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Reference group
Goons (act. 1951–1960) were the fictitious stars of a wildly surreal and raucous BBC radio series which was broadcast on the Home Service between 1951 and 1960, with an additional episode in 1972. The group comprised the comics Spike Milligan, who wrote the majority of the scripts for all ten series, though with help from Larry Stephens, Eric Sykes, and less frequently Maurice Wiltshire and John Antrobus; Harry Secombe; Peter Sellers; and, for the first two series, Michael Bentine. In addition the BBC announcers Andrew Timothy and from 1953 his successor Wallace Greenslade provided spoken links and occasionally performed small roles; and the show also featured musical interludes by the harmonica player Max Geldray, the Ray Ellington Quartet, the house band, Wally Stott and his orchestra, and (for the first two series) Stanley Black and the BBC Dance Orchestra, and the close-harmony singers, the Stargazers.

The nearest to an ancestor of the programme was the Second World War BBC radio series ITMA (It's That Man Again), in which the manic comic Tommy Handley, with scripts by Ted Kavanagh, mercilessly sent up the opposing axis powers with, for instance, the absurdly sinister and creepy-voiced Funf regularly claiming that the British aircraft carrier Ark Royal had been sunk. The show also included self-mockery, with the bibulous British Colonel Chinstrap always conveniently mistaking anything said to him as the offer of a drink. ITMA, though it went on until 1949, lost much of its steam once the war ended in 1945.

The Goons took up something of the surreal thread and magnified it several times with a bizarre set of characters battling their way through post-war Britain and its continuing shortages, bureaucratic nonsenses, remaining imperial illusions, and crumbling establishment figures. The Goons helped cheerfully to send up an ordered and ‘proper’ Britain that was dying, even subverting language with funny voices and a private vocabulary including grunts, coughs, snorts, squeals, screams, and giggles.

From the first, the Goons' modus operandi was as anarchic as their material. Each of the actors played more than one character. Those characters could themselves then play other parts as required by the individual plots, so that Bluebottle, for instance, described in one BBC cast-list as ‘a cardboard cut-out liquorice and string hero’, could become a boy scout destined to fight the lions in the Roman coliseum. The fact that, if there were casting difficulties, the actors could deputize for other members of the group sometimes took the surreal nature of the proceedings to extreme lengths. In general Sellers played Bluebottle; Hercules Grytpype-Thynne, a suave but impecunious cad; the insecurely roguish and would-be commanding Major Bloodnok (sometimes with Ray Ellington doubling as his batman, Ellings); the nasally dithery Henry Crun; and more than a dozen others. Milligan played Crun's unexplained familiar, the sharp-voiced Minnie Bannister; Headstone, the butler; Frothpump, a casual employee who helped Crun on his bath night; Count Moriarty, the all-purpose villain; and Eccles, the doleful man who didn't mind being thought an idiot provided that it freed him of all responsibility. Secombe played Neddie Seagoon (also known as Ned of Wales), the show's central character, who could translate himself into a secret agent, a gas inspector, or even Caractacus if pressed, and at least once played the houses of parliament.

The programme and its characters grew out of casual, often accidental, meetings between its stars. Sellers was the only one of the four with an entertainment background, having as an ancestor Daniel Mendoza, the heavyweight champion boxer of England around the turn of the eighteenth century. Milligan was the son of an Irish sergeant-major in the British army, Bentine (an old Etonian) the son of a Peruvian physicist and a British mother, and Secombe the son of a commercial traveller for a wholesale grocery firm. Milligan met Secombe, also a Royal Artillery man, in Algiers during the Second World War when Milligan fired a not properly secured howitzer which recoiled backwards and nearly ended up in the wireless truck in which Secombe was sitting. Both men showed a penchant for comedy rather than military life by finding this incident hilarious, and began bouncing comic vignettes off each other. Demobbed, Secombe met Bentine at the Windmill Theatre, where both were playing, and was introduced to Sellers by a BBC radio producer, Pat Dixon. (Sellers had phoned Dixon pretending to be another radio producer, telling him that he was sending a marvellous new talent, Peter Sellers. Sellers then turned up at Dixon's office and was hired on the spot.) The Grafton Arms near Victoria railway station, the pub kept by the radio scriptwriter Jimmy Grafton and beloved of show-business customers, became the creative centre for all four of them while they looked for paid work. The four tended to get together there on Sunday nights, when they would bounce comic ideas off one another, under the watchful eye of Grafton, who calmed them down when their clowning went over what he believed to be the top. His value in this role was acknowledged by all four, who called him KOGVOS (King of Goons and Voice of Sanity); Grafton was to edit some of the first Goon Shows. All four took with aplomb to conceiving and acting out the most anarchic comedy together, as well as indulging in practical jokes and absurd challenges when not in professional mode. Once, when Secombe and Milligan were staying in a Piccadilly hotel, Milligan bet Secombe that he would not run round the block in his vest and pants. Secombe won the bet during a shower of rain, but found on his return that Milligan had locked his room door. On another occasion, Sellers turned up on Milligan's doorstep around midnight, totally naked. ‘Can you recommend a good tailor?’, he asked when Milligan opened the door.

