A couple of weeks ago we explored some of the Goons’ wartime experiences. Let’s pick up that theme again.
Minister (Sellers): Gentlemen, apparently for the last three years, we've been at war. W-A-R pronounced... [FX: heavy shelling] Milligan: I say, it sounds jolly dangerous! Secombe: Who are we at war with? Minister: That's what I keep asking myself. If only we knew, we could tell a policeman.
(from ‘World War One’, Series 8 Episode 22, broadcast 24 February 1958)
For all the jokes the Goons told about warfare and the ridiculousness of it all, they all experienced significant trauma and saw fellow soldiers killed.
Spike Milligan tells of several members of his regiment killed by enemy shells, and was himself hit by shrapnel while trying to reach a communications post as his regiment worked to push the German army back through Italy.
In Mussolini: His Part In My Downfall, Milligan recounts his injury and how he was treated in the immediate aftermath as he struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder.
To add to my misery I am “Court Martialled” by the Major. I am marched into his tent by Sgt Daddy Wilson, and I’m told I had been due for a second stripe but owing to my unreliable conduct I am to relinquish my stripe. I suppose in World War One the bastard would have had me shot… I am by now completely demoralised. All the laughing had stopped.
(from Mussolini: His Part In My Downfall, by Spike Milligan, published by Michael Joseph/Penguin Books, 1978)
Perhaps the most harrowing accounts I’ve read come from Michael Bentine and Eric Sykes (who was later to collaborate with Milligan on many scripts). Both were involved in the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp at Belsen.
Millions of words have been written about these horror camps, many of them by inmates of those unbelievable places. I’ve tried, without success, to describe it from my own point of view, but the words won’t come. To me Belsen was the ultimate blasphemy.
(from The Reluctant Jester, by Michael Bentine, published by Corgi Books, 1993)
After peace was declared, Sykes found himself in a regiment alongside Denis Norden, later to become the co-writer of Take It From Here, another successful 1950s comedy show. Sykes recalled his experience in his autobiography.
What had begun as a rumour became a stark reality as, following the end of the war, the abominations of Belsen, Auschwitz, Dachau and numerous other camps became clear. Ron Rich, Denis Norden and I were totally unprepared for the sights that hit us between the eyes. Appalled, aghast, repelled – it is difficult to find words to express how we felt as we looked upon the degradation of some of the inmates not yet repatriated… The sight of them is something I will never, ever forget and nothing angers me more [than] when some people today not only defend the Hitler regime but also deny that the horrific death camps ever existed.
(from If I Don’t Write It Nobody Else Will, by Eric Sykes, published by Fourth Estate, 2005)
The emergence of the Goon Show was, in a big way, an attempt to channel the horrible things the cast went through into something much more positive. As Britain rebuilt itself after seven years of brutal warfare, everyone needed a laugh.