Something interesting has been happening to British comedy. Modern comedians are abandoning the "alternative" humour of the 1980s and 1990s, and harking back instead to the traditional comics of the post-war years. Peter Kay has more in common with Les Dawson than with Ben Elton, for example, and Little Britain feels far closer to Dick Emery than to The Young Ones.
And now Barry Johnston has followed suit with this affectionate tribute to Kenneth Horne, the genial father-figure of the BBC radio's Beyond Our Ken and Round the Horne.
Johnston's previous book was a biography of his father, the great cricket commentator Brian Johnston. As he points out, Horne and "Johnners" had much in common. Both were born before the First World War; lost fathers at an early age; went from boarding school to Oxbridge, but left without degrees; went into the family business, and only ended up in showbiz after doing wartime troop shows. Horne was the Johnners of radio comedy - a kindly elder statesman, as English as wet bank holidays and warm beer.
While Horne's co-stars juggled radio work with pantomime and summer season, until his late forties, Horne held down a day job as sales director of a glass company. This Corinthian double life epitomised Horne's public-school amateurism, but the details of his managerial duties are hardly riveting, and as early as the introduction we find a phrase that should chill the marrow of any discerning reader (or writer) of biography: "I could not find a single person who had a bad word to say about Kenneth."
Intriguingly, for such a blameless man, Horne had three "disastrous" marriages, but maintained a gentlemanly silence about his spouses - partly, you suspect, because he was busy conducting a prolonged affair with his secretary. Horne's stepdaughter provides revealing insights, but other main players have long since left the stage: Horne died in 1969 (while performing, like Eric Morecambe and Tommy Cooper), and his three wives and six siblings are all dead.
Happily, Round the Horne is still going strong. The BBC has sold over half a million tapes and CDs, and a stage show enjoyed a recent run in London's West End. This is good news for fans, but I fear only the most dedicated will relish this meticulous yet rather muted biography of its unassuming star.
William Cook edited 'Eric Morecambe Unseen' (HarperCollins)Reuse content