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Happy birthday, Max Geldray

Updated: Feb 14, 2022

Harmonica virtuoso Max Geldray was born on this day in 1916. He provided a musical interlude for the Goon Show for almost every show, from the first Crazy People episode in May 1951 right up to The Last Goon Show of All in 1972.

On top of that, however, Geldray was – just like his fellow Goon musician Ray Ellington – every bit a member of the cast and was roped in several times for cameo appearances in later series. However, his lack of experience with acting became a slightly cruel joke for the rest of the group.

Geldray: Don't move, boy! I'm from the French Surete police. Grytpype-Thynne: It's son of Hylda Baker! Geldray: Silence! You are in the presence of a great man. I am Mr Max "Conks" Geldray, the world's greatest Dutch detective. Seagoon: The world's worst actor!

(from ‘The Mountain Eaters’, Series 9 Episode 5, broadcast 1 December 1958)

It seems at times that Geldray was not valued highly by the BBC. At one point, the corporation tried to drop him from the show to save money, but Peter Sellers vowed to quit too if the Beeb went ahead, so he stayed.

According to Humphrey Carpenter in his 2004 biography of Spike Milligan, Sellers and Milligan contributed to the cost of flying Geldray back to London for The Last Goon Show of All in 1972 when the BBC declined to do so.

Max’s nose was often the subject of gags too – “don’t worry, it keeps the rain off your tie!” – and led to his nickname “Conks”. For 'The Mysterious Punch-Up-The-Conker' (Series 7 Episode 19) he was advised to place his harmonica under his nose as a protection from the mystery assailant - to no avail.

Peter Sellers, for reasons best known to himself, dubbed his friend “Ploogie”, which can often be heard being yelled in the background as the cast step back for the musical interlude.

Grytpype-Thynne: Why has your conk forsaken its place in safety behind your harmonica? Geldray: The Mona Lisa has been stolen, boy. […] It's been stolen by a short, fat man. Grytpype-Thynne: Neddie with the Mona Lisa, gad! Geldray: By golly, I swear I'll get it back. Til then, my conk will never rest. Farewell, boys, farewell. [Orchestra: Ta-da] Greenslade: He was very good you know, very good. He's never done any acting before you know. Seagoon: Now we know why mate.

(from ‘The Mountain Eaters’, Series 9 Episode 5, broadcast 1 December 1958)

Max, as drawn by Spike

At this point I must confess that, for most of my life as a Goon Show fan, I’ve not paid much attention to Max Geldray’s musical numbers. As a kid I would often fast forward through them, as I didn’t recognise the music and wanted to get back to the jokes and silly voices. As an adult and a keen (if limited) amateur musician myself, I have come to appreciate Geldray’s talent far more.

He was a pioneer of the harmonica in jazz music, taking an instrument that was often confined to country or folk genres and reinventing it as a lead instrument with an orchestra for popular tunes of various styles.

Here’s one of my favourites, ‘Paper Moon’, taken from ‘The Great Statue Debate’ from the end of series eight.

Graham Stark is quoted in an obituary for Geldray from the Independent as saying: "It is said that Max never became a legendary player because he was so associated with the comedy but I don't think that's true. It was more that he didn't want to do anything that was populist, as he had very high standards."

Last year I read Max’s autobiography, Goon With The Wind, published in 1989. It’s a very well-written account of a life scarred by tragedy. He writes very matter-of-factly – and at times very humbly – about his achievements and experiences.

Born Max van Gelder in the Netherlands to a Dutch-Jewish family, in the 1930s Max’s fascination with, and talent for, the harmonica saw him touring Belgium, France and the UK, performing with famous musicians and bandleaders such as Django Reinhardt and Jack Hylton.

His first group was dubbed ‘Mac Geldray and his Mouth-Accordeon Band’, as ‘van Gelder’ was evidently too foreign for some audiences, and that’s where his stage name emerged from.

At the outbreak of war, he was performing in Belgium and ended up escaping the advancing Nazis in his car through France with three other people he’d never previously met. At one point in his autobiography he recalls being shot at and chased by a Nazi plane.

Eventually they made it to a port and escaped to England, where Geldray soon joined up with his fellow Dutchmen in exile to form what became known as the Prinses Irene Brigade, in honour of a Dutch princess. He was injured during the Normandy landings.

It must have been beyond devastating for him to discover, upon his return to the Netherlands after its liberation, that his mother, father and younger sister had all been murdered by the Nazis.

It seems to have been his music that kept him going as he returned to London, and he soon began making appearances on various BBC variety shows such as Workers’ Playtime, where Harry Secombe also appeared. He worked with Pat Dixon several times, putting him in a prime position to be appointed a musician on Crazy People.

Geldray: Hold everything boy. I bring bad news boy. Seagoon: Gad, it’s a genuine Diana Dors cast of a wrestler. Geldray: No boy, I’m the town crier! Seagoon (giggling): Well, start crying then. Geldray: Listen boy, don’t laugh at me; I don’t get any extra money for doing these parts. Seagoon: Sounds like a fair arrangement. Geldray: The valley is flooded boy […] The bridge to London is under water. It’s a dead loss. Seagoon: So are you mate!

(from ‘Queen Anne’s Rain’, Series 9 Episode 8, broadcast 22 December 1958)

One anecdote from the book that has had me listening hard to Max’s playing ever since was that, on one occasion, he and (I think) Peter Sellers had partaken of what I believe all the cool kids call ‘jazz cigarettes’ before one Goon Show. The effects hadn’t worn off by the time it came for Max’s performance, and he was, on his admission, not on top form. I haven’t yet worked out which show this was, which may say a lot about Geldray’s talent in that even on an off day he didn’t hit a bum note.

Post-Goons, Geldray continued his musical career and settled in the US. Later in life he became a counsellor at the Betty Ford Clinic in California. He died at his home in Palm Springs, California, on 2 October 2004, making him the last of the main cast of the Goons to make his way to the great backstage party in the sky. I hope they saved him some brandy.

I have a grave announcement to make. Just before this show started, Mr Max Geldray died. His wife described his condition as satisfactory. However, by waving some money under his nose, he has recovered enough to play his probate.

(Andrew Timothy introduces Max Geldray during The Last Goon Show of All)

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