Charles Kenneth Horne, generally known as Kenneth Horne, (27 February 1907 – 14 February 1969) was an English comedian and businessman. He is perhaps best remembered for his work on three BBC Radio series: Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh (1944–54), Beyond Our Ken (1958–64) and Round the Horne (1965–68).
The son of a clergyman who was also a politician, Horne had a burgeoning business career with Triplex Safety Glass, which was interrupted by service with the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. While serving in a barrage balloon unit he was asked to broadcast as a quizmaster on the BBC radio show Ack-Ack, Beer-Beer. The experience brought him into contact with the more established entertainer Richard Murdoch, and the two wrote and starred in the comedy series Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh. After demobilisation Horne returned to his business career, and kept his broadcasting as a sideline. His career in industry flourished and he later became the chairman and managing director of toy manufacturers Chad Valley.
In 1958 Horne suffered a stroke and gave up his business dealings to focus on his entertainment work. He was the anchor figure in Beyond Our Ken, which also featured Kenneth Williams, Hugh Paddick, Betty Marsden and Bill Pertwee. When the programme came to an end in 1964, the same cast recorded four series of the comedy Round the Horne.
Before the planned fifth series of Round the Horne began recording, Horne died of a heart attack while hosting the annual Guild of Television Producers' and Directors' Awards; Round the Horne could not continue without him and was withdrawn. Since his death the series has been regularly re-broadcast. A 2002 BBC radio survey to find listeners' favourite British comedian placed Horne third, behind Tony Hancock and Spike Milligan.
Kenneth Horne was born Charles Kenneth Horne on 27 February 1907 at Ampthill Square, London. He was the seventh and youngest child of Silvester Horne and his wife, Katherine Maria neé Cozens-Hardy. Katherine's father was Herbert Cozens-Hardy, the Liberal MP for North Norfolk who became the Master of the Rolls in 1907 and Baron Cozens-Hardy on 1 July 1914. Silvester, a powerful orator, was a leading light in the Congregationalist movement, as minister at the Whitefield's Tabernacle, Tottenham Court Road from 1903 and, from 1910, chairman of the Congregational Union of England and Wales. Between 1910–14 he was the Liberal MP for Ipswich.
By 1913 Silvester was suffering from continual poor health. He resigned his position at the tabernacle on medical advice in January 1914, and intended to resign his parliamentary seat. On a speaking tour of the US and Canada he lectured at Yale University, and then took the ferry to Toronto; as it entered the harbour, he collapsed and died, aged 49; Horne was aged seven at the time. From September that year Horne attended St George's School, Harpenden as a boarder—the seventh of the Horne children to attend the school.[a] Although he was not strong academically, he developed into a good sportsman, representing the school in rugby and cricket, and during the summer holidays took part in the Public Schoolboys Lawn Tennis Championship at Queen's Club; in his final appearance in 1925 he was knocked out by the future Wimbledon finalist Bunny Austin.
Horne enrolled at the London School of Economics in October 1925, where his tutors included Hugh Dalton and Stephen Leacock; he was dissatisfied with his time at the university and called Leacock "one of the most boring lecturers I ever came across". During the general strike in 1926 volunteers were asked to enlist at the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies to take over the essential services; Horne joined and spent two days driving a London bus before the strike was called off. Through the influence and generosity of an uncle, Austin Pilkington of the Pilkington glassmaking family of St Helens, he was able to enrol at Magdalene College, Cambridge in October 1926. He committed himself to the sporting side of life and represented the college at rugby, and in the relay team alongside the future Olympic gold medallist Lord Burghley. He also played tennis for the university, partnering Bunny Austin. Distracted by his athletic exploits, he neglected his studies and was sent down in December 1927.
