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Secombe Here: The summer of '55

The fifth series of the Goon Show ended with ‘The End’, appropriately enough, broadcast on 22 March 1955. From there, our intrepid heroes embarked on a spring and summer full of showbiz action.

No sooner had the final episode of the series been recorded then Harry Secombe was jetting off to Egypt to entertain British troops stationed along the Suez Canal. Throughout his life, Secombe was a strong supporter of armed service charities and made regular trips around the world to entertain soldiers.

Television, while still not quite as popular as radio, was quickly becoming the place to be for entertainers – particularly in variety acts. Spike was a lead guest on Variety Parade on 2 April 1955, broadcast at 8:45pm. He was joined by variety comedian Jimmy Wheeler, soon to embark on his own TV series, along with the George Mitchell Singers. Mitchell was one of the creators of The Black and White Minstrel Show, which gave an early platform for trombonist George Chisholm, later of the Wally Stott Orchestra and an honorary Goon.

Milligan was apparently the star of this particular broadcast, according to the Runcorn Weekly News’ entertainment correspondent Tom Pepys.

“[It] probably came as a big surprise that this was what Eccles looks like,” Pepys wrote on 7 April. “His act was as original as the Goon Show, with the same striking quality of a surrealistic approach to life. There is a fascinatingly mad thread of insane unworldly logic running through Mr Milligan’s material. It is as though we were again hearing all the old cliches and idioms for the very first time, and understanding their literal meaning.”

This serves to highlight that, while the Goons are fairly tame by today's standards, they truly were considered off-the-wall and anarchic in the 1950s.

Pepys concluded: “I sometimes long for the Goon Show on TV, but it is unlikely to come, for it is essentially a sound radio show – it makes us use our minds instead of merely keeping our eyes open.”

Secombe Here

Harry, meanwhile, was a more established solo performer than Spike – so much so, in fact, that no sooner was he back from Egypt than he was straight into the BBC’s television studio to lead the first of three programmes melding comedy and music.

Have you ever heard a Goon talking? If you take my advice you won't try it on the telephone. Asking Harry Secombe today about a comedy television series which is to be all his own in May was like taking part in a rehearsal of the Goon Show. From the moment that a whinnying, semi-maniac laugh came over the wire and that voice announced “Neddy Seagoon here” it was obvious there was trouble ahead. But Secombe has a good singing voice and the finale of each of his one-hour shows – there are to be three and the first is on May 14 – will be an excerpt from an opera with full chorus. Seagoon, sorry, Secombe, will be singing the lead. And, doubt it not, he can sing. Today he had just returned from a singing lesson. His voice suddenly slipped into a Welsh accent as well it might (he comes from Swansea) and he informed the world in general that he is “a dramatic tenor, man”. Having tried to return him to normal by replying in the expressive noises made by Henry Crun and failed, it was some time before we discovered that he is to rely more on funny face than funny lines. He expects to use comedy sketches in this series in the style of the little man flaunting authority (when everyone else is taking the situation seriously the little man is having an extremely good time himself).

(Kendall McDonald previews the first instalment of Secombe Here for the Liverpool Echo, 17 March 1955)

Secombe Here was broadcast on 14 May 1955 at 9:30pm, and featured Harry and Spike alongside actress Shirley Eaton – a future Bond Girl – and the George Mitchell Singers once more. Hold on – who’s that in the credits? Could it be our old friend Arnold Fringe again?

There’s a nice biography of Secombe’s early career on page 9 of the Radio Times for the week of the first Secombe Here broadcast. Two more took place over the summer, on 9 July and 3 September.

The July edition featured actor and comedian Bill Kerr, a regular on Hancock’s Half Hour who would later appear in the stage production of Spike Milligan and John Antrobus’ The Bed-Sitting Room.

Ruby Murray

The September broadcast saw Harry joined by Peter Sellers along with Johnny Vyvyan, another Hancock alum who went on to appear in many comedy series including Spike’s Q6.

Ruby Murray, a massively popular singer in the 1950s, also appeared – this was quite a coup as she’d made history earlier in the year by becoming the first artist to have five songs in the top 20 in one week in March. She is now immortalised by the Cockney rhyming slang for curry, of course.

Speaking of Peter Sellers, he was attempting to kick-start his film career in the summer of ‘55. He appeared in the quirky comedy John and Julie as Police Constable Diamond, who sets out to find two young children – played by Colin Gibson and Lesley Dudley – who have run away from home to go to London and see the Queