Tributes to The Goon Show & Spike Milligan
Comedian and actor
I got into the Goons because my dad used to work for BP. One year he had to go out to Abu Dhabi and we all went to live there for a bit. I was 12, so it would have been 1974. And that's where I heard the show first, on Radio Dubai. I told Spike Milligan that once and he found the idea very odd.
The Goon Show originally aired from 1951 to 1960, and I hadn't heard much old radio comedy before - no Round the Horne or anything. But I'd already got into Monty Python, and it was a family thing to enjoy surreal humour, so we recorded it on a tape recorder - one of those early-1970s things. There's one tape of us all talking about how to get the machine going. I think the dub button was on.
When my brother and I went home to Britain, my dad kept recording the shows and sending the tapes back to us. I was at boarding school until I was 18, so I couldn't watch telly, but I could listen to Goon Shows round and round. Now I'm semi-encyclopaedic on the scripts.
Spike, who wrote all the Goon Shows, with the occasional help of Larry Stephens and Eric Sykes, made comedy with free association. It's what I think the Monty Python team must have done, and it's what comedy impro does, when you just open your mind up and you don't close it - for as long as you have the balls. It could be crap, but you just keep it open. If you go back before Spike, you just don't see that kind of thinking. That's why I say he's the godfather of alternative comedy.
Along with Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe, Spike also performed the shows, which were essentially little plays involving about a dozen regular characters. They took things to such surreal places - rockets going to the moon, which turned out to be made of sandwiches, or whatever it was. That's why the Goon Show is timeless, like Alice in Wonderland, and why it can still inspire a show like Roy Smiles's Ying Tong - A Walk with the Goons, which opens in the West End tonight. Comedy often dates when it contains lots of topical material, and the Goons was mostly fantasy. There's a lot of old gaggy-type material in the Goon scripts, too, because Spike was obviously just trying to get the work done. I remember when I was in college writing sketches: you just grab at anything you can and you throw it down.
As radio, the Goon Show could paint these ridiculous images in the audience's heads. Two regular characters, Grytpype-Thynne (Sellers) and Moriarty (Milligan), once came across a moot point, and one of them said: "Don't point that moot at me." I loved that kind of stuff, just because it's so stupid. Lines like that are part of my conversation now. I just say them and people don't know what I'm talking about.
I think I got slightly more from Spike as a writer, but Peter Sellers was a huge influence as a performer. There was a crispness about his characterisations. When he was Grytpype-Thynne he was so precise, and yet he could play so many characters - Bluebottle, Henry Crun, Major Bloodnok - and they were so diverse. I've always tried to do impersonations, but I was just not good at them. I tried to learn an Indian accent off a Peters Sellers record - one of the general election piss-takes that the Goons did. But then I realised I was wandering into a semi-racist area. It wasn't until years later that I worked out that you can only do an ethnic-minority accent if you give the character high status.
Milligan and Sellers were way out there, but Harry Secombe was rather straighter. He had come through comedy, but he rarely grabbed me. There just wasn't that comic invention there. I think great double acts like French and Saunders have proved that the idea that you just have to have one straight person to say "why did you do that?" or "where was he going?" is nonsense. Despite having no straight man, Milligan and Sellers were a great double act as Eccles and Bluebottle, Grytpype-Thynne and Moriarty, or Henry Crun and Minnie Bannister. I always wonder why Michael Bentine, who had helped to create the Goons, went off and did other things before they made it big. I thought he would have been a great person to be in there because he was obviously nuts.
I developed a special attachment to the Goons because Spike Milligan was stationed in Bexhill, where I used to live. He was there during the war, positioned on the top of Galley Hill, a very weird little hill that starts off flat and then sort of leaps up. I think there's a coastguard station up there now, but in 1940 there was a gun, and Spike was up there with it trying to stop Hitler. He also used to play his trumpet in the De La Warr Pavilion at the bottom of the hill, and I worked there in the 1970s, selling sausages, eggs and Penguin biscuits in a kiosk.
I finally met him when he won his lifetime achievement prize at the Comedy Awards. I had heard these stories about how he could cut you down. But he was very funny that night, so I reckoned he was in a good mood, and I just grabbed him and told him about Radio Dubai. He probably didn't know me from Adam.
Afterwards I sent him a video saying: "Could you watch this?" I always hope that the people who have influenced me will like my stuff. And Spike sent my tape back with a very nice letter. From other letters I've read of his, I think he probably did watch the tape, and he seemed positive about it.
Then, at the turn of the millennium, there was this photoshoot where they wanted a picture of the veteran generation and the younger generation in comedy, and they asked him and me. I jumped at it, of course. And then I was late - I couldn't believe it. To be late for Spike Milligan - how could I be so stupid?
And then, when I arrived, I thought somehow that I couldn't just say nice things, so I just started talking complete rubbish to him, and he was cool about that, and he just talked rubbish back. You know the sort of thing: about these gorillas, there were seven of them, and they were dressed in tennis shirts. I beat them back, but you know how they can be, and they were clawing at me, they were clawing at me, Spike. And he just went with it. I really can't remember what we were saying. It was fantastic. When they'd taken the photo, he said: "I like your stuff, by the way." And suddenly I felt all weird. And he added: "No, I mean that." There was no one else there. I just wanted to ring a bell and have that played back.