Updated: Oct 19, 2021
When the Goons launched themselves onto the airwaves in 1951, one of the aspects of comedy they wanted to challenge was the idea of catchphrases being necessary.
This article from the Radio Times issue for 15 June 1951 illustrates just how much people liked a good catchphrase, and how quickly many of them caught on in a country that was brought together by radio broadcasting.
A sketch in one early Goon Show episode features a character that keeps appearing through a door to say the meaningless phrase “more coal”. As Roger Wilmut recounts:
... Milligan had propounded the theory that a catchphrase was simply a meaningless remark repeated until the audience was brainwashed into laughing at it... It was demonstrated [with the "more coal" sketch] that on the first hearing, this was followed by dead silence; on the thousandth it was greeted by rapturous (pre-recorded) applause.
(from The Goon Show Companion: A History and Goonography, by Roger Wilmut and Jimmy Grafton, published Robson Books 1976)
In his autobiography The Reluctant Jester, Michael Bentine notes that the Goons initially set out to go against tradition and avoid catchphrases. He adds, with a note of bitterness, that the Goons later adopted many, going against their early aim.
Perhaps Milligan admitted defeat on this particular crusade and gave in to the audience’s love of repetition – or maybe he just enjoyed proving himself right. He certainly brought in several regularly repeated phrases, such Grytpype-Thynne’s “You silly twisted boy” – usually aimed at Seagoon – and Bluebottle’s “You rotten swine, you”, and variations thereof, yelled at whoever was the cause of his deading that week.
The most fondly remembered was arguably “He’s fallen in the water”, which we’ll come to tomorrow.
There are many more, most of which were used as titles to the 30-plus compilations of recordings published by the BBC. According to TheGoonShow.net, catchphrases from the show make up the longest index entry in The Oxford Dictionary of Catchphrases, 2002 edition.
Just remember: you can’t get the wood, you know, but it’ll all be fine, fine, fine in the end – unless it isn’t, in which case we’ll all be murdered in our beds. In any case, it's all in the mind, you know.
And there's more where that came from!