By JOHN ELLIS
It’s a sign of our ever-deepening cultural poverty that I’d have to explain what I mean by ‘The Goons’. I’m talking, of course, of the one-and-only, groundbreaking, anarchic, pioneering, standard-setting Goon Show. The BBC radio comedy of the 1950s.
Needless to say, I’m a fan, and a rabid one at that, and getting more rabid every year. So much so that I’m now attempting to suggest not only that your life is incomplete without The Goon Show, but that your life may well be unexamined without it, and therefore probably not worth living.
I could rattle on about the virtues of The Goon Show for ages. The scripts. The performances. The sheer genius of its creator, Spike Milligan. As a wise man once said, however, writing about music (and in this case, radio comedy) is like dancing about architecture. It’s virtually impossible to communicate the sheer glory of The Goon Show, no matter how many superlatives you throw at it; the show literally has to speak for itself.
My first encounter with the Goon Show left me cold. High-pitched screaming, incomprehensible mumblings, strange characters I had no relationship with, a myriad of voices emanating from what sounded like a chaotic cast of thousands … in short, a cacophony.
I’m a lifer when it comes to Monty Python, but The Goon Show, Python’s supposed progenitor, seemed too impenetrable a jungle to explore.
Until one day, when the leaves were parted. The first episode of the Goon Show I paid attention to and suddenly found myself “in on” was one named “The Dreaded Batter-Pudding Hurler (Of Bexhill-on-Sea)”. I heard the plummy 50s-era tones of an announcer saying, “This is the BBC Home Service”, and then the sound effect of coins landing in a mug, and the same voice saying “Thank you”. It suddenly all made sense.
Being the geek I am, I’ve since learned all about Neddy Seagoon, Major Bloodnok, Hercules Grytpype-Thynne, Minnie Bannister, Eccles and the inimitable Bluebottle. I’ve even learned to enjoy the not-for-everyone harmonica mastery of Max Geldray and the equally excellent Ray Ellington. I’ve studied Spike Milligan, read about poor old Peter Sellers, talked to my step-mother about the time she met Harry Secombe. I’ve entered a world, and it’s so cosy in there I have no real intention of ever coming out.
This may read like nothing more than fan-boy geekdom to you, but I’d like to suggest that the world needs The Goon Show now more than ever. And not something like The Goon Show; I’m suggesting the actual show itself. In large doses. Daily.
Our world right now is absurd. Chaotic. Hilarious if wasn’t all so desperately scary. Our never-ending news cycles are populated by a cast of characters so utterly bizarre you’d be forgiven for thinking someone somewhere has just made them up. I don’t even have to list them, you know perfectly well who I’m talking about. Oh, and Donald Trump.
The Consolation of Philosophy, a sixth-century work by Boethius, suggested that life’s difficulties could be remedied with philosophical enquiry. Alain de Botton’s modern update, The Consolations of Philosophy (2000) sought to further suggest that us troubled moderns can be consoled by the wisdom of the Fathers of ancient Western thought. I unapologetically move to borrow Boethius’ original title and suggest that our modern era may be indecipherable without the sheer absurdist genius of The Goon Show.
Come on, obviously I’m not suggesting Spike Milligan can hold a candle to Socrates or Epicurus. And yet, we live in a world haunted by Nietzsche, a world in which Sartre was allowed out into our imaginations unaccompanied… At this late stage, we are utterly flummoxed. How else does a specimen like Trump become a millionaire, let alone the most powerful man on the planet? On second thought, maybe Spike was the genius all along, and Socrates a mere wannabe.
The Goon Show skewered everything. Everything. It was pure anarchy, paid for by the BBC no less, in a time when the chaos and cacophony of the Second World War had just recently left the world with a permanent nervous twitch and a rather strange look in one eye. Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe were all young soldiers; they returned to Blighty with the tumult of war in their veins, and by miraculous fortune were given microphones and encouraged to make Britain laugh again.
No other word describes The Goon Show’s style of humour as well as “absurdist” does. Pure reckless relentless absurdity. It’s a pleasure to listen to, 60 years on, partly because the world of the Goons sounds alarmingly familiar now. The show has worn well. It’s survived everything. Nothing, apart from Monty Python, has come close. Spike Milligan virtually single-handedly invented modern comedy. In these days where becoming a stand-up comedian is the new rock ‘n roll, it’s deeply satisfying to see that Spike just can’t be beaten. That there is no talent that will ever come close to the genius of Peter Sellers. That no one has as much fun as Harry Secombe.
Try it for yourself. Listen past the shrieks and the groans, listen for the jokes, listen to the performances and remind yourself they were recorded live in front of a studio audience in the days before computers. Listen to the groundbreaking use of sound effects. Listen to the comedy in the live orchestra’s linking pieces. It’s all there. It’s absurd and out of control and irreverent and insanely brilliant and it could possibly just make you actually laugh again.