Peter Sellers once received a letter from a fan requesting a “singed photograph of yourself.” Sellers obliged, delicately burning the edges of a B&W 8x10 with a cigarette, before sending the portrait off. A week or so later, the fan wrote back asking Sellers if he would be so kind to send another photograph, as the last one was “signed” all around the edges.
This tale of probable dyslexia captures something of the humor of The Goon Show, that classic radio comedy series, which launched the careers of Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan.
With its unique brand of surreal humor, The Goon Show started modern British comedy and inspired generations of comic performers. It is difficult to imagine how Peter Cook, Firesign Theatre, Monty Python, The Bonzo Dog Band, Eddie Izzard, and The Mighty Boosh would have developed their own particular brands of comedy without The Goons.
In 1968, eight years after The Goon Show had finished, Sellers, Milligan and Secombe reunited for a specially televised recording of one of their classic scripts “Tales of Men’s Shirts.” The trio were ably joined by a young John Cleese as the program’s announcer. Though not as brilliant as the original radio production (the visuals distract from imagining the comedy, and Milligan and co. appear to be enjoying themselves a tad too much), there is, however, more than plenty to enjoy.
More from The Goons (& Cleese), plus bonus documentary, after the jump…
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.
Peter Sellers didn’t know he was dying, he believed he was going to live until he was seventy-five. That’s what his spirit guide, the ghost of Victorian Music Hall performer, Dan Leno had told him.
Sellers was terribly superstitious, his film career had often turned on the say-so of his clairvoyant, Maurice Woodruff. By the early 1970s, Sellers believed he was similarly able to communicate with the spirit world. He also recounted to his friends how he had been various famous people in various past lives. His colleague and friend Spike Milligan, poked fun at Sellers’ beliefs, pointing out that he was always Napoleon, or Ceaser, or Leonardo da Vinci in his past life, rather than some ordinary joe.
Perhaps Sellers should have listened to Milligan, for he may not have been so credulous. He may even have uncovered that his faithful clairvoyant Woodruff was in the pay of the film studios, and his advice on starring roles was not inspired by Tarot, but rather on the size of check Woodruff received. Similarly he may found out his beloved Leno had died babbling insane, a victim of tertiary syphilis.
If Sellers had stuck more to the real world, then he may have accepted Dr. Christiaan Barnard’s offer in 1976 of open-heart surgery and the bypass that would have certainly lengthened his life. Though he attended a heart operation and photographed Barnard at work, Sellers was fearful he would die on the operating table as he had in 1964, after suffering 8 heart attacks.
Come 1980, with the failure of his third marriage to Lynne Frederick, and a grueling work schedule, Sellers was physically exhausted. As before at such times, he reached out to those people who had created some of his happiest working days: his fellow Goons, Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe.
Two months before he died, Sellers wrote to Milligan in the hope that the 3 of them would once again work together on some new comedy shows. Sadly it wasn’t to be, as hours before the 3 men were about to meet, on the 22nd of July, Sellers suffered a fatal heart attack.
28 MAY 80
MR SPIKE MILLIGAN
DEAR SPIKE I AM DESPERATE TO HAVE SOME REAL FUN AGAIN WITH YOU AND HARRY. PLEASE CAN WE GET TOGETHER AND WRITE SOME MORE GOON SHOWS? WE COULD PLACE THEM ANYWHERE I DONT WANT ANY MONEY I WILL WORK JUST FOR THE SHEER JOY OF BEING WITH YOU BOTH AGAIN AS WE WERE.
Now a classic Goon Show sketch, “What time is it, Eccles?”
For thirty-six years, Norma Farnes was Spike Milligan’s manager, agent and Mother Confessor. She was also his friend. Since Milligan’s death in 2002, Norma has shown a loyalty to their friendship, which our world of social networks, Friending, Following and +1ing may never replace. For Ms. Farnes has been collating and editing the millions of words written by the late, great comedy genius, into a series of books - Box 18: The Unpublished Spike Milligan, The Compulsive Spike Milligan, Memories of Milligan - and now, Milligan’s Meaning of Life, his “autobiography of sorts”.
Who else but Norma Farnes could have edited together this fabulous collection of loose threads, extracts, and letters, which make Milligan’s Meaning of Life, such a brilliant autobiography.
As Norma explains in her introduction:
‘A sort of autobiography’. Yes, Spike would have liked that. I can hear him saying, ‘Yes, well, I suppose I’ve had a sort of life.’
