Sir Harry Secombe was a world famous entertainer best known for starring in the breakthrough radio comedy series The Goon Show, with 250 episodes broadcast between 1951 and 1960 and two specials in 1970. The Goon Show also starred Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and initially Michael Bentine. Harry played Neddie Seagoon, the boisterous, incompetent, central hero famous for blowing raspberries. Since then he became well known for performing in Oliver! and had long-lasting success with his Highway television series.
Harry Donald Secombe was born in Swansea in Wales on 8 September, 1921, the third of four children of Frederick Ernest Secombe and Nellie Jane Gladys Davies. Prone to catching every conceivable illness, Secombe said he had a colourful childhood including scarlet fever, yellow jaundice, chicken pox and German measles, and unsurprisingly his schooling suffered as a result. He nevertheless enjoyed performing from an early age once he discovered his secret method to overcome overpowering nerves on stage. Being extremely myopic he was unable to see without his glasses, and by performing without them he was unable to see, and therefore be frightened by, the audience. He appeared with one of his sisters in double comedy acts at local charity concerts. After leaving school his early work involved working in payroll.
In 1939 when war became inevitable he decided on a foolproof plan to avoid being conscripted, which was introduced in April 1939 for those over 18. Despite still being underage he joined the Territorial Army1 six months before the outbreak of the Second World War, in order to avoid the horrors he had heard of infantry life during the First World War, on the basis that by joining the 132nd Field Regiment Royal Artillery (Territorial Army) as an artilleryman he would likely be far away from the front line. He was initially involved with coastal defence in Wales and later Sussex. After promotion to Lance-Bombardier, Secombe's tasks as well as manning the guns included being one of the regiment's wage clerks, and also sketching panoramas of where the guns were located in order to be able to convey the surrounding landscape and any potential threats to others. In October 1942 he was sent to North Africa and the Tunisia campaign against Rommel. Most of his time in action was spent maintaining communication between the battery command post and forward observation post by driving a motorbike back and forth between the two.
At the end of March 1943 Secombe was ordered to dig gun-pits for some due-to-arrive howitzers on a plateau but, having been given the wrong instructions, he dug pits that were too shallow. When the first gun was fired it recoiled out of the pit and plummeted off the plateau, landing next to where Secombe was in a truck at the bottom of the cliff. Shortly afterwards the man who had fired the howitzer ran in and asked, 'Anybody seen a gun?' to which Secombe replied, 'What colour?' This was how Secombe first met Spike Milligan, the man who would change his life.
After Africa Secombe landed in Sicily on 12 July, 1943, two days after the invasion commenced. In September he landed in Italy after it had surrendered, though there were still German forces in the area and he participated in the battle for Termoli. However, after January 1944 Secombe suffered an inflammation of the gall bladder and kidneys, followed by malaria, and was evacuated to hospital, so he didn't rejoin his regiment. Instead, as he recovered, he spent time volunteering to put on concert parties and, by being a popular comic and perfecting a routine based on shaving, was considered an entertainer whose value was best served raising troop morale away from the front lines.
Almost immediately after demobilisation he met Myra Atherton, who he would soon marry and spend the rest of his life with. They would have four children, Jennifer, Andy2, David and Katy. Shortly afterwards he made his first professional engagement at the Windmill Theatre, London, which was famous for featuring tableaux of nude women3 interspersed with comedians expected to do 36 performances a week to an audience who were only really interested in seeing the naked women. He made his first radio broadcast in 1948, his first television appearance was live on New Year's Day 1949, and later became resident comedian for radio show Variety Bandbox. While the BBC didn't pay much, by frequently appearing on radio shows on the BBC meant that he became better known by audiences and more likely to be hired and attract handsome wages from theatres where he spent most of the week. His life for the next few years involved touring different theatres around the country during the week, and recording radio shows at the weekend. He starred in radio shows such as Educating Archie and Welsh Rarebit while never stopping touring.
Then in 1951, The Goon Show was broadcast. This series was an instant hit, loved throughout the country for its unique and original nonsensical humour. Fans included John Lennon, John Cleese and particularly Prince Charles – who mentioned him in his 1969 speech when he was invested Prince of Wales. Harry Secombe played Neddie Seagoon, the central, and possibly most sensible, character. This usually involved a mad dash to London over Saturday night from whatever part of the country, such as Blackpool, he happened to be staying and performing in during the week. Also in 1951 he first appeared on the Royal Variety Show, a programme he would either appear on or host numerous times in his lifetime. His first television series of his own was Secombe Here! in 1955, and he first appeared on ITV the same year with The Harry Secombe Show just two days after ITV's launch. He also stood in for Tony Hancock for four episodes of Hancock's Half Hour in 1955. In 1959 Secombe met someone who would become one of his closest friends, Roy Castle, with whom he would often try to work on stage.
