RADIO: MUCH-BINDING-IN-THE-MARSH

by Mark McKay (reprinted from LAUGH MAGAZINE #11, 1995)

It’s an unusual occurrence for one half of a highly successful comedy duo to go on to enjoy similar popularity in a new partnership. Yet this is exactly what happened to Richard Murdoch, who had achieved fame, and indeed created radio history, through his association with Arthur Askey in the first BBC comedy show, Band Waggon. Its run was brought to an end by the war, with Dickie joining the Air Force. Still in London, he was able to broadcast for the Overseas Recorded Broadcasting Service, responsible for making shows for the troops in the Middle East. On one of these occasions the compère was Wing Commander Kenneth Horne, who introduced him as the Station Commander of the R.A.F. outpost at Much-Binding-In-The-Marsh. The seeds of a radio classic were sown.

Kenneth, like Dickie a Cambridge graduate sans degree, had a civilian job as Sales Manager for Triplex Safety Glass. Whilst serving in the Anti-Aircraft & Barrage Balloon corps, he was chosen at random to compère a programme called Ack­ Ack, Beer-Beer (named after the RAF abbreviation for the unit). In 1943 he was posted to the Air Ministry in London, with a vacant position for a Squadron Leader in his department. Over lunch after that fateful ORBS broadcast, he offered the job to Richard Murdoch. Together, they became responsi­ble for the supply of spitfires to Russia, but being not exactly inundated with work, they could devote a lot of their energies towards ideas for a new radio show.

The setting they chose was a remote, decrepit Air Force base with only one plane, the Cabbage White Mark II. Mur­doch was the genial, dithering C.O. and Home played the slow-witted and incompetent A.O.C.  Much-Binding-In-The-Marsh, the R.A.F. station in Laughter Command, first ‘took the air’ in ENSA Half-Hour on 4th January 1944. A few months later it was being presented every six weeks in Mediterranean Merry-Go-Round. This was a services show presented to the men and women of the forces ‘in khaki and two shades of blue’, meaning that it alternated weekly between Army, Navy and Air Force editions.

In 1945, eccentric BBC producer, Leslie Bridgmont took over Merry-Go-Round. In an attempt to raise the standard of the programme, he decided each service would be represented by a fixed show. Thus HMS Waterlogged with Eric Barker became the Navy’s contribution, Charlie Chester’s Stand Easy represented the Army, and Horne and Murdoch wrote and starred in Much-Binding for the Air Force.

The ‘Binding’ of the title derived from the war-time Air Force slang for ‘complaining’. And chief ‘binder’ was Leading Aircraftsman Sam Costa, who had started in show business as a pianist and singer with dance bands. Later he decided that he would be well suited to comedy, and had a chance to dem­onstrate this in the early ITMA shows. After joining up he recorded for ORBS, where he found himself playing stooge to Dickie Murdoch. Soon he was shooting to fame as the constantly grumbling ‘other rank’, expressing his gripes with a muddle of malapropisms (“There’s one law for the rich and a mother-in-law for the poor!”). Like Jimmy Edwards in Take It From Here, his bushy black moustache became a natural prop for gags.

Horne and Murdoch devised a number of regular features for their editions of Merry-Go-Round. A parody of forces’ concerts provided an opportunity for Dickie’s fast little songs with nonsense lyrics, written to famous tunes like Ballet Egyptienne or Entry of the Gladiators.

Kenneth became quiz-master of the genuine competition, ‘Double or Quits’, which was also featured in the Army and Navy versions. The prizes stopped way short of a latest model Mercedes — four questions gave contestants the chance of taking home a half crown, 5s, l0s or top prize, one pound!

The fondly remembered title song, introduced as ‘a little thing that goes something like this. . . ‘was first heard around this time; later it was to become their signature tune, closing every episode. In 1946 it was published by Campbell and Connelly, but to include all the lyrics would have filled a book, as four new verses were written each week. Often these were devised only a couple of hours before the broadcast, so as to include any topicalities. Here’s an example:
At Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh,
The price of vegetables is quite appalling,
At Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh,
It goes up every day instead of falling.
We think that our greengrocer must be absolutely green,
He never has potatoes, Brussels sprouts are seldom seen,
But he can’t be overcharging ‘cos he never has a bean.
At Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh.

