In 1957 the radio presenter and comedian Kenneth Horne was the compere on the popular Saturday evening comedy and music radio show Variety Playhouse. The programme's writers were Eric Merriman and Barry Took, and when the series came to an end, they prepared a script for a pilot episode of a new show, Beyond Our Ken. The show, in which Horne was joined by Kenneth Williams, Ron Moody, Hugh Paddick and Betty Marsden, was broadcast in October 1957. The series was due to begin in April 1958, but in February Horne suffered a debilitating stroke; he was temporarily paralysed down his left-hand side and lost the power of speech. The BBC postponed the series. After physiotherapy Horne was able to begin recording Beyond Our Ken in June, in preparation for the broadcast of the first series between July and November.
Beyond Our Ken was written around the imperturbable establishment figure of Horne, while the other performers played a "spectrum of characters never before heard on the radio", including the exaggeratedly upper class Rodney and Charles (Williams and Paddick), the genteel, dotty pensioners Ambrose and Felicity (Williams and Marsden), the hoarse-voiced cook Fanny Haddock – a parody of the television cook Fanny Cradock (Marsden), the earthy gardening guru Arthur Fallowfield (Williams), the semi-articulate rock and roll singer Ricky Livid (Paddick) and Hankie Flowered, a parody of the comedian Frankie Howerd (Bill Pertwee). The first episode was not well received by a sample audience, but the BBC decided to back Horne and his team, and the initial six-week contract was extended to 21 weeks. Before the series came to an end, a second had been commissioned to run the following year.[n 1] After the first series Moody was succeeded by Pertwee; Took left after the second series, leaving Merriman to write the remaining programmes on his own.
After the seventh series of Beyond Our Ken ended Horne was scheduled to appear in a number of other BBC programmes; Eric Merriman objected, contending that he had made Horne into a star, and that "no other comedy series should be allowed to use him", according to Horne's biographer, Barry Johnston. When the BBC refused to withdraw Horne from the programme Down with Women, Merriman resigned from writing Beyond Our Ken and the show came to an end. After some pressure from Horne to keep the remainder of the team together, the BBC commissioned Round the Horne as a replacement on similar lines. They turned to Took, as one of the original writers of Beyond Our Ken, and his new writing partner, Marty Feldman. The name of the programme came from a pun on Horne's name, combined with the naval term "round the Horn", meaning to navigate the waters at the southern tip of South America, Cape Horn. The pair aimed to write what they described as "down-market material in an upmarket way". The scripts they produced led to a faster-paced programme than Beyond Our Ken, which included more allusions to contemporary events, including politics and films.
Round the Horne was based on a revue format, and contained parody and satire. The programme would include an introduction from Horne, who would sometimes give answers to a supposed quiz from the previous week, and then lead into sketches that would include a set-piece based on a film or novel, such as "The Man with the Golden Thunderball", and "The Three Musketeers". Martin Dibbs, in his history of the BBC Variety Department, writes that "the show was characterised by incessant innuendo and camp representation to an extent never before tolerated within the BBC."
As in Beyond Our Ken, there was a cast of recurring characters. Took and Feldman developed new characters for Williams, Paddick, Marsden and Pertwee, whose ability to change between personas produced a programme described by the radio historians Andy Foster and Steve Furst as "a cast of thousands played by the same four accomplished actors". Horne's role was described in The Daily Telegraph as providing "the perfect foil to the inspired lunacy happening all around him". The media analysts Frank Krutnik and Steve Neale consider that as such, Horne's role was similar to that of Jack Benny, Fred Allen and Tommy Handley, "as a 'stooge' rather than a joke-wielder, frequently switching roles between announcer and in-sketch performer".
1965–1966: Series 1 and 2
The first episode of Round the Horne was broadcast on the Light Programme on 7 March 1965. It was described in Radio Times as "Five characters in search of the authors". The series consisted of 16 episodes and ran to 20 June 1965. The programme was produced by John Simmonds and included music from the Fraser Hayes Four and the studio orchestra, "the Hornblowers", conducted by Paul Fenoulhet; from episode six, Fenoulhet was replaced by Edwin Braden. Douglas Smith, an announcer and newsreader on the Home Service and the Third Programme, was used as the programme's announcer, but was given a larger role as the series progressed; he ended up advertising spoof products and giving human sound effects in addition to his normal role.
One of the early episodes included a sketch by Horne, a monologue based on "the centenary of the birth of the crumpet", including a huge crumpet built for Queen Victoria.
As an added novelty he hollowed out the centre and a Gaiety Girl was secreted inside. When the loyal toast was drunk, she leapt out, wearing pink combs and waving a Union Jack – either that or the other way round, I don't remember. In any event the whole affair was a great success and, as many people commented afterwards 'it was a smashing bit of crumpet'.
