“I’m all for censorship. If ever I see a double entendre, I whip it out.” Kenneth Horne

Round Mr HorneI’ve just finished a very readable biography of the late Kenneth Horne, one of the comedy greats of the 20th century, written by Barry Johnston (son of the late cricket commentator Brian Johnston). I’m sure, however, for many readers of this blog outside the UK or who did not grow up in the 50s and 60s, the name of Kenneth Horne will mean little if nothing at all. But he was the lynch-pin, so-to-speak, of some of the most successful comedy series on BBC radio in the 1940s, 50s and 60s until his untimely death from a massive heart attack at the age of 61 in 1969.

From: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Kenneth_Horne.jpgKenneth Horne was the youngest of seven children of inspirational preacher Sylvester Horne (later a Liberal MP) who died when Kenneth was seven. In the 1920s he enrolled for an economics degree at the London School of Economics, but not prospering there, one of his uncles – a Pilkington of the glass making company – managed to secure him a place at Cambridge University (also to study economics). But Kenneth was more interested in sport (it seems he excelled at a whole range of sports), and never finished his degree. He then went into business, joining the Triplex Safety Glass company based in Birmingham. Over the years he rose through the ranks, becoming marketing director.

I discovered a number of things about Kenneth Horne that I had never been aware of.

All the while he was a radio (and then TV) personality, he combined this career with one in the glass business (and later toys).

He appeared on a whole raft of radio and TV shows (Twenty Questions, Top of the Form, and many others), many of which I’m sure I used to listen to or watch without ever making the connection with the comedian who fronted two of the most successful shows to be broadcast on the radio: Beyond Our Ken and Round the Horne.

During the Second World War he saw ‘active’ service in the Royal Air Force (RAF) at the Air Ministry in London rising to the rank of Wing Commander. But he also combined his war duties with a serious broadcasting schedule, joining forces with comedian Richard ‘Dickie’ Murdoch in the wartime comedy hit, Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh, set in a fictional RAF station, which continued right into the 1950s.

He was married three times, first to a daughter of the Duke of Newcastle, and during his second marriage he lived in the village of Burcot, about 2 miles from where I live in north Worcestershire.

But Kenneth Horne will be best remembered for the two iconic comedies Beyond Our Ken (which ran over seven series between July 1958 and February 1964, with 123 episodes) followed by Round the Horne (broadcast over four series from March 1965 to June 1968, and 67 episodes). Both had strong writing teams, with Eric Merriman, Barry Took, Marty Feldman and others involved. Just think how many episodes were broadcast in a single series. Today we’re luck if we hear or see any more than half a dozen (or fewer) in a series.

And there was a strong supporting cast: Kenneth Williams, Hugh Paddick, Douglas Smith, Bill Pertwee, Maurice Denham, Ron Moody, Betty Marsden and Pat Lancaster among others. The format of each show, with its introduction, sketches and musical interludes hardly changed over the various series. But the writers (and performers) did push the boundaries of comedy and were increasingly accused of peddling filth on the radio, and scripts becoming more and more ‘smutty’. However, if you read the scripts there was nothing to complain about (then BBC Director General Hugh Greene was asked to intervene and ban the shows but, admitting to enjoying a little bit of ‘dirty comedy’, did nothing to curtail the broadcasts) – it was all in the delivery, and how the cast milked the scripts for every last laugh and innuendo. They were wonderful. Broadcast on a Sunday afternoon or evening, Beyond Our Ken and Round the Horne attracted listening audiences in the millions – making them possibly the most successful radio comedy shows of all time.

With the various characters on the show having strange (and often suggestive) names, such as folk singer Rambling Syd Rumpo and J. Peasemold Gruntfuttock (played by Kenneth Williams), Dame Celia Molestrangler (played by Betty Marsden) and ‘ageing juvenile’ Binkie Huckaback (played by Hugh Paddick, as well as the outrageously camp Julian and Sandy (played by Williams and Paddick) – who spoke in polari, a slang often used by gays in the theatrical profession (when homosexuality was illegal in the UK), each show was a riot of mirth and laughter. It’s clear that the cast got on famously together. What shone through in Johnston’s biography was Kenneth Horne’s humanity – he was an extremely kind and generous person. And listening to the shows 50 years after they were first broadcast is the vitality, the freshness, and the earthiness of the humor.

