The series was created by writers Barry Took and Marty Feldman — with other writers contributing to later series after Feldman returned to performing — and starred Kenneth Horne, with Kenneth Williams, Hugh Paddick, Betty Marsden, Bill Pertwee and Douglas Smith. It had musical interludes by the Fraser Hayes Four, and accompaniment by Edwin Braden and the Hornblowers, except for the fourth series, when the musical duties were performed by The Max Harris Group. Took and the cast had worked on the predecessor series Beyond Our Ken.
Another type of opening featured announcements about a particular event, e.g. Coat A Sheep in Raspberry Jam Week, Immerse an Orang-utan in Porridge Week, Smear A Traffic Warden in Bloater Paste For Asia Day, or something equally bizarre. This would be the excuse for all sorts of happenings, such as the two-man inter-rabbi bobsleigh championships (to be held on the up and down escalators at Leicester Square underground station—weather and platform tickets permitting), Formation Goat Nadgering, Paso Doble Jockey Wagging, Floodlit Horse Massage, and Nark Fettering on Ice, and reports of the latest activities of the Over-Eighties Nudist Leapfrog (or Basketball, or Judo) Team.
One of the most popular sketches was Julian and Sandy, featuring Paddick and Williams as two flamboyantly camp out-of-work actors, speaking in the gay slang Polari, aka palare, with Horne as their unknowing comic foil. They usually ran fashionable enterprises in Chelsea which started with the word 'Bona' (for example 'Bona Pets', or in one memorable episode a firm of solicitors called 'Bona Law').
Fiona and Charles was a regular comedy sketch in the show. Betty Marsden played Dame Celia Molestrangler, and Hugh Paddick was 'ageing juvenile' Binkie Huckaback. Their characters — Fiona and Charles — were a pair of lovestruck, dated cinema idols engaging in stilted, extraordinarily polite dialogues, in scenes that were parodies of Noël Coward's style, most particularly that of Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in Brief Encounter. Typical dialogue (imagine it spoken in BBC English) included:
These sketches would also feature long lists of words meaning the same thing but finishing with the opposite, such as:
Other popular characters included J. Peasemold Gruntfuttock (Williams), the world's dirtiest dirty old man (who wanted, above all else to get his (filthy?) hands on Judith Chalmers), and erstwhile self-styled King, later Dictator, of Peasemoldia, a small slum area of the East End of London just off the Balls-Pond Road, together with his wife Buttercup (Marsden), whose catch phrase was "Hello cheeky-face!". In the 3rd series, it was reported that Gruntfuttock had died, and an entire programme was dedicated as a tribute to him. However, without explanation, the character was soon resurrected.
Also appearing: Oriental criminal mastermind Dr Chou En Ginsberg MA (failed) (Williams, accompanied by his common-as-muck concubine Lotus Blossom, played by a cockney Paddick) and parodies of popular British TV entertainers such as Eamonn Andrews ("Seamus Android", played by Pertwee), Simon Dee, and "Daphne Whitethigh", presumably based on journalist Katharine Whitehorn and played by Marsden, a development of Fanny Haddock, her Fanny Cradock take-off from Beyond Our Ken.
The shows featured old English folk singer Rambling Syd Rumpo, played by Williams, who sang such delightful and parodic nonsense ditties as "Green grow your nadgers-O!", "What shall we do with the drunken nurker?", and the timeless "Ballad of the Woggler's Moulie". All Rambling Syd's songs were new words set to old public domain folk melodies, such as The Lincolnshire Poacher, Oh My Darling, Clementine, and Widecombe Fair. Another of Rambling Syd's immortal verses ran:-
Another regular character, who had also first appeared in Beyond Our Ken, and who appeared in the script as "Dentures", was Stanley Birkenshaw, played by Paddick and characterised as a man with ill-fitting false teeth who was utterly incapable of pronouncing the letter S without spraying saliva all over the set. On several occasions he would appear as a character in a sketch; in the 2nd series, when Horne decides he wants to be a seaside end-of-the-pier-show impresario, one of the acts he auditions is "Dentures" as 'The Great Omipaloni, the world's fastest illusionist - and also the dampest'; in the 3rd series he was Captain Ahab in the first part of The Admirable Loombucket; also in the 3rd series, in The Big Top, Luigi Omipaloni, the trapeze artist at Kukpowder's Mammoth Circus, and Buffalo Sidney Goosecreature, the fearless desperado and adversary of The Palone Ranger; and in Bona Prince Charlie in the 4th series, the appropriately named Angus McSpray - Horne remarks: "After he'd finished speaking, there wasn't a dry eye in the place - or a dry anything else for that matter." On several occasions, "Dentures" opened the show in the style of a boxing MC or a toastmaster: ("My lordsssss, ladiesssss and gentlemen," etc....)
A regular character in the 4th series, and played by Marsden, was Judy Coolibar, an aggressive Australian who managed to find some kind of sexist insult in everything the male characters said. Another of Marsden's personas was Bea Clissold, Lady Counterblast, who starred in a series of sketches in the 1st series under the title The Clissold Saga, and who invariably managed to introduce her "many, many times" sexual innuendo. Lady Counterblast's butler, Spasm, another raving loony played by Williams, would croak, "We be all doomed; I got a touch of the dooms!"
Kenneth Williams's characterisations of himself as an egotistical, self-important actor were a regular feature; in reality, he was the precise opposite, a consummate professional. He frequently interrupted the proceedings with deprecating comments about the quality of the script (often switching out of character into his 'snide' voice that he'd perfected during his time on Hancock's Half Hour), he would try to seize roles from other cast members and so on. His seemingly constant strain for glory and limelight was exemplified by his "I need to be serviced" catchphrase. However, none of these rantings were ad-libbed, all were written by Took and Feldman. Williams could be heard every week cackling offstage at one of Horne's double entendres ("that's yer actual French") - an often effective method of inducing audience laughter.
Also used to effect was announcer Douglas Smith's stuffy BBC vocal style. Smith would be cast as a car, an inflatable life raft, a lion, a shark, a river boat, a volcano or something equally silly that involved inane lines such as "Moo moo", "rumble rumble", "roar roar snarl slaver", or "Chug chug futt", preceded by portentous announcements such as "... and I, Douglas Smith, play the volcano". He would also slip in spoof commercials and sponsor's announcements for "Dobbiroids", the wonder horse rejuvenator, or "Dobbimist" horse deodorant (a cure for UFO, under-fetlock odour), or "Dobbitex" horse cummerbunds - he would claim that he'd been 'got at': paid money to plug the product, because he claimed to be only paid a pittance as a senior BBC announcer: "I want things, I need things, things the other radio announcers have got!". At times, his announcements lapse into something approaching terminal narcissism - 'this is strangely attractive, leggy gamin Douglas Smith ... '
The writers were fans of the old variety show scene, and sing-alongs were not uncommon on Round the Horne, particularly at the end of a series or in a Christmas edition. In the 4th series, in the absence of The Fraser Hayes Four, the cast members were regularly called on to show off their vocal talents. Sometimes the songs represented original material, but just as often they were Cockney music hall chestnuts such as "Little Bit of Cucumber". On one memorable occasion in the 4th series, Smith was permitted to sing "Nobody Loves A Fairy When She's Forty", much to Kenneth Williams' disgust and Hugh Paddick's anger: ("He must have bribed the producer!").
A fifth series had been commissioned, but Horne's untimely death of a stroke in February 1969 closed the book on the series. Most of the cast of the show attempted to carry on after Horne's death with the show Stop Messing About (one of Kenneth Williams' longest-lived catch phrases) with some success.
A 1966 Christmas special, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, was broadcast on 25 December. The script was written by Took and Feldman. The cast were Williams, Paddick, Marsden, Pertwee and Smith, with music by the Fraser Hayes Four and Edwin Braden and the Hornblowers. It was the only episode without Kenneth Horne, who missed the recording session due to illness.