Austin Pilkington was aggrieved at Horne's failure to make the most of the opportunity he had provided, and decided against offering the young man a post in the family firm. Despite the disappointment, through his contacts within the industry, he secured for the young Horne an interview with the Triplex Safety Glass Company at King's Norton, a district of Birmingham. Horne's sporting record commended him to the manager of the Triplex factory, and he was taken on as a management trainee on a modest salary. In September 1930, despite his unimpressive finances, he married Lady Mary Pelham-Clinton-Hope, daughter of the 8th Duke of Newcastle. The marriage was happy at first, but had broken down by 1932. Mary applied for an annulment in November 1932; she declared the reason was "the incapacity of the respondent [Charles Kenneth Horne] to consummate the marriage", which was dissolved in 1933, although the two remained on friendly terms thereafter.
When Horne's first marriage was dissolved, he was sought out by a former girlfriend, Joan Burgess, daughter of a neighbour at King's Norton. Unlike his first wife, she had much in common with him, including a liking for squash, tennis, golf and dancing. A month before her 21st birthday they were married, in September 1936. Joan became pregnant soon after the wedding, and in July 1937 a stillborn baby boy was delivered.
In 1938 Horne enlisted in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve on a part-time training scheme. He was commissioned as an acting pilot officer in No. 911 (County of Warwick) Squadron, a barrage balloon unit in Sutton Coldfield, and was called up into the RAF full-time on the outbreak of war. In the initial months of the conflict—the Phoney War—Horne's duties were undemanding, and he formed a concert party from his friends and colleagues. In November 1940 he was promoted to flight lieutenant, and to squadron leader a year later. In early 1942 the BBC producer Bill McLurg asked whether the RAF station at which Horne was based could put on an edition of his programme Ack-Ack, Beer-Beer.[b] Horne was ordered to put on the show, and he made his broadcasting debut on 16 April 1942, as the compere. Although the standard of the talent on the show was not high, McLurg was impressed with Horne's presentation, especially the way he hosted the programme's quiz; he invited Horne to be the programme's regular quizmaster, a role the latter fulfilled on over fifty Ack-Ack, Beer-Beer quizzes over the next two years. In January 1943 he became one of the show's regular comperes and presented the entire show for the first time.
In March 1943 Horne was posted to the Air Ministry in London with the rank of wing commander. Continuing to broadcast on Ack-Ack, Beer-Beer, he also began to write sketches for the programme, and make broadcasts on other shows, including the Overseas Recorded Broadcasting Service (ORBS), to be transmitted to British forces in the Middle East. His work with ORBS brought him into contact with Flight Lieutenant Richard Murdoch, who he jokingly introduced in one broadcast as "the station commander of Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh"; with a great deal in common in their backgrounds and a similar sense of humour, the pair quickly formed a friendship. Horne informed Murdoch of a squadron leader vacancy in his section at the Ministry, and Murdoch became his colleague. Murdoch, a professional actor and entertainer for 12 years before the war, recognised Horne's talent as a performer, and used his contacts to secure him more broadcasting work.[c]
Ack-Ack, Beer-Beer came to an end in February 1944 when the BBC decided to direct their programming at the general armed forces, rather than the barrage balloon crews. A month later Horne and Murdoch had expanded the idea of the remote and fictitious Royal Air Force station, Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh. The pair took the idea to the BBC producer Leslie Bridgemont who was responsible for the show Merry-go-Round, which featured, in weekly rotation, shows based on the Army, Navy and RAF. Bridgemont included a Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh section in Merry-go-Round on 31 March 1944; Horne played "an officer so dim that even the other officers noticed", with Murdoch as his harassed second-in-command and Sam Costa as an "amiable chump who always got things wrong".[d]
During 1944 Horne met and fell in love with Marjorie Thomas, a war widow with a young daughter. He was divorced in early 1945, and he and Thomas were married in November that year, three months after he had been demobilised.
On his return to civilian life, Horne resumed working at Triplex, and was promoted to the position of sales director. Despite his subsequent joint career in broadcasting and business, his commercial activities always took precedence. He declared that his work on radio was only a hobby, and that he would give it up before his business career. He combined his two roles by working full-time, and writing scripts with Murdoch at weekends.
Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh had gained sufficient popularity over its run of 20 Merry-go-Round episodes to be given its own 39-week series beginning in January 1947. With the coming of peace, the supposed RAF station became a civil airport, and the show continued much as before, written by and starring Horne and Murdoch, with Sam Costa. Maurice Denham—described by Murdoch as a vocal chameleon—joined the cast and played over 60 roles. The programme became popular, with audiences of 20 million, and ran for four series until September 1950.
In March 1948 Horne appeared with Murdoch in six episodes of the BBC Television comedy series Kaleidoscope. In June that year he and Murdoch again appeared on television in a one-off sitcom, At Home, which they wrote. The following year Horne began his connection with Twenty Questions, an association that lasted, on-and-off, for 20 years. By the fourth series of Much-Binding in 1950, the listener figures had declined to a level that concerned the BBC and they decided against a fifth series. Rather than wait to see what other offers of work would come in from the Corporation, Horne and Murdoch signed the comedy to a 35-programme series on Radio Luxembourg between October 1950 and June 1951. The programme was poorly received on the commercial channel: Murdoch observed that "it wasn't really a great success—even my mother said it was rotten, and she was my greatest fan". After one series, the show returned to the BBC in 1951–52, although renamed as Over to You.[e] Murdoch and Horne again appeared together, in April 1952, on Desert Island Discs.[f]
In 1954, after nine years in his senior position at Triplex, and 27 years at the company, Horne accepted the position of managing director of the British Industries Fair, a government-backed organisation promoting British goods worldwide; he took up his position in July 1955. Much of the work involved liaising with foreign buyers and delegations, and he accompanied the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh on visits to the annual fair. In 1956 the government withdrew its funding and the BIF closed. Horne received several attractive job offers, and chose the post of chairman and managing director of the toy manufacturers Chad Valley, where he was a success. In September that year he and Murdoch appeared in a one-off television programme Show for the Telly.
In January 1957 Horne appeared as the compere on the popular Saturday evening comedy and music radio show Variety Playhouse, initially for a run of four months, but soon extended until the end of June. He also began to write a weekly column for the women's magazine She, and to appear in an increasing number of other programmes.[g] After his work on Variety Playhouse had finished, he and the programme's writers, Eric Merriman and Barry Took, 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 pilot episode of Beyond Our Ken was well received by the BBC, and they commissioned a series to start in April 1958 but on 27 February that year—his 51st birthday—Horne suffered a debilitating stroke and was totally paralysed down his left-hand side and lost the power of speech. He underwent a course of intensive physiotherapy and was able to return home after two weeks. His voice returned when, during heavy massage on his left thigh, a sharp pain led to him shouting "You bugger!" at the physiotherapist. His doctor told him that the stroke was caused by the stress of combining a full-time business post with his broadcasting work. He also told Horne that when he had recovered he would never be fit enough to continue as before. Horne considered that it was not the physical problem of combining his two careers, but the mental strain of problems in his business life; accordingly he decided to give up commerce and concentrate on a career in entertainment. Because of the stroke, plans for Beyond Our Ken were suspended.
In April 1958 Horne eased himself back into broadcasting as chairman of Twenty Questions. This evidence of his recovery was sufficient for the BBC 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, the genteel pensioners Ambrose and Felicity, the cook Fanny Haddock—a parody of popular TV cook Fanny Cradock—and the gardener Arthur Fallowfield. 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.[h] After the first series Moody was succeeded by Bill Pertwee; Took left after the second series, leaving Merriman to write the remaining programmes on his own.
The second series of Beyond Our Ken followed in 1959; a third in 1960. Horne also continued his work in television, hosting his own series, Trader Horne, and appearing on a number of other programmes.[i] In April 1961 he made his second appearance on Desert Island Discs, this time unaccompanied by Murdoch.[j] In October that year—three weeks after the fifth series of Beyond Our Ken began recording—Horne appeared as the anchorman on a new BBC television series, Let's Imagine, a discussion programme which ran for 20 editions over 18 months. He was the subject of This Is Your Life in February 1962, hosted by Eamonn Andrews, in which guests included friends and colleagues from his connections in business and entertainment. In June 1963 he began Ken's Column, a series of 15-minute one-man programmes for Anglia Television.
The seventh series of Beyond Our Ken finished in February 1964, with an average audience of ten million listeners per programme. In September that year Horne returned from holiday and was scheduled to appear in a number of programmes; Eric Merriman objected to Horne's activities, saying that Horne had been made into a star by the writer, and that "no other comedy series should be allowed to use him". When the BBC refused to withdraw Horne from the second 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 a replacement series, Round the Horne, on similar lines. They turned to one of the original writers of Beyond Our Ken, Barry Took and his new writing partner, Marty Feldman. Horne remained the genial and unflappable focal figure, and the writers invented several new and eccentric characters to revolve round him. They included J. Peasemold Gruntfuttock, the walking slum; the Noël Coward parodies Charles and Fiona; the incompetent villain Dr. Chou En Ginsberg; the folk singer Rambling Syd Rumpo and the "outrageously camp" Julian and Sandy. The resulting programme was described by radio historians Andy Foster and Steve Furst as "one of the seminal comedies to come out of the BBC", while The Spectator described it as "one of the great radio successes". The first series of Round the Horne, consisting of 16 episodes, ran from March to June 1965. Horne's role was to provide "the perfect foil to the inspired lunacy happening all around him":
|Horne||My name is Lord Tantamount Horseposture. Whilst on a world cruise with my young, incredibly beautiful daughter, Wisteria, played incredibly by Betty Marsden, and her fiancé, the Reverend Isambard Mousepractice—played by tiny, agile Hugh Paddick—we were shipwrecked. Only timely intervention by my butler, exquisitely portrayed by Bolivian Sex Goddess Kenneth Williams, saved us from disaster ... And see there—dominating the island, the sacred volcano of Gonga—played by Douglas Smith with a hole in his head and steam coming out of his ears.|
|Paddick||What an awesome sight—snow mantling his mighty summit and lava oozing down his sides.|
|Smith||That's porridge, actually. I had a hurried breakfast this morning.|
|Horne||Shut up, Smith, you're a volcano. You just loom over us and rumble ominously.|
|Smith||Yes, I told you. I had a hurried breakfast.|
|Horne||Shut up, Smith.|
On 7 October 1966, at the age of 59, Horne suffered a major heart attack.[k] 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. He returned to work in January 1967 to record the third series.
Round the Horne ran to four series, broadcast in successive years, and finished in June 1968. Three weeks after the fourth series finished, the first episode of Horne A'Plenty was broadcast on ITV. In a sketch show format, and with Barry Took as script editor (and later producer), this was an attempt to translate the spirit of Round the Horne to television, although with different actors supporting Horne: Graham Stark, for example, substituted for Kenneth Williams and Sheila Steafel for Betty Marsden. The first six-part series ran from 22 June to 27 July 1968, the second (by which time ABC had become Thames Television) from 27 November to 1 January 1969.
Because of his heart condition, Horne had been prescribed an anticoagulant, but had stopped taking it on the advice of a faith healer. 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. Presenting the awards was Earl Mountbatten of Burma; an award had gone to Barry Took and Marty Feldman for their TV 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. The televised recording of the event omitted the incident, with announcer Michael Aspel explaining, "Mr Horne was taken ill at this point and has since died." A memorial service was held at St Martin-in-the-Fields in March that year.
