The Goon Show Compendium, Vol. 6

As readers of this blog know, I don’t always talk about manga. Sometimes I’m discussing other comics, sometimes I’m droning on for hours about Frank Zappa, and sometimes I’m going into great detail about which previously censored Looney Tunes blackface gags are now uncut on the new DVDs. And then there’s British Comedy, which I have had a great love for for years. I started with Python, and of course devoured all the interviews with the cast, where they discussed the influence of Spike Milligan. I then watched The Goodies, where the cast ALSO discussed Spike’s influence. And heck, even the Beatles have a song (You Know My Name, Look Up The Number) directly influenced by the Goons. I had to find out more.

And I did. The Goon Show scripts book was in my local library. That was it for a while, as importing from the UK was not as easy in those days. But then the BBC started releasing cassettes and CDs of old Goon Shows, and I quickly grew even more obsessed. Then a few years back, the BBC decided to do things properly. No more CDs of 4 randomly selected shows plonked down for a few bob. Now we got all the shows from Series 5 onwards (the earliest series that completely survives) in giant CD box sets, restored from the best materials by Ted Kendall, with previously censored jokes put back in, all with copious liner notes and annotations by Radio and TV scholar Andrew Pixley. This is the 6th such box, containing the 2nd half of series 7 (which ran in 1957).

The Goon Show was a radio comedy on the BBC from 1951 to 1960. The scripts were primarily by Spike Milligan, but he usually had helpers at various points in the series, either for reasons of time or for reasons of mental stability (Spike was bipolar, a diagnosis unknown to everyone, including him, until the 1970s). The shows in this box are co-written by Larry Stephens, a friend of Spike’s and another BBC radio scriptwriter.

The cast was Spike Milligan (known to North Americans for his Muppet Show appearance, where he debated Sam the Eagle and sang It’s a Small World), Harry Secombe (known to North Americans as Mr. Bumble in the movie Oliver!, and for the song If I Ruled The World, which he debuted), and Peter Sellers (known to North Americans). Each week Spike and Peter would take on a variety of roles, all of which would revolve around Secombe’s well-meaning but dim oaf Neddie Seagoon, who Harry always described as “myself, only more so”. Generally speaking, there was no continuity except the characters; the plot resets every week and starts on another venue.

The plots varied, but tended to rely on a fixed form. Neddie was the main character, and would be approached by unscrupulous con-men Hercules Grytpype-Thynne (Sellers) and Jim Moriarty (Milligan) to do something incredibly stupid and/or impossible for money. Neddie would start on the task, usually with the help of fellow idiots Bluebottle (Sellers), a crack-voiced Boy Scout, and Eccles (Milligan), a cheerfully idiotic simpleton (Spike based Eccles’ voice partially off Goofy from the Disney cartoons, which many Americans will note immediately). He’ll also run into Major Dennis Bloodnok (Sellers), a retired Army officer and filthy lying coward. I’m not being mean – Bloodnok admits it himself. Events would spiral out of control, and usually the show ended with one or more (or all) of the cast dead – only to be resurrected the following week.

This set is a particularly good time for the series. The cast know their roles well, and the shows have a deft combination of surrealist humor, old vaudeville gags, and a wafer-thin plot to hang it all on. The set contains a few of the best known Goon Shows, including The Mysterious Punch-Up-The-Conker, which has the skit ‘What time is it, Eccles?’, a legendary classic showing off the way Eccles’ brain worked. It’s particularly fun as Spike enjoyed savagely mocking the brain power of these characters, but also felt a great affection for them – Harry and Peter both noted Spike was closest to Eccles in real life, not for the idiocy but for the skewed view of absolutely everything that is displayed.

Other episodes of note on the set include Shifting Sands, set in India around 1900 (as many Goon Shows were – Spike grew up there, and was fascinated with the ragged edges of the British Empire holding on despite everything) with special guest star Jack Train from an even earlier BBC radio comedy, It’s That Man Again; Ill Met By Goonlight, a World War II parody involving the capture of a suspected German spy (and one of the best-times awful puns in the entire series); and The Histories of Pliny the Elder, a Roman parody. There’s a few duffers in here, inevitable when you’re trying to write a half-hour of comedy every week. Emperor of the Universe is a parody of Bulldog Drummond that doesn’t quite savagely attack its subject enough to really work. The set also contains The Reason Why, a one-off comedy written without an audience about the moving of Cleopatra’s Needle to Britain. It’s a very odd duck, with Seagoon playing a different character that nevertheless has Neddie written all over him, and Bloodnok popping in as well. Goon Show once removed, shall we say.

The set comes, as I noted, with a long series of production notes detailing what was going on behind the scenes as these shows were being aired. They’re a nice look at what show-business Britain was like in the 50s – Harry and Peter were constantly off doing other shows and performances, and the BBC at one point told off Peter’s agent for booking him so much that he was unable to do the Goons easily. There is also a short guide to some of the more obscure jokes – Britain in the late 50s is a while ago, and not many would recall who Hughie Green or Field Marshal Alan Brooke are these days.

A word of warning to those who buy the set – there are some jokes that were made in 1950s British radio that would not be made today, particularly as regards racial stereotypes. The show had musical interludes, and the singer of the 2nd interlude, Ray Ellington, was frequently employed in the show to play African tribesman, servants, etc. – usually with a Rochester-type voice (Ray’s own voice, smooth and BBC English-sounding, was also heard in his songs.) There’s also several Chinese stereotypes in Emperor of the Universe, which, being a Bulldog Drummond parody, is all about the fiendish Chinese and how they are destroying our lovely Britain. Spike was quite progressive in many ways, but his jokes are a product of their time, and it’s best we view them the same way we view Bugs Bunny doing Al Jolson impressions in blackface to sell war bonds – as a slice of history.

The Goon Show has dated somewhat, especially as so much of modern British comedy is influenced by it. Some people may listen to the shows and wonder why they rely so much on old, hoary gags (you should have heard the other comedies on the radio at the time!). But even they will then listen in disbelief at the sheer surrealistic nonsense that then pours out the speaker. Spike could take gibberish and work magic with it, so that the cast could hold each other hostage with boa constrictors, bribe each other with receipts of a photo of a five-pound note, or have the time written down for them on a piece of paper. I could listen to these shows over and over again and still get new things out of them. Priceless.

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  1. An excellent summary of the Compendium and of the show as a whole. I grew up on the Goons (my father was a big fan as a boy in Australia) and I’m always pleased to stumble across fans who discovered them later in life. Enjoy!

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