On this day in 1916, Jimmy Grafton was born. During the war he was a major in the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment, and was awarded the Military Cross for his service during Operation Market Garden in 1944, an attempt to liberate the Netherlands.
There is more than one report of Major Grafton ordering an artillery bombardment of his own map reference as his regiment was being overrun by German tanks.
Upon his return to civilian life he settled down to run his family’s pub, the Grafton Arms, near Victoria Station in London.
The pub’s proximity to venues such as The Windmill meant his regulars were often performers of some kind or another – usually comedians. One by one, a rag-tag bunch of would-be comics began to frequent the Grafton Arms that shared a madcap, off-the-wall sense of humour.
A secret identity
Grafton was no stranger to the entertainment world, having written scripts to entertain his army colleagues while waiting to be sent back home. This experience helped him get into radio script writing, and by the time he came across the group who would become the Goons, Grafton was writing regularly for The Forces Show, Workers’ Playtime, and Variety Bandbox.
However, in the early years of his career Grafton attempted to keep his two careers separate, using the pseudonym James Douglas – Douglas, I assume, being his middle name. At some point in 1949, though, his name appeared linked to a script and the secret was out.
Grafton had teamed up with a tall young ex-soldier named Spike Milligan to write for Derek Roy, a successful radio comedian. It was the Radio Times listing for the launch of Roy’s first solo radio series, Hip-Hip-Hoo-Roy, in October 1949 that gave the game away, as the West London Press reported.
“Script by Jimmy Grafton.” These words appear in this week’s Radio Times in respect of the programme broadcast on Wednesday night, Hip-Hip-Hoo-Roy, with Derek Roy. Who is Jimmy Grafton? None other than Councillor Major J D Grafton, a member of the Westminster City Council. Cllr Grafton [said]: “I usually write under the name James Douglas and by some mischance my name has now appeared and the secret is out.”
(from ‘Councillor-licensee is BBC script writer’, Westminster & Pimlico News, 7 October 1949)
Grafton and the Goons
Before he joined forces with Milligan, though, he was to come face-to-face with two more up-and-coming comedians who soon began frequenting the pub. As Michael Bentine (for one was he) recalls in the 1991 radio documentary At Last The Go On Show:
I was working with Harry [Secombe] doing Variety Bandbox, and I was writing him weird things. The star of the show was Derek Roy, for whom Jimmy Grafton was writing. He wrote to us and said, ‘Our styles are clashing. Would you like to come down and talk it over with me?’ So we thought, great. Then we saw the address: The Grafton Arms, Strutton Ground, Victoria Street – and we thought, ‘It’s a pub! He owns a pub!’ Of course, we’d go anywhere for beer in those days.
(from At Last The Go On Show, BBC radio documentary, 1991)
Grafton himself remembers the meeting slightly differently in his ‘memoir’, which forms the first section of Roger Wilmut’s Goonography. He says Secombe and Bentine happened to be at the bar discussing Variety Bandbox:
It transpired that both Harry and Mike were somewhat critical of Variety Bandbox and its resident comedian, considering his material to be rather corny. As good-humouredly as I could, I admitted to being the author. It might have been an embarrassing moment, but instead we had a good laugh and some convivial drinking, following which the pair announced that they would be back the next day.
(from The Goon Show Companion: A History and Goonography, by Roger Wilmut and Jimmy Grafton, published by Robson Books, 1976.)
Embarrassing or not, Grafton got his own back when the pair returned the next day and began chatting to a man they thought was the landlord, but who was baffled and claimed never to have met them. It was Peter Grafton, Jimmy’s twin brother.
Spike and Harry already knew each other from their days entertaining fellow soldiers through Combined Services Entertainment – and of course from Spike nearly dropping heavy artillery on his future colleague – and Secombe wasted no time in introducing them all to each other.
In truth, it’s likely they had all crossed paths previously: Bentine, Secombe, and an ex-RAF man called Peter Sellers had all appeared on the shows Grafton had been writing for, but never (as far as I know) performing his scripts – hence the invitation Bentine recalls.
Part of Milligan’s payment for working with Grafton was, as many Goon aficionados will know, bed and board at the Grafton Arms. Spike lived in the attic, giving rise to his nickname, the Prisoner of Zenda – a reference to an 1894 novel and 1937 film of that name, which featured an imprisoned king. This must have done wonders for Spike’s ego.
(Fun fact: The star of The Prisoner of Zenda was Ronald Colman, who also starred in Lost Horizon. This was re-released in 1952 and served as inspiration for the eighth episode of the sixth series, ‘Shangri-La Again’. Don’t you just love Wikipedia.)
According to Grafton, Spike would tell stories to Jimmy’s young children Sally and James and leave presents and messages from the “Hobbley-Gobbley men” – he would later do similar for his own children.
Grafton met Sellers not long after the latter had started appearing alongside Harry Secombe in Listen, My Children on the BBC Third Programme, and so the Goon quartet was complete. Grafton, as the man deemed responsible, was dubbed KOGVOS: Keeper of Goons and Voice of Sanity.
Coming back to Jimmy’s twin Peter, it appears that the two caused each other a problem occasionally when it came to politics. Jimmy Grafton was a Conservative councillor for Westminster, while Peter was a devoted Liberal and was considered for a potential run as an MP in 1948, according to a report in the Bromley & West Kent Mercury (where I also found the photo, right).
In a letter to the Chelsea News and General Advertiser in August 1948, Peter rather eloquently alerted readers to the potential for confusion.
As is well known, [James Grafton] stood as a Conservative with the backing of the local Tory association… there is at least one member of the family who does not share his political views. This member may be heard on an occasional Friday evening at a certain corner in Tachbrook Street, with others of the Westminster Liberal Association, firmly putting the case for the Liberal Party to audiences, many of whom are acquainted, by sight at least, with Major Grafton. This possible source of embarrassment to Major Grafton is confusion of the identity of the Liberal speaker, who is Major Grafton’s twin brother and author of this letter. […] I am sure my brother in his present position is not anxious to be thought a speaker from a Liberal platform and I, for my part, am very much averse to being taken for a Tory, albeit a City councillor.
(Letter from Peter Grafton to the Chelsea News and General Advertiser, 6 August 1948)
A few months later, the same newspaper reported that Peter had helped organise a dance for the Westminster Liberal Party. It was advertised as having alcohol available, but there was not a drop in sight at the event – because he hadn’t confirmed his orders with a certain Conservative councillor and pub landlord. Liberals were left “wondering whether it was a deep-laid Tory plot or a genuine mistake”, the newspaper reported.
A long and varied career
Jimmy Grafton’s showbusiness career spanned decades and saw him write scripts for more than 500 programmes, according to his obituary in The Times after his death on 2 June 1986.
He was also Harry Secombe’s agent for 35 years, and it’s only fair that I give Sir Harry the last word.
We had our ups and downs as anybody would over that period of time, but it was impossible to stay mad with Jimmy for long. He was a fellow of infinite jest, ready with a quip or a quotation to fit any occasion. There was, too, an elegance about him, and if he had been a variety performer his bill matter would have been ‘Always a Gentleman’ – because that is what he was. He used words well and prided himself on the fact that he could do The Times crossword in record time, an accomplishment which irked me somewhat, because I never could. […] As an audience for a gag, Jimmy was incomparable – he would laugh until the tears came. And I remember a time in my dressing room at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco after the highly successful opening night of Pickwick when he and I and Myra clung together and shed tears of happiness and relief. [...] I shall remember him for his laughter and his friendship. He will be sadly missed.
(Extracts from Harry Secombe’s tribute to Jimmy Grafton in The Stage, 10 July 1986)