Saturday, October 11, 2003

“He’s fallen in the water”

If there’s one thing I can thank my father for, it’s introducing me to the Goon Show, perhaps the finest example of radio comedy these isles have ever produced. Every week they would produce a radio show of such complete madness that radio audiences were kept in thrall for the twelve years of its run, making household names of Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers and Michael Bentine.

The Goons came together at the end of the Second World War, ex-soldiers, who one way or another had found themselves entertaining the troops, and finding themselves demobbed continued to meet in a London pub, writing and performing comedy. They got their break by selling their ideas to an uncomprehending BBC in 1948 as “Those Crazy People”, leading one BBC governor to ask what, exactly, this “Go On Show” was all about.

The lynchpin of the Goons’ success was Spike Milligan, who, as a jazz trumpeter of some repute, entetained his comrades during the war, filling the gaps with comedy as his act developed. He met Harry Secombe (“a whirlwind of shaving foam and farting”) while on tour in Italy and a partnership was formed. Milligan, suffering from what is now called post-traumatic stress, and latterly a manic depressive, found himself in the stressful job of turning out a script a week for the show. In his own words, it nearly killed him, but from such torment came works of true genius.

The writing may have been one thing, but bringing the scripts to life was another. The duties were more or less split up. Secombe only really had one character - himself turned up to eleven, who became Neddy Seagoon, the blundering hero of most of the shows. Milligan played most of the “idiot” characters, such as The Famous Eccles, while most of the characterisations fell to Peter Sellers, a superb mimic and inveterate practical joker. The entire Bluebottle chacter (all cardboard cut-out and string) was based on a Boy Scout leader who once turned up at rehearsals to ask for a favour, leaving Sellers in hysterics at the scene before him. A legend was born.

You have not experienced comedy until you have heard the Goons. They’re the people who influenced the Pythons, who influenced the Altenative Comedians, who influenced today’s stars. Instead of music tapes, our car would be stocked up with The Phantom Batter Pudding Hurler of Bexhill on Sea, Six Charlies in Search of an Author, or my personal favourite, The Greenslade Story, the tale of one man’s quest to become a BBC continuity announcer.

Alas, the Goons are no more, with Sellers, Bentine Secombe and Milligan all shuffling off to the great barrack room in the sky. They all went on to be famous in their own right, but they were always, always known as “Ex-Goon...” But what a legacy they left behind. I’ve got a Goons quote for every occasion, be it Bluebottle, Seagoon, Eccles, Moriarty, Henry Crun, Minnie Bannister and the other one I can’t spell.

Look, just get over to the Goon Show archive and listen for yourself. If I was you I’d start with the classic “What time is it Eccles?” sketch - Milligan and Sellers working in perfect harmony - and work through. Or better still, tune in to BBC Radio 7 on Mondays - either on digital radio or online to hear the real MacCoy.

More Goonery:

The scripts: here and here.

Goon Show Preservation Society

Let’s face it, any comic who can fool the BBC into having a character called “Hugh Jampton” is alright by me.

The Scaryduck Archive

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