Years later Dickie was visiting 20th Century Fox studios in Hollywood, and walking on a set, heard a familiar tune being whistled. It was the Much-Binding song, and the phan­tom whistler none other than Richard Burton!

After the war Merry-Go-Round, like so many men and women in the forces, was demobbed and the three different contributions became shows in their own right. Much-Binding returned in 1947, with the aerodrome converted into a country club, membership one! It was in this series the very talented voice man Maurice Denham was first heard (on and off initially due to his film commitments). Maurice, another ITMA graduate, could produce a cornucopia of accents — hu­man and animal. The former covered everything from a refined gentleman to a cockney charwoman. The latter included, as described in the script, ‘the noise of an infuriated yak’.

Maurice’s most famous character was the likeable silly-ass Dudley Davenport. Dudley sported a distinctive laugh, written in the script as “keogh, keogh, keogh!”, and a couple of popu­lar catchphrases: the apologetic “Oh, I say — I am a fool!” and his cheery greeting “Jolly D to see you!” Maurice also supplied voices for Ivy Clingbine (“Oh! What ‘ave I sayed!”), Mr. Blake the sexton (geddit?) and Fred (pronounced ‘Fraid’) Larkin, the man with the ‘comical anecdotties’.

Other character parts were supplied by the ladies of the cast, most notably Barbara Valerie, Maureen Riscoe and Diana Morrison (the stern ‘Miss Hotchkiss’ in ITMA). Two which escaped them were those of Costa and Horne’s ‘better halves’, Emily (always in trouble with her ‘twinges’) and Bessie (“Not a word to Bessie about this, Murdoch!”). Despite being regularly mentioned in every episode, they never actually made an appearance before the microphone.

Work for each week’s show began on the pre­vious Sunday, when Ken made the trip to Dickie’s house for a scriptwriting session. After tossing ideas back and forth, they finally produced thirty pages of handwritten script in a school exercise book. This was delivered to Leslie Bridgmont’s secretary who typed the foolscap copy, translat­ing abbreviations along the way. These covered catchphrases — Murdoch’s greeting “Ah, good morning, sir. It is good to see you” became “AGMSHGTSY” in Horne-Murdoch shorthand – and common little exchanges between charac­ters. Sam Costa’s grumbles and tangled clichés (termed ‘Costaisms’) were left blank for him to provide on the day of recording. Also omitted to be supplied later, was Dickie’s opening spot, in which he described noteworthy events in the village that week.

Rather than being a collection of jokes, the programme made use of regular little ‘stunt’ dialogues to emphasise the players’ characteristics. For instance, Horne was typically slow on the uptake whenever Murdoch let loose a whimsicality. When he did react, it would invariably be in response to an earlier joke, a few pages back in the script. Another gimmick was to delay character entrances so their catchphrases took on a different context:
MURDOCH:       Well, we’ll get Costa in and ask him, Sir. (Calling) Costa! By the way, Sir, have you seen anything of Edward Wilkinson lately?
HORNE:              Well, I should imagine he’s gone abroad because about a week ago I was in a travel agency (Door opens) and he came in and said —
COSTA:               Good morning, Sir. Was there something?

Edward Wilkinson was in fact an old Air Force buddy of Horne’s, whose name was thrown into the scripts as an in-joke. Later, whenever the fellow was introduced to someone, the reaction was usually “Oh, are you Edward Wilkinson from Much-Binding?” — despite the fact the poor man had no connection with the show whatsoever!

Dickie’s little quips which failed to register with his sen­ior officer were frequently an excuse for old chestnuts or groan-inducing puns. In one episode Horne explains that sea-food is available at a London restaurant: “It means you can get a crustacean.” Murdoch: “Really Sir, Charing Crustacean or Kings Crustacean?” Sometimes a surrealistic quality crept in to the humour, as with this wireless police message: “There was a nasty incident at the corner of Balls Pond Road today when a speaker ran over the events of the past year.”

Meanwhile, one day in 1948 Dickie received a phone call supposedly from a lady-in-waiting at Buckingham Palace. Knowing Kenneth’s penchant for practical jokes over the phone, he was initially rather sceptical. But the call turned out to be a genuine request for a royal visit to the Paris Studio where the show was recorded. So that Tuesday twelve seats were reserved for a party which included the Queen, Princess Margaret and — their first appearance since the birth of their new son — Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh. Dickie’s cry of “Good old Charlieee!” at the end of the song seemed particularly apt.

