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The Goon Show

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The Goon Show was a hugely popular and extremely influential British radio comedy programme, which was originally produced and broadcast by the BBC from 1951 to 1960 on the BBC Home Service.

(For other uses of the word Goon or Goons see Goon)

Contents

Background

The show was enormously popular in Britain in its heyday; tickets for the recording sessions at the BBC's Aeolian Hall studio in London were constantly over-subscribed and the various character voices and catchphrases from the show quickly became part of the vernacular. The series has remained consistently popular ever since -- it is still being broadcast once a week by the ABC in Australia -- and it has exerted a singular influence over succeeding generations of comedians and writers, most notably the creators of Monty Python's Flying Circus. Alongside the work of The Marx Brothers, the Goon Show is arguably one of the most important comic creations of the 20th century.

The scripts mixed ludicrous plots with surreality, puns, catchphrases and an array of silly and surreal sound effects. Some of the later episodes feature electronic effects devised by the fledgling BBC Radiophonic Workshop, many of which were reused by other shows for decades afterward.

Many elements of the show satirised contemporary life in Britain, parodying aspects of showbusiness, commerce, industry, art, politics, diplomacy, the police, the military, education, class structure, literature, film and much more.

Inception

The series was devised and written by Spike Milligan with the occasional collaboration of other writers including (singly) Eric Sykes, Larry Stephens, Maurice Wiltshire and John Antrobus, under the watchful eye of Jimmy Grafton (KOGVOS-Keeper Of The Goons and Voice Of Sanity). Many senior BBC staff were bemused by the show's surreal, left-field humour and it has been reported that senior program executives erroneously refrerred to it as "The Go On Show" or even "The Coon Show".

The principal parts were performed by Milligan, Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe (who, incidentally shared the same birthday, 8 September), with Sellers and Milligan performing literally dozens of different characters. The first two seasons also featured Michael Bentine. Featured musicians Ray Ellington and Max Geldray also performed on occasion, and BBC announcer Wallace Greenslade provided spoken links as well as occasionally performing small roles in the scripts, usually as himself.

One Goon Show sequence, from "The Mysterious Punch-Up-The-Conker", begins with Bluebottle (Sellers) asking Eccles (Milligan) what the time is. Eccles consults a piece of paper, on which is written "Eight o'clock" - the answer he received the last time he asked somebody what the time was. The implications of this method of telling the time are then explored at some length.

Another episode, "Lurgi Strikes Britain", introduced the fictional malady of lurgi (a word which has survived into modern usage to mean any miscellaneous illness). In the episode, Grytpype Thynne and Moriarty (who, in the episode, sell brass band instruments) invent the disease, tell Ned Seagoon that the only known cure is to play a brass band instrument, and convince him to make a plea to the House of Commons for millions of pounds to be spent on life-saving brass-band instruments, to be dropped over the affected areas...

A classic example of Milligan's surreal approach to radio was his request for a special audio effect, which he said, he wanted sound like "a sock full of custard splattering against a wall". Many of the memorable sound effects created for later programs featured innovative production techniques borrowed from the realm of musique concrète, and used the then new technology of magnetic tape. Many of these sequences involved the use of complex multiple edits, echo and reverberation and the deliberate slowing down, speeding up or reversing of tapes. One of the most side-splitting sound effects was the famous sequence created by the Radiophonic Workshop to represent the sound of Major Bloodnok's digestive system in action, and which included a variety of inexplicable gurgling and explosive noises. This also kept turning up on later comedy shows, and can even be heard on a track by The Orb.

The 'sound pictures' created by the Goons were equally groundbreaking, and in one legendary episode, 'The Choking Horror', they conjured up the image of the tops of all the major buildings and landmarks in London being covered by a thick growth of hair.

The strain of writing and performing such a hugely popular series took a heavy toll on Milligan, who was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He suffered a serious nervous breakdown during the run of the show, requiring hospitalisation, and the intense pressure also led to the failure of his marriage.

Regular cast members

Missing image
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The Goons: Milligan, Secombe, Bentine, and Sellers
  • Harry Secombe as
    • Neddie Seagoon, affable but gullible idiot, around whom the plot usually revolves. The patriotic Neddie is always willing to lay down his life for the Crown, and this often gets him into difficult situations. Neddie is often unemployed, and some episodes begin with him accepting a new job. Some jokes are made about his enormous girth, especially when contrasted to his lack of height.
    • Fred Nurke, a Cockney.
    • Uncle Oscar, uncle of Henry and Min. A very old pensioner who usually speaks but soon collapsing.
  • Spike Milligan as
    • (The Famous) "Mad Dan" Eccles, idiot supreme. Eccles is a man with no more wits than a small child. Occasionally he will be performing some absurd task, and when questioned why, it will come out that he misinterpreted instructions. Eccles is often paired with Bluebottle as a friend, and sometimes is an underling or lackey for Neddie. When people around him tell him to shut up, he often joins in, and has been known to go on telling himself to shut up long after everyone else has given up. Another catchphrase is his distinctive rising-and-falling "Ooooooooh..." when comprehension dawns on him. Milligan based Eccles on one of his childhood cartoon favourites, the Disney character Goofy.
    • Miss Minnie Bannister, elderly spinster with a quavering voice, an interesting past, and an addiction to "sinful modern-type dancing". Minnie is as flirtatious as a girl a third her age.
    • Count Moriarty, impecunious French idiot and Grytpype-Thynne's sidekick. He often utters meaningless foreign-sounding curses like "Sapristi!" Over the course of the series Moriarty changes from being a competent international criminal to a cringing whelp forever being picked on by Grytpype-Thynne; this deterioration is reflected in his voice, which over the course of five years goes from a deep, sinister purr to a high-pitched croak. Surprisingly, this character arc seems to have been completely unplanned but developed naturally from the characters' increasingly impoverished status.
    • Throat or Miss Throat, with the very gravelly voice.
    • Little Jim, whose single line "He's fallen in the wa-ater" became a national catchphrase.
    • Jim/Adolphus Spriggs, who makes frequent appearances on the show. He often repeats his lines in a high-pitched falsetto and calls everybody "Jim".
  • Peter Sellers as
    • Major Dennis Bloodnok, military cad, lecher and idiot. Seagoon's former officer and in love with Minnie Bannister, to Henry Crun's disgust. In contrast to most military officers in fiction, Bloodnok is a world-class coward who'll betray his country for £5.
    • Hercules Grytpype-Thynne, a suave, well-educated impecunious homosexual cad. He often collaborates with Count Moriarty to swindle Neddie. His homosexuality was never mentioned openly in the show, but "came out" in a biographical note in the book The Goon Show Scripts (1972). Sellers' characterisation was based on renowned British actor George Sanders.
    • Henry Crun, aged idiot inventor and beau of Minnie Bannister. His famous catchphrase, "You can't get the wood, you know", was a satirical reference to British postwar austerity.
    • Bluebottle, young lecherous Boy Scout and idiot from Finchley, a direct ancestor of Kenny of South Park. He is usually a playmate or companion of Eccles and can usually be convinced to carry out any task, however dangerous, in return for a bag of sweets. Bluebottle is always willing to help anyone, but normally is as bad at interpreting instructions as Eccles is and frequently ends up being "deaded" (killed), usually by a huge explosion. The voice and character were inspired by an actual person, ostensibly a scout-master, who arrived uninvited one day, in uniform, to audition for the show.
    • Willium "Mate" Cobblers, working-class cockney idiot. His catchphrase, "You can't park 'ere, mate", was a Goon in-joke that took a swipe at officious BBC commissionaires. (Sellers used a similar voice for trade union leader Fred Kite in the movie I'm All Right, Jack).
    • Havaldar Sinjiz Thing, an Indian idiot. The various Indian characters derived from Milligan's childhood in India, where his father had served in the British Army.
  • Michael Bentine was part of the regular cast for the first two seasons, often playing Prof. Osric Pureheart. As a tribute of sorts, unheard characters called Bentine are sometimes referred to in later episodes.

Other members

  • Andrew Timothy - the show's original announcer, who left the show after the first few episodes of season 4, claiming that he feared for his sanity. He did however return in 1972 for The Last Goon Show of All.
  • Wallace Greenslade - announcer, he opened and closed each show (often parodying the traditional BBC announcing style), and occasionally played himself in an episode, as well as other small parts.
  • Ray Ellington (not related to the Duke) and his Quartet - singer and drummer. The popular Ellington Quartet acted as rhythm section for the show's orchestra. Ellington, whose father was African-American, also occasionally played small roles, mostly as black characters.
  • Max Geldray - jazz harmonica player (but no actor).
  • Wally Stott and his Orchestra - the house band. Stott was a well-known British band leader and arranger whose other credits included numerous recordings for film and singing star Diana Dors. He also composed the music for Hancock's Half Hour.
  • George Chisholm - one of the show's regular musicians, sometimes called upon to play Scottish characters.