The sketch angered the strongly-conservative Member of Parliament Sir Cyril Black, who wrote to the BBC to complain. Frank Gillard, the BBC's director of radio, wrote to Dennis Morris, the chief of the Light Programme, asking Round the Horne to "watch its step, particularly over the next few weeks and keep itself within reasonable bounds". Instead, Took and Feldman wrote a riposte that Horne read at the end of the following programme, addressed to the "minority of killjoys" who complained:
Let me say to them that our scripts are whiter than white, as is the face of the producer when he reads them. You see, evil is in the eye of the beholder – and we believe you can make anything sound as if it has a double meaning – if you know how. So cheerio, see you next week.
Further complaints about the programme were received and Sir Hugh Greene, the director-general of the BBC, asked to see the scripts before broadcasting. All were returned with the words "I see nothing to object to in this" written on them.[n 2] The complaints continued from Black, and from Mary Whitehouse – a campaigner against social liberalism – about the cast putting emphasis on certain words. Took replied that "When Laurence Olivier plays Hamlet he puts emphasis on certain words – it's called acting".
A second series was commissioned, and ran for thirteen weeks, from Sunday 13 March to 5 June 1966. The programme was recorded in front of a studio audience, and Williams would play up to them with physical humour, causing hilarity in the studio. Simmonds spoke to the cast, telling them that the radio audience were hearing unexplained laughter, and to try to keep the visual pranks to a minimum. At the end of the series Roy Rich, the head of BBC Light Entertainments for radio, spoke to Took, Feldman, Horne and Williams and discussed possible changes to the programme, including the removal of the Fraser Hayes Four, and the possible changing of Pertwee and Marsden. No changes were made before the next series was commissioned.
On 7 October 1966, at the age of 59, Horne suffered a severe heart attack.[n 3] He was much weakened, and was unfit to work for three months. As a result, he did not appear in the Round the Horne Christmas special, which was recorded on 28 November. He returned to work in January 1967 to record the third series.
1967–1968: Series 3 and 4
The third series ran for 21 episodes from 5 February to 25 June 1967. After recording the first episode, Williams wrote in his diary that "the script was singularly uninspired I think – no innovations or bright ideas for the beginning of a new series ... For the first time I am beginning to feel that this show is rather dated and tired". The BBC hierarchy also thought the first show was slightly lacking and Williams was also downbeat after the second recording, writing that "I think the show is quite dead artistically and the format has completely atrophied itself – it is moribund now. I think I will withdraw after this series. Trying to turn the show around, Took and Feldman wrote out the popular camp Julian and Sandy characters (played by Paddick and Williams) from the third episode, but the cast and Simmonds all insisted they were put back, so the writers duly obliged. After a few weeks the show had settled down and Williams recorded in his diary that the recording "went v. well. Script was v. good indeed and the audience splendid – a great deal of affection there, one felt".
Feldman became increasingly successful on television, particularly with At Last the 1948 Show (1967); he decided to concentrate on writing and performing on the screen and left the series. Took agreed to stay, and he was joined by Johnnie Mortimer, Brian Cooke and – for the first six episodes of the next series – Donald Webster. In September 1967 BBC radio was radically reorganised. The Home Service, Third Programme and Light Programme were abolished and replaced by four new national channels – Radio 1, 2, 3 and 4; Round the Horne moved from the Light Programme to Radio 2. The change came with reduced budgets. The Fraser Hayes Four and Eddie Braden and the Hornblowers were replaced with a small instrumental group led by Max Harris, and Pertwee was dropped from the programme. The cost fell from £601 a show in series 3 to £486 in series 4. That year's Christmas special was broadcast with the new line-up and writers.
The fourth series began on 25 February 1968 and ran for 16 episodes to 9 June. After the first episode Williams was unimpressed with the new material, and wrote in his diary "Now there are 4 writers on it! It is unbelievable really. Four! For half an hour of old crap with not a memorable line anywhere ... of course one goes on and flogs it gutless and the rubbish gets by". Without Feldman, Took was enjoying the show less than he had previously. He also felt the humour was becoming more obviously dirty and complained to Williams that "We might as well write a series called Get Your Cock Out".
Horne died of a heart attack on 14 February 1969, while hosting the annual Guild of Television Producers' and Directors' Awards at the Dorchester hotel in London. An award had gone to Took and Feldman for their television series Marty, and Horne had just urged viewers to tune into the fifth series of Round the Horne – which was due to start on 16 March – when he fell from the podium. By 24 February 1969 it had been decided that Round the Horne could not continue without its star. As a result, the scripts for series five – which Horne had jokingly suggested should be subtitled "The First All-Nude Radio Show" – were hastily adapted into a new series for Williams called Stop Messing About, which ran for two series before it was dropped from the schedule in 1970.