It was a great idea of director Michael Kingsbury and script writer Brian Cooke to recreate five years ago the “live” recording sessions of the radio programme Round the Horne. The high nostalgia quotient mixed perfectly with a Brechtian, bare-bones theatricality of revelation and the show was a gem: perfect, hilarious, irresistible.
Reproducing the formula with a spin-off from Round the Horne, Kenneth Williams’ Stop Messing About in 1970 - also scripted by Cooke with the late Johnnie Mortimer - looks like a routine re-tread, and the surface has lost its sparkle, though there are moments of delirium. I could tell you how “the fastest gun in the West” in a German cowboy movie becomes “the fascist gun in a vest” ... I could; but I don’t think I’ll bother.
As before, the actors stand with scripts at antique microphones while a visible sound effects man in brown overalls (Keith Wickham) twiddles with his knobs in the corner. Stop Messing was the first radio show in which Williams took first billing, and maybe that explains the muted impact of this show, which faithfully reproduces two episodes of the series: Williams’s talent was primarily reactive, bouncing off Tony Hancock or Kenneth Horne, taking exception, breaking loose from decorum.
Here, Robin Sebastian gets the comic’s flared nostrils and conspiratorial gurgles down to a tee, but he’s not bursting at the seams of impropriety enough, not soaring in full subversive, contrarian flight. He’s joined by Nigel Harrison as Hugh Paddick and Emma Atkins as Joan Sims. The first is more like a bloodhound, or Jeremy Paxman, and a bit flabby – Paddick was a brilliant, stylish comic actor - while Atkins is nothing like Sims at all, impossible to nail as a comic personality.
The show is billed as a Kenneth Williams Extravaganza, but it’s nothing of the sort. The sketches are company items, whether movie spoofs like “The Dirty Half-Dozen” or the wonderful account of the London to Brighton Ballroom Dancing Rally, and the best solo turn is Paddick’s as the decrepit High Court judge Sir Inigo Parchmutter. Charles Armstrong stands by on his dignity in black tie as the BBC announcer Douglas Smith, but it’s symptomatic of this show that he’s a pale echo of Kenneth Horne.