Guest appearances

  • John Snagge - doyen of BBC newsreaders who, like Greenslade, also played himself (usually in pre-recorded inserts), and was a great supporter of the show.
  • Valentine Dyall - radio's "Man in Black", often called upon to play sinister characters.
  • Charlotte Mitchell - stepped into the breach on the rare occasions when the script called for an authentic female.
  • Jack Train - made two appearances reprising his role as Colonel Chinstrap from ITMA, who fits into the Goon framework surprisingly well.
  • Dick Emery - stood in for Secombe as "Emery-type Seagoon" in "Spon", and replaced Milligan in a few others, alternating with Graham Stark. Emery also appeared in the closest thing to a Goon Show film, The Case of the Mukkinese Battlehorn (which also featured Sellers and Milligan but not Secombe) and went on to provide voices for the Beatles' Yellow Submarine, and was popular in his own television sketch show in the 1970s.
  • Kenneth Connor - stood in for Secombe as Neddie Seagoon in "The £50 Cure" as well as appearing as Willium Mate in "Who is Pink Oboe?" in place of Peter Sellers, who was ill.


Archiving

Many of the earliest radio episodes no longer exist. Only two episodes from series 2 (1951-2) survive, and no episodes from either seasons one or three survive. Only selected episodes from series 4 were selected for preservation in the BBC Sound Archive, and some exist only as off-air copies made by fans at the time of the original broadcast. However, commencing with the start of series 5 (1954), BBC Transcription Services began making copies for overseas sales, and even commissioned re-recordings of some key series 4 episodes for the "Vintage Goons" series, which was mainly intended for overseas markets.

Rather than making copies from the broadcast tapes, Transcription services made their own recordings simultaneous with the broadcast recordings in order to obtain the best possible sound quality. The TS copies were then edited to match the producer's cut of the broadcast tapes.

The Transcription Services versions were then cut to remove topical and parochial material and anything that might be potentially offensive (and the Goon Show did feature quite a lot of politically incorrect humour, much of it sneaked under the noses of BBC censors). Later TS releases had further cuts for timing purposes. For many years these abridged versions were the only surviving copies of many episodes, but in recent years the BBC has done a huge amount of research work to find and restore the missing footage, often literally from the cutting room floor.

To date, the BBC has released 22 CD sets of these remastered episodes, containing 88 shows, plus The Last Goon Show of All and Goon Again. Another 12 shows had been previously issued by EMI, but for contractual reasons these were all heavily cut to remove musical interludes and other music cues, and to this day they are the only commercially available versions of those particular episodes.

Episodes of the Goon Show are still regularly broadcast in New Zealand and are still occasionally repeated on BBC Radio 2 or Radio 4 in the UK. More recently the show has become a regular feature on the digital radio station BBC 7, which features both new material (much of it recognisably in a Goonish tradition) and archives from several decades of BBC comedy and drama.

The ABC Radio National network in Australia has regularly broadcast the Goon Show since the 1960s. For many years, the series was broadcast every Saturday afternoon, just after the midday news bulletin. More recently, it was broadcast twice a week, on Friday mornings and Sunday afternoons. The network attempted to retire the series in January 2004, feeling that it might have at last worn out its welcome; but a huge listener response proved them wrong, and broadcasts of the show resumed in the Friday timeslot in June of the same year. The ABC's broadcasts of the series have made the Goon Show one of the most repeated and longest-running of all radio programs.

The sound of the Goons

Alongside the musical intermissions provided by the Ray Ellington Quartet and Max Geldray, the Goon Show was famous for its unique library of sound effects. The show's scripts often provided the BBC's sound effects department with such challenges as generating the audible equivelant of a piece of string, the sound of a wall/piano/christmas pudding being driven at high speed, the noise made by an idiot attempting to open a door in the wrong direction, various explosions, splashes, splatters, clatters, bangs, etc. Apparently, the BBC sound library, whose previous work had involved producing nothing more stimulating than "footsteps on a gravel path" or "a knock on the door" greatly appreciated the variety of challenges posed by the show's often surreal requirements.

Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb!

