These days one just doesn’t want to read the newspapers because they are littered with stories of suicide bombings, target killings and arson attacks, and because the country’s leaders are letting the nation drift on an unchartered ocean. On such occasions, I just clam up and regress and go back to those untroubled, peaceful days in London, to the great radio comedies of the 50s and 60s — gems like “Take It From Here”, “The Navy Lark”, “I.T.M.A.”, “The Men from the Ministry”, “Hancock’s Half Hour”, “Beyond Our Ken”, “Round the Horne”, “Bedtime with Braden”, “Binding in the Marsh”, and that granddaddy of British cult comedy —“The Goon Show”.
June 1952 to January 1960 were the glorious years of comedy when the Goons, Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and Harry Seacombe wrenched humour into a new dimension with an anarchic style that still influences British comedy today. Ludicrous plots were mixed with surreal humour, puns, and an array of bizarre sound effects. Those were the days when we first met Bluebottle, Eccles, Neddie Seagoon, Moriarty, Henry Crun, Minnie Bannister, Major Bloodnock and that suede-voiced villain Grytpype-Thynne. Who could forget the distinctive voices and memorable catchphrases of radio’s most famous cult comedians who drummed up an army of madcap creations, developed their own mythology and created their own heroes? The Goons were way ahead of their time.
The media gave the lads a warm reception. “Outrageous, surrealist unpredictable cartoons in sound,” is how the reviewer in the Radio Times described the medium’s most influential clowns in its issue of October 31, 1958. “The Goon Show is more than a comedy cult. It is a state of mind” is how Books and Arts put it in their issue of December 1957. It was the Sunday Times which paid the final tribute in its issue of November 9, 1958 when it described the show as “…the ultimate in pure radio”.
Listeners have often wondered at the instant success of “The Goon Show”. One explanation is that people in the ‘fifties needed something really zany, some sort of escapism which would shock them out of the post-war complacency in which they suddenly found themselves. Another reason could be that audiences were tiring of the conventional type of humour.
The three comedians were great friends and never missed an opportunity to have a jibe at one another. Seacombe was a Welsh tenor with a wonderful voice. When he passed away Milligan couldn’t resist a quip “I’m glad he died before me because I didn’t want him to sing at my funeral”.
In the early ‘sixties, the irrepressible quartet of Jonathan Miller, Peter Cook, Alan Bennett and Dudley Moore descended on the West End. Their skit was called Beyond the Fringe and viewers had not heard or seen anything quite like it before. These comedians fuelled themselves on the iconoclasm of the time when no target was safe. Unctuous white clergymen, black members of parliament, ticket collectors on the underground, even prime ministers came in for their share of rebuke. It was around this time that that brilliant raconteur and chameleon of speech, Kenneth Williams landed in the Carry On series. He was often given to outraged facial distortions as if exposed to a leaking drain and his humour was awash with camp and jokes of the dubious kind — double entendres and army medical examinations. Unfortunately, they don’t make people like them anymore.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 21st, 2011.
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