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A variety summer

Updated: Mar 21, 2022

The life of a comedian in the 1950s was a tough one. For our intrepid Goon Show stars, the Sunday night recording of each episode was a tiny part of their lives.

For Spike Milligan, most of the rest of the week was taken up with writing the show, in collaboration with Larry Stephens, although he also performed on stage with other Goons.

For Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers, Michael Bentine, Ray Ellington, and Max Geldray, the stages of Britain were where they spent a large amount of their time. They travelled the length and breadth of the country appearing in variety shows and comedy acts, before high-tailing it back to London for the weekly recording.

The music and theatre historical website has an interesting article detailing what life was like in the provincial music halls of the UK in the 1950s, and the Victoria & Albert Museum has a similar potted history going back well into the early 1800s.

The Palace Theatre in Brighton, a typical variety show venue

Here’s a typical preview of one such variety show. Spot the Goons.

Twice nightly variety continues at Coventry Hippodrome next week when an exceptionally entertaining programme will be presented. There will be a personal appearance by Britain’s outstanding new singing star, David Whitfield, renowned for his recordings of “I Believe” and “Bridge of Sighs”. Then there is that great favourite, famous character actor of stage, screen and radio, Bernard Miles, with his brilliant “rustic” impressions. He is dubbed “The Uncrowned King of the Chiltern Hills”. Creating much interest will be “The man millions are talking about” The Amazing Chan Canasta, who is the most discussed artiste of the year. From the BBC “Goon Show” comes Max Geldray, with his electronic harmonica. Then there will be Iris Sadler who tells you that she is “Saucy but Nice”, the Three Lederers, illuminated jugglers, dance stars Dennis Bros and June, and the Skating Marenos performing wonders on wheels.

(from the Midland Counties Tribune, 7 August 1953)

You won’t see anything like that on Netflix, I’ll bet.

In the summer of 1953 Peter Sellers could be found in Portsmouth appearing in a production called Showtime. Sellers was not a fan of what he saw as the repetitive nature of stage shows, so did not make quite the same impact as he did on the screen in later years.

Harry Secombe was also busy, appearing in on stage and on the radio, occasionally billed as “the golden voiced comedian”. Clifford Davis, the Daily Mirror entertainment correspondent, writes on 15 May that Secombe is billing himself as “The 3-D Comedian. Own Coloured Glasses. Will Travel Anywhere”.

Michael Bentine, a year after bowing out of the Goon Show, could be found appearing in Coronation Music Hall alongside the likes of Terry-Thomas, Ted Ray and Norman Wisdom. Coronation Variety, a different show, featured Dick Emery who was billed as “the mirth-maker of the BBC Goon Show”, having featured several times in the third series deputising for Milligan.

The Ray Ellington Quartet had just finished a contract with “Mecca” and was returning to London with new guitarist Don Fraser, who replaced Laurie Deniz.

Even if you couldn’t see the Goons in the flesh, Down Among the Z Men was playing in cinemas as a support reel to other feature length films, so Eccles & Co were never very far away.

(My source for all this is the searchable online treasure trove of local and regional papers held by the British Newspaper Archive.)

Life on the road could be treacherous. There were no motorways (the first in Britain was opened in 1958) so there were long periods of travel on single-carriageway roads with a single lane in the middle for overtaking – which was used for cars going in both directions. There was no such thing as a speed limit, seat belts were not required, and there was no drink-driving law.

As Michael Bentine recalls:

Peter Sellers nearly killed himself when on a long journey south he fell asleep, ran off the road through a thick hedge and finished up in a ploughed field. Although his Triumph Gloria car was badly damaged, Peter fortunately got away with a few bruises but it shook him up badly. Nevertheless, he still played his part in the Sunday Goon Show [recording]. That is how much we all believed in what we were doing. The Goons really were like the Four Musketeers, and it is harder to feel closer to each other than that.

(from The Reluctant Jester, by Michael Bentine, published by Corgi Books, 1993)

'Well played, sir!'

One curious newspaper cutting from the summer of '53 caught my eye. From the 22 May 1953 edition of the Ashbourne Telegraph comes the draw for the first round of the Ashbourne Cricket Knock-out Competition. Alongside such monumental clashes as “Dovedale vs Tyler & Coates Ltd” and “Co-op Casuals vs Cock Inn, Clifton” is “The Goon Show vs Ashbourne Sec. Modern School”.

A month later we see that “The Goon Show” cricket team is due to play Ashbourne County Secondary School on 30 June. I am yet to discover whether the Goons successfully negotiated this tie to make it through to the next round, where they were due to play Wilwyns.

[FX: Lone cricket chirping] Bloodnok: Listen - what's making that noise? Seagoon: A cricket. Bloodnok: How can they see to bat in this light? Eccles: Major, Major, a man's just climbed over the garden wall. Bloodnok: A boundary! Well played, sir!

(from ‘The Affair of the Lone Banana’, Series 5 Episode 5, broadcast 26 October 1954)

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