For three years the Goons, through Grafton, had tried to interest the BBC in recordings they had made of themselves, but the BBC turned them all down as being ‘too way-out’ (Secombe, 197). But on 3 February 1951 all four came together in London to make a trial tape for the BBC producer Pat Dixon. The BBC accepted it, though insisting that it be called Crazy People—Featuring Radio's Own Crazy Gang—the Goons. The Crazy Gang were then a popular manic stage turn, but the four Goons disliked being compared with their elders; the second series, in 1952, was called The Goon Show, which it remained.

The first show, produced by Dennis Main Wilson and consisting of separate sketches, was transmitted on 28 May 1951. The studio warm-up (all the shows were recorded in front of audiences, usually at the Aeolian Hall) indicated what was to come by having Secombe begin to sing a powerful rendering of ‘Falling in Love with Love’, whereat Sellers came on, stole Secombe's braces, and walked off with them, the incident concluding when Secombe ended on a top note and pulled Milligan's trousers down. Though the Goons specialized not so much in social criticism as what one of its several producers, Peter Eton, called ‘a bold and melodramatic rearrangement of all life’ (Book of the Goons, 10), the broadcast material in the first show included contemporary references. At the time the British BRM racing car was compared unfavourably with its Italian competitors. Bentine, as a grand prix organizer, said to Sellers: ‘Here's five thousand pounds. I want you to go to Italy and bring back the finest motoring brains that money can buy.’ Sellers rushed away to a whooshing sound effect, then Bentine said: ‘Three weeks later he arrived back with a glass jar. In it were the finest motoring brains that money could buy.’ There was also a parody of the popular radio detective serial Dick Barton, Special Agent, which ended with Sellers, as Barton, saying ‘Look, they've thrown something through the door!’. Secombe, as his assistant Jock, asked ‘What'll we do?’, to which Sellers replied ‘Quick men—put your fingers in your ears.’ This was followed by a terrific explosion and the announcer saying, ‘Listen again tomorrow to Dick Barton's Special Funeral.’ The show ended with Bentine singing, to the tune of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, the words ‘Today the motherland can still raise her proud face to the skies and say’, at which point Secombe came in with: ‘Heellpp!’. Such broad and sometimes crude fare had to be exceptionally funny to justify itself against charges of tastelessness; and it was. The BBC had signed up the Goons for six shows, but booked another six, then another five, and then still more. It was rewarded with listening figures beginning at 370,000 and climbing to three million by the second series, and up to seven million for later ones; but senior BBC executives always regarded the show with caution and, according to Peter Eton, made thirty attempts to stop it.

