I just got back from Brighton, England, the popular seaside resort that is pretty much the gayest town in all of Britain. So, to speak in the cheek-lodged tongue of Polari, I was bound to have a “fantabulosa” time. And how “fantabulosa” was it for an old “omi-palone” like me to have Round the Horne playing just round the corner at Brighton’s Theatre Royal. Considering that Round the Horne is a British radio series whose last original episode aired back in 1968, I could hardly believe my “ogles” when I read that it was on while I was visiting. I was thrilled to get my “lills” on a pair of tickets to “aunt nell” some of the wittiest comedy act never seen by millions.
Round the Horne: Unseen and Uncut is an ingeniously—if deceptively—simple production. It merely presents two of the sixty-six 45-minute broadcasts from this much-loved and well-remembered BBC program (1965-68), separated by an intermission that only the most humorless of stick-in-the-muds would take as an opportunity to make a hasty retreat. The scripts are taken directly from the original series. You would not want to tinker with lines composed by Barry Took (Laugh In) and his writing partner Marty Feldman. You certainly would not have to.
The second act (or half, rather) builds on the first, allowing viewers to pick up the rhythm of the show, pick up on the slight but clever variations, and pick their favorite among the recurring characters, a line-up including Fiona and Charles, an aging pair of actors who reprise their preposterously Cowardesque silver screen dialogues (“I know you know I know”) in that posh and most unnatural anti-vernacular of BBC English; folk singer Rambling Syd Rumpo with yet another rendition of his Jabberwockian tunes; and, of course, Julian and his friend Sandy in all their Polari-riddled glory that was enjoyed by millions but understood and shared by only a few whose nature made them appreciate the subversiveness and desperation of such artifice. After all, homosexuality was still illegal at the time.
Of course, the production is not at all simple. The performers are called upon to impersonate well-known radio (and television) personalities, including Kenneth Horne (played by Jonathan Rigby), Kenneth Williams (Robin Sebastian), and Betty Marsden (Sally Grace). Standing behind a row of microphones, without any other props of scenery to speak of, the six cast members (not including the singers and orchestra members) have to sound the part and deliver their borrowed lines with an enthusiasm that is thoroughly rehearsed without sounding disingenuous. Along with the harmonizing quartet known as Not the Fraser Hayes Four, the seen voices of this stage show are fully deserving of a hearty cheer of “fantabulosa!”
However convincingly the experience of attending a live radio broadcast (or a recording session thereof) in a studio is being recreated, though, one aspect of such productions has been overlooked or obscured. Hidden from view were the indispensable sound effects artists whose presence would have completed the picture. I would have settled for an extra pressing a number of buttons while seated among the musicians who were in full view at all times. Instead, the recorded yet well-timed effects (from footsteps to horses hoofs) came from a loudspeaker, its makers or purveyors unseen and, a mention in the playbill aside, unacknowledged.
The production might also have benefited from a few glances behind the scene, with actors walking on, preparing for their roles or having a chat before each broadcast. No dirt, just an element of realism. Since Took’s widow serves as “script consultant” for this touring show, some insightful biographical notes might have been worked into this simulation. Kenneth Williams’s life, in particular, is worth exploring in a stage drama. According to the playbill, the “action takes place” at the “BBC Paris Recording Studios in Lower Regent Street, London”; but what there is of action hardly speaks as loudly as the words. This is “theater of the mind”; and once it is taken out of the wooden O of your cranium, you begin to wonder whether what you see is really what you get as you make an effort to wipe your “oglefakes.”
That said, I was glad for this chance to catch up with Round the Horne—and at such an opportune moment to boot. It so happens that, this Friday, 28 November, BBC Radio 7 is rebroadcasting the 7 March 1965 debut of the program, with subsequent episodes to follow sequentially in the weeks and months to come. My “aunt nells” are ready for it . . .