I’m no prude when it comes to bad language in the media, and I’m not averse to using the odd word myself for emphasis from time-to-time. What I don’t find funny, however, is gratuitous ‘effing and blinding’ that seems to be the norm today of many stand-up (so-called) comedians (such as the awful Frankie Boyle), unless of course, your name’s Billy Connolly and his bad language is just part of his Glaswegian vernacular. Beyond Our Ken and Round the Horne were in a different league. There was never a hint of bad  or explicit language.

It’s impossible to describe these shows in detail. Here, however, are some clips that you just might enjoy. I did, and whenever I hear them on BBC Radio 4 Extra, they never fail to bring a very broad grin to my face. Happy childhood memories!

 

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin (updated 4 Jan 2013).

I’ve been feeling under the weather for the past few days – not my usual self at all. So by early evening most days I haven’t felt much like watching TV. Rather I’ve headed to bed early, and listened to the radio instead. Usually it’s BBC Radio 4, but last night there wasn’t much on that interested me, so I changed stations to Classic FM.

Well, just after I started listening, one piece of music was played that took me right back to my childhood. I don’t know why, and I couldn’t think of any connection whatsoever. So what was this piece of music, I hear you cry, and why had it opened up the memory banks? It was the Humoresque in G-Flat Major, Op. 101, No. 7 by Antonin Dvořák. I’ve since gone to Wikipedia to see if the music was used as a theme to a radio or TV program, or whatever. Not that I could find, but I came across a reference to “Passengers will please refrain . . .

Anyway, I got to thinking – about other songs that I remembered from my childhood in the 50s. There were two radio programmes in particular. First was Listen With Mother, which was first broadcast on the Light Programme (essentially now BBC Radio 2) in 1950, and began with the lines “Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.” The theme music was from Gabriel Fauré’s Dolly Suite, Op. 56. The voice of Listen with Mother was Daphne Oxenford, who died on 21 December 2012.

The other was Children’s Favourites, broadcast from 1954, and hosted by Derek McCulloch (Uncle Mac) who began each program with “Hello children, everywhere!”, and using Puffin’ Billy by Edward White as its theme music.

Among the ‘iconic’ songs I remember in particular from the 50s are:

  • Buttons and bows (actually the best selling record on the day I was born – 18 November 1948) by Dinah Shore, but played often throughout the early fifties.

  • A couple of songs by Max Bygraves (who moved to Australia in 2005 and died on 1 September 2012 aged 89) – Gilly gilly ossenfeffer katzenellen bogen by the sea (1954), and You’re a pink toothbrush (1959).

  • Danny Kaye, Thumberlina (1952) from the film Hans Christian Andersen.

In a recent post I talked about the music I’d take away on my desert island. None of the music above would find its way on to any of my lists. But, just tracking these down through You Tube and other sites, has taken me on a magical tour of some very early childhood memories.

27 February
After I’d posted this story yesterday, I began thinking a little more about the music of the 50s, and whether, in some ways, this had been an ‘age of innocence’. After all, our music sources were the radio, and 78 rpm records (if we could afford them). Music today is so much more accessible – a plethora of radio and TV stations (and on the Internet) blaring out music of every genre you can imagine (and even don’t want to imagine), personal mp3 players (having replaced the cassette Walkman and CD Discman), and increasingly on smart phones. So today’s youth has access to music 24 hours a day.

Thinking back on the songs I listed in my post yesterday, and the types of programme on which they were played, it all seems so gentle and genteel somehow. But as the 50s progressed, changes were happening. Skiffle music had taken off. The rock ‘n roll craze hit the UK from the USA. I was aware of Bill Haley and His Comets and their 1956 hit Rock Around the Clock (I remember seeing a movie of that name at the Grand Cinema in Leek). I don’t remember much about Elvis Presley, however. And in the UK, we had our own Elvis: Cliff Richard, who caused much consternation among the straight-laced members of society for his ‘deplorable’ antics on stage (too much hip movement – tame compared to what today’s artists get up to). And of course, with the coming of the 60s, so much changed in any case, much of it under the influence of The Beatles, and particularly following the release of their fourth single, She Love You, in 1963.