During radio programmes of the 1920s and 1930s, the background noise for crowd scenes was often achieved by a moderately large group of people mumbling "rhubarb" under their breath with random inflections. This was often parodied by Spike Milligan, who would try to get the same effect with only three or four people. After some time, Harry Secombe began throwing in the word "custard" during these scenes.

Later revivals

The future members of Monty Python were fans, and they have on many occasions expressed their collective debt to Milligan and The Goons, but ironically their famous TV series over-shadowed Milligan's later anarchic TV efforts (such as the "Q" series) -- even though the Python team have credited Milligan and especially Q as being the source of two key Python features -- sketches didn't have to be "about" real subjects and they didn't have to follow conventional structures, particularly in respect to ending sketches without the traditional punchline.

However although Python now seems to be the more quoted, it is fair to say that virtually all British alternative comedy in its modern form is based on the model created for The Goon Show by Milligan. The Goons also had a considerable influence on the humour of The Beatles, and especially the writing of John Lennon. Interestingly, The Goons and The Beatles both worked considerably with record producer George Martin.

The Telegoons (1963-4) was a 15-minute BBC puppet show featuring the voices of Milligan, Secombe and Sellers and adapted from the radio scripts. The series has not been repeated since its original run although at least some episodes are known to survive.

In 1964 Milligan, Secombe and Sellers lent their voices to a comedy LP, How to Win an Election (or Not Lose by Much), which was written by Leslie Bricusse. It was not exactly a Goons reunion because Sellers was in Hollywood and had to record his lines separately. The album was reissued on CD in 1997.

They made a number of records including "I'm Walking Backwards for Christmas" (originally sung by Milligan in the show to fill in during a musicians' strike), "Bloodnok's Rock and Roll Call" (the first British record with the word "rock" in its title) and its B-side "The Ying Tong Song", which was reissued as an A-side in the mid-1970s and became a surprise novelty hit.

In the movies the following were a product of Goon activity:

  • Let's Go Crazy (1951)
  • Penny Points to Paradise (1951)
  • Down Among the Z Men (1952) (with Bentine)
  • The Case of the Mukkinese Battle Horn (1956) (a two-reeler starring Milligan, Sellers and Dick Emery)
  • The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film (1959) (a surreal one-reeler short subject starring Milligan and Sellers and directed by Dick Lester)

In 1972 the Goons reunited to perform The Last Goon Show of All for radio and television, before an invited audience that didn't, however, include long-time fan HRH The Prince of Wales (who was out of the country on duty with the Royal Navy at the time). The show was broadcast on BBC television and radio, and eventually released in stereo on a CD.

The last time all three Goons worked together was in 1978 when they recorded two new songs, "The Raspberry Song" and "Rhymes". Sellers died in 1980.

In 2001 the BBC recorded a "new" The Goon Show, Goon Again, featuring Andrew Secombe (son of Harry), Jon Glover and Jeffrey Holland, with Christopher Timothy (son of Andrew Timothy) announcing, based on two unpreserved series 3 episodes from 1953, "The Story of Civilisation" and "The Plymouth Ho Armada", both written by Milligan and Stephens.


Resources

  • The Goon Show Site (http://www.thegoonshow.net/) - Contains downloads, pictures, collectables, cast, characters and much more
  • The Goon Show Depository (http://www.thegoonshow.co.uk/)
  • The Goon Show Archive (http://minnie.tuhs.org/Goons/index2.html)
  • The Goon Show YAQ (http://groups.google.com/groups?selm=2pkt9s%24m3j%40ccu2.auckland.ac.nz&output=gplain): Google Usenet archive
  • The Goon Show - Some of the scripts (http://www.hexmaster.com/goonscripts): +50 scripts available for download
  • the alt.fan.goons (news:alt.fan.goons) newsgroup exists to discuss the Goon show and Goon-related things
  • BBC On-line Shop (http://www.bbcshop.com/bbc_shop/dept.asp?shop=bbc&dept_id=39)
  • The Goon Show Companion: A History and Goonography by Roger Wilmut and Jimmy Grafton (1976) remains the definitive book on the series, but has never been updated.
  • The Goonlog (http://homepage.mac.com/waynestewart/iblog/) - a Goonish weblog by Wayne Stewart. Contains polls, guess this sound clip competitions and find links to shows.
  • The Spike Milligan Tribute Site (http://www.spikemilligan.co.uk/)
  • The Spike Milligan Appreciation Society (http://www.smas.me.uk/)
  • The Goon Show on BBC7 (http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbc7/comedy/progpages/goons.shtml)
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