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A CurtainUp London Review
Round the Horne at the Venue
by Brian Clover
1 Ladies, leave your stocking on the knob at the end of your bed if you want a pleasant surprise on Christmas Morning.
2 Gentlemen, don't fall asleep when roasting your nuts in front of an open fire: you want them warmed, not burnt to a crisp.
3 Everyone, be sure to keep a bucket of cold water handy in case Santa gets himself stuck when coming down your chimney.
COMPETITION. Complete the following film title: "The Bride Wore…"
Suggestions below *.
Yes, you can tell from the above that it's double entendre time again as the Round The Horne team give us a Christmas Special at the Venue. For the uninitiated, Round The Horne was one of the BBC's classic post-war radio shows, though its brand of humour is not to everyone's taste. When first broadcast in March 1965 some listeners commented on its "nasty suggestiveness", "prevalent crudity" and "smut" and a senior BBC executive disdainfully referred to it as "dirt". Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the show was wildly popular and ran with great success for four years, ending only with the death of its star, Kenneth Horne, a man so square he was hip.
The show's genius was to have this straightest of straight men - in every sense of the word "straight" - cast adrift with a gallery of outrageous characters acting out surreal sketches against a ceaseless barrage of indecently suggestive language. The pace was as unrelenting as it was inventive. In his genial way Horne came to symbolise the patriarchal authority of the old order challenged by the forces of trendy hedonism soon to be dubbed "Swinging London". Although, to judge from the twinkle in his voice, the man himself was thoroughly enjoying the experience.
Ribaldry apart, the show exploited the twin British obsessions with class and show business. The unflappable Horne may introduce rustic folksinger Rambling Syd Rumpo, keep his distance from the scrofulous J Peasemold Gruntfuttock, King of Peasmoldia and stalker to the stars, or apologise for superannuated thespians Dame Celia Molestrangler and Binky Huckaback, but he will inevitably encounter Julian and his Friend Sandy. This impossibly camp duo try their hand at any trade with a potential for innuendo, and there are far more than you might think possible. As lawyers they raise a laugh by referring to the criminal practice that keeps them busy: and then you remember that, in 1965, it was a criminal practice.
But is Round The Horne worth seeing now? Is it not too British and somewhat dated, the last gasp of a repressed era of stuffy conformity soon to be blown away by a combination of the Beatles, the miniskirt, Michael Caine, long hair and the routine use of psychedelics? Well, as for social change, it's worth pointing out that only the other day the current heir to the British throne claimed to be terrified by people who want to rise above their station. But more importantly, the show's wordplay and parodic inventiveness can still reduce an audience to hysterics in the way a Marx Brothers movie can.
Brian Cooke's Christmas Special has adapted other original RTH material into a completely different show from the earlier run. It has to be said that not much of this has anything to do with Christmas, nor is all of it equally inspired. A jokey treatment of the Jack the Ripper story seems off-key for these less innocent times and allusions to early 60's icons Victor Sylvester and David Frost weren't that funny in the first place. But the energy and versatility of the cast more than make up for any weakness in the script. They bring off near perfect impressions of the original cast, although this would be a pointless technical exercise if Kenneth Williams, Hugh Paddick and Betty Marsden were not brilliant performers in their own right.
Kate Brown brings Betty's monstrous creations to life so well that her predatory chin actually seems to grow in the course of the evening and put the front row in some danger. Robin Sebastian's nose surely needs the services of a chiropractor after ninety minutes successfully mimicking Kenneth Williams' fearsome proboscis. Nigel Harrison's tribute to the underrated Hugh Paddick convincingly sibilates (I thought I'd coined that verb, but the spell checker passed it! And yes, it is in my Collins) the same unfortunate front row. Jonathan Rigby's Horne and Charles Armstrong's Announcer Smith are as admirably restrained as the show's original straight men.
Round the Horne is one of the links between the Goon Show and Monty Python, but even if you have no interest in the course of British comedy you will find much to enjoy in this tender recreation of the BBC's Paris Studio which gave birth to so much laughter.
* ‘…Out The Best Man.’ ‘… A Groove in the Mattress’ ‘…Size Twelve Shoes’
These are all, of course, wrong.
For Lizzie Loveridge's view on a previous incrarnation of the show go here.
Mendes at the Donmar
Peter Ackroyd's History of London: The Biography
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co. Click image to buy.
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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