On this date in 1951 The Goon Show aired for the first time on the BBC Home Service, and continued as a colossal hit from 1951 to 1960, with occasional repeats on the BBC Light Programme. The first series broadcast from 28 May to 20 September 1951, was titled Crazy People; subsequent series had the title The Goon Show, a title inspired, according to Spike Milligan, by a Popeye character.
The show’s chief creator and main writer was Spike Milligan. The scripts mixed ludicrous plots with surreal humor, puns, catchphrases and an array of bizarre sound effects. Some of the later episodes feature electronic effects devised by the fledgling BBC Radiophonic Workshop, many of which were reused by other shows for decades. 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.
The show was released internationally through the BBC Transcription Services (TS). It was heard regularly from the 1950s in Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, India and Canada, although these TS versions were frequently edited to avoid controversial subjects. NBC began broadcasting the program on its radio network from the mid-1950s. The program exercised a considerable influence on the development of British and U.S. comedy and popular culture.
Milligan and Harry Secombe became friends while serving in the Royal Artillery during the Second World War. Famously, Milligan first encountered Secombe after Gunner Milligan’s artillery unit accidentally allowed a large howitzer to roll off a cliff, under which Secombe was sitting in a small radio truck: “Suddenly there was a terrible noise as some monstrous object fell from the sky quite close to us. There was considerable confusion, and in the middle of it all the flap of the truck was pushed open and a young, helmeted idiot asked ‘Anybody see a gun?’ It was Milligan.” Secombe’s answer to that question was “What colour was it?” Milligan met Peter Sellers after the war at the Hackney Empire, where Secombe was performing, and the three became close friends.
The group first formed at Jimmy Grafton’s London pub called “Grafton’s” in the late 1940s. Sellers had already débuted with the BBC, Secombe was often heard on Variety Bandbox, Milligan was writing for and acting in the high profile BBC show Hip-Hip-Hoo-Roy with Derek Roy, and Michael Bentine, who appeared in the first series, had just begun appearing in Charlie Chester’s peak time radio show Stand Easy.
The four clicked immediately. “It was always a relief to get away from the theatre and join in the revels at Grafton’s on a Sunday night,” said Secombe years later. They took to calling themselves ‘The Goons’ and started recording their pub goings-on with a tape recorder. The BBC producer, Pat Dixon heard a tape and took interest in the group. He pressed the BBC for a long term contract for the gang, knowing that it would secure Sellers for more than just seasonal work, something for which the BBC had been aiming. The BBC acquiesced and ordered an initial series, though without much enthusiasm.
Throughout its history, each episode of The Goon Show, which usually ran just under 30 minutes, was essentially structured as a comedy-variety program, consisting of scripted comedy segments alternating with musical interludes. There were 10 series in all, many of which survive (and can be found on YouTube). Series 1 to 3 no longer exist and some episodes of 4 to 6 were erased by the BBC (following their archiving policy).
From Series 3 onwards, the principal character roles were:
Neddie Seagoon (Secombe)
Henry Crun (Sellers)
Minnie Bannister (Milligan)
Hercules Grytpype-Thynne (Sellers)
Count Jim Moriarty (Milligan)
Major Denis Bloodnok (Sellers)
The traditional plots involved Grytpype-Thynne and Moriarty getting Neddie Seagoon involved in some far-fetched plan, and meeting the other cast members along the way.
Many characters had regular catchphrases which quickly moved into the vernacular; among the best known are:
“He’s fallen in the water!” (Little Jim)
“You dirty, rotten swine, you! You have deaded me!” (Bluebottle)
“You can’t get the wood, you know.” (Henry, Minnie)
“You silly, twisted boy, you.” (Grytpype-Thynne)
“You can’t park ‘ere, mate” (Willium) — Milligan’s dig at officious BBC commissionaires.