Ask a youngster today about music and it’s all Lady Gaga,  boy bands, girl bands, Justin (fill in the surname to whichever), etc. I don’t think there is time now for an ‘age of innocence’.

P.S. There’s one song from the 50s I forgot to mention: The Runaway Train by Michael Holliday (1956) – from his accent you wouldn’t credit he came from Liverpool!

Catholic tastes in music – a challenge for a desert island castaway

A life without music is no life . . .

I need music around me almost all day long. Much of the time it’s the music I have stored on my iPod linked up to my stereo system; so am able to enjoy CD quality as I listen. But I do have some CDs that I’ve never ripped, especially my collection of classical music.

They say that looking at someone’s CD collection says a lot about them. And before you ask, yes, I do have my collection sorted alphabetically – it’s the taxonomist in me. My tastes are broad and varied: rock, pop, folk (especially Irish and Northumbrian pipe music), country, and classical. So I often wonder which eight records I would choose to take on an imaginary desert island.

Desert island? Have I completely lost the plot? Not at all. I’m referring to a BBC radio program first broadcast in 1942, and which celebrated its 70th anniversary recently (the guest was Sir David Attenborough). The format of Desert Island Discs is simple. Each week a guest is invited to choose the eight pieces of music, a book (in addition to the Complete Works of Shakespeare and the Bible), and one luxury that they would take with them as an imaginary castaway on a desert island. Discussion of this music then permits a broader appreciation of the guest’s life, career and other ideas. The current presenter is Kirsty Young, but the original presenter (who actually devised the program), Roy Plomley, was in charge until his death in 1985.

So when you think about it, the choices have to be ones that you’ll never (well, hardly ever) tire of listening to. For what it’s worth, and in no particular order, here are my eight pieces of music – but the list could change tomorrow (and through the wonders of Google and YouTube, I’ve been able to find a great link to each piece for your enjoyment):

Roberta Flack: Killing Me Softly with His Song

I’m not really a Roberta Flack fan – but this song has special memories for me, and these come flooding back whenever I hear it played (not so frequently these days). When I joined the International Potato Center (CIP) in January 1973 this song had just been released and was played all the time on radio stations in Lima. So this song takes me back to the beginning of my career in international agricultural research.

The Beatles: We Can Work It Out

Released in December 1965, as a double A side with Day Tripper. As a teenager in the 60s, I grew up with The Beatles – I was 14 when She Loves You was released and the group became an overnight sensation. I was hooked, and bought nearly all their LPs on vinyl (which were stolen during a burglary in Turrialba, Costa Rica in 1978 – but that’s another story).

When I moved to CDs (in 1991) I replaced all my Beatles albums. I could have chosen any one of many of their phenomenal output, but We Can Work It Out has always been a favorite, and the title reflects, to a certain extent, my philosophy in life. At one of the IRRI 50th anniversary events held in Manila in December 2009, a group called Area One performed a set of Beatles numbers, and played We Can Work It Out just for me! Click here to watch.

Fleetwood Mac: Don’t Stop
The first CD I ever purchased (in 1991) was Fleetwood Mac Greatest Hits, just prior to my move to the Philippines to join IRRI. I’d never really been a fan of the group, although they were familiar to me, in a distant sort of way.  Since then, I have become slightly obsessive with their music, and certainly Rumours (released in 1977, and which went on to become one of the best selling albums ever) is a classic. Don’t Stop can be taken as a song of great optimism – even though Rumours was recorded when Fleetwood Mac and their tangled personal relationships were in meltdown. Don’t Stop was adopted by the Clinton campaign for the presidency in 1992, and Fleetwood Mac re-formed specially to play at the Clinton Inauguration Ball on 20 January 1993.

The video shows the group performing at that event (not the best performance, however – watch Michael Jackson and other celebrities join FM on stage towards the end of the video). In 2006 I went to a Fleetwood Mac concert (along with 60,000 + fans) in St Paul, Minnesota. What an event – you could feel the music vibrating every organ in your body. And I’m not ashamed to say that I just couldn’t hold back the tears; what an emotional event. Pity that Christine McVee (née Perfect, and brother to entomologist John Perfect who worked at IRRI for a while in the 1980s) had decided no longer to tour with the group. A great concert, nevertheless.

