Radio comedy celebrates imagination and conjures up better pictures than TV
- Credit: PA
Radio has long been the proving ground for our best-loved talent. It’s a medium that rewards innovation and imagination. Arts editor Andrew Clarke takes a wander across the airwaves and delves into a laugh-filled sound archive
Radio comedy has long been the jewel in the BBC’s comedy crown. It has nurtured the careers of some of the nation’s greatest comedy talents: both performers and writers. As Alastair Cooke once said: “I prefer radio to TV because the pictures are better.”
Radio provided the big break for comic writers as such Galton and Simpson who wrote Hancock’s Half Hour and Steptoe and Son, Spike Milligan and Eric Sykes who penned The Goon Show, Frank Muir and Dennis Norden who wrote long-running Take It From Here, Barry Took and Marty Feldman who made Round the Horne into a timeless innuendo-filled classic, Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie who helped shape The Goodies and Monty Python with I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again and Douglas Adams who created a phenomenon when Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy thumbed a ride onto Radio 4.
Actors and comedians such as Peter Sellers, Frankie Howerd, Kenneth Connor, Sid James, Hattie Jacques, Kenneth Williams, Kenneth Horne, Richard Murdoch, Jon Pertwee, Ronnie Barker and Leslie Phillips all had their first big hits on radio.
Radio used to shape the national conversation in the same way that television does now. Round The Horne, broadcast on Sunday lunch-times from 1965-68, used to regularly scandalise the nation with its outrageous humour and was frequently saved by the deadpan ‘unknowing’ reactions of avuncular host Kenneth Horne.
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Each week he would frequent an address in Chelsea where he would encounter Julian and Sandy, two outrageously camp individuals played by Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams, who would attempt to get Horne involved in some ludicrous scheme or enterprise.
One week they were purveyors of alternative medicine: “We are your actual Homeo-practitioners, Mr Horne,” another week they were lawyers: “We’ve got a criminal practice that takes up most of our time” – a not-so-veiled reference to the fact that homosexuality was illegal – and one of my personal favourites when they opened a West End ticket agency Bona Box Office: “Oh, look Mr Horne I’ve got crosses all over my seating plan!”
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Julian and Sandy also did a lot to popularise Polari – a form of coded gay-speak used by actors, circus performers and those working in dance. Bona meant good and during the course of four series they introduced the nation to a whole new vocabulary.
Round the Horne has remained extraordinarily popular and has even inspired three recent stage shows in the West End and on UK tours. One of the reasons for this is the quality of the writing and radio’s ability to conjure images in our heads.
And, its not just older programmes radio has the ability to renew and refresh series. Just A Minute is now celebrating 51 unbroken years on the airwaves, I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue is 46 years old and The News Quiz is 41.
Simple panel show formats provide just enough structure to allow people to be funny but are flexible enough to allow the shows to gradually reinvent themselves over time. Just A Minute, in particular, is now much different in tone to how it was during the early 1970s even with Nicholas Parsons still keeping everyone in check.
With people like Paul Merton, Sue Perkins, Gyles Brandreth, Julian Clary, Liza Tarbuck, Ross Noble and Graham Norton being new semi-regulars, the show has taken on a new fluid, slightly more surreal style and is played at a faster pace than in the past. The way that I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue has managed to carry on under the chairmanship of Jack Dee, following the death of Humphrey Lyttleton, proves that a series can survive the loss of a much-loved host.
Television also benefits from the inventiveness of radio and its love of taking a chance on emerging talent. Over the years much-loved series such as The Mighty Boosh, Goodness Gracious Me, Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge, Little Britain, That Mitchell and Webb Sound, On the Town with The League of Gentlemen, Deadringers, Radio Active, Room 101 and Whose Line Is It Anyway? all had their start on radio but radio is not just a testing ground for would-be TV comedy shows.
The huge success of airline comedy Cabin Pressure, by John Finnemore, with Benedict Cumberbatch, Roger Allam and Stephanie Cole proves that they can produce ambitious comedies which can still only work on radio because they rely on the power of our imaginations to add the colour, the details and the elements left unsaid. In a digital world, audio still works amazingly well.