In other words, how nice it is to all you lovely people to read my blog again and hope there’ nothing bad in today’s wonderful piece I’ve written.
It’s a pleasure to write today’s article because it brings back so many happy memories of sitting at the table as a child for a traditional family Sunday lunch and listening to one of the BBC’s equally traditional Sunday lunchtime comedy programme. The comedy in question today being “Round the Horne”. You may have heard of it. It was a sketch and review comedy with lots of eccentric characters and situations, silly names and a song or two.
This month sees the 50th anniversary of the first broadcast of “Round the Horne” and even though I was probably too young to remember the original series I certainly remember the reruns.
Two of the most popular recurring characters in the show, probably the most popular characters ever created on BBC radio in the 1960s, were Julian and Sandy. They made their first appearance 50 years ago this very day on 28th March 1965 and were an instant success. And their appearances thereafter brought to the attention of the general British public a secret language used my large portions of the gay community in those days when homosexual activity was illegal. The language is called Polari, and it’s the language in which today’s opening welcome was written.
Julian and Sandy were characters who were out of work chorus boys doing various other jobs in between theatre work. Each week they sprinkled their sentences with words form Polari, words which were unknown to the general public but the script was written in such a manner that the meanings were easily guessed. Even though Julian and Sandy were extremely camp and intended to be gay men their homosexuality was not the object of the comedy. It was the situation and the double entres that Polari implied that made them funny (“big bulging lallies and whopping great thews”), not to mention the unsuspecting use of Polari words like “cruise” and “cottage” which were “overlooked” by the BBC bosses. This was still during the time of state censorship (the Director General of the BBC once told the writers, with a twinkle in his eye, why he let them get away with it – “I like dirty shows!”, he said). Strangely, one of the rules laid down by the BBC was that there should be no jokes about effeminacy in men!
As the name Polari suggests, the language has Mediterranean roots. No-one is quite sure where or when it originated but many different influences may have converged. It is generally believed that the Italian Comedia dell’arte is the main source.
Polari was spoken mainly among circus, theatre and performing communities. In the pre-20th century period these professions were not considered “legitimate” and they often found themselves victimised by locals when they travelled the country. This attitude was similar to that directed against the travelling communities – Romani, gypsy and even vagabonds.
All these communities contributed to the vocabulary of travelling and performing communities during the late 19th century which became known as Parleyree, and this developed into the Polari of the 20th century. With slightly different emphasis on meanings and uses the gay community became the final influencers in the last stage of Polari’s evolution.
The creators, the writers, of the Julian and Sandy characters were two very heterosexual men – Barry Took and Marty Feldman. They had originally envisaged two elderly out-of-work actors as recurring characters, but the “Round the Horne” producer found them more sad than funny. Took and Feldman them came up with the young chorus-boys Julian and Sandy.
Barry Took had been a comedy performer on the theatre circuit back in the 1950s and had contact with many young chorus-boys who spoke Polari regularly so he understood some of the words. Fortunately the two actors who played Julian and Sandy (played respectively by Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams) were both gay actors with musical comedy backgrounds who also spoke Polari between themselves.
Kenneth Williams was well-known to audiences by the mid 1960s through his comedy work on radio on the “Carry On” films. He always had problems accepting his homosexuality and was deeply insecure, despite the extrovert persona he displayed in his many later appearances as raconteur and chat show guest.
Hugh Paddick, on the other hand, was less well known and preferred to stay out of the limelight and private. I still can’t believe that he would have been 100 years old this year! Even though he was an all-round character actor Hugh played many camp characters on television, radio and film, one of the campest being as Robin Hood in “Up the Chastity Belt”.
Finally, I must say a word or two about Kenneth Horne, one of my heroes, the genius around whom “Round the Horne” was created. Kenneth, a straight man in both comedy and sexuality terms, was a star of British wartime radio comedy, and his progression into the “Swinging 60s” was extraordinary successful. He looked more like a businessman or MP than a comedian. Indeed, he was head of several big national companies in the 1950s until a heart attack almost killed him. His doctor told him he wouldn’t survive long with both his business and comedy careers and he must drop one. Fortunately he dropped his business career. Horne was a talented comedy writer himself, though “Round the Horne” was written for him by Took and Feldman. His sudden death while presenting an award ceremony in 1968, ironically moments after the presentation of an award to Took and Feldman, was a loss which has never been replaced.
Julian and Sandy and Polari continued on vinyl, books and cassettes. In 1988 BBC television hosted a special celebration of radio comedy in which many iconic performers from the Golden Age of Comedy reappeared. Barry Took wrote a brand new sketch for Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick as Julian and Sandy. Sadly Williams died three months later and Julian and Sandy died with him. Hugh Paddick died in 2000 at the age of 85.
I’ll leave you with this clip of Julian and Sandy at their best, which also illustrates just how many Polari words are now part of everyday speech (butch, camp, queer, cottage).