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Exit Bentine

Updated: Oct 13, 2021

‘I Was A Male Fan Dancer’, the third episode of the third series of the Goon Show, was broadcast on 25 November 1952. It can be found on page 26 of the Radio Times.


The third series was a difficult one for the Goons. They had worked hard to establish themselves as a primetime radio outfit with a unique brand combining silliness, surrealism and cutting-edge sound effects.


However, as I touched on yesterday, there had been changes in staff and structure, and the success of the past two series just added to the pressure. Spike Milligan was beginning to struggle with his mental health under the pressure of delivering the scripts. There was also the potential that he was still suffering from the delayed effects of post-traumatic stress disorder from his wartime experiences. There was a new producer in Peter Eton – although he was familiar with the Goons through other projects – and new musicians.


The most notable development from the audience’s perspective, however, was the departure of Michael Bentine.


Having been brought up as the son of a pioneer and a natural heretic, and a natural radical, having seen a thing was becoming a success I then wanted to get on with something else, which I then did.

(Michael Bentine, from the ‘At Last The Go On Show’ documentary, 1991)


The strain of performing on stage around the country during the week and making it back to London in time for the Goon Show’s recording was having an effect on Bentine’s family life, and he wished to make more time to spend with his young family.


There was also talk of creative differences.

Mike Bentine throws out ideas like sparks on a Catherine wheel, and Spike – his mind flies away. Between them they get together and expand on an idea. And perhaps at the end of the day, they both go home thinking the idea was theirs, which sometimes led to a little bit of friction.

(Harry Secombe, from the ‘At Last The Go On Show’ documentary, 1991)

Mike Bentine wanted to go into reality documentary and take the mickey out of the present state of the nation quite technically… Spike wanted to take off and just disappear into jet-propelled secret NAAFIs and things like this, and something had to give.

(Dennis Main Wilson, from the ‘At Last The Go On Show’ documentary, 1991)


There are many stories about why Bentine left and rumours of a rift between him and Milligan in particular. Certainly, Bentine was later on the receiving end of a few negative comments from Spike, although he had a habit of saying often quite mean things about fellow collaborators that didn’t stand up to scrutiny, so this should be taken with a pinch of salt.


In his autobiography The Reluctant Jester, Bentine describes his departure as amicable when it came to his fellow Goons, but turns both barrels on the BBC.

I had come home [from the US] to rejoin the Goons in the new series but was shocked to discover that another actor, whom I had never heard of, had been brought into the show without anyone telling me about it.

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


I’ve not been able to back up this claim or find out who the other actor may have been. It may be that Peter Eton was making enquiries about people to step in for Spike, as he was becoming unwell, but the two people who deputised for him – Dick Emery and Graham Stark – were well established and also frequented the Grafton Arms, so I can’t imagine it was either of them.

Influenced by the Corporation’s press release about the circumstances of my leaving The Goon Show, the national newspapers made quite a meal out of it. The whole thing was blown up out of all proportion to the simple truth of the matter, and I soon found myself being cast as the villain of the piece. The whole business become most unpleasant and upset us all.

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


There is no real evidence that I can find from contemporary newspaper reports to back up these claims, although my source (the British Newspaper Archive) is not exhaustive and doesn’t cover several of the national papers.


Bentine expresses much bitterness at how he was treated by the BBC. He was, he alleges, written out of history in some promotional materials and lamented the loss of the recordings of the first two series.

… According to certain people, I had had no connection with the Goons whatsoever, and had contributed nothing to the success of the show. Furthermore, my forty-one Goon Shows… had all been wiped out of existence. Officially, the Goon Show started immediately after I left… Even my photograph had been neatly excised from the earlier Goon pictures. I still cannot understand why.

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


Ultimately, though, Bentine remained a Goon for the rest of his life. For years afterwards he was billed as a Goon in newspapers and adverts, and he continued to collaborate with Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers on stage.


Milligan once told the Goon Show Preservation Society to include his caricature in its official logo, alongside the other three protagonists, recalling that Bentine could make them all cry with laughter at times.


Most significantly, Bentine also returned to the Goon Show in the fourth series for ‘The Giant Bombardon’ to demonstrate that he hadn’t fallen out with his fellow Goons.


In The Reluctant Jester, he likens the Goon quartet to the Four Musketeers, adding:

I would not have missed being with my good friends and The Goon Show for a fortune. So long live the Goons and all that we stood for, especially our dedicated attempts to show that ‘sacred cows’ all have hooves of clay.
L-R: Harry Secombe, Michael Bentine, Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers

Here are three of the four musketeers talking trains in 1993 for an episode of Highway, presented by Harry Secombe.


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