. It was only much later I realised how clever they are in terms of what they got away with.”
Running for four series’ between 1965 and 1968, Round The Horne’s ensemble cast was led by Kenneth Horne, and featured Kenneth Williams, Hugh Paddick, Betty Marsden and Bill Pertwee, along with announcer Douglas Smith. Together, the team brought to life a series of regular characters who landed in the show each week in assorted situations. These included dubious sounding folk singer Rambling Syd Rumpo, played by Williams, ‘walking slum’ J. Peasmold Gruntfuttock (Williams again) and TV chef and fashion reporter Daphne Whitethigh, a pastiche of Fanny Craddock, played by Marsden.
Arguably most memorable of all were Julian and Sandy, the flamboyant duo of out of work actors played by Williams and Paddick, whose innuendo-laden exchanges were peppered with polari, the slang used since the nineteenth century to protect gay sub-culture. While polari dates back as far as Shakespeare referencing it in Henry IV, Part Two, given that homosexuality was still illegal during the years Round The Horne was originally aired, to introduce polari unto an estimated fifteen million homes each week was an act of quiet subversion.
This wasn’t the only thing from Round The Horne to ruffle establishment feathers, with the inclusion of Queen Victoria in a sketch based around the centenary of the crumpet angering Conservative MP Cyril Black enough for him to complain to the BBC.
“You listen to what they get away with, and you sometimes wonder how they got it past the censor,” says Astley, “although not everyone will have understood polari, and with Rambling Syd Rumpo, none of the language he used was actually saying anything rude, but it sounded absolutely filthy.”
Round The Horne didn’t come from nowhere. Horne had been the compere of 1957 radio show, Variety Playhouse, which was scripted by Took with his then writing partner, Eric Merriman. Once that show came to an end, Merriman and Took prepared a pilot for a new show, Beyond Our Ken, which, as well as being led by Horne, also featured Williams, Paddick and Marsden, plus Ron Moody.
Following a delay in recording after Horne suffered a stroke, Beyond Our Ken ran over seven series, with Took departing after the first two, by which time Moody had been replaced by Pertwee. With Horne wanting to keep the team together, Took returned with Feldman to create the pacier and more satire-led Round The Horne. They stayed for three series’, before the writing was taken over by Johnnie Mortimer and Brian Cooke.
Apollo’s Round The Horne began its life in 2015 as a nod to celebrating the programme’s fiftieth anniversary. Astley’s production ran in London for eight weeks, and gave rise to follow-up shows staged in a similar way based on The Goons and Hancock’s Half Hour. Returning to Round The Horne for what is now is fourth UK tour, Astley and Co have tapped into the same appeal for the show that saw it named in a Radio Times poll as the third best radio show of any genre, and the best radio comedy series of all.
“I think round The Horne had a huge influence on future generations of comedy writers and performers,” Astley says. “The most obvious is the effect it had on the portrayal of gay people. Its two most popular characters, Julian and Sandy, were two openly gay characters, played by gay actors, beloved by the British public at a time when homosexuality was still a crime. Julian and Sandy undoubtedly helped to soften attitudes and pave the way for other gay and camp comedians and characters like Larry Grayson, Dick Emery and John Inman's Mr Humphries in Are You Being Served.
“Aside from this, the show has a whole undoubtedly had a huge influence on sketch comedy and really popularised the format that has become standard, that of having a group of regular characters who, each week, are in different situations, many of whom with catchphrases and running jokes.”
All sixty-seven episodes of Round The Horne have been released on CD in much the same way as the cassette that first introduced Astley to the show was, and the original broadcasts are regularly repeated on BBC Radio 4 Extra. While these remain a joy, the stage show is a different experience for aficionados and novices alike.
“With something as special and as beautifully crafted as Round The Horne, we need to keep it alive in some way,” says Astley. “By doing our show, we’re breathing life into the original scripts in a new way, and long may it continue.”
Round The Horne, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Monday, 7.30pm.
The Herald, March 14th 2020