Saturday, August 19, 2006

Round Silvester Horne

Years ago I read somewhere that the Liberal MP for Ipswich Silvester Horne was the father of the radio comedian Kenneth Horne and that the Silvester Horne Institute in Church Stretton, Shropshire, was named after him.

I long ago forgot where I came across this, and had rather come to doubt it on the grounds that it is just the sort of thing I would imagine. (Regular readers of this blog will know how I love trivial connections.) Having just read Barry Johnston's biography of Kenneth Horne, I now know that it is all true.

Silvester Horne was a Congregationalist minister - which was always the most respectable variety of Nonconformity. Indeed, his father-in-law Herbert Cozens-Hardy, the Liberal MP for North Norfolk, later became the Master of the Rolls.

Silvester was a celebrated preacher and orator. A contemporary observer wrote:
In Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester and Leicester he conquered vast audiences by the magic of his oratory. He understands better than any speaker of his years, with the possible exception of Mr Lloyd George, how to quicken slow blood, kindle light in dull eyes, and bring the flood-tide of enthusiasm sweeping into all creeks and inlets of the spirit. His youthful appearance, grace and winsomeness of gesture, attractive delivery, and clear, well-modulated voice delight every company that hears him.
When in adult life, reports Barry Johnston, Kenneth Horne described Winston Churchill to a friend as a great orator, that friend replied: "Yes, but then you never heard your father speak, did you?"

That was a slight exaggeration: Silvester Horne died in 1914 when Kenneth, his youngest child was seven. Silvester was on a lecture tour of North America when he died, but his body was brought back to Church Stretton, where he had built The White House for his family. You can find the house in Sandford Avenue, the other side of the valley from the town centre. Silvester's grave is in the new burial ground rather than the old churchyard.

The subsequent by-election in Ipswich was fought and lost for the Liberals by one of my political heroes: Charles Masterman. (You see why I thought I had imagined all this? Kenneth Horne even lived for years in the block of flats in Kensington where we used to put Liberator together.)

Johnston's biography is a workmanlike march through Kenneth Horne's radio career, from Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh, via Beyond Our Ken to Round the Horne.

For much of that career Horne also had a full-time job in industry, which gave him the reputation of being a gifted amateur. In reality that was nonsense: he was a hugely gifted comedian, part of whose art was to make his performances sound natural and easy. He also specialised in chairing radio quizzes and panel games, and made repeated attempts to break into television.

Kenneth Horne obviously got that wonderful voice from his father, and both died young because of weak hearts and an unwillingness to take medical advice. But surely the son who revelled in the smut of Round the Horne can have had little in common with his clergyman father?

Not really: Kenneth Horne was not without a puritan streak too. He once said: "I am all for censorship. If ever I see a double entendre, I whip it out!"


Will said...

Kenneth Horne's voice is great to listen to. Jonathan Rigby did a good job recreating him for the Round the Horne recreation (on stage, although I only saw it on BBC Four).

That White House link says, amusingly:
"The proprietors, Mrs. Margaret Beckett and Mr William Hill..."

Anonymous said...

The white house link is out of date as the house has been demolished and replaced by a set of executive homes.

Anonymous said...

Me and my friend Pete went over to Church Stretton on 27/2/07 as a centenary pilgrimage. We had only a photo of the back of the White House but we managed to locate the site - eventually. We quizzed the Tourist Office about Sylvester Horne's more famous son - but I think they just thought we were a bit weird.