The following is a transcript of the presentation I made
at The Manchester College, 22 March 2016.
The Goons, l-r: Harry Secombe, Michael Bentine, Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers
I’m Brin Coleman and I’m here to talk about The Goon Show, considered by many to be among the funniest and most original comedy shows of all time.
It broadcast on the BBC Home Service from May 1951 to January 1960. 250 episodes in all across 10 series that made a lasting impression on many people, some of whom who would go on to become ground breaking comedy writers and performers, as well as musicians, writers and film makers. The Goon Show was not only original and funny, it left a legacy, a legacy that we still benefit from 56 years after the show originally finished broadcasting. Today, I want talk about that legacy and just how much The Goon Show influenced other artists and performers.
Part 1: The Goon Show
In the beginning, there were four Goons: Harry Secombe, Michael Bentine, Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers. They all held active service during the Second World War, although Milligan was eventually discharged with battle fatigue.
When The Goon Show started, the four would perform a number of sketches written by Spike Milligan interspersed with musical numbers, but by 1953, Bentine had left to pursue his own career and encouraged by producer Peter Eton, instead of a series of sketches, each show now had just one story.
The Goons, l-r: Secombe, Sellers and Milligan, announcer Wallace Greenslade
The classic line up of The Goon Show was now in place: Secombe, Sellers and Milligan, announcer Wallace Greenslade, #Slide 4 - plus with music from The Ray Ellington Quartet, Max Geldray and a small orchestra conducted by the Wally Stott who went on to arrange music for greats such as Shirley Bassey, Dusty Springfield and Scott Walker, plus an array of weird, silly and surreal sound effects demanded by Milligan from what was to become The BBC Radiophonic Workshop, who went on to famously create the music for Quatermass, Doctor Who, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and a range of other BBC programmes.
The Goon Show was something new and entirely different.
The Goon Show characters, as drawn by Spike: Bluebottle, Eccles, Count Jim 'Thighs' Moriarty, Hercules Grytpype-Thynne, Minnie Bannister and Henry Crun, Ned Seagoon, Major Dennis Bloodnok
Milligan conjured up impossible situations and surreal jokes with a range of off the wall characters. Secombe played the hero of sorts Neddie Seagon, while Sellers and Milligan each played a number of characters. Among the audience favourites though were Eccles, an extension of Milligan himself, and seemingly heroic boy scout Bluebottle, played by Sellers, here with a fine example of how Milligan’s humour worked.
'What Time Is It Eccles?' - from 'The Mysterious Punch-up-the-conker' (1957)
From modest beginnings, the show grew and grew. It started with just 300,000 listeners and ended with millions of devoted fans, who in turn would be inspired to create something new and original themselves.
Part 2: But what happened next?
During his time with The Goon Show, Harry Secombe built a successful career as a singer and actor. In the 1950s, he starred in a number of films, but Secombe shone as a start of musical theatre, taking the lead role in Pickwick, based on Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, which gave him the hit single ‘If I Ruled The World’ and a nomination for a Tony award. He also starred as Mr. Bumble in the film version of the musical Oliver!
Harry Secombe as Pickwick and Mr. Bumble in Oliver!
He moved into television with The Harry Secombe Show, which ran for 5 years and featured sketches and appearances from Arthur Lowe and Ronnie Barker, as well as fellow Goons Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers.
After this, Secombe moved into religious broadcasting, hosting popular shows such as Stars On Sunday, Songs Of Praise and Highway.
Herbert Lom as Commissioner Dreyfuss and Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau from The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976)
In 1955, Peter Sellers starred alongside Alec Guinness and Herbert Lom in the Ealing comedy The Ladykillers. The film was successful in the UK and abroad and was nominated for an Oscar for best screenplay. In 1959, he played three roles in the successful comedy film The Mouse That Roared. But it was in the 1963 film The Pink Panther that Sellers really shone. The film was supposed to be a vehicle for David Niven, however, Sellers’ ability to steal the scene with multiple improvised takes meant the film became his. In total he starred in 6 hugely successful Pink Panther films in his lifetime. A seventh film, Trail of the Pink Panther, made after his death, was made with unused footage from previous films. It was not well received.
Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove, Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake and President Merkin Muffley from Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
In 1964, Sellers took on three roles in Stanley Kubrick’s political satire Dr. Strangelove. Sellers’ strength as an improviser was once again utilised, many of these improvisations being added to the script retrospectively by Kubrick.
One of Seller’s last films before his death was Hal Ashby’s comedy-drama Being There. He won a Golden Globe, a BAFTA and many other awards, as well as an Oscar nomination for his role as Chance Gardiner in the film.
Spike Milligan as Batman in the Q Series, in his coat of arms on The Muppet Show and in Monty Python's Life of Brian
Spike Milligan is seen by many as the creative force behind The Goons Show. He wrote almost every script - 250 shows in 10 years. The pressure (largely from Milligan himself) to keep producing original ideas took it’s toll: Spike suffered several nervous breakdowns during the show’s 10 year run (Ess, 2014). In difficult times in later series, he was helped out by fellow writers including Larry Stephens (who also wrote for Tony Hancock), playwright John Antrobus and comedy legend Eric Sykes. Although Milligan’s mental health suffered, he claimed it made the show funnier.