A 1967 Christmas special, Cinderella, was broadcast on 24 December. The script was written by Took, Mortimer and Cooke. The cast were Horne, Williams, Paddick, Marsden and Smith, with music by the Max Harris Group.
A 60 minute radio documentary Horne A' Plenty was broadcast on February 14, 1994. It was presented by Leslie Phillips and included new interviews with Betty Marsden and Barry Took, period interviews with Kenneth Horne, and rare excerpts from surviving wartime episodes of Much Binding in the Marsh.
A 3 hour radio special, also entitled Horne A' Plenty, was broadcast on March 5, 2005 for the 40th anniversary. It was presented by Jonathan James-Moore and included interviews with Ron Moody, Bill Pertwee, Eric Merriman's son Andy Merriman, Brian Cooke, Barry Took's widow Lyn Took, and extracts from Kenneth Williams' diary read 'in character' by David Benson. The special included the first and final episodes of Beyond Our Ken and Round The Horne in their entirety.
A stage show, Round the Horne… Revisited, was first produced in October 2003. Based on the original radio scripts, it was adapted by Brian Cooke, the last surviving writer from the series, and directed by Michael Kingsbury. The play was also filmed for television, directed by Nick Wood, and was broadcast on BBC Four, on 13 June 2004, as part of a "Summer in the Sixties" season, subsequently airing on BBC Two on 1 January 2005. Both the stage and TV versions starred Charles Armstrong (Smith), Kate Brown (Marsden), Nigel Harrison (Paddick), Jonathan Rigby (Horne) and Robin Sebastian (Williams). The stage show had three incarnations; a special Christmas edition took over in December 2004, and the so-called Round the Horne ... Revisited 2 rounded off the London run from January to April 2005. David Took (Barry's son) gave the following opinion on the modern staging:
"The cast are all truly excellent, and all have genuine moments of brilliance [...] the low spot would be the new material [...] With so much good material to call on it is madness to insert indifferent items. Dad and Marty would not be amused.
Episodes of Round the Horne were included in the package of programs held in 20 underground radio stations of the BBC's Wartime Broadcasting Service, designed to provide public information and morale-boosting broadcasts for 100 days after a nuclear attack.
The frequently used word futtock, meaning part of a sailing ship's rigging, while rarely encountered outside the radio show (apart from Ronnie Barker's TV series Futtock's End, starring his character Lord Rustless), had a spillover effect on words like fetlock, as well as its obvious phonetic similarity to the words fuck and buttock. The word nadger was already known from the Goon Show (The Nadger Plague), but is now generally understood to refer to the testicles. It has now passed into computer slang, meaning to twiddle some feature in a concealed manner.
In the long-term, mining obscure and invented words for double-entendres probably also led to the popularity of Larry Grayson, who preferred to use well-known words with phallic connotations (e.g. barge-pole) in his particular version of comedy. However, there is a well-established tradition of double-meanings in British comedy, examples of which can be found in the work of Max Miller.
Round the Horne played an important role in establishing gay culture within the public consciousness. Julian and Sandy and their use of the gay slang palare (or polari) gave the country a sympathetic weekly portrayal of non-threatening openly gay characters, many of whose catchphrases passed into everyday usage. A good example of this is the adjective naff to denote bad or shoddy. They were able to get away with innuendo that would have been unheard of a mere ten years before — in one episode, Sandy refers to Julian and his skill at the piano as: "a miracle of dexterity at the cottage upright"; innocuous in itself, unless one knows that a 'cottage' was the polari term for a public toilet where men met for anonymous sexual encounters.
Comparisons can be drawn between Round the Horne and the American sketch comedy television series Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In (1968–1973). Notably, Barry Took was the principal writer in the 1969 season; executive producer George Schlatter, a Canadian, was influenced by Round the Horne on CBC repeats of BBC original programming, and searched out Took for his programme.
The popular UK blues-rock band The Hamsters use silly stage names as part of their professional personas. Being fans of Round The Horne they incorporated one of the minor characters into the act with their bass player being known as "Ms Zsa Zsa Poltergeist".