After his death, Horne was eulogised in The Times as "a master of the scandalous double-meaning delivered with shining innocence", while The Sunday Mirror called him "one of the few personalities who bridged the generation gap" and "perhaps the last of the truly great radio comics." In the December 1970 issue of The Listener, Barry Took recalled Round the Horne and said of its star:
"He was an unselfish performer, but it was still always his show. You just knew it. A Martian would have known it. His warmth tempered the sharpness of the writing ... To say that everyone loved him sounds like every obituary ever written – nonetheless it's true ... Horne was one of the few great men I have met, and his generosity of spirit and gesture have, in my experience, never been surpassed. I mourn him still."
On hearing the news Kenneth Williams wrote in his diary that "I loved that man. His unselfish nature, his kindness, tolerance and gentleness were an example to everyone". In The Sunday Times in February 1969, Paul Jennings wrote of him: "If I ever knew a gentleman, it was Kenneth Horne. ... He gave you his whole attention, his whole courtesy. And what a courtesy it was! ... I knew him in the context of panel games, to which his marvellous unforced humour, spontaneous but beautifully timed, always added sparkle."
Horne's friend, Barry Took, considered that "Horne's rich, fruity voice and warm patrician manner made him the ideal link man and that, coupled with a mischievous sense of humour, ensured that any programme in which he was involved was the better for his presence". Horne attributed his voice and delivery "to 'the Grace of God', his grandfather Lord Cozens-Hardy, the former Master of the Rolls, and the hard training of being 'a jovial chap among the golf and motoring fraternity'."
The obituarist for The Times highlighted Horne's "remarkably skilful but very personal comic technique" of playing "a friendly good-natured old buffer who was simply doing his best, apparently lost in wonder, at the glossier, more spectacular talents of those among whom he found himself". The media analysts Frank Krutnik and Steve Neale see a similar role and consider that "Horne functioned, like [Jack] Benny, [Fred] Allen and [Tommy] Handley before him, as a 'stooge' rather than a joke-wielder, frequently switching roles between announcer and in-sketch performer".
In Round the Horne, as well as acting as link man, Horne also played other character roles in the film and melodrama spoofs, but always sounded exactly like Kenneth Horne. Referring to his ability with voices, he commented that "between them Betty, Ken W., Hugh and Bill Pertwee can provide at least 100 voices, and if you take me into account the figure leaps to 101." Williams reported that Horne had a card index mind, "in which there seemed to be stored every funny voice, every dialect, every comedy trick, which he knew that each member of the cast was capable of", and would suggest a change in approach if a line did not work during rehearsals.
Graham Ball, writing in the Sunday Express observed that Horne "didn't tell jokes in the usual manner, didn't have a catchphrase and never resorted to blue comedy". Ball also identified that Horne's "stage character, that of a slightly bufferish English gent, was adored by middle- and working-class audiences alike. His humour was original, almost underplayed, but the effortless delivery and uncanny timing concealed an almost anarchic sense of mischief."
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 Kenneth Williams called Stop Messing About, which ran for two series but was widely judged a failure and discontinued in 1970. On the first day of recording the new show, Williams wrote in his diary that "I miss [Horne] dreadfully. I could weep for all that goodness gone from our atmosphere at the show".
A successful stage show called Round the Horne ... Revisited opened in London in October 2003, compiled by Series Four co-writer Brian Cooke from original scripts and featuring Jonathan Rigby as Horne. The West End production ran until April 2005 and generated a BBC Four television film and an appearance at the 2004 Royal Variety Performance, with Rigby playing Horne again on both occasions. Subsequently there were three national tours, the first two of which took place while the London run continued; in the touring version Horne was played by Stephen Critchlow, who also played him in a Julian and Sandy sketch recreated in the 2006 BBC television drama Kenneth Williams: Fantabulosa!
