Kenneth Horne was an unassuming and dedicated businessman but also one of the biggest stars of radio.
Round The Horne,
Pye NPL 18291,
To reach the top in show business can often be a battle. Many ruthless determined people succeed and many of those who falter are cast by the wayside. Occasionally though, decent, modest and humble people can prosper without ever resorting to heartless scheming behaviour. One such person was Kenneth Horne. There were few performers as laid back and as casual about fame as him and his life of modesty, generosity and temperance should serve as an exemplary tale for any aspiring performer.
Kenneth Horne was born in 1907, the youngest son of the Reverend Charles Silvester Horne who like his father before him was a Congregationalist clergymen. Kenneth’s father led a very active life caring for his busy and impoverished parish in London’s inner city before leaving to become the Liberal MP for Ipswich. He died very young at the age of just 49 whilst on a lecture tour of Canada, leaving behind his wife and seven children.
At first, Kenneth Horne did not look like he would be anything other than a solid pillar of the community as his father and grandfather had been before him. After prep school his uncle Austin Pilkington, of the famous glass-making family, saw to it that Kenneth was offered a place at Magdalene College, Cambridge. His work soon suffered though as Horne became more interested in cricket, squash, golf rugby and athletics, rather than his academic studies. During this time he also became firm friends with tennis player and future Wimbledon finalist Bunny Austin, often playing doubles with him. While his sporting prowess was never in doubt, in 1927 after attending barely any lectures Kenneth Horne was sent down from Magdalene and forced out into the world of work.
The generous glass-making uncle Austin helped once again and recommended Kenneth to a friend of his who was a director in the Triplex Safety Glass Company and in 1927 that is where he started his career. There Kenneth Horne may well have remained for the rest of his life were it not for the Second World War dragging him away to serve his country. Kenneth volunteered for the RAF Volunteer reserve. Perhaps expecting a life of thrills and spills in the skies over Europe, Kenneth was instead posted to the RAF’s 911 Squadron, to experience life in a barrage balloon base in the glamourous fields of Sutton Coldfield.
In 1939, to combat the seemingly endless boredom, Kenneth helped stage a concert party at the base. That concert was watched by the BBC producer Bill McClurg who immediately engaged Kenneth and his troop to take part in a radio broadcast for BBC Birmingham, entitled ‘Ack-Ack Beer-Beer’ (service slang for Anti-Aircraft Balloon Barrage). Few who listened to that obscure broadcast could have had an inkling that broadcasting history was being made. In 1943, Horne was promoted to the rank of Wing Commander and posted to the Air Ministry in London. During his spare time he continued with his broadcasts, this time for the Overseas Recorded Broadcasting Service (ORBS) which produced shows for troops in the Middle East.
As luck would have it, the Lieutenant that Horne shared his ministry office with was Richard Murdoch, an established radio comedian who had formed a popular double act with Arthur Askey in the BBC show Band Waggon. With the vivid and fertile imagination of Horne and Murdoch their ORBS shows soon became much talked about, principally for their creation of the fictional airbase Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh. The comic conceit of an RAF station beset by red tape and complicated bureaucracy, resonated with troops everywhere and the show was soon taken up by the BBC where it was to become a firm favourite running from 1944 to 1954, via a brief stint on Radio Luxembourg.
Despite all his successes as a popular broadcaster of note, throughout all of his many successes and triumphs in front of the microphone, Kenneth Horne was content to continue with his career as a director of Triplex until 1956 when he left to join the toy company Chad Valley. Forced to retire from his boardroom positions in 1958 after suffering a stroke, Kenneth Horne concentrated full time on broadcasting, creating in the process classic radio shows that remain popular to this day.
His first project was Beyond Our Ken, scripted by Eric Merriman with the assistance of Barry Took for the first two series. Beyond Our Ken ran until 1964 when Eric Merriman made the decision to concentrate on television work. The BBC, understandably reluctant to lose one of its top shows, brought back Barry Took along with Marty Feldman and after a name change, Round The Horne was born.
More anarchic, revolutionary and subversive than its predecessor, Round The Horne built on the solid foundations of Beyond Our Ken, using the same cast and format but adding ever more grotesque and outrageous comedy into the mix. With the comic abilities and vocal talents of Kenneth Williams, Hugh Paddick, Betty Marsden, Bill Pertwee and announcer Douglas Smith, it might be expected that Kenneth Horne, the staid and diligent business executive might fade into the background. Horne though became the ringmaster of the crazy circus that revolved around his sober and subdued presence. It took a lot to control the manic impish mischief of Kenneth Williams but Horne certainly managed it. Only a master of deadpan could ever have appeared on equal terms with Williams and Paddick once they slipped so elegantly into the roles of Julian and Sandy.
Sadly Kenneth Horne was to die at the very height of his fame in 1969, when this record was released as a tribute to the genius of the man and his motley band of outlandish clowns. Made from clips taken from the third series first broadcast in 1967, all the vital ingredients of Round The Horne’s success are on display. Douglas Smith demonstrates his wonderfully intoned BBC announcer skills, Bill Pertwee’s Seamus Android interjects half-finished non-sequiturs still somehow infused with innuendo. Betty Marsden dispenses fashion tips as the velvet-tongued mellifluous columnist Daphne Whitethigh, as well as gushing breathlessly as Fiona, the love and inept theatrical muse of the equally deluded Charles played deftly by Hugh Paddick in that classic period piece Where No Hippos Fly.
Kenneth Williams makes an appearance as rustic folk singer Rambling Syd Rumpo, debuting his adaptation of Green Grows My Bogling Fork, as well as dominating the show with Hugh Paddick as the outrageous and ludicrously camp entrepreneurs Julian and Sandy. J Peasemold Gruntfuttock disgusts as only he can, the Oriental adventure mystery The Maltese Brass Monkey excites and delights, and Sidney Goosecreature battles with that fearless outlaw The Palone Ranger. In short, all the usual Round The Horne lunacy reigns; chaos, anarchy and innuendo are the order of the day, and there in the midst of all the chaos is Kenneth Horne, controlling and dominating all proceedings, anchored resolutely at the still point of the turning world.
Kenneth Horne was not indifferent to fame but he was that rare thing in showbiz, a genuinely talented man who was genuinely modest. His work in radio might have begun as little more than a casual side-line but it would become his main focus. Through his effortless skills he brought joy to millions and became a true master of the medium.