More often the celebrities were on the other side of the microphone. In the tenth show of the third series, which fea­tured broadcaster Richard Dimbleby in ‘Up Your Alley’ (a parody of his show, Down Your Way), there was a guest ap­pearance by American tough guy Alan Ladd. He was given lines riddled with all the favourite Much-Binding catchphrases. At rehearsals he started to paraphrase these into something more natural to his delivery style, and was most surprised when Leslie Bridgmont insisted he mustn’t change a word!

Another historic event was the first television edition, broadcast live from Lime Grove in 1947. The viewers were eager for more, but Kenneth found it hard to tear himself away from business meetings to attend rehearsals, so only a few episodes were made.

Towards the end of the fourth series, Richard Murdoch was in hospital with mumps, and Kenneth Horne was left to carry on alone. However Dickie was back for the final show, in which they hosted a farewell party and reprised their ver­sion of the Quartet from Rigo1etto, a hit with listeners back in 1948. In hindsight, the finality seems ill-timed since it was only a couple of months before Horne and Murdoch were back in the saddle, increasing their bank balances with a £50,000 series for Radio Luxembourg.

This series, representing the most lucrative contract to date in British radio, was sponsored by Mars Bars. The novelty of commercial breaks comes an unexpected surprise to Ken in the first instalment; Dudley Davenport thinks them the best part of the show. In another episode, a great myth is debunked. The cast are stranded in the African desert after a plane crash, with Ken admitting unfamiliarity with their whereabouts. Much to his embarrassment, it turns out that they have arrived at the scene of the A.O.C.’s great wartime adventures, lovingly re­counted with the preface “Did I ever tell you about the time I was in Sidi Barrani?”

The Luxembourg season achieved international sales but was not considered a success (“Even my mother said it was rotten” Dickie later recalled). It also created ill-will back at the BBC, who regarded their desertion to the ‘other side’ as an act of disloyalty. Clearly the wounds were soon healed, as the team were back with the Beeb the following year for a series entitled Over To You. Then on Kenneth’s birthday, Feb­ruary 27th, in Coronation year, Horne and Murdoch took part in a radio command performance in the presence of Her Maj­esty and the Duke of Edinburgh. They included a special verse of the famous song which outlined their plan to view the coro­nation in the disguise of a pantomime horse costume: “We’ll be shouting ‘Good old Charlie!’ from inside a Windsor grey.”

Later that year work began on their last series, simply renamed Much-Binding. The action takes place in the office of a local newspaper, which has been left to Murdoch by his uncle. The paper is renamed ‘The Weekly Bind’, but the first edition goes to print as ‘Tho Wookly Bind’, as Mr. Bobble the compositor (Maurice Denham) has run short of letter ‘e’s. Sam Costa is hired as a radio critic, and he also contributes poems under the pseudonym Prudence Gush; Dudley Davenport’s twin brother Maurice is responsible for a weekly comic strip. Ear-basher Dora Bryan becomes fashion editor Gladys Plum, requiring instructions in the techniques of photography: “Do you know what a negative is, Miss Plum?” — “No” — “That’s right”.

And so the curtain fell on the weekly goings-on at the village of Much-Binding-In-The-Marsh. Both Richard Mur­doch and Kenneth Home went on to again star in other successful radio shows, but working independently with dif­ferent teams.

Then in 1970, after Ken’s death, came a revival of sorts — Dickie and Sam Costa appeared in a regular five minute slot in Frost on Sunday, giving a topical news-oriented rendition of the Much-Binding theme song (several of these are included on the show’s DVD release). After Dickie’s passing in 1990, BBC Radio 4 played a short run of the programmes, and soon after-wards a double cassette was released, containing four classic episodes. Allowing new fans to enjoy a comedy show which can list amongst its devotees such diverse names as King George VI, Lord Reith and John Major.