Spike made several forays into television. First came The Idiot Weekly, Price 2d (tuppence), followed quickly by A Show Called Fred and Son of Fred in 1956. As well as Milligan, the cast included Peter Sellers, Eric Sykes, plus regular Goon Show guest Valentine Dyall, June Whitfield, Kenneth Connor and Graham Stark, who also featured in the Pink Panther films with Sellers. Only a few fragments of the show still exist.
Milligan continued this style of comedy in the Q series, which started with Q5 in March 1969. With The Goon Show, he used the medium of radio like no one before him, and as Michael Palin said, "Terry Jones and I adored the Q... shows...[Milligan] was the first writer to play with the conventions of television". This unique combination of surreal sketches with no apparent meaning or punchline with short animations set the template for what Monty Python would follow with soon after.
Spike also became a successful writer with a series of war memoirs, novels and collections of poetry.
Spike graciously accepts his Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1994 British Comedy Awards
He also recounted his experiences with depression in a book co-written by psychiatrist Anthony Clare entitled Depression And How To Survive It.
Although he outlived the rest of the Goons, in later years he faded from the limelight. One notable exception being when he accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award at the British Comedy Awards in 1994 and referred to Prince Charles as a ‘little grovelling bastard’ on live TV. Prince Charles, a lifelong fan of Milligan’s work, responded by telling Spike that there was “still room in the tower”. Spike never felt like he had to play by the rules.
Part 3: Influenced by The Goons
The Beatles first film A Hard Day's Night and The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film, both directed by Richard Lester.
The Goon Show influenced a wide range of artists: comedians, musicians and writers.
The Beatles were huge fans. John Lennon wrote “I was 12 when the Goon Shows first hit me. Sixteen when they were finished with me. Their humour was the only proof that the world was insane.” The Beatles chose Richard Lester to direct A Hard Day’s Night and after his work with The Goons, particularly on 'The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film', a surreal short film made with Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers in 1959.
Monty Python: Eric Idle, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, John Cleese, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam
The Goons and in particular Spike Milligan were a huge influence on Monty Python.
Terry Gilliam stated that Milligan had been one of the reasons he moved to the UK. “I remember hearing the Goons for the first time on an FM station in New York sometime in the mid sixties. Never had I heard anything so absurd, so giddyingly wonderful, wild, and silly in all of my life. There was nothing in America to compare with it. If Britain could produce nonsense as pure and anarchic as that, then that was the place for me.” (Gilliam, 2016) John Cleese said of The Goon Show, “In comedy, there are a very small number of defining moments when somebody comes along and genuinely creates a breakthrough, takes us into territory where nobody has been before” (Ventham, 2002).
Influenced by The Goon Show: Community, South Park, The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, The Young Ones, Vic Reeves Big Night Out, Brass Eye, Eddie Izzard.
But The Goon Show influenced many more people.
While the meta-humour (basically, jokes about jokes) have been celebrated in Dan Harmon’s comedy series Community, The Goon Show were doing this on radio 60 years earlier (Ess, 2014).
In South Park, the character Kenny is killed in increasingly ludicrous ways, much like Bluebottle was, in his words “deaded” every week on The Goon Show (Southparkipedia, 2016).
In his book Spike & Co, Graham McCann states "the anarchic spirit of the Goon Show...would inspire Monty Python's Flying Circus, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, The Young Ones, Vic Reeves Big Night Out, The League of Gentlemen, Brass Eye and countless other strange and bold new comedies" (McCann, 2007).
In tribute to Milligan, comedian Eddie Izzard wrote “Spike... made comedy with free association. The Goon Show could paint these ridiculous images in the audience's heads".
The Goons: Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe.
56 years after it finished broadcasting, people are still laughing along with The Goon Show. As one fan put it, the show is "Comedy as jazz, free-form and playful, anarchic and surreal" (Dutton, 2016). And it is still funny, or at least many people think so.
The Goon Show changed the landscape of comedy. It broke the rules. It made new things possible. Much of the comedy we see, even today, can find it’s roots way back in the 1950s on the BBC Home Service on the highly esteemed Goon Show.
You will find references and much more very soon online at brincoleman.co.uk/goon
References and credits coming soon.
Dutton, Julian, 2016. The Goon Show. [survey] Available at: https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/QKSLYRQ
Ess, Ramsey, 2014. Exploring the Lunacy of 'The Goon Show'. [online] Available at: http://splitsider.com/2014/06/exploring-the-lunacy-of-the-goon-show/ [Accessed 23 February 2016].
Gilliam, Terry, 2016. Tribute to The Goon Show & Spike Milligan. [online] Available at http://www.thegoonshow.net/tributes/terry_gilliam.asp [Accessed 18 March 2016]
McCann, Graham, 2007. Spike & Co. London: Hodder paperbacks.
Southparkipedia, 2016. kenny McCormick. [online] Available at: http://southparkipedia.wikia.com/wiki/Kenny_McCormick [Accessed 12 March 2016].
Ventham, Maxine, 2002. Spike Milligan: His Part In Our Lives. London: Robson.