Pink Floyd: Comfortably Numb (The Wall)

I’ve become an avid fan of Pink Floyd only in recent years, and really taken with the guitar mastery of Dave Gilmour. His solos in this song makes the hairs on the back of my head stand up. The version in the video link is from a Roger Waters concert of The Wall at the O2 Arena in London in 2011, with a special appearance of Dave Gilmour.  I was never really aware of the group in the 60s, and was abroad during the 70s when they really made a name for themselves. We didn’t hear much Pink Floyd on the radio in Peru or Costa Rica. However, I do remember, on one trip to Guatemala in late 1979-early 1980, switching on the TV in my hotel room and seeing a video of Another Brick in The Wall. I was fascinated by ‘the marching hammers’.

Dire Straits: Sultans of Swing
Dire Straits – what more can I say.

I have been a consistent fan since the early 1980s, and have followed Mark Knopfler ever since Dire Straits broke up. Mark is probably the greatest guitarist performing today. Sultans of Swing is a vehicle for Mark’s virtuosity, and although included on the album Dire Straits, it was the group’s first release as a single in 1978, but didn’t become a hit until the following year when it was re-released. Even today, Mark cannot play a concert without a rendition of Sultans of Swing. I was fortunate to go to one of his concerts at the LG Arena in Birmingham in May 2010 (tickets were a Christmas present from my daughters), and the live performance was stupendous.

Chopin: Mazurka No. 23 in D Major, Op. 33, No. 2 (but I’d like all the mazurkas, waltzes, and polonaises).

I’ve always appreciated the music of Fryderyk Chopin. So I felt privileged during a visit to Poland in 1989 (I gave a series of lectures on crop evolution and genetic resources at a couple of research institutes) to visit Chopin’s birthplace. Some of his music was being played in the house that is now a museum. And as I strolled around the garden, I could hear this particular mazurka. Although it’s a favorite, it’s also a proxy for all his other wonderful music. The version played here is by Turkish concert pianist, Idil Biret.

Gluck: Che farò senza Euridice (and the whole opera, of course)
I’ve known this particular aria from Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice since I was a small boy. But the version I knew then was by the famous English contralto, Kathleen Ferrier, who died of cancer in 1953. But her version was sung in English as What is Life (this recording is from 1946). In the 1990s I used to travel quite often from the Philippines to Europe (especially Rome) in my capacity as Head of the CGIAR Inter-Center Working on Genetic Resources, and mostly flew with Lufthansa then. Lufthansa had (and I assume they still do) a terrific classical music audio stream, and on one journey I came across the version of Che farò senza Euridice listed here. In many productions the part of Orfeo is sung by a contralto (there’s a video of Dame Janet Baker on YouTube), but in fact it was originally written for a counter tenor. In this recording, counter tenor Derek Lee Ragin gives a stunning performance of the aria – you will be amazed that you are listening to a male singer.

JS BachThe Brandenburg Concertos (all six – I’m cheating)
I don’t think any music selection would be complete without a piece by Johan Sebastian Bach. And so I have chosen The Brandenburg Concertos – I find it hard to choose just one of the six. The complexity – and timeless quality – of Bach’s music is a continued inspiration. The video shows the Concerto No. 1, Allegro Moderato.

So, these are my eight choices. I could have included more from Eric Clapton, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, The Traveling Wilburys, R.E.M., ELO, Crowded House, South American music, The Chieftains, Alison Krauss, and of course a host of baroque composers such as Vivaldi, Boccherini, Haydn, Mozart, and later composers such as Beethoven, Schubert, etc. If I were to make the list in 12 months time, maybe there would be some changes.

And the extras . . .
So what would be my one luxury item and book? Well, I think I’d choose a pair of binoculars – that way I could spend some time birdwatching (assuming my desert island is suitably forested), and to scan the horizon for passing ships to rescue me. And the book? Well, since I reckon I’d have a lot of time on my hands to play word games, I think a copy of Roget’s Thesaurus would be very useful. Incidentally, the Bible would have to be the King James 1611 – I’m not a religious person, but the English text of this version is wonderful and has given so many phrases to modern English usage (and it just celebrated its 400th anniversary).

PS. I’m also an ABBA fan!