On 27 February 2007 (Horne's centenary), BBC Radio 4 broadcast a half-hour documentary tribute entitled Sound the Horne, hosted by Jimmy Carr. The following year, on 18 September, another Radio 4 documentary was broadcast; called Thoroughly Modest Mollie, this one focused on Horne's frequent ghost-writer, Mollie Millest, and featured Jonathan Rigby again as Horne. Rigby reprised the role yet again in a new stage show, devised this time by Barry Took's widow Lyn, called Round the Horne – Unseen and Uncut, which toured in 2008-09. Also in 2009, an unbroadcast pilot script written by Horne and Millest in 1966 was produced by the same Radio 4 team as the Millest documentary. Called Twice Ken is Plenty and intended as a two-man showcase for Horne and Kenneth Williams, the 21st century version was performed by Rigby and, as Williams, Robin Sebastian. The show was broadcast on 1 September 2009.
Horne has been the subject of two biographies, Norman Hackforth's Solo for Horne in 1976 and Barry Johnston's Round Mr Horne: The Life of Kenneth Horne in 2006. In 1998 Ernie Wise unveiled a blue plaque to Horne at BBC Broadcasting House. Editions of Beyond Our Ken and Round the Horne are regularly broadcast on the digital radio service BBC 4 Extra, and by 2006 over half a million copies of tapes and CDs of Round the Horne had been sold by the BBC. In a 2002 survey conducted by the BBC to find listeners' favourite British comedian, Horne appeared third, behind Tony Hancock and Spike Milligan.
|Ack-Ack, Beer-Beer||16 April 1942 – 27 February 1944|||
|Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh, as part of Merry-Go-Round||31 March 1944 – 1 February 1946||20 episodes|||
|Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh||2 January 1947 – 13 September 1950;
30 October 1950 – 17 June 1951
|Four series on BBC Radio until September 1950; on Radio Luxembourg thereafter|||
|Twenty Questions||22 December 1949 – 1968||As chairman, 1949–51, 1954, 1961–68; as panellist, 1953, 1956, 1958, 1959|||
|Over to You||30 September 1951 – 14 April 1952||Successor to Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh|||
|The Forces Show||30 September 1952 – 24 March 1953|||
|Much Binding||21 July 1953 – 23 March 1954|||
|Richard Murdoch and Kenneth Horne Talking it Over||22 December – 25 December 1954|||
|Beyond Our Ken||1 July 1958 – 16 February 1964||Seven series and two Christmas specials|||
|Top of the Form||September 1965 – 1966|||
|Round the Horne||7 March 1965 – 9 June 1968||Four series and two Christmas specials|||
|Kaleidoscope: "Sir! I have an Idea"||5 March – 14 May 1948||BBC Television|||
|At Home||3 June 1948||BBC Television||with Richard Murdoch and Sam Costa|||
|Free and Easy||9 October 1953||BBC Television||with Richard Murdoch|||
|Down You Go||April 1953 – September 1954||BBC Television|||
|Once Upon a Time||28 July 1954||BBC Television|||
|Find the Link||November 1954 – 1955||BBC Television||Series ran for seven months|||
|What's My Line||November 1955||BBC Television|||
|Bless 'Em All||9 May 1955||BBC Television|||
|Camera One||January – September 1956||BBC Television|||
|Opening Night||22 August 1956||BBC Television|||
|Show for the Telly||21 September 1956||BBC Television||with Richard Murdoch|||
|Trader Horne||1958–60||Tyne Tees Television|||
|Top Town||1960||BBC Television||Eight-week series|||
|Let's Imagine||3 November 1961 – 1963||BBC Television||18-month series|||
|Ken's Column||June 1963||Anglia Television|||
|Home and Around||1965–66||Tyne Tees Television|||
|Treasure Hunt||1965–66||Westward Television||This is not to be confused with the later Kenneth Kendall–Anneka Rice show of the same name.|||
|Top Firm||10 December 1965 –||BBC Television|||
|Happy Families||February – May 1967||Southern Television|||
|Celebrity Challenge||May 1967 –||Southern Television|||
|Strictly for Laughs||August 1967 –||ABC|||
|Horne A'Plenty||29 June – 27 July 1968||Thames Television||Series one|||
|Horne A'Plenty||27 November 1968 – 1 January 1969||Thames Television||Series two|||