Archive for the ‘radio’ Tag

Round The Horne – Bona omis and palones

Kenneth Horne was an unassuming and dedicated businessman but also one of the biggest stars of radio.

Kenneth Horne - Round The Horne

Kenneth Horne – Round The Horne

Kenneth Horne,
Round The Horne,
Pye NPL 18291,
1969

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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.

Peter Sellers – Swingin’ when you’re winning

Peter Sellers excelled in films, radio and TV over a long and glorious career. He also released some brilliant virtuoso comedy records.

Peter Sellers - Songs For Swingin’ Sellers

Peter Sellers – Songs For Swingin’ Sellers

Peter Sellers,
Songs For Swingin’ Sellers,
Parlophone PMC 1111,
1959

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Peter Sellers like many other comedians before and since was an insecure and neurotic man. Whether or not his many achievements and talents brought him any great or lasting happiness it is hard to know. I suspect not. What he did leave behind after his death in 1980 aged just 54, was an amazing comic legacy that is unrivalled in its range and its accomplishments. Three Oscar nominations, numerous BAFTA wins and some iconic performances on TV, radio and film only manage to give a small idea of the scale of Peter Sellers’ magnificent abilities. He also left behind a family divided and bitter by his behaviour, and a will that still divides and frustrates them to this day. Such sordid details are best left to The Daily Mail though I feel.

Peter Sellers was born in the Southsea area of Portsmouth in 1925. His parents Peg and Bill were both vaudeville entertainers, who toured the country playing in musical revues. Peg sang and Bill was a musician specialising in the piano and the ukulele, an instrument which Peter would also later master. Peter Sellers made his first debut onstage at the age of just two weeks, paraded to the appreciative audience of The King’s Theatre in Southsea where his father was appearing. By the age of three he was already performing in his own right, regaling audiences with his take on the Albert Chevalier number My Old Dutch.

After the family moved to London, Sellers attended St Aloysius College in Hornsey. It was a Catholic school, and seems an odd choice for a young boy whose parents were Jewish on his mother’s side and Protestant on his father’s. In fact there are probably at least a couple of dozen sitcoms just waiting to be written about that peculiar arrangement. After being bombed out of their house in the London Blitz, the Sellers family moved to Ilfracombe in Devon where Sellers’ uncle managed the Victoria Palace Theatre. Here Peter would develop his stage craft and pursue with some cacophonic gusto a musical career on the drums.

In 1943 Sellers joined the RAF. With his eyesight not sufficient enough to allow him to fly aircraft, a career needed to be found for the shy young serviceman. The profession on his official papers was listed as ‘entertainer’ and so with true military efficiency he was very quickly shipped off to India to  tour with the legendary Ralph Reader’s RAF Gang Show. With a mixture of comedy, impressions and frantic drumming, Peter Sellers kept the troops entertained successfully until he was demobbed in 1946. Back in civilian life, he carried on with comedy and wisely left the drumming to others. A stint in the infamous Windmill Theatre and a spell supporting Gracie Fields at the London Palladium gradually built up his profile back in England.

These appearances led to Sellers being booked onto a number of BBC radio shows, notably the popular Ted Ray series Ray’s a Laugh. As documented in many places over many years, this then led to him throwing his lot in with three slightly mad ex-servicemen friends from a pub he used to frequent to form The Goons, possibly the single most influential modern comedy troupe there is.

On air, Sellers was the powerhouse behind the Goons. Milligan provided the scripts certainly, and Secombe provided enthusiasm and raspberries, but so many characters were brought to life by the vocal talents of Sellers that it is hard to imagine the show existing without him. Sellers seems to have only been comfortable inhabiting another character, playing a scripted role that allowed him to conquer his shyness and hide his true feelings. He would go on to create many definitive roles over the next thirty years, showing a diversity and range that few actors, comic or otherwise, have ever matched. The rest, as they say in every good cliché ridden career résumé, is history.