EPISODE GUIDE

Merry-Go-Round
General Forces Network, Fridays.
Much-Binding-In-The-Marsh broadcasts:
Every six weeks from 31 March 1944 to 28 September 1945; thereafter every three weeks to 1 February 1946 (20 x 60mins)
Starring Richard Murdoch, Kenneth Horne, Sam Costa (from 27 October 1944)
The following episodes are known to survive:
19.1.45 Doing the accounts/The Brains Trust
13.4.45 Home learns of war/Aircraftsmen Work Wonders
19.10.45 TS2 (30 min edit) rehearsing for concert 

Much-Binding-In-The-Marsh
Series #1: Light Programme, Thursdays, 2 January to 18 September 1947 (38 x 30 min)
Starring Richard Murdoch, Kenneth Horne, Sam Costa, Marilyn Williams, Maurice Denham (regularly from 3 July), Dick Griffin, Vivienne Chatterton
The following episodes are known to survive:
1/1 TS1 (part 2 only) Auction Sale
1/2 TS2 (part 2 only) Mr. Prosntz, the Czech
1/15 TS8 (part 1 only) Billiards / Balance Sheet
1/19 TS7 (part 1 only) Conference / Important Phone Calls
1/20 TS11 Club meeting/Have You Seen Any Good Films Lately?
1/21 TS12 Song writing competition/The Plug-It-In wireless 
1/22 TS13 (parts 1 and 3 only) Charles Farnesbarnes, songwriter
1/25 Buying a car / Grocery Rations / Riding Buttercup to Mrs. Plackett’s

Series #2: Light Programme, Wednesdays.
26 November 1947 to 16 June 1948 (30 x 30 mins)
Starring Richard Murdoch, Kenneth Horne, Sam Costa, Janet Davis, Maurice Denham, Barbara Valerie, Gwen Catley
The following episodes are known to survive:
2/2 TS2/1 Reopening the club / concert
2/3 TS2/2 (part 2 only)
2/7 TS2/3 (parts 1 and 3) Fancy Dress Dance / In Town Tonight
2/8 TS2/4 Sam Costa on Trial / Singing Lesson / Question Time Time
2/9 TS2/5 (parts 1 and 3) New Brochure / 50 Guinea Suit / Uncle Tom
2/10 TS2/6 (parts 1 and 3) Taking Photograph / Have a Bash
2/11 TS2/7 (parts 1 and 2) Mayor’s Dinner / Trip to London
2/12 TS2/8 (parts 1 and 2) Military Club / The Florabelle
2/13 TS2/9 Train Trip from London / Reprimanding Fifi / Singing Lesson
2/14 TS2/10 Lady Davenport’s car/Driving lesson
2/15 TS2/11 Buttercup, the horse/Mr. Blake’s farm/Farm animals
2/16 TS2/12 Invitation to Lady Davenport’s Reception / Piano Recital
2/18 TS2/13 (parts 1 and 3) Hunt Supper / Edith Blake’s Wedding

Series #3: Light Programme, Tuesdays, 21 September 1948 to 12 July 1949 (43 x 30 mins)
Special:  Sunday 25 December 1949 (30 mins)
Starring Richard Murdoch, Kenneth Horne, Sam Costa, Maurice Denham, Maureen Riscoe, Helen Hill
The following episodes are known to survive:
3/1  Holidays/Sing-Song
3/10  Richard Bumblepuppy’s ‘Up Your Alley’.
3/15  (Royal Visit) Costa & Dudley run store/Sing-Song
3/20  Bindbourne Festival preparations/Rehearsal
3/21  Horne’s trousers/Mr. Blake’s mystery bus trip
3/28 TS3/26 (part 3 only) 
3/29 TS3/27 (part 3 only)
3/30 TS3/28 (part 2 only)
3/32 TS3/29 (part 2 only)
3/38  Holiday at the seaside (20 min only)
3/43  Breaking-up party 

Series #4: Light Programme, Wednesdays, 15 March to 13 September 1950 (not broadcast or a repeat substituted on one of these dates) (26 x 30 mins)
Starring Richard Murdoch, Kenneth Horne, Sam Costa, Maurice Denham, Diana Morrison, Barbara Leigh
The following episodes are known to survive:
4/7  Murdoch arrives at London office/Secretary interviews
4/8  Flowers/Horne’s glasses/Double Bass/Baby sitting
4/9  Horne’s home perm/Saxophone/PAYE income tax forms
4/10  Dictating machine/Lost silkworm/Elocution lessons
4/15  In the Waggoner’s Arms/On the Cartwrights’ farm
4/20  Horne’s electric shaver/Running Hamphridge’s store
4/25  Preparations for party/Ninth Programme broadcast
4/26  Farewell party 

