Goon Today, Here Tomorrow
As readers of these pages know, i'm a huge fan of the British actor and comedian Harry Secombe, who among many things starred on the West End and then Broadway in the musical Pickwick and played 'Mr. Bumble' in the Oscar-winning Best Picture Oliver! But he came to fame as one of the three stars or the lunatic and revolutionary BBC radio comedy The Goon Show, along with Spike Milligan (who wrote almost all the scripts) and Peter Sellers (before he left of some other things...)
This is a terrific 50-minute British TV special on The Goons, part of the Heroes of Comedy series. The Goon Show ran from 1951-1960, over the course of 238 episodes. It is widely considered the mother of much British comedy that came later, most notably the legendary stage revue Beyond the Fringe -- which gave rise to Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett (who wrote such plays as The Madness of King George) and Dr. Jonathan Miller (who specialized in neurology and psychiatry -- yes, he was a real medical doctor -- and was also a renowned author and director of opera and theater) who appears in this special -- and Monty Python's Flying Circus, most of the members of whom gave the show full credit, as major fans of it growing up -- indeed, two of them (you can miss John Cleese below) appear in the special to heap their love and praises. Another major fans of The Goon Show was Prince Charles, who even wrote an introduction to the first book in a series of Goon script collections. Indeed, he also made his own parody film of the Goons which is included, in part, in the special.
The special will admittedly mean more to the British audience. Not only for getting most of the local references from decades earlier, but also for knowing all the Goon characters and their catch phrases. (When the little boy 'Bluebottle' -- played by Peter Sellers -- calls out in his high-pitched voice, "He's fallen in the water!", that will be little to most people, but to fans of the Goons, it brings uproarious laughter.) Just know if that you don't find every snippet so wildly funny, it's impossible to miss that the studio audience at the time did.
That said, some of it will still be funny to American audiences even today. And much still surreal and avant garde 65 years later. (A good deal of Milligan's humor relied on using the medium of radio to its fullest, doing material that could only be done on radio.) Even if you don't plan to watch the whole thing, do yourself a favor and at least jump to the 31:30 mark and listen for a couple minutes to the bit of lunatic wordplay between the aforementioned Bluebottle and Eccles (voiced by Spike Milligan, a deranged Goofy-like character probably considered the most quintessential Goon.) If you choose to start just a little bit earlier, at 29.15, you can see Jonathan Miller leading into it all analyzing Goon humor with great erudition.
Even after the radio show went off the air in 1960 and Sellers went on to movie fame, the trio would periodically reunite to recreate the show. (Indeed, later in the special, Peter Sellers mentions that doing the Goons was the best and happiest work experience of his life, which -- given how often he reteamed with them makes the statement believable and not just show biz hyperbole.) A good deal of footage of the three reunions are mixed in throughout the special. As far as I can tell, the first two are them recreating earlier episodes on TV shows. One in 1960 is in black-and-white, and I believe was done as part of one of Harry Secombe's TV shows. The second has to have come around 1968 -- I say that because Harry Secombe has a odd mustache and goatee, which is how he looked when starring as D'Artagnon in the West End musical The Four Musketeers that I saw at the time as a kidling (and was when I got to meet him backstage, which I wrote about here.) The final reunion came in 1972 as part of a 50th anniversary of the BBC, and Spike Milligan wrote an original script for it, "The Last Goon Show of All." You can see their and appreciation of each other at all the reunions, but most especially this last one.
For those interested in what The Goon Show was all about, here's a good start. For those who know and want to revel in them, pull up a chair. Thank you.
And yes, that was a Goon reference.
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Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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