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.
There were originally four Goons: Sellers, Secombe, Milligan and Michael Bentine. All four had served in the Second World War, and developed a similar sense of anarchic humor from the grim and absurd events around them. After the war, the quartet frequented a bar called the Grafton Arms, where they performed their nascent brand of comedy to customers. Their popularity grew, and with the help of the bar’s landlord, Jimmy Grafton, The Goons eventually won a commission with the BBC.
In 1951, The Goons made their debut on radio as The Crazy People. Two series later, Bentine quit (he never quite saw eye-to-eye with Milligan) and the program was rebranded as The Goon Show. That was when The Goons as devised and written by Milligan “simply blew the roof off, and lit the whole place with sunshine,” as fellow comedian and writer Eric Sykes once said:
”At a cursory glance, The Goon Show was merely quick-fire delivery of extremely funny lines mouthed by eccentric characters, but this was only the froth. In The Goon Show, Spike was unknowingly portraying every facet of the British psyche.”
Harry Secombe was formidable at being the clown; Sellers was perfect at mimicry and creating characters; but it was Spike Milligan’s genius for writing that made The Goons so utterly brilliant.
In this documentary, Heroes of Comedy, Michael Palin claims The Goons were as revolutionary as hearing Elvis Presley sing “Heartbreak Hotel” for the first time. While Beyond the Fringe‘s Jonathan Miller makes the observation that Spike:
”...was a major monument in British culture and had a tremendous sense of conceptual humor..[whose] work had the same importance as Alice in Wonderland and The Pickwick Papers.”
For those who don’t know about The Goons, this documentary is a great introduction. For everyone else, it’s an enjoyable watch, with choice moments from Sellers, Secombe and Milligan.