Peter Sellers was bored. It was 1959, and he was tired of appearing in The Goon Show with Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe.
While The Goon Show was still the biggest and most influential comedy show on British radio, Sellers was now a movie star, with a successful stage and TV career, and the offer of a tenth Goons series was too much to contemplate. He said:
‘I think we should leave it now before the standard goes down - we [Sellers, Secombe & Milligan] aren’t adding anything new and the original drive and enthusiasm has gone.’
Sellers was more of an anarchist than Milligan. Sellers wanted the unfettered life, to be free of all responsibilities. Milligan was far more predictable, he was enthralled by the success of his legacy.
Sellers pretended not to give a fuck. While Milligan’s ambitions meant he was often a shit to those people closest to him.
When The Goons first started, the rivalry between Milligan and Michael Bentine forced the latter to leave the group. Similarly, when Milligan worked with Goons co-writer Larry Stephens, he did everything in his power to belittle him. ‘Larry Stephens was small beer…’ Milligan once said:
‘He was never really a writer…Larry would occasionally think of an idea, but by then the show was over.’
TV writer, biographer and Goons expert, Roger Wilmut disagrees with Milligan’s opinion about his co—writer.
‘Stephens’s plots tend to have a beginning a middle, and an end; whereas Milligan’s tend to have a middle.’
Milligan was great at coming up with original, often brilliant ideas, but he needed someone to help structure these ideas into a coherent script. At first he had Jimmy Grafton, then Bentine, Stephens and Eric Sykes. He also had his producers, like Peter Eton who later said:
‘Spike used to have the marvelous lively extrovert ideas, and Larry used to bring them down to earth. Larry was the strong man. Spike used to have these paradoxical ideas and wrote them down in the form of one line gags. Most of it was rubbish, utter rubbish. It was Larry who used to pull it into shape and make sketches out of it.’
The seeming anarchy of Milligan’s Q series now seems like a collection of unfocussed gags. Yet, I have always preferred Q to The Goon Show.
By 1959, Stephens’ untimely death (he suffered a brain hemorrhage while driving a car, and died in hospital days later) left Milligan to write the final Goons series on his own. As he later rather nastily said:
‘Larry Stephens died conveniently, it was very nice of him, and I went on to write them on my own.’
Milligan’s response to his past life often depended on his mood, he also claimed (falsely and tearfully) that Stephens had died in his arms at a restaurant.
With no Stephens to fret over, Milligan turned on his fellow Goons, in particular Peter Sellers, whose film career, and successful stage and TV work, had greatly dimmed Milligan’s own success. It was up to Harry Secombe to act as peace-keeper.
Sellers wanted to do something new. Something different. Something with film. He bought a camera for £70 (around $170 back then), and suggested to Milligan they make a short movie together. They tried the camera out at Sellers home, then asked Dick Lester to direct. Over two Sundays The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film was made.
When released in 1960, it was an incredible success—award-winning no less—and a direct influence on The Beatles to hire Lester to direct (and later to ask Leo McKern to star in) their fab movies.
But Milligan wasn’t happy. The success of The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film niggled, and he felt aggrieved over who was the real talent behind the film. Of course, he had to wait until after Seller’s death in 1980 to claim the film as his own:
I said to Peter [Sellers], ‘Look, films are being made for millions - I think we can make one (not very long) for - what’s the cost of the cameraman?’ He said, ‘Seventy-five pounds.’ So we paid that, and the sound engineer was fifty.
We had about twenty ragged characters in a van and we just drove up the Great North Road until we saw a suitable field…
We just went to the hill, and I wrote the script out, what I wanted roughly, and we had just to improvise how to do it.
Milligan also claimed, at a Goons Appreciation Society meeting, that he had in fact directed the whole thing.
So, that is Milligan’s version of events. What actually happened was that Dick Lester directed and operated the camera, and the script was a concoction between Sellers, Lester, Milligan and Mario Fabrizi (an actor and friend of Sellers), which included some re-workings of sketches lifted from the TV series The Idiot Weekly Price 2d, A Show Called Fred and Son of Fred, which had been the first collaborations between Lester, Milligan and Sellers.
The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film was shot over two days, with Milligan only in attendance for one of these days. It was then edited by Lester and Sellers in a bedroom at the actors home.
Inevitably, because of his incredible influence on British comedy, The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film was considered mainly a Milligan film, when it truth, it should be seen as a film devised by Peter Sellers in collaboration with (“thoughts”) Dick Lester, Spike Milligan and Mario Fabrizi—just as the film’s opening credits have it.