...His many followers will, no doubt, find gaps, but it wasn’t my intention to give a complete account - rather an impressionistic journey. I did my best, but as Spike used to say to me: ‘That’s what worries me.’
Farnes should have no fears, as she has compiled a marvelous book, cherry-picking from the best of Milligan’s various writings. Farnes has a terrific eye for the telling phrase and revealing sentence, which presents Milligan as a bruised, sensitive, mercurial, inspired and very funny man. A man who had long bouts of severe depression, suffered terrible nervous breakdowns, was riddled with shyness and insecurities, yet through it all produced some of the our best, funniest and most memorable comedy.
During his life, Milligan produced over eighty books, ranging from poetry (Silly Verse for Kids to Small Dreams of a Scorpion), prose (most notably Puckoon, one of the best comic novels written), and his 7 volumes of War memoirs, starting with the hilarious Adolf Hitler - My Part in His Downfall, plays (The Bed-Sitting Room and countless radio scripts form The Goons and his own classic comedy series Q. In very real terms, Milligan produced more work, and of a higher quality, than most novelists or writers ever achieve in a lifetime.
“One lifetime is nowhere near enough to do all that there is to do.” So said the actor, comic, psychic, and writer Michael Bentine, and in his case it was probably true.
Born in Watford, to a Peruvian father and an English mother, Bentine was party at an early age to his parents’ interest in seances, clairaudience, “table turning” and the paranormal. Such an introduction inspired his own life-long interest into spiritualism and the Occult.
In his autobiography, The Long Banana Skin, Bentine claimed whilst in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War he had visions through which he was able to tell whether his comrades would live or die. If he saw a skull super-imposed over their faces, he then knew they would not return from their next mission. Not the kind of talent to win friends and influence people, but certainly one to impress others with in later years, as he did when he recounted such tales on chat shows.
If it was all true, then it was most certainly a curse, as Bentine foresaw the death of his son, who was killed in a plane crash; and foresaw the death of his friend, the Tory politician, Airey Neave, who was blown-up by the IRA. Bentine was also a member of a Wiccan coven, and indulged in various rituals. Nothing wrong with that, but when tied to the fact Bentine was very close to the Royal Family it’s enough to give David Icke something to fantasize about.
Bentine was also involved in paranormal investigation, on one occasion he helped a family whose child suffered from recurrent illness. As the child grew weaker, Bentine was convinced evil forces were at work. His hunch proved correct when it was uncovered the family’s neighbors, an elderly couple, were using magical rites to drain the child of its life-force.
Towards the end of his military service, Bentine was involved in the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, which had such a traumatic affect on him he was never able to describe what he had seen, other than to call it “the ultimate blasphemy”.
After the war he started his career as a comedian at the Windmill Theatre, home to nude tableaux, dirty old men wanking and a generation of great comedians – Tony Hancock, Morecambe and Wise, Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe, Tommy Cooper and Jimmy Edwards. It was through the Windmill that Bentine met Secombe and Sellers and later Spike Milligan, with whom he formed The Goons.
Amongst the memorable roles he played in The Goons was Professor Osric Pureheart, a mad scientist whose achievements included digging the Channel Tunnel, building the giant Brabagoon aircraft and discovering the East Pole. Bentine left The Goon Show after thirty-eight episodes, just before fame struck. He then chose his own route to success, touring Australia, before returning to make his first great children’s TV series The Bumblies.
The success of The Bumblies was only a taster of what was to come. During the sixties Bentine achieved international fame with the BBC comedy series It’s a Square World (winner of the Golden Rose of Montreaux, amongst others), and made the greatly under-rated gem The Sandwich Man. Yet, for all this original and brilliant work, to a generation of young uns, Michael Bentine’s Potty Time will be perhaps what he is remembered for best.
Potty Time (1973-80) with its mix of Goonish humor, followed the comic’s investigations into the funny and surreal world of cuddly, chubby, big-nosed puppets, which he voiced, as they re-enacted a selection of classic novels and historical events – Sherlock Holmes, Hadrian’s Wall, the Northwest Frontier, Vikings and Pirate Buses amongst others. The show was recorded live with Bentine performing to his own taped voice. Timing was essential as Bentine couldn’t fluff lines and the puppeteers had to hit their mark perfectly.
Watching the series now, it is still quite incredible how they managed to pull it off, but thankfully they did.
Previously on Dangerous Minds
The Paranormal Peter Sellers
Tears of a Clown: The Wit and Wisdom of Kenneth Williams