As a child, Sundays had a certain set piece feel to them. A roast lunch for sure. For some years the Archaeologist and I were dispatched to the local Sunday school at a Methodist Church in Upper Caterham where I passed some sort of religious knowledge exams. I think the outcome can be described as ‘mostly harmless’ and certainly it hasn’t inculcated any sort of world view as a result. The car might be washed some Sundays too and that seemed, in memory to have been fun. I was easily deluded as a child.
But one specific memory is the radio. At between 1.30 and 2.30 as lunch was ending with something suety, sweet and custard-covered, Mum started the washing up, Dad sipped a coffee, puffed on a cigarette and the two of them began to discuss what to do in the garden that afternoon, we boys would be tuning into the half an hour of radio comedy. Series of different shows would come and go. There was the Clitheroe kid and his mythic family, Al Read and his observations and there may have been Hancock’s Half Hour.
But the show that remains in my memory, one the whole family loved was Round the Horne, hosted by Kenneth Horne.
It is strange to recall how that show suited all of us. The others tended to appeal to one or other generation – my parents had a sophisticated comedic appreciation, while we two enjoyed the sort of gag making farce that is the preserve of small boys and simpletons. But this straddled the years. There was a lot of silliness, probably more surreal than silly but we boys enjoyed it. There were ridiculous set ups and many wonderful and wacky voices. For Mum and Dad I later discerned the double entendres and near the knuckle humour was what held them – I recall later hearing one character, Daphne Whitethigh, the BBC’s fashion corespondent , breathlessly declaring that Bosoms were out again but expected to make a return. I could see how we boys would laugh at the absurdity and Mum and Dad at the potential for smut.
There was one characters we boys really loved: Rambling Syd Rumpo and his ludicrous songs. This was a vehicle for the manic, marvellous Kenneth Williams. But he also took part in the double act of Julian and Sandy with Hugh Paddick , exulting in their high pitched teasing of the host Kenneth Horne with their silly, funny lingo and his naivete when it came to their behaviour.
What I didn’t know then and only found out much much later was the scripts for Julian and Sandy were essentially subversive. In those early to mid 1960s homosexuality was criminalised yet here, in a Sunday afternoon comedy accessible to families and adults alike, two clearly camp men used a language that had been adopted by the gay community to communicate in ways that acted as secret coda.
Polari was an English ‘cant slang’ that developed over many years and which was eventually adopted by the gay subculture in the post war years. Incorporating it into these sketches took some nerve.
‘Oh will you vada his dolly ol eek!’ I thought this so silly, so childish. Yet read the Polari dictionary and ‘vada’ is ‘to see’ and ‘eek’ is ‘face’. Makes a sort of sense!
Everything was ‘bona’ – polari for good.
This use of Polari slang revealed to the many hidden members of the gay community that they could laugh at a society that couldn’t see what was being broadcast under their noses. In fact its use began to fade after this semi public exposure and the law change later.
Did the BBC know? Was it common knowledge in those prurient days? Unlikely.
It’s not likely it made a significant contribution to the (partial) decriminalisation that occurred in 1967 but I still love the idea that my Father had no idea what he was laughing at. Job done.
And here’s a Rambling Syd song. Happy innocent days!