Thursday 27 December 2018

Around the World in Another 80 Gays : Part 36) Mad About the Boy

Previously on “Another 80 Gays”: 75) Gaius Maecenas (68 BC-8 BC) was the patron and lover of 76) Bathyllus (c.60 BC- ?c.2 BC), a performer of Roman pantomime which evolved into British pantomime, in which form “Cinderella” is a popular story, a film version of which earned an Oscar nomination for 77) Angela Morley (1924-2009), musical arranger for the radio series that made a star out of 78) Kenneth Williams (1926-1988).

78) Kenneth Williams was one of the most well-known and popular comedy actors in the UK. He began his acting career during his National Service in the army, performing in army concerts. On leaving the army he went straight into repertory theatre in which actors were required to take on many characters, often in more than one play every week.

Kenneth’s ability to mimic and portray very different characters helped him to develop the many vocal skills that came to the attention of BBC radio. In 1955 he was invited to join the cast for the second series of the radio comedy series “Hancock’s Half Hour” to provide character roles. 77) Angela Morley, who at that time was billed as Wally Stott, had been the musical director of the series since its inception. The eponymous star of the series, Tony Hancock, was an insecure man in private life and after several series in which he believed Kenneth Williams was getting more laughs than himself he asked Kenneth to leave.

By this time Kenneth had a couple of other comedy series which would secure his status as a British comedy legend. Both began in 1958. One was the BBC radio series “Beyond Our Ken”. Despite the title, Kenneth Williams was not the star of the show. That went to another comedy legend, Kenneth Horne.

“Beyond Our Ken” and its rebooted version “Round the Horne” have been favourite radio comedies since my childhood. In the previous “80 Gays” article last week I mentioned how both of Angela Morley’s radio series are being repeated on BBC Radio 4 Extra. So, too, is “Beyond Our Ken” (celebrating its 60th anniversary).

In 1965 the creator and lead writer of “Beyond Our Ken” left the BBC, taking the rights to the title and characters with him. The BBC decided on an immediate reboot. The cast remained intact but the show was retitled “Round the Horne”. The junior writer of “Beyond Our Ken” was asked to write the new series with new characters in the same format of sketches and spoofs, once again linked together by Kenneth Horne. “Round the Horne” became a bigger success than “Beyond Our Ken”.

Perhaps the most famous, and surprisingly popular, characters was Julian and Sandy. For a look at their significance in radio comedy and gay rights read this article from 2015.

“Round the Horne” ended in 1968 when Kenneth Horne died suddenly. The BBC decided on another reboot, this time with Kenneth Williams in the central role, called “Its Ken Again”. It didn’t work well, and didn’t last long.

But Kenneth Williams didn’t need another radio comedy series because he was by now a regular cast member in the “Carry On” films which began in 1958 with “Carry On Sergeant”. There wasn’t any intention of making a series of films with the title “Carry On” but the first was so successful that another was made, then another, then another, and another, until 30 had been made up to 1978 (in addition to “Carry On Columbus”, made in 1992, one television series, 4 Christmas specials and several stage shows; there are also 4 unofficial films that don’t have the “Carry On” title). There have been several attempts to revive the series but they’ve all failed.

The regular “Carry On” gang numbered in the dozens. There was a core group of lead actors and many regular supporting actors. Sadly, we lost three this year – Liz Fraser, Fenella Fielding and Carole Shelley, who between them appeared 7 “Carry On” films (only one together – “Carry On Regardless” in 1963 [Update 30th December - we lost another, Dame June Whitfield, shortly after this was posted]).

One of the other regular main “Carry On” leading stars was 79) Charles Hawtrey (1914-1988). Charles starred in 23 “Carry On” films (compared to Kenneth Williams’ 26). Sadly, problems with alcoholism dogged Charles in later years and he was often drunk on the set of some “Carry On” films. One of Charles’ best performances is in “Carry On Spying”, the first ever James Bond spoof.

Unlike Kenneth Williams who began acting in the army Charles Hawtrey was a child actor, making his stage debut at the age of 6. In 1931 he joined the cast of the annual “Peter Pan” production at the London Palladium. Below is the cast list from the official 1932 programme. I’ve underlined Charles’s name.

Charles Hawtrey became more widely known when he began appearing in film comedies. He was often a “juvenile” foil (when he was in his 20s) to Will Hay, a popular radio and film comedian. However, once the “Carry On” films took off people began to forget Charles was already an established star.

Let’s go back to that “Peter Pan” cast list above. If you look at the name immediately above Charles you’ll see the name 80) Graham Payn (1918-2005) (spelt wrongly, with "E" on the end). Graham was born in South Africa. He was privately educated in England where he began acting. His stage debut was in the 1931 production of “Peter Pan”, also Charles Hawtrey’s first year.

While he was still only 14 years old Graham appeared in a revue called “Words and Music”. His main role was as a busker outside a cinema during the introduction to the song “Mad About the Boy”, sung by four of the female singers in the show.

Graham appeared in 164 performances of “Words and Music” and went on to appear in many other stage production while the “Mad About the Boy” writer went on to have his own many, many successes. In 1945 the two met again after nearly ten years. This was the start of the relationship that lasted until the death of that songwriter. If you don’t already know who wrote “Mad About the Boy” let me say that my trip “Around the World in Another 80 Gays” ends here, because he was none other than 1) Sir Noël Coward (1899-1973), the man with whom we began our journey back in January. He and Graham Payn remained partners until Sir Noël’s death.

It has given me a great amount of satisfaction to research and write this series. It does not end here. All being well I’ll will write another “80 Gays” series for 2020. I hope you will stay with me through the less frequent 2019 posts to learn more about the many connections the lgbt community has though time and location.

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