I’d like to see them try that on television
Updated: Nov 1, 2022
By September 1956 the UK had experienced about a year of two television channels, ending the BBC’s post-war monopoly of the nascent medium.
The emergence of Independent Television – brilliantly lampooned in the Goon Show’s fifth series episode ‘Nineteen-Eighty-Five’ – had brought about competition for the BBC for the first time. Critics were split, and looking at columns written around the first anniversary of the ITA (independent Television Association) it appears the competition had not been as innovative as expected.
Light a candle for Independent Television. This infant intruder upon our national way of life is celebrating its first birthday. It needs your prayers. The question which raises most doubts is: Are viewers getting value for the hard-earned weekly payments invested in the family ‘telly’? Where are the new stars of ITV? Where is the bold fresh approach – the new techniques which we were told only private enterprise could bring to television and sweep away the bureaucratic bumbledom of the BBC? They are hard to find.
(Alan Hodgson lambasts ITV in the Daily Herald, 22 September 1956)
There was one light in the darkness, however – and it was supplied by our heroes.
While the Goons would later joke on more than one occasion about the obvious issues with translating some of their more implausible scenarios to television, 1956 was a breakthrough year for the team on the small screen.
The Idiot Weekly, Price 2d
First came The Idiot Weekly, Price 2d in February and March. It was a mix of sketch comedy and sitcom, with Peter Sellers featuring as the editor of a newspaper and headlines being used as links between sketches.
The cast featured a plethora of Goons: alongside Peter and Spike were Eric Sykes (also credited as script editor), Valentine Dyall, Kenneth Connor, Graham Stark, and Max Geldray.
The show also featured not one but two women – the shock of it! The wonderful June Whitfield got her first break on radio in 1953 in Take It From Here, playing Eth in the recurring sketch series, ‘The Glums’. Her TV work saw her appear alongside many of the biggest stars of the 1950s: Arthur Askey, Benny Hill, Frankie Howerd, Tony Hancock, Dick Emery. From her four Carry On films, to Beggar Thy Neighbour and Terry and June, to Absolutely Fabulous, Miss Marple and even Doctor Who, she had a stellar career.
Canadian actress and singer Patti Lewis, meanwhile, featured in most of this and the subsequent two series (see below), including musical slots, but apart from a few other appearances on 1950s light entertainment and variety shows, she doesn’t appear to have done much else on the small screen.
I did find one interview with Lewis in the Daily Herald from September 1956 ahead of the start of Son of Fred, in which she admitted through clenched teeth that she liked the custard pies that had been thrown at her in The Idiot Weekly, Price 2d. Working with the Goons was “wonderful”, she said, but you get the impression that was through clenched teeth too.
Dick Lester directed and produced the series, which was his first credit in either of these roles according to IMDB. His style chimed with Milligan’s and Sellers’, so much so that he went on to direct A Show Called Fred and Son of Fred later in the year. In 1959 he helped Milligan and Sellers with The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film, which later caught the eyes of a certain Liverpudlian musical quartet, prompting them to hire him for their own movies.
The series was broadcast by Associated-Rediffusion, an independent television franchise that broadcast to London. In total six episodes were shown in February and March 1956.
VARIETY has followed the same formula for so long that it should renamed MONOTONY. In only one programme series – the “Goon” shows, starting with “Idiots Weekly” [sic] – has any attempt been made to experiment with new forms of TV comedy.
(Alan Hodgson in the Daily Herald, 22 September 1956)
24 February 1956
2 March 1956
9 March 1956
16 March 1956
23 March 1956
30 March 1956
Spike would later revive the series’ title for a radio show in Australia. The Idiot Weekly has several episodes that closely resemble Goon Show scripts. But more of that another time.
A Show Called Fred
Such was the success of The Idiot Weekly, Price 2d, a new series was commissioned immediately and broadcast just two months later: A Show Called Fred, again broadcast by Associated-Rediffusion, began in May 1956. The cast was similar, but there was no Eric Sykes or June Whitfield.