Songs For Swingin’ Sellers was Peter Sellers’ second album, released in 1959 a year after his debut The Best Of Sellers. Like its predecessor, and despite its title, Songs For Swingin’ Sellers does not actually contain many songs. It does though start with a very well delivered song, namely the velvety smooth You Keep Me Swingin’, credited on the album to a ‘Mr Fred Flange’. Flange was in fact Matt Monro, who with his career languishing in a fairly deep slump by the late 50s recorded the track for Sellers to imitate and practice singing to. So impressed was Sellers with the resultant effort though, the track stayed on the album as it was. The producer of the album, that jolly old knob twiddler man George Martin again, saw to it that Matt was signed immediately to his Parlophone label where he would go on to enjoy a much lauded career resurgence in the 60s.

Other songs do occasionally poke their tiny little heads up and muscle in on the action between the lengthier sketches. Sellers’ old music hall number My Old Dutch is given an outing, with Peter singing as a decrepit old codger in a style that is ridiculously overwrought and maudlin. The song’s denouement of an actual Dutch wife emerging from the kitchen to berate the singer is a wonderfully daft payoff that never fails to amuse me. I Haven’t Told Her, She Hasn’t Told Me (But We Know It Just The Same) sees Sellers revisit another old vaudeville favourite, this time with his trusty ukulele and without so much as a trace of a silly voice or daft punch line in evidence.

The sketches performed on the album are typical Sellers. Just as in many of his films, if there is limelight, then Peter Sellers needs to hog it. The only other artiste even so much as allowed to raise a whisper on the record is Irene Handl, famous for playing cuddly grandmas throughout much of her career and quite the most barmy comedienne of her generation. These two titans of British comedy are brought together most successfully for Shadows on the Grass,  a warm and comforting comic sketch written by Handl, which sees her batty old widower seduced by by Sellers adopting a French accent straight out of the comedy foreigners Christmas selection pack. Irene Handl, here playing an elderly temptress from Dalston (aka ‘the Frinton of E8’), has the best of the repartee and delivers some wonderful malapropisms. Given Sellers’ many later neuroses and megalomania, it’s a refreshing example of generosity on his part.

Other than The Critics, where Handl also appears reviewing books that neither she nor Sellers have managed to read, every other voice (male or female) is Sellers. In The Contemporary Scene 1 for instance the female interviewee Miss Lisbon and the bluff irascible Major Ralph she is sent to interview are both played by Sellers. As is the dim-witted pop star (Cyril Rumbold aka Twit Conway) that the Major appears to keep locked up in his house. Just the names of the equine stable of pop stars are a wonderful exercise in silliness from writers Ron Goodwin and Max Schreiner. Who can fail to want to hear the hits of acts revelling in names such as Lenny Bronze, Clint Thigh and Matt Lust, or not to watch the performances of such unlikely groups as The Fleshpots or The Muckrakers?

Other than Schreiner and Goodwin, Dennis Muir and Frank Norden handle much of the remaining writing duties, with the exception of the penultimate track We’ll Let You Know, which is written by Sellers himself. Here, Sellers plays both the forgetful old duffer of an actor single-handedly destroying Shakespeare’s reputation, as well as the disdainful wearied casting director more intent on gossiping in a muted whisper to his chums than listening to the act. The fact that the actor goes by the name ‘Warrington Minge’ should alone make this album an absolutely essential purchase for any lover of innuendo and comedy. Quite what contemporary audiences made of that ludicrous moniker back in the 1950s is anyone’s guess.

So, if booking into a hotel under the name ‘Warrington Minge’ isn’t amusement enough for you, here is Peter Sellers singing George Gershwin. Take it away Mr Sellers.

Harry Secombe – Raspberries and turkey

Harry Secombe - White Christmas

Harry Secombe – White Christmas

Harry Secombe,
White Christmas,
Phillips 6382 006,
1966

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Harry Secombe was a great comedian and a prolific recording artist. Sadly for me though, nearly all of his recording output is of a non-comedic nature. I have the highest regard for Secombe’s work in The Goon Show and I am a great admirer of his many comic talents but there comes a point where I can no longer justify buying yet another Harry Secombe record from yet another charity shop. Once you have just one record of Harry interpreting popular classics with his customary gusto, or attempting intense operatic arias you really do have enough. If Harry Secombe had released a dozen records of silly noises and daft songs I would diligently track each and every one of them down, but as it is I think I shall stick with the few records I do have. For now at least.