“Ying Tong Iddle I Po” (various) — which became the basis for a novelty hit as “The Ying Tong Song”
The Goon Show has been variously described as “avant-garde,” “surrealist,” “abstract,” and “four dimensional.” Broadly the Goon Show engaged in ‘sound cartooning’. That is creating cartoons by means of sounds – voices, sound effects (FX), gramophone recordings of noises (Grams), orchestral effects etc. – all performed live in front of a studio audience. In the scripts themselves, Milligan explored the use of ‘subject transference’. In particular he used three methods – transference of time, transference of place, and transference of utility.
For example, if time causes calendars, calendars can cause time. If you drop a bundle of 1918 calendars on German troops in 1916, then they will all go home, thus shortening the war. If one lives in a house, and one can say that someone lives in their clothes, then the two are interchangeable. Therefore a recurring theme in the shows is of someone living in the basement of someone else’s clothes, or of someone taking the lift up and down inside someone’s suit. (e.g.: “What are you doing in my trousers?? – ‘Slumming!'”) The best example of this is in “The Policy”, Doors give you entrance into a different place, so a door can transport you anywhere. A door in the Himalayas can take you back to London etc. In “Six Charlies in Search of an Author” Bloodnok is wearing a room in which he and other characters are attempting to escape from a stick of dynamite, but find themselves still in the room (“Of course! I’m still wearing it!”) until he takes the room off.
Milligan swapped functions between objects haphazardly and to comic effect. Pianos become vehicles of transportation, theater organs become divining machines, two bananas become binoculars, Eccles becomes an omnibus , gorillas become cigarettes (“These gorillas are strong! Here, have one of my monkeys – they’re milder”), photographs of money become legal tender, etc.
The settings for the shows were a revolution in themselves. Rather than the tepid everyday world of Britain in the ’50s, Milligan set most of the shows in foreign locations, especially India, North Africa, South America, the Wild West, places where he had lived or had been posted during WWII, or had been fascinated with when a boy. It gives the shows a “boys’-own-story” atmosphere to the plots, and also an extraordinary sense of realism. The episodes set during wartime and those located in India, highlighted the absurdist humor played out against the realistic backdrops.
Orchestral introductions, links and accompaniment were provided by a hand-picked big band made up of London based session musicians. The arrangements and musical direction were done by Wally Stott from the third to the 10th series. Stott produced many arrangements and link passages, further improved by the first-class sound quality the BBC engineers managed to achieve. Members of the band featured prominently in the comedy proceedings, particularly jazz trombonist George Chisholm who frequently played Scots characters. The show’s concluding music was usually either “Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead” or a truncated and ironic rendition of the Alte Kameraden (Old Comrades’) march, followed by Max Geldray and the Ray Ellington Quartet playing “Crazy Rhythm” as play-out music.
In keeping with the variety requirements of the BBC’s “light entertainment” format, The Goon Show scripts were structured in three acts, separated by two musical interludes. These were provided by the Ray Ellington Quartet—who performed a mixture of jazz, rhythm & blues and calypso songs—and by harmonica virtuoso Max Geldray who performed mostly middle of the road numbers and jazz standards of the 30s and 40s accompanied by the big band. Both Ellington and Geldray also made occasional cameo appearances; Ellington was often drafted in to play stereotypical ‘black’ roles such as a tribal chieftain, native bearer or Major Bloodnok’s nemesis (and counterpoint to Bloodnok’s affliction) ‘The Red Bladder’. Geldray’s roles were short and infrequent, and by no coincidence he was referred to in the show as the world’s worst actor. Both musicians endured constant references to their physical appearance without apparent rancor, mostly Ellington’s skin color and Geldray’s nose – but then again so did Secombe, whose height, girth and/or alleged lack of neck were mentioned in almost every show.