2 May 1956
9 May 1956
16 May 1956
23 May 1956
30 May 1956
The opening credits spoofed The Rank Organisation’s famous gong credit sequence, Max Geldray had a regular music slot, and in terms of subject matter pretty much all bets were off.
Some footage survives and is available on YouTube. This was a completely new type of comedy, breaking all sorts of rules to show cameras, cameramen, studio equipment and scenery – and very clearly setting the tone that Spike Milligan would use again and again in his subsequent solo series.
This, I believe, is episode 5 of the series:
You may recognise the theme tune – ‘The Ying Tong Song’ was released as a single in September.
Reviews were broadly positive, but some reactions were evidently extreme. Callers besieged ITV with “protests”, according to Kenneth Baily in The People in May 1956 – although Baily went on to praise the show and called for the BBC to “step in and save” it, arguing that the Beeb could afford to give a controversial show a longer run than commercial stations. Just as it had done with the Goon Show, in fact.
In the Aberdeen Evening Express, reviewer Gale Pedrick described the cast as a “combination hard to resist”, while Clifford Davis in the Daily Mirror noted that “some viewers find it the funniest show on the screen; others are frankly baffled”.
Sellers told Davis in an article published on 16 May 1956: “I haven’t the strong personality of Arthur Askey or Harry Secombe, but even so – if the material is right – I can still get laughs. I reckon I will have to change my style over the next five years and A Show Called Fred is giving me that opportunity.”
To say that this has instantly become the funniest show on either channel may not be saying much, but the really cheering thing is that it should be so televisually funny: this, for once, is a variety programme which owes nothing at all to gramophone records or the Palladium, or even to cabaret.
(from Truth, 11 May 1956)
This review from Truth magazine goes on to describe the show as “splendidly irreverent” and praises Sellers (“surely destined for the heights”) and the rest of the cast – although it does seem to disapprove of the “momentarily uncomfortable emphasis on masculine nudity”.
Truth’s reviewer Bernard Levin was invited to a rehearsal in May 1956 and recorded his thoughts in a lengthy article published later that month. Dick Lester is said to be controlling proceedings “with a calmness clearly born of despair”, while Valentine Dyall’s transition to comedy is “like a happy psychopath being transferred from one institution to another”.
[A Show Called Fred] has been hailed in many quarters as not only the funniest thing that has ever been seen on television, but as the first programme to exploit the full resources of the newest medium in a manner which owes nothing to the methods of any older one. It is said that Television House still doesn't know what hit it.
(‘Sideways Through Milligan’ by Bernard Levin, from Truth, 25 May 1956)
Son of Fred
In September 1956, Milligan and Sellers were back with a third series, Son of Fred. Clifford Davis (him again) explains:
But perhaps the greatest compliment paid to the success of the new programmes comes from the BBC itself. When Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan clicked with their Goon-type TV shows, the BBC at once came in with an offer of “10% more than ITV pay you”. Now this same show had been offered to the BBC previously – and turned down. So it’s hardly surprising that Sellers and Co. have stayed on the Independent channel.
(from Clifford Davis’ column in the Daily Mirror, 21 September 1956)
Still, the series only ran for eight episodes. One of these was previously available on the British Film Institute’s website but, alas, no longer. Its holding page for it is worth a read.
17 September 1956
24 September 1956
1 October 1956
8 October 1956
15 October 1956
22 October 1956
29 October 1956
5 November 1956
Where was Harry Secombe all this time? Busy, that’s where. We’ll come to that in good time.
Perhaps I imagined the whole thing, including the trip in the taxi with Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers, during which they sang their theme song, [‘The Ying Tong Song’], from Kingsway to Greek Street. But if I imagined it all, what on earth is this second head doing, sprouting between my shoulder-blades?
(A confused Bernard Levin concludes his account in Truth, 25 May 1956)
Photo of the cast of The Idiot Weekly, Price 2d sourced from Nostalgia Central.