Saturday, 25 May 2013

A Comedy Great

Sunday afternoons were often spent with my head up against the gramaphone in the corner.  My ear would fill with the sounds of the 'Billy Cotton Band Show,' ' Life with the Lyons,' ' The Navy Lark,' the rather sad 'Jimmy Clitheroe,' and the brilliant, unforgettable 'Goon Show!'  This in particular left memories because this somewhat surreal comedy was 'all in the mind.'  Pictures were painted in the listeners head in a manner television can never do.  The voices, and there were many, left an imprint few can forget.  To hear some of these sounds today takes me back to a sun filled living room and the large salad filled rolls that often comprised Sunday lunch in the summertime.  It was a long time ago!

The Goons began in the dark gloomy days after the war.  Many ex-servicemen decided to try their hand at the entertainment world, most comedians making their way via the famous 'Windmill Theatre' in London's Soho.  Famous for naked dancers, who were not allowed to move, posing as tableau's of ancient Greece and the like.  This was interspersed with comedians and offered six shows a day six days a week.  Famously during the blitz manager Vivian Van Damme (happily known as 'VD') refused to close the theatre and the famous motto 'We Never Close' was often mispronounced, 'We Never Clothed!'  Security was employed to hinder some patrons behaviour, one such using glasses with small binoculars attached was helped from the premises. The audience did not appreciate the comedians in between 'acts.'  They would read papers and laughs were indeed rare.  However the cream of British comedy for the next twenty five years began here, among them Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers.  

Secombe, Michael Bentine, also at the Windmill,  and Sellers teamed up with Spike Milligan after discovering they shared a surreal sense of humour.  Almost penniless they would sit in Cartoon Cinemas all day laughing at the show on offer, and developing their own styles incidentally as they did so.  Sellers wormed his way into radio by calling the head of entertainment and impersonating a popular comedian of the day.  Only after a short chat did he reveal himself.  His ruse worked and he obtained small parts on the wireless.  Milligan obtained some work writing for Harry Roy's popular radio show while having attempted to make it as a Jazz trumpeter.  Their real break occurred when together they created the 'Goon Show.  During the war POWs had used this term to refer to the German guards, and a cartoon from the 1930's also featured 'Goons.' 

The Goons began as 'Crazy People' in 1951 because no-one at the BBC knew what was meant as a 'Goon.'  A member of the BBC management reportedly asked "What is the 'Go On' show?' BBC Comedy management appears not to have improved much.  The 'Goon Show' was the name on all later episodes.  These consisted of a mixture of sketches, spoofs  of incidents and people of the day, constant references to the war in which they had all served, plus puns and catchphrases. Explosions were a feature of the show, Milligan himself suffering from German mortars at Monte Cassino, the effects never left him.  Behind them grew a mixture of amazing sound effects which put a tremendous strain on the 'sound effects ' department.  What sound would you use for someone driving off on a wall?  They of course loved it!  Add to this a fantastic orchestra conducted by Wally Scott, who later became known as Angela Morley!  The links and incidental music, including national anthems no nation would ever choose, are impressive in their own right. Max Geldray played a Jazz Harmonica and the Ray Ellington quartet before the last third.  Both were a standard part of the show with incidental lines thrown in.  Geldrays large nose and Ellington's West Indian background constantly a target for Milligan's writing. 

Spike Milligan wrote most of the shows, Bentine leaving after full and frank debates on how the show should proceed.  Larry Stephan, who drank himself to an death wrote a great many scripts with Milligan.  The depressions which assailed Spike led to Eric Sykes and others writing or taking Spikes place on occasion.  The series lasted until 1960, at one time with 26 episodes a year!  Less episodes and it may have lasted another ten years.  

The Good Show, a never to be forgotten classic! 



Helen Devries said...

Wonderful Goon Show...I loved it!

Lee said...

The Goons brought much happiness and fun to so many people across the globe. They were forerunners of Monty Python, The Goodies and the like...they, The Goons, really started something.

When I was a teenager we were always quoting and mimicking them at parties; their silly voices; their catch phrases. It was the "in" thing to be a fan of The Goons. The shows longevity and the numerous reruns to new audiences proved it's brilliance. Replays of it were on late at night on the ABC in the early Sixties; and within my group of friends The Goons were very popular.

Adullamite said...

Helen, A woman of taste!

Lee, Still available on Radio 4 Extra.

Mike Smith said...

Quick! Hide behind this pane of glass!

But you can see through it.

Not if you close your eyes!

Spike Milligan was a genius.

Adullamite said...

Mike, Ah yes, Napoleons Piano!

Unknown said...

Unmoved naked women... Alas, that sure conjures up some not so pleasant memories of the good ol' days...