New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham
2017 sees another run of the Round The Horne 50th anniversary tour by the Apollo Theatre Company, where the classic Radio 4 show is brought to life by a brilliantly authentic cast of voice actors.
If you’ve never heard Round The Horne, you’re missing a staple of British comedy. The show ran from 1965-1968, and pushed the boundaries of acceptable humour with its blend of double entendres, camp comedy and general silliness.
The staple cast included Kenneth Horne, Betty Marsden, Hugh Paddick, Kenneth Williams, and announcer Douglas Smith. Smith’s involvement is made funnier in contrast to his other well known role as a Radio 4 announcer. The original show featured musical accompaniment by Edwin Braden and the Hornblowers, and later The Max Harris Group. For the anniversary show, musical and sound effect duties are taken up by Miles Russell, surrounded by keyboards, gongs and an accordion.
Each episode sees a send-up of a popular story trope or contemporary movie, done with a Carry On style tongue-in-cheek silliness. (My favourite ever line comes from Betty Marsden’s Guinevere during a King Arthur spoof – “If Arthur suspects I am lacking in chastity, he will belt me!”) This is followed by a selection of recurring characters, many of which will be familiar to those who’ve never heard the show, ingrained as they are in popular culture.
The Apollo Theatre Group performs two ‘episodes’ of Round The Horne, complete with authentic outfits and props. The episodes are comprised of producer/director Tim Astley’s favourite sketches from the show’s run. A self-proclaimed Round The Horne nerd, Astley was first introduced to the show at the age of 12, and has been a die hard fan ever since. This live tribute was created with the blessing of the families of Barry Took and Marty Feldman, the show’s writers. Astley’s love for the show shines through in this production; no detail has been overlooked, from the microphones to the cast’s shoes.
Although each member of the cast brought something special to the mix, most impressive for me was Alex Scott Fairley, playing Hugh Paddick. While all the voices were spot on, he arguably took on the hardest role, due to Paddick’s more varied range of character voices. He even took on forgetful Irish TV presenter Seamus Android (a take on Eamonn Andrews), originally portrayed by 1965-1967 cast member Bill Pertwee rather than Paddick.
Alan Booty was suitably giggle-inducing as Douglas Smith, alternating between formal announcements, slipping in a quick plug for ‘Dobbyroids’, and being told off by Kenneth Horne. Fans of the show will know that Smith also picks up any ‘non human’ parts during the movie spoofs; typically he’ll play a volcano, or a car, with all the pomp and importance he can muster (“Boom, boom, clang sir.”)
Eve Winters was fantastic as Betty Marsden, a cast member that might, sadly, be overlooked were the show to be made today. Back in the day, Marsden was not just ‘the woman one’, she was an indispensable cast member in her own right. Marsden’s performances were always characterised by a remarkable amount of energy bordering on comic hamminess, which is faithfully replicated by Winters. A sterling performance, made even more exciting by the fact that we think we spotted her walking to her car after the show.
Julian Howard McDowell as Kenneth Horne was the natural ringmaster, playing the straight man to his unruly cast. Just like in the original show, he nailed Horne’s mix of slightly exasperated, deadpan formality and outright silliness. Ostensibly the leading man, he never hogged the stage, instead guiding the audience towards the rest of the cast, but always being thoroughly entertaining.
The cast were all pretty much indistinguishable from their original counterparts – not just in voices, but in looks and mannerisms too. In a way the show presented you with a strange dilemma – on one hand, you couldn’t resist closing your eyes to get the full sense of just how authentic the show was; on the other hand, if you do that you miss the various visual gags dotted around the sketch. Personally, I didn’t want to miss Kenneth Williams giving someone a look.
Speaking of Kenneth Williams, I realise most things about Round The Horne will include a ‘special mention must go to Kenneth Williams’ section, but in this case it’s entirely justified; during brief lulls in the script, the audience’s eyes were naturally drawn towards Colin Elmer as Williams, with his facial expressions and muttered asides. I dare say I’ve never seen an actor remain so completely in character throughout a performance.
All the most loved recurring characters were included in the show: Noel Coward-style nonsense talkers Charles and Fiona (played, of course, by Dame Celia Molestrangler and ageing juvenile Binkie Huckaback); Rambling Syd Rumpo, whose entirely respectable folk songs are only rude if you have a dirty mind; Julian and Sandy, out of work actors with a different business venture every week, who welcome their customer Kenneth Horne with affectionate, screeching Polari; J. Peasemold Gruntfuttock, a dirty old man who regularly phones into the show with bizarre requests.
I could go on but you get the idea – the structure of the show has been incredibly well thought out, and anyone who sees the show is likely to have their favourites in there.
This is a must-see for any Round The Horne fan. And if you’re new to the show, it’s a fantastic introduction to a radio comedy classic.
I only have two criticisms of the show:
1. It ended
2. My face hurt from laughing
If you can make one of the remaining dates, it’s more than worth the price of a ticket. And if you can’t make it this year, I suspect (and hope) that this won’t be the last Round The Horne tour.