For the second series, beginning on 22 January 1952, Secombe, who was developing powerfully as Neddy Seagoon and others, was a security agent investigating Lo Hing Ding, Ho Fu Chang, the Lost Drummer, and Andrew Timothy, the show's announcer. Neddy could and did become an actor, a secret agent, a man from military intelligence, and the accused on trial for singing, of which he was guilty from the second series. During the third series, beginning on 11 November 1952, by which time the replacement of individual sketches by a story-thread had become customary (and Bentine had left the show), Milligan had a breakdown and missed twelve programmes; Grafton and Larry Stephens continued the scripts. In ‘The Mystery of the Cow on the Hill’ Major Bloodnok (Sellers) was besieged at Khartoum by the mahdi, and received football results instead of the expected relief column. He complained to Queen Victoria and the doleful Henry Crun was sent out in charge of the Third Filth-Much Whitechapel Fusiliers, with the lugubriously self-involved Eccles (Milligan) as the intelligence officer. This relief column finally arrived—with the football results.

Beginning on 2 October 1953, the fourth series included ‘The Missing Prime Minister’, when Inspector Seagoon and Constable Eccles investigated the fact that 10 Downing Street was missing. They found the duty constable had been gagged with a towel bearing the initials of Winston Churchill—WC. In the fifth series, which began on 28 September 1954, an actress, Charlotte Mitchell, was (unusually) imported to play Maid Marian in ‘Ye Bandit of Sherwood Forest’. At one point she said: ‘Sheriff of Nottingham, take your hands off me! If they're not off me in the next three hours I'll write to the police.’ The sixth series, broadcast from 20 September 1955, contained ‘Nineteen Eighty Five’, a storyline inspired by a recently screened television version of George Orwell's 1984. Secombe, as Seagoon playing the part of the hero Winston Smith, was taken into the sinister room for the ultimate torture—which turned out to be hearing the opening music of the radio programmes Mrs Dale's Diary, Life with the Lyons, and Have a Go! Seagoon collapsed at once. The seventh series, beginning on 4 October 1956, included ‘The Nasty Affair at the Burami Oasis’, and featured English and Arab football teams and an oasis full of gin.

By the eighth series, beginning on 30 September 1957, there was a general feeling that the show had fallen victim to too many ‘in’ jokes. It included ‘The Thing on the Mountain’, when a Welsh village became terrified by weird noises coming from the nearby mountain. It was found to be Henry Crun and Minnie Bannister, calling the elephants in with an old bugle, under the impression that they were chickens—‘No wonder they wouldn't lay’. Both the BBC and the Goons themselves believed that the ninth series, starting on 3 November 1958, might be the last. It featured ‘The Sahara Desert Station’, which involved an atomic explosion and its effect on a nude Welshman holding a rice pudding. Students who collected 1030 signatures against the closure of the programme and presented it at a Camden Theatre recording session secured a stay of execution. The tenth series began on 24 December 1959 and included ‘A Christmas Carol’ with the dialogue:
Marley is dead.
No, I'm not.
Yes you are.
The last show of the final series, broadcast on 28 January 1960, was called ‘The Last Smoking Seagoon’, and was widely thought to show some falling off of inspiration.

The Goons were revived in 1972 during the BBC golden jubilee celebrations and were broadcast for the final time (‘The Last Goon Show of All’) on 5 October. The venue was the Camden Theatre, with Prince Philip and Princess Anne in the audience. Prince Charles was absent, though known to be enthusiastic about the show and fond of imitating some of its characters' voices. He sent a humorous telegram of apologies for his absence.

Milligan called the Goons ‘thinking comedy’, and in 1980 Sellers recalled, ‘Our premise was taking serious ideas—or any idea at all—to their illogical conclusion’ (Time, 3 March 1980). In truth, in so far as they bypassed any commonly accepted yardsticks of intellectual appraisal and approbation, they burrowed their way into the British psyche far more deeply than they could have done by more conventional humour. They were a timely invention in post-war Britain, when sufferers from continuing austerity, war-weariness, and perplexity about the national future responded especially well to the Goons' characteristic fare of comically chirpy and prodigiously inventive distortions of reality.

Dennis Barker


S. Milligan, P. Sellers, and H. Secombe, The book of the Goons (1974) · R. Wilmut and J. Grafton, The Goon show companion: a history and goonography (1976) · A. Draper, J. Austin, and H. Edgington, The story of the Goons (1976) · H. Secombe, Arias and raspberries (1989) · www.thegoonshow.net, accessed on 1 Feb 2006 · www.goon.org, accessed on 1 Feb 2006 · personal knowledge (2007)