It was in its use of pre-recorded and live sound effects that The Goon Show broke the most new ground. Part of the problem was that “not even Milligan knew how to capture electronically the peculiar sounds that came alive in his head – he just knew when it had not yet happened”. An example of this comes from an often cited story of Milligan filling his two socks with custard in the Camden Theatre canteen, in an attempt to achieve a squelching effect. Milligan asked the BBC canteen ladies to make some custard; they thought he must have some stomach trouble so lovingly made him a fresh custard – which he accepted with thanks and immediately poured into his sock, much to their horror. Secombe recalled “Back in the studio, Spike had already placed a sheet of three-ply near a microphone.” One after the other, he swung them around his head against the wood, but failed to produce the sound effect he was seeking (“So, a sock full of custard and no sound effect!”). Secombe noted that “Spike used to drive the studio managers mad with his insistence on getting the sound effects he wanted. In the beginning, when the program was recorded on disc, it was extremely difficult to achieve the right sound effect. There were, I think, four turntables on the go simultaneously, with different sounds being played on each – chickens clucking, Big Ben striking, donkeys braying, massive explosions, ships’ sirens – all happening at once. It was only when tape came into use that Spike felt really happy with the effects.” An FX instruction in one script read “Sound effect of two lions walking away, bumping against each other. If you can’t get two lions, two hippos will do”. Over time, the sound engineers became increasingly adept at translating the script into desired sounds, assisted from the late 1950s onwards by specialists in the BBC’s newly formed Radiophonic Workshop.
In creation of the Goon shows, long and acrimonious shouting matches occurred between Milligan and BBC managers as he tried to get his own way. Was he a diva? “I was in the Goon Show days”, he told Dick Lester. “I was trying to shake the BBC out of its apathy. Sound effects were ‘a knock on the door and tramps on gravel’ – that was it, and I tried to transform it.” Using techniques already developed by the drama department, he went on to give the show an indelible sense of reality, going out of his way to achieve maximum believability by the use of FX and Grams, making the show the first comedic production of its kind to try actively to persuade the listeners that the events were real, and especially to create alternate realities or surreal audio imagery that would be impossible to realize visually.
Many of the sound effects created for later programs featured innovative production techniques borrowed from the realm of musique concrète, and using the then new technology of magnetic tape. Many of these sequences involved the use of complex multiple edits, echo and reverberation and the deliberate slowing down, speeding up or reversing of tapes. One of the most famous was the legendary “Bloodnok’s Stomach” sound effect, created by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop to represent the sound of Major Bloodnok’s digestive system in action, which included a variety of inexplicable gurgling and explosive noises. Lewis (1995, p. 218) states Bloodnok’s stomach “was achieved by overlaying burps, whoops from oscillators, water splashes, cork-like pops, and light artillery blasts”. This effect kept turning up on later comedy shows, and can even be heard on a track by The Orb.
As a small boy I did not really get most of the humor at the time (I did later). My favorite character was Eccles (modeled on the voice of Disney’s Goofy). But I do recall how much The Goon Show seeped into our daily lives. We all used the tag lines and could do fair imitations of the voices of Bluebottle and Eccles. Here’s the “The Dreaded Batter Pudding Hurler (Of Bexhill-on-Sea)” as a lead-in to the recipe of the day.
Batter pudding is really a generic term. It means pretty much anything made with egg batter which could include Yorkshire Pudding, Toad in the Hole, or Fruit Batter Pudding. They can all be a bit stodgy if not made right (as befits 1950s Brit cooking), but if you work at it they will be reasonably puffy. My Yorkshire puddings are really light – soak up beef gravy a treat. Here’s my video on making the basic batter:
Here’s a fav of mine:
Apple Batter Pudding
To start you’ll need one batch of egg batter.
Preheat the oven to 220°C/425°F.
Put 2 tablespoons of cooking fat (lard), or cooking oil for the health conscious, in a shallow baking dish and heat in the oven for 5 minutes.
Peel, core, and thickly slice 4 cooking apples. Remove the baking dish from the oven (carefully !!) and spread the apples evenly in the hot fat. (You can sprinkle on a little powdered cloves, cinnamon, or allspice if you want). Pour over the batter, making sure it is even.
Bake for 30-40 minutes until browned and well risen (yes, it does rise if you are a good batter maker.
Serve very hot with golden syrup and whipped cream or ice cream.