The Goon Show (1951-60)
The Goon Show is one of a handful of comedy shows that had a profound and unique impact upon the UK comedy scene, both at the time of its broadcast and over the preceding two decades. The creative and comic genius of its three main stars, Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe re-invented radio comedy and introduced a new form of audio slapstick through its surreal imagery. This concept was then taken further by the Monty Python team and The Goons legacy is still apparent today in artists such as Eddie Izzard and Tim Vine. Despite some aspects of the show that are a little dated, such as the musical interludes and cultural references, there is still much that is fresh and pertinent.
There are many reasons why these radio shows are so enduring. Take for example, the timeless characters such as the drunken, lecherous, money grabbing Major Dennis Bloodnok. Then there’s the duplicitous, ex-public school, closet homosexual, Hercules Grytpype-Thynne. The immense range of voices and vocal gymnastics, particularly those provided by the great Peter Sellers are outstanding, often fooling the listener into thinking this was a much bigger production with a larger cast. For me, perhaps the most important aspect of the show is the surreal universe that it created. A world where a saxophone could cure a life-threatening illness, or a room in a country estate could vanish and reappear in a Parisian hotel. This was so innovative and radical for the times, pushing radio to its limits.
The Goons also smuggled a great deal of adult humour and political satire past the BBC censors of the time. Gay characters, drunken politicians and sexual dalliances where often cunningly alluded to. Spike Milligan often padded his scripts with obviously diversionary material that he knew would be cut, taking the focus away from the very material he wanted left in. The shows also offer an interesting window upon post war Britain and a nation coming to terms with the end of its empire. As usual the self-deprecating nature that permeates so much of UK humour was ever present. In some respects, The Goon Show was an act of national catharsis.
There is an arc to the lifespan of The Goon Show which becomes quite noticeable when listening to them chronologically. At the height of their popularity during the mid-fifties, the shows are clearly structured and have a semblance of coherency. This seems most apparent when Milligan was writing with Eric Sykes and the scripts edited by other noted writers within the BBC. By the end of the decade the shows had become too self-indulgent and sprawling in nature. The cast seem a little too enamoured of their own esoteric catch phrases and Milligan particularly had to be reined in. Sellers would often provide verbal cues such as pronouncing a character’s name slightly differently, as an indicator for Milligan to show restraint.
One particular episode that I am fond of is "Lurgi Strikes Britain". This was seventh episode of the fifth Series, first broadcast on November 9th, 1954 and it was also my first introduction to the show. It is a tale of a strange epidemic, Doctor's in dustbins, the state of the drains in Hackney and the airlift of thousands of wind instruments. It is a good example of the show when it was at its height, has a clear narrative and broad representation of many of the best characters. Comedy can be a very interesting litmus test of each generations popular culture. The Goon Show is a great example of this as well as being just bizarre, idiotic and crazy fun.