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The Goon Show

Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Michael Bentine — joined forces in 1949 at a Westminster pub, Grafton’s, run by scriptwriter Jimmy Grafton who was subsequently christened ‘KOGVOS’ or ‘Keeper of Goons and Voice of Sanity’. The first Goon Show aired on 28 May 1951 under the title Crazy People ‘featuring Radio’s own Crazy Gang — the Goons’.

Within a year, the title had been changed to The Goon Show. The word ‘Goon’ was a derogatory wartime term used by the RAF to describe German guards and implied immense stupidity. In 1951, the News Chronicle described a Goon as ‘something with a one-cell brain. Anything that is not basically simple puzzles a Goon. His language is inarticulate, he thinks in the fourth dimension.’ The BBC were suitably baffled by it all. At a meeting of programme planners, one elderly executive was said to have peered across the table and demanded: ‘Tell me about this Go On Show.’

The Sunday recordings were fuelled by generous helpings of brandy and the Goons did their own warm-up for the audience. A regular diversion was for Secombe to whip away Sellers’ braces, at which Sellers’ trousers would fall down. Once when Sellers performed the routine, he realised too late that he wasn’t wearing any underpants!

Bentine quit at the end of the second series, partly because he wanted to spend Sundays with his family and partly to pursue his own projects. Announcer Andrew Timothy also left in 1953, saying he feared for his sanity. He was replaced by Wallace ‘Bill’ Grenslade.

Milligan, Sellers and Secombe.

During series three, Milligan, who, as well as performing, wrote most of the scripts, suffered a nervous breakdown and missed 12 programmes. Sellers stood in for him, doing the voices of Eccles and Minnie Bannister as well as his own repertoire of characters. Secombe could also do a passable Eccles when pressed. On other occasions, Dick Emery or Graham Stark took Milligan’s place. Milligan later remarked: ‘It cost blood to put that show on for me. Sheer agony. It wrecked my first marriage and it wrecked my health. I gave my sanity to that show.’

At the end of ‘The Flying Saucer Mystery’, broadcast on 4 December 1953, there was a spoof announcement about a UFO proceeding across London in a westerly direction. Anyone spotting it was asked to ring a fictitious number. To the annoyance of the GPO, thousands of listeners tried to call.

Owing to a musicians’ strike, ‘The Great Tuscan Salami Scandal’ of 1956 was broadcast without the usual contributions from Ray Ellington and harmonica player Max Geldray. Instead the musical links were supplied by Milligan (in the guise of Adolphus Spriggs) who also performed the moving ballad ‘I’m Walking Backwards for Christmas’ to piano accompaniment from Sellers. The Goons’ other big hit was the ‘Ying Tong Song’. The principal orchestra leader on the show was Wally Stott who later became known as Miss Angela Morley.

Milligan fought a constant battle with the BBC to get the sound effects he wanted. ‘I was trying to shake the BBC out of its apathy. Sound effects were “a knock on the door and tramps on gravel” and that was it. I got it right in the end, but it drove me mad in the process, and drove a lot of other people mad.’

When, in 1959, Milligan announced that the ninth series would be the last, students besieged Broadcasting House, waving banners reading ‘Long Live Secombe’ etc. At the end of one recording session, a group of girls handed in a petition signed by 1,030 listeners. It read: ‘We, the undersigned, implore you, Spike Milligan, not to leave the country and forsake England for Australia, but to remain here and continue to write, produce and perform the Goon Show for ever and ever.’ One final series was made.

 

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