Luxembourg Series
Radio Luxembourg, Sundays, 29 October 1950 to 17 June 1951 (34 x 30 mins)
Starring Richard Murdoch, Kenneth Horne, Maurice Denham, Sam Costa, Diana Morrison, Patricia Hughes (replaced by Barbara Leigh from 4 Mar 1951)
The following episodes are known to survive:
1 ‘Stopatwinge’ on Costa’s mo/Introduction to sponsor
2 Taking a photo/Tour around rival studio
3 Horne’s cold/Bindbourne Festival preparations
4 At the motor show/Mrs. Hartley-Manners’ play
5 Casting for play/Dinner at ‘Samley’s’/White Sago
6 Riding Buttercup to station/Train journey to London
7 At Horne’s club/Luigi’s restaurant/At the circus
8 Paying off taxi/Chess game/Satellite town plan protest
10 Taking command of an aircraft carrier
11 Starting the Binding Airline / Recovering the Cabbage White
12 Flying a passenger to Paris / In court 
14 Minding a poodle / French trim
15 By camel to Cairo zoo / Forced landing in desert
16 Modern business methods / Festival of Britain sites
17 Horne’s medical examination
18 Loose door handle/Visit from Americans
20 Horne’s visit to cinema/Horne’s Memoirs of the Desert
25 Turning club into roadhouse/Miss Flybelow
26 The American couple & the haunted house
27 (first ½ only) Buying & driving a bus
28 (first ½ only) Detective agency/Murder at Spagthorpe
29 (second ½ only) Lady Fanshaw opens the sale
30 (second ½ only) Ken inherits a manor house

Over To You
Light Programme, Sundays, later Home Service, Mondays, 30 September 1951 to 23 March 1952 (not 10 Feb 1952) and 31 March to 14 April 1952 (28 x 30 mins)
Starring Richard Murdoch, Kenneth Horne, Sam Costa, Maurice Denham, Diana Morrison
one (undated) recording exists, towards the end of the run

Much-Binding
Home Service, Fridays, later Tuesdays, 31 July to 25 September 1953 and 29 September 1953 to 23
March 1954 (35 x 30 mins)
Starring Richard Murdoch, Kenneth Horne, Sam Costa, Maurice Denham (replaced by Nicholas Parsons from 5 Jan 1954), Dora Bryan
The following episodes are known to survive:
1  Murdoch is left a paper/Staff recruitment/Radio criticism
2  Toast/First copy is printed/Next week’s issue
5  Darkroom/Fashion designer/Crumpet-holer
6  How to run up a fancy dress/Scottish sheepdog trials
19  Costa & circulation manager/Christmas novelty factory
?  School for salesmen/Holiday on the continent/Air show

DISCOGRAPHY

Jubilee Festival Album
Davjon LP DJ RAFA 1 (1968)
Richard & Ken appear on one track, singing the Much-Binding song live from the Victoria Palace, 31 March 1968 

BBC 1922-1972 – 50 Years Of Broadcasting
BBC 2LP SOA & B (1972)
Contains short extracts from Merry-Go-Round (19 Jan 1945) and Ack-Ack, Beer-Beer 

50 Years Of Radio Comedy
BBC REC 138M (LP) (1972)
Contains an extract from Much-Binding-In-The-Marsh (17 May 1950) 

Much Binding In The Marsh
BBC double-cassette ZBBC 1197 (1991)
Contains four complete broadcasts
21 September 1948
23 November 1948
28 December 1948
1 February 1949

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Much Binding In The Marsh (paperback)
by Richard Murdoch & Kenneth Horne 

The Chronicles of Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh
by Richard Murdoch
appeared in 6 monthly instalments in The Strand Magazine (Jan – Jun1948)
How we got the gutter mended
Costa has an omen
Application for supplementary
The smell on the landing
The author regrets
Dispatch from the henhouse 

Leslie Bridgmont Presents  
by Leslie Bridgmont (Falcon, 1949)
contains chapters on Merry-Go-Round and Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh


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