Collectables - Extract From 'Goon Away'

The following as an extract from the book 'Goon Away' by Harry Secombe. It gives a great insight into the show...

There was a young man from Cathay
On a slow boat to China one day
Was trapped near the tiller
By a sex-crazed gorilla
And China's a bloody long way

this piece of T. S. Eliotry was produced at a Goon Show rehearsal by the simple method of each person writing a line apiece. To many a puzzled listener no doubt the Goon Show appeared to have been written in the same vay.

Actually, Spike Milligan would work all week writing the script, sometimes assisted by Larry Stephens or Eric Sykes. Peter Sellers and I would only come into the picture on the Sunday afternoon before recording the show in the evening. Let us take a typical day....

I roll up at the Camden Theatre in North London at about two-thirty, and my first thought is to wonder what conveyance Peter has arrived in. He was always changing his cars. One Sunday it might be a Goggomobile, and the next an Austin Princess. I believe at one time he was negotiating to buy a steam-roller.

As I enter the stage door, conveniently next door to a pub, I sing a burst of Return to Sorrento. There come cries of 'It's Singo, the approaching tenor, folks' from Sellers, who is playing the bongos in a prone position, accompanying Milligan's frenzied piano playing. 'Ah! The well-known danger to shipping has arrived. Ned of Wales is here.' Milligan announces my arrival with a NAAFI pianist's version of We'll Keep A Welcome. 'They'll never take you back, Ned.'

I reply with a raspberry. 'He's ad libbing again,' says Spike. 'Nurse, the screens at once.' Bloodnok Sellers is now using the bongo drums as a pair of binoculars.

There follows a rapid exchange of Army jokes and the latest gags, mostly of scatalogical nature.

'All right lads, that's enough.' John Browell appears in the auditorium. He is the producer and it shows in the worry lines on his forehead. 'Let's have a look at the script.' With cries of 'Cobblers' and 'Ying tong Iddle I Po' we retire to a back room in the theatre where we are given scripts.

This was always the best time for us. It made everything worth while - the frustration of tackling audiences in variety theatres where we were still finding it difficult to establish ourselves with a public accustomed to a less frenetic kind of comedy, or having to deal with managements who were completely against what we were trying to do, understandably perhaps, because we were not sure ourselves. Ours was a kind of anarchy in comedy. We were against the established form of presentation. At the time when we began the Goon Show in 1951, the profession was full of stand-up comics who came on and told a string of jokes and finished either with a song or a dance.

Our approach was different. We had spent the war years with lads of our own age in the services and we had fresh ideas. We were all first generation show business - apart from Peter, whose family was connected with the theatre. Perhaps I had better go back to when it all began.

Spike was born in Burma, and was the son of a Warrant Officer in the Indian Army.

When I first met him, he was Lance-Sergeant Milligan, Terence A., and one of the crew of a large 7.2 gun howitzer which had been installed in a gun-pit insecurely dug in the hard rock of a Tunisian plateau. His howitzer was being fired by a lanyard - a rope attachedto the firing lever which was used when the gun crew were not quite sure of what might happen. It was night time, and the crew left the gun while the 'No. 1' of the gun, a sergeant, pulled the lanyard. The crew turned their backs to the gun as it fired, and when they turned round, it had disappeared.

At that time I was in an Artillery Regiment deployed near by, and I was sitting in a small wireless truck at the foot of a sizeable cliff. Suddenly there was a terrible noise as some monstrous object fell from the sky quite close to us. I immediately began looking in my German dictionary for suitable phrases for surrendering. If they were throwing things that big at us there was no alternative.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, and our paths were destined to cross many times.

I have fond memories of Spike dressed as a gypsy with black-dyed hessian trousers, brown plimsolls and a red bandanna tied low on his brow, singing in all sincerity 'Down in the forest, playing his old guitar, lives an old dream man....' This was in Italy after the war, when we were together in an Army show. In addition to being a comedian I also had to be a ballet dancer and ballad singer. I used to do an act which portrayed how different people shaved, later to get me into the Windmill Theatre, and later still to get me removed from the Grand Theatre, Bolton, where the owner told me as he paid me off on the Monday night, 'You'll not shave in my bloody time.'

When I was demobbed in 1946 I started at the Windmill Theatre, where I had the good fortune to meet Mike Bentine. He was half of an act called Sherwood and Forest, and played the drums while Tony Sherwood played piano. T first saw him when he and his Dartner did the dress rehearsal for the show which followed the one I was in. From the beginning we found we had the same sense of the ridiculous. We used to sit in the Lyons Corner House in Coventry Street and spend most of the night over a cup of coffee and beans on toast, sometimes pretending we were Russian. The game was up when we picked on a Hungarian waiter who spoke Russian.

When Spike eventually left the Army I introduced him to Mike Bentine at Allen's Club- a haven for Windmill performers. Here you could eat now and pay later, and sit and pour out your ambitions into the ears of other young comics like Jimmy Edwards, Frank Muir, Alfred Marks and Bill Kerr, who were simultaneously pouring out their ambitions. It's a wonder anybody heard anything. It was an exciting period when we were all keen to get on, but the rivalry was friendly and the comradeship of the Services was still warm.

Later at a broadcast for Pat Dixon, a professional-looking man who had an ear for unusual comedy and was always on the look out for young talent, I was introduced to Peter Sellers. Peter had recently got himself a broadcast by the simple expedient of ringing Pat Dixon and using the voice of another radio producer, telling him he was sending this new comic Peter Sellers along to see him. Minutes later he turned up at Dixon's office and was booked on the spot.

