This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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The Goon Show - The Beeb's Best Kept Secret
by John C. Abbott © 2016
(From Radio Recall, December, 2016)
When one thinks of radio programs (or for this article perhaps we should say programmes) from the BBC, the list runs the gamut from Adventure to Zed (I am sure there was one but I can't find it).
Think of great classical music broadcasts, classical dramas and programs like "The Archers", "The Children's Hour", "The Gardener's Question Time", "The Adventures of Paul Temple", the occasional Royal Coronation and much, much more.
However, every network has its red-haired step-child. For the BBC, one of the reddest of the bunch was The Goon Show. From 1951 to 1960, The Goon Show offered its own form of humor to listeners who dared - and dare they did, growing to over two million by the end of the series.
When The Goons started, there were four main cast members: Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Michael Bentine. After the first three seasons Bentine left the group, and Spike Milligan took over the creative writing.
Over the life of the Goons, Spike Milligan would later be considered by many to be "The grandfather of modern British comedy" due to his work on The Goon Show and subsequent comedies. Peter Sellers would go on to become a world-famous comic actor, best known for playing Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther movies. Harry Secombe remained a well-known singer and entertainer throughout his career. Michael Bentine left the group after only a few series and before the show reached its peak of success. He went on to have individual success as an author and comedian.
In addition to the regular performers, the program also included Max Geldray, singer Ray Ellington and his quartet and Stanley Black and the BBC Dance Orchestra. Max Geldray was a Dutch jazz harmonica player (but not an actor). Occasionally he was the butt of jokes, and more frequently there were references to the size of his nose. Ellington, whose father was African-American, also occasionally played small roles, mostly as an African or Arab character who spouted gibberish while masquerading as a Swahili chieftain, or various Scottish and Irish characters. A lot of the jokes involving Ellington would be considered racist or politically incorrect today.
Wallace Greenslade, a BBC news presenter was the announcer, and did his best to open and close each show with an air of dignity so often represented by the traditional BBC announcing style. On occasion, Greenslade was also included in the storyline.
The typical Goon Show program was a mixture of ludicrous plots with surreal humor, puns, catchphrases and an array of bizarre sound effects. Many elements of the show satirized contemporary life in Britain, parodying aspects of show business, commerce, industry, art, politics, diplomacy, the police, the military, education, class structure, literature and film. When listening to programs, the listener is immediately aware that the players are having way too much fun laughing with each other and frequently going off-script, not that you can really tell. The sound effects played a great part of each program, there were a wide variety of live and recorded sounds, but an explosion of some sort usually was a staple. The Goon Show website reports that Spike Mulligan was supposedly involved in an explosion during WWII, and incorporated that into many of the programs. Mulligan was reported as being so particular that he would spend hours trying to get each effect just right.
The Goon Show was essentially structured as a 30-minute comedy-variety program, consisting of scripted comedy segments alternating with musical interludes. Within that structure almost anything was possible.
Each of the three main actors played a regular series of characters. Harry Secombe would invariably play Neddie Seagoon. Spike Milligan would play a series of characters including Minnie Bannister, Count Jim Moriarty and Eccles. Peter Sellers would voice the parts of Hercules Grytpype-Thynne, Major Denis Bloodnok, Henry Crun and Bluebottle. The usual program would involve Grytpype-Thynne and Moriarty setting up Neddie Seagoon in some far-fetched plan, and meeting the other cast members along the way.
The typical program plot involved Grytpype-Thynne and Moriarty getting Neddie Seagoon involved in some far-fetched plan, and meeting the other cast members along the way. Examples include stealing the houses of Parliament, stealing the equator, importing snow into the Sahara Desert by camel train, or some other far-fetched idea - all of which involved poor Neddie being fleeced financially. In each of the programs, every possible dumb joke that could be used would appear. In one episode, Neddie was told that his actions would shorten the war - by three feet, six inches.
The show featured several catch-phrases, the most notable of which was "Ying tong iddle I po". This nonsensical phrase was developed into a song which became a hit record. The song was featured on "The Muppet Show" and even featured in an episode of Prairie Home Companion where it was sung by Phillip Brunelle's Vocal Essence.
As surreal and nonsensical the humor is, and how ridiculous the plot is, there are two things that, in the author's view, tend to affect the listenability of the programs. First, their various accents and rapid delivery of the jokes tend to make it hard to follow the plot (which in some instances may be a benefit!). Secondly, there are many references to English terminology, which takes a little getting used to. But, once you un-learn your American English and figure out the cultural references, the stories shine through.
There are a number of places where episodes of the Goon Show can be found, although the first three series are not available. There are episodes on YouTube (be sure to check out the audio called "What time is it, Eccles? This is Spike Milligan at his best."), There is an excellent website on the Goon Show (www.thegoonshow.net/) which contains photos, scripts and CDs/Downloads and CDs can be purchased on Amazon and Audible.
So, if you need something to fill in your idle time, check out the Goon Show - there is something there for everyone.
Wikipedia article on The Goon Show
The Goon Show site (www.thegoonshow.net/)