Q From Jill Wolvaardt, Dictionary Unit for SA English, South Africa: My husband is working on a book of recollections of former South African diplomats — some of them rather elderly now. The contribution from one of the wittiest, but very frail, retired ambassadors, twice contains the expression not a word to Bessie, in circumstances which one imagines would have been accompanied by the speaker giving a knowing look and tapping the side of his nose with one finger to indicate secrecy. Who might Bessie have been — and why so important to keep things from her?
A You have to be British and of moderately advanced age to know this one. Being both, I recognised it immediately, as did my wife when I told her about your question.
It comes from the golden age of BBC radio comedy, in particular from a comedy programme called Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh, starring Richard Murdoch and Kenneth Horne, with the support of Sam Costa and Maurice Denham. It ran from 1944 to 1952, originally the RAF segment of a show called Merry-Go-Round but later standing alone. Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh was the location of an RAF airfield whose name was a play on some real English place names, such as Moreton-in-Marsh in Gloucestershire, combined with the RAF slang term binding for complaining. The post-war years saw the cast vainly attempting to make a living out of the place, such as by running a country club.
Every member of the cast had his own catchphrase. Costa’s was “Good morning Sir, was there something?” Maurice Denham played an upper-class twit named Dudley Davenport, who would utter the all-too-accurate line “Oh, I say, I am a fool!” when realisation of an ineptitude dawned upon him. Richard Murdoch would say “Have you read any good books lately?” to unsubtly change the subject during a conversation. Kenneth Horne had two: “Did I ever tell you about the time I was in Sidi Barrani?”, always the introduction to a boring anecdote about his exploits in North Africa. The other was your “Not a word to Bessie”, used when telling Richard Murdoch about an extravagance of his or some mildly scandalous thing he’d done. Bessie, of course, was his wife, though she never appeared.
Horne’s catchphrase gained some circulation in the 1950s but is now quite dead. Not quite forgotten, though, as you will have gathered!