Like many comedians of his generation, Harry Secombe’s first forays into show business came during the Second World War while he was stationed at a Royal Artillery depot in Italy. It was here that he developed a novelty shaving act, acting out in an elaborate physical pantomime the different ways in which people shaved. As bizarre and as unentertaining as that sounds, Secombe’s ebullience shone through and the act proved popular enough with the troops for him to be promoted to the position of the depot’s principal comedian.

The novelty shaving act stayed with Secombe after he left the army and was enough to earn him his first professional theatrical run at The Windmill in Soho. The Windmill was a strip club which saw many famous comics pass through its doors. Well I say strip, it was actually a lot more passive and tame than that. Under the tight regulations of the day, ladies were allowed to appear naked on stage but were not allowed to move. A stationary nipple being of course a lot less arousing and dangerous to public health than one in motion. The comic acts were charged with keeping the furtive mackintosh-wearing clientele entertained while naked girls hiding behind the curtain were shuffled around on stage into carefully posed static tableaux. This was no mean feat, for the average pervert was apparently more interested in getting to the front of the seats before the curtains went up than watching Harry Secombe have a shave. Strange times.

To keep his sanity, Harry also developed blowing raspberries at the theatre. It was a neat and easily executed rejoinder to the waves of apathy which greeted him and every other comic ever to appear on the bill at The Windmill. Harry Secombe survived his various ordeals and its hordes of indifferent voyeurs and made a name for himself on various variety tours and BBC radio broadcasts, his powerful raspberry blowing ability elevating him inexorably up the bill.

Around this time Harry, along with a lot of other aspiring comics, spent a lot of time at the Grafton Arms. The pub run by Jimmy Grafton was something of a haven for ex-forces types carving out a show business career. It was at the bar of the Grafton where the Goons formed and where they first performed the ground-breaking routines that would change the face of British comedy forever. But as I have lamented before, it is not Harry’s comic skills that I am concentrating on.

Harry Secombe’s singing career took a great leap forward during his appearances on the BBC radio show Educating Archie. As ludicrous as a motionless strip show sounds, a radio show featuring a ventriloquist act is infinitely more daft, and yet Educating Archie was a long-running and highly popular show. Ventriloquist Peter Brough wasn’t the greatest ventriloquist in the world but by appearing on the radio he really didn’t need to be.

Harry was given a song to sing in each programme and would rush from the microphone where he delivered his dialogue to the one where he delivered his songs, often leaving himself breathless. The producer decided to tackle this problem and through the programme’s musical associate, Wally Ridley, Secombe was put in touch with the singing tutor Manlio di Veroli who turned him from an amateur variety singer into the powerful booming operatic foghorn that we know and love.

The serious singing continued in tandem with Secombe’s comedy career and he went on to many triumphs in the West End and on Broadway. He found particular acclaim for his Dickensian roles in Oliver and Pickwick, where his large frame and deafening operatic roar were ideally suited to the larger than life roles.

The songs on his 1966 Christmas album White Christmas are nearly all traditional ones, arranged by comedy music regular Walter ‘Wally’ Stott, who later changed his name and gender to become Angela Morley. The oddity amongst all the ‘trad arr Stott’ tracks is the wonderful That’s What I’d Like for Christmas which featured in Harry’s pet project Pickwick.  Written by Leslie Bricusse  with music by Cyril Ornadel, it’s jolly and upbeat and fits in perfectly with Harry’s interpretations of all the other established Christmas classics.

Sadly, due to Harry’s lawyers being as mean and unseasonal as Dame Vera Lynn’s lawyers I am unable to upload a single track off of the album, so you will just have to take my word for it. I’ve put up an entirely unrelated clip of Harry singing but it’s a poor substitute. Bleeding copyright lawyers. Never mind Harry, If I Ruled The World they would be the first against the wall.

Harry Secombe was a loud, anarchic, oversized bundle of zany energy and mirth. His singing and hard work being holy on Highway may have obscured his comic talents over the years but for a while he successfully combined both strands of his career.

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