The Goon Show was a seminal UK radio comedy show which started in 1951 on the BBC's Home Service. It was hugely inspirational to many who heard it, due to its blend of surreal humour, insanity and some truly memorable catchphrases.
The show has influenced almost all British comedy from Monty Python to Vic Reeves1 and Eddie Izzard*. It also helped to shape the character of The Beatles, firstly as young fans and then by association with George Martin, who not only produced their records but had cut his teeth producing comedy records for one of the Goons, Peter Sellers. Martin had to come up with innovative methods to make studio-bound comedy sound like it was recorded in various locations or to have four Peter Sellers engaged seamlessly in conversation, techniques that would prove useful in later years.
There are Goons fans spread far and wide over the globe due to repeat plays of the shows on the BBC's World Service and the availability of the series on record. There is even a US-based Goon Preservation Society.
The Goons Themselves
The main protagonists in the show were:
Peter Sellers, the talent who did most of the funny voices.
Harry Secombe, the high-spirited 'Welsh windbag' who played the central character.
Michael Bentine featured as an additional character during the first two series but he left amicably before the third series began, and the show became the core trio of Milligan, Sellers and Secombe.
The first series of the show was called Crazy People, because the BBC top brass thought people would wonder what this 'Go On' show was about. After the first series was so successful, they relented and it was The Goon Show from then on. Recorded live in front of an audience, every show featured a big-band jazz intermission and featured sound effects created on the spot by the ever-resourceful Milligan.
Plot-wise, basically anything went, but your average episode would consist of Neddie Seagoon, played by Secombe, falling foul of a dastardly plot by Hercules Grytpype-Thynne, played by Sellers, and his hapless French accomplice, Count Moriarty, played by Milligan. Additional surreality could be found in the form of Bluebottle and Eccles, the two naive schoolboy-ish characters often to be found playing soldiers. Bluebottle was the one who, famously, got deaded every episode, pre-dating South Park's Kenny by nearly 50 years. He also had a tendency to read aloud his script cues, such as 'Thinks...' and 'Bluebottle enters room', in stark contravention of all the known rules of drama.
There were, however, a host of other supporting regulars within the show, voiced by Sellers and Milligan. One of the fans favourite bit part characters was an old cockney known simply as 'Mate' because he ended nearly every sentence with the word.
Some of the references in the scripts may be lost on a modern audience. There are several then-topical references specific to life in the war and the 1950s - such as the NAAFI, which was an armed forces canteen, food rationing and various famous public figures of the day. Many of the jokes were anti-establishment and poked fun at The Goons' employers, the BBC. For instance, one episode was entitled 1985, a parody of George Orwell's 1984, and described Winston Seagoon's battle for individual freedom in a country controlled by the totalitarian television sets of the Big Brother Corporation. The show's timeless surreality, however, ensures the show remains a classic and it seems incredibly, absurdly funny, even today.
When Spike Milligan was asked about where all the lunacy came from - Kafka? Dadaists? James Joyce? - he replied it was simply from hearing the sort of discussions that went on in the House of Commons every day.
It was the catchphrases that made the show compulsive listening, as Milligan contorted himself through ever more unlikely plot twists in order to fit in a particular phrase. Each of them soon became popular household and playground sayings, such as:
He's fallen in the water
How's yer old dad
A tortured 'Eeeeuuuuuuoooooggggghhhhh!' every time that the flatulent Major Bloodnok entered a scene.
The blowing of raspberries, as perfected by Secombe as Seagoon, is still a popular form of non-verbal communication among the younger set.
The Goons Off-Radio
Although most noted for their work on radio, the Goons also appeared in film doing some of their routines Down Among The Z Men in 1951, an incredibly low-budget affair. They had hit novelty singles with titles like 'I'm Walking Backwards For Christmas' and the unforgettable 'Ying-Tong Song' and also, in the early 1960s the BBC put out a TV series called The Telegoons, which was basically rehashes of the radio series with the characters played by puppets.
The End and Thereafter
The show finished in 1960, at which point Milligan was so burned out by writing and performing the shows that he had to be hospitalised, but there was a one-off reunion in 1972 to celebrate the BBC's 50th anniversary. This show, entitled The Last Goon Show of All was widely touted to herald the return of the lunacy, but with the untimely death of Peter Sellers in 1980 this myth was finally laid to rest.
Milligan remained absurdly busy after the show ended, until his death in 2002. He was a successful author who wrote a number of humorous wartime reminiscences, beginning with Adolf Hitler: My Part In His Downfall' in 1971, poetry for children, novels - including 1963's Puckoon - and, more recently, his According To Spike Milligan series of parodies of famous works of literature.
He also had a successful British TV series throughout the 1970s, the Q series, ending with Q9 in 1980. This surreal series featured Goonsian episodes, including a peek into the suburban day to day life of an ordinary family of Daleks. Many scenes had no punchline and ended abruptly with Spike and the rest of his cast staring fixedly into the middle distance while shuffling forwards toward the camera and muttering the mantra 'What are we gonna do now?' repeatedly. Milligan had no interest in trying to deceive the viewers by pretending his show was any part of the real world and members of his cast would often appear in scenes reading lines off a prominently-placed clipboard.
Milligan also had a vast number of brief appearances in films, even at one point playing his own father in the film of his first autobiography. The Monty Python gang acknowledged their debt to him with a cameo in their film Life of Brian. He has been an outspoken environmentalist since the 1960s and actively involved in The Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament and Greenpeace campaigns amongst others. Before his death he was described by many as the last remaining British eccentric, which was odd because Britain refused him a passport and he was officially an Irishman, despite him being on speaking terms with the Prince of Wales.
Sellers had a high-profile film career after The Goon Show ended, along with a very public private life due to his intense relationships with some of the most glamorous women in the world. His many leading roles included the accident-prone Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther films and the idiot savant Chance Gardener in the award-winning Being There. Sellers had a remarkable gift with accents and accentuating strange mannerisms and many roles involved him being heavily made up as someone much older or from a different culture altogether.
Sir Harry Secombe
Secombe made many singing appearances as a tenor including work with Welsh male voice choirs as far afield as Hong Kong. He had film roles, his most widely known probably being as Mr Bumble in the 1968 film version of the Lionel Bart musical Oliver! which picked up six Oscars. He later became a fixture of UK television as the presenter of Highway, a long-running Christian praise programme and published two autobiographies - one extract details how he met the Queen and apologised that he had lost his voice, 'It will be a pity when you get it back', she is said to have replied.
Sir Michael Bentine
Bentine wrote hundreds of shows for both radio and television both before, during and after The Goons. He was also a successful performer and had hit TV series in the 1960s, incuding The Bumblies and It's A Square World, and also in the 1970s with his children's show Potty Time. He also wrote a number of books, including several concerning parapsychology, a subject which had interested his father.
Sadly, all four of the Goons have died. Peter Sellers died on 24 July, 1980 after a heart attack, while Michael Bentine died on 26 November 1996 and Harry Secombe on 11 April, 2001, both of prostate cancer. The last of the four to pass away was Spike Milligan, who died of liver disease on 27 February, 2002.