‘Tales of Old Dartmoor’, the 21st episode of the Goon Show’s sixth series, was also Peter Eton’s last as producer – at least for now.
Eton had been with the Goons since the start of the third series, taking over from Dennis Main Wilson. He’s widely credited with bringing more discipline to the production and, according to Roger Wilmut’s Goonography, Eton brought in several radio drama techniques to add greater depth and quality to the recordings.
Getting Eton was a stroke of luck for the Goons. Firstly, he had the reputation of being a hard man to make laugh, and was able to control the Goons' tendency towards self-indulgence. He made them rehearse properly and perform to a higher standard than they had achieved before - and he was not afraid to bawl them out if he thought they needed it.
(from The Goon Show Companion: A History and Goonography by Roger Wilmut, published Robson Books, 1976)
Under his watch, the Goons had grown from an off-the-wall sketch show to a ground-breaking comic troupe and one of the most popular shows on the air. Characters and catchphrases were being mimicked in playgrounds and workplaces across the country. It was quite a blow to Spike and the gang, therefore, when Eton decided to pursue a career in television.
In an article written just before the launch of the seventh series of the Goon Show, columnist Gale Pedrick detailed how Eton’s departure was “to the regret of many who like to savour intelligence and wit in their variety programmes”.
Eccles: You sure about dat?
He moved to work for Granada Television, producing and directing programmes such as My Wildest Dream, which I think was an extension of a radio show that originally featured our own Harry Secombe, and Two’s Company, which starred occasional Goons Kenneth Connor and Dick Emery. He still kept his oar in with the BBC, too, illustrating that the competition between the Beeb and commercial TV wasn’t quite as fierce as some people were making out.
That brilliant producer, Peter Eton (and, believe me, there are precious few to whom I would award this adjective) affords an interesting example of what one might call friendly relations between the two great broadcasting powers in Britain.
(from ‘TV warfare holds no fears for this producer’, by Gale Pedrick in the Coventry Evening Telegraph, 11 October 1956)
It was potentially quite difficult for Eton to say goodbye to the Goons – over the years he had evidently become a fan, according to a January 1956 article in the Kensington News by Tony Keniston.
In his Aeolian Hall office overlooking Bond Street we chatted about the programme, and Mr Eton told me that the more anti-social and destructive the programme became the better the listeners liked it. The more vicious the exploits of Major Bloodknock [sic] the more fervently they were followed. Even after about a hundred and forty of these programmes Peter Eton is still a “foregone” fan, and said: “Just as I would rather have a glass of beer with Sabrina, failing a glass of iced champagne with Michaele Morgan I would rather sit through a recording of the worst Goon Show ever broadcast than no Goon Show at all.”
(from ‘Assignment Goons’, article by Tony Keniston in the Kensington News, 13 January 1956)
Pat Dixon, who had fought for the Goons’ first airing back in 1951, was drafted in to get the series finished. Dixon oversaw the whole of the next series as well, with the exception of the first two episodes, which were produced by Peter Eton. Sadly, due to ill health, Dixon was forced to step away at the end of this series, leading to a rotation of various producers on series eight – but that’s another story.
Meanwhile, Larry Stephens also returned to regular scriptwriting duties towards the end of series six. Spike’s partnership with Eric Sykes had taken the show to new heights in series five, and Spike had come up with some cracking shows on his own in series six, but he couldn’t do it alone.
Stephens was given a credit for ‘Tales of Old Dartmoor’ in the scripted credits, according to Julie Warren’s biography of him, but his permanent return seems to have been for ‘The Choking Horror’. This was his first Goon Show script since ‘The Canal’ (Series 5 Episode 6) in October 1954, after which he was deemed to have broken his contract with the BBC. He was back in regular partnership with Milligan from episode 25 of series six, ‘The Fear of Wages’.
Since ‘The Canal’, Stephens had been working on a variety of other projects, including Harry Secombe’s television series Secombe Here!.
In Julie Warren’s biography of Larry Stephens, she explains that there was supposed to have been a new Goon Show written especially for the BBC’s series Summer is a Comin’ written by Spike, but he was taken ill. Stephens was drafted in but he too was taken ill so Sellers and Secombe performed the classi episode ‘The Dreaded Batter Pudding Hurler (of Bexhill-on-Sea)’ instead, with Sellers spending much of the time talking to himself.
Although there is no documentary evidence to show [Stephens] had been helping Spike before this without being credited, memos in the BBC archives do show that Spike was tired and uptight around this time… Perhaps all the upheaval was why Spike needed Larry’s calming influence back in his life on a more permanent basis.
(from It’s All In The Mind: The Life and Legacy of Larry Stephens by Julie Warren, published by Unbound, 2020)
Not only had Eton left, but Milligan had apparently had a falling out with Peter Sellers – something of a regular occurrence – leading to some negotiations about the timing of series seven. But that’s also a story for another day.