I was very impressed by Peter, by his friendliness and the uncanny way in which he became the person he was impersonating. Later, standing next to him on the Goon Show, I could never get over the way he would shrink himself for Bluebottle and then seconds later, puff himself out for Bloodnok. It was almost frightening to see it happen. Yet when he was called upon to do his own natural voice, he was always worried. 'I can't, lads,' he'd say. 'I don't know what I sound like'

This particular period returns today almost as in a kaleidoscope. I remember cooking spaghetti on a gas ring with the steam loosening the wallpaper; running outside and around the block wearing only a vest and underpants on a pouring wet November night, and nobody taking any notice; the hysteria which we generated among ourselves at our own jokes; Spike doing his impression of the last turkey in the shop; sitting with Spike and Norman in a cafe at Golders Green, and buttoning my war surplus duffel coat over my head for a gag, then five minutes later ending myself alone at the table facing an unamused waitress and the bill for the meal; going with Spike and Peter to watch Charlie Chaplin in City Lights and the three of us leaving the cinema in tears; drinking free brandy in Jimmy Grafton's pub in Victoria Street.

During this chaotic time, the Goon Show was written by Spike and Larry Stephens, and Pat Dixon persuaded the BBC to do a pilot show. It was called Falling Leaves and featured 'those crazy people, the Goons'.

I had to drive down from Blackpool, where I was in a Summer Show, to London for the recording on a Sunday. It meant driving through the night to be there in time for rehearsals. From then on I was known as 'He drives through the night'.

Pat Dixon produced the show, which even when listened to today is almost incoherent. To give the BBC due credit, they decided to take a chance on it, and so in 1951, with Dennis Main Wilson producing, it all began.

Meanwhile, back at the Camden Theatre.... We have finished rolling about at the script, and John Browell is wondering how he is going to control us. Wallace Greenslade is with us now, having finished his news reading for the day. He comes in beaming and ruddy-complexioned, with the lingering scent of an after-lunch Worthington on his breath.

'Sing us the news, Wal.' Spike has decided to stand on his head. Wally replies with a good natured Naval phrase. 'Hello, Sailor,' lisps Peter, looking up archly from under the piano, where he has retired for a short kip.

Spike now leaves for a chat with the effects boys. He is particularly anxious to get the effect of someone being hit in the face with a sockful of custard. They try several effects but Milligan is a perfectionist, he knows what he wants. He goes up to the canteen in the top of the theatre. Make me an egg custard, love,' he asks the very nice Scottish lady who runs the place. 'Of course, dear,' she says. Half an hour later he returns and asks for his custard. It is given to him by the Scottish lady who has prepared it especially, using the then rare shell eggs.

'Thanks, love,' he says, and removes his sock. Before her astonished gaze he promptly pours the egg custard into it. The musicians arrive, preceded by Wally Stott who looks too frail to pick up his baton. Ray Ellington enters with Max Geldray. 'Good job you've got a long nose, Max,' says Milligan. 'It keeps the rain off your tie.'

'Ploogie,' replies Max morosely.

'Hello dere, Gladys.' Ray Ellington is using his Southern Negro voice today. The son of an American Negro and a Russian Jewess, Ray is having difficulty reaching a decision about whether to have his son barmitzva'd or baptized in the Anglican Church. 'Have a word with my brother,' I say. 'He's in that business.' It's my most useful verbal contribution of the day. Ray agrees to talk to the Reverend Fred Secombe.

We do a run-through with effects and orchestra. We have a little difficulty with the effects again. 'It's the Wembley Cup Final.'

'OK Spike, we'll sort it out later.' John Browell's soothing voice comes over the speaker from the control-room. Spike snorts.

The run-through over, Spike sits in with Ray and some of the band boys. Spike plays his trumpet, eyes closed and cheeks puffed out like those of a cherubim representing a trade wind on a sixteenth-century map. Peter has taken over the drums and is giving a creditable performance. I stand tapping my feet, wishing secretly that I had taken those piano lessons I was offered as a child: then I remember that we had no piano at home anyway. I go to the side away from the noise and sing a snatch of La Boheme. I feel a bit better, and stroll back on stage.

The queue has started forming outside and we head for the pub next door. Inside are the orchestra, friends of ours and Goon addicts, all of them would-be Bluebottles and Eccles and Neddies. 'Hello, my Capitain,' says one to Peter. He smiles politely, trying not to wince. Spike is complaining about his sock, still wet from the custard. We order drinks - brandies. I have a double. 'He'll be the first one to go, Mate,' says Spike to Peter. 'I don't want to be there when it happens; he'd rupture the lot of us trying to move him.' I blow a raspberry. 'Very nice, dear,' says the barmaid. 'Now do it with your face,' says a Goon fan with a delicate sense of humour ! The audience is already in and we start the warm-up. I sing Falling in Love With Love, accompanied by Wally Stott and the orchestra, and behind me Spike and Peter do outrageous things including trouser-dropping. I sing on, hoping Spike has not forgotten his underpants.

Wally Greenslade steps forward and asks for silence. The green light goes on. 'This is the BBC Home Service. Tiddly pong.'


GRITPYPE THYNNE: Moriarty, men of the Royal Labour Exchange, good news. I have had talks with the Prime Minister and he has granted us a further extension of unemployment.


We're off, and the audience laughter spurs us on to ad libs which will eventually have to be edited out.

When the Show comes to an end, with Eccles saying: 'Well, dat's dat!' the audience leaves-some of them bewildered, the aficionadosw gleefully repeating the Bluebottle-Eccles exchanges, or the familiar catchphrase: 'And there's more where that came from.'

We sign autographs at the stage door and say our goodnights. 'See you next week, lads.' Next Sunday is already something to look forward to. Peter gives Spike a lift back to Highgate in his new American car. The electric windows go up and down as they move off. 'Ned of Wales is a pouf,' shouts Milligan as they round the corner. I blow a raspberry. 'And there's more where that came from....' I wish there were.