Singing: And For Those Who Don't Like Variety, There's Variety
As a boy growing up in Swansea, it was natural for Harry to sing in the church choir. Performing when comedians were still expected to be variety artists able to sing and dance, he often included songs in his acts. He even appeared in stage musicals, most notably Pickwick. As he was friends with playwright Wolf Mankowitz and future-Oscar winner lyricist Leslie Bricusse and composer Cyril Ornadel, in 1963 he persuaded them to adapt Charles Dickens' 1837 The Pickwick Papers for the stage as a musical, so inspired because stage musical (and later film) Oliver! was proving internationally successful. One of Pickwick's songs, 'If I Ruled The World', will forever be associated with Secombe, who often joked that his voice was not so much 'bel canto' as 'can belto'. Alongside Secombe as Samuel Pickwick were initially Roy Castle and later a pre-Monkees Davy Jones as Sam Weller4. Both Secombe and Roy Castle were Tony-nominated for its 1965 Broadway run. In the 1967 'Summer of Love', Harry Secombe had a Number 2 hit with 'This is my Song'. He also performed at the inaugural performance of the Sydney Opera House. He released a number of albums during his career which, if not chart toppers, were still successful nevertheless and enjoyed by his fans.
Secombe also appeared in films, particularly comedies and musicals. While films such as Down Among the Z Men and Song of Norway (1970), a musical based on the life of Grieg, had little impact, it is in the 1968 six-Oscar-winning classic Oliver! that he is unforgettable. No child can ever forget or fail to be terrified of Harry Secombe bellowing 'What?!?!' and More?!?!?!?!? when a starving young Oliver politely asks for additional gruel... On release Oliver! became the most successful British film to date5.
...And Other Talents
Not content to stay in one place, Secombe successfully performed his comedy shows and musicals, particularly in the 1970s, from Sandown to Scotland, London to Cardiff, and was popular in New Zealand and Australia. He appeared in several Royal Command Performances, and The Harry Secombe Show was popular on television.
A keen sportsman whose enthusiasm was greater than his ability, he was often involved in charity cricket and golf matches. He would also volunteer his time to perform for troops on active service, being the first entertainer to travel to the Falklands after the war there, as well as going to Iraq during the Gulf War, though still promoting peace.
Secombe also tried his hand at writing. His semi-autobiographical novel Twice Brightly was published in 1974, which was reviewed in Punch by Prince Charles. Other works include his first novel Welsh Fargo, which was published in 1981. He also wrote autobiographies Goon For Lunch, Arias and Raspberries and Strawberries and Cheam.
In 1963 he was made a CBE, and in 1981 he was knighted, partly for his services as an entertainer, but also for his charity work. After this he was dubbed as 'Sir Cumference' as a tease on his belly which was larger-than-life. After collapsing in late 1980 with peritonitis and diabetes – soon after Peter Sellers' death - he was told by doctors that he had had a 50% chance of dying, and unless he improved his lifestyle he had two years of life left. He gradually lost a lot of weight and turned increasingly to his Christian faith.
I Did It Highway...
A dedicated Christian, in the 1980s Secombe presented ITV's Highway programme6 in the Sunday evening God slot7, attracting a sizeable audience, and later the BBC's Songs of Praise, where he often sang his favourite hymns, especially 'The Old Rugged Cross' with his moving voice.
At a lunch given to him by the Variety Club of Great Britain to celebrate 25 years in showbusiness, he said:
Anyone who, for 25 years, has built a career on such tenuous foundations as a high-pitched giggle, a raspberry and a sprinkling of top 'Cs' needs all the friends he can get.
In summer 1998 he announced that he was undergoing radiotherapy for prostate cancer. In order to raise awareness of the disease he made a documentary about it titled The Trouble with Harry. Yet a week before he was due to undergo radiotherapy he collapsed, having suffered a brain stem stroke, paralysing his left side and making it difficult for him to speak or sing. Determined to keep communicating despite this, he wrote a book of limericks, The Zoo Loo Book. Secombe announced his retirement in September 1999, with his condition worsening before dying in Guildford Hospital on 11 April, 2001. Spike Milligan, when he heard of Secombe's death, jokingly said, 'I'm glad he died before me, because I didn't want him to sing at my funeral', though when Milligan died almost a year later in March 2002, Secombe got the last laugh as a recording of his singing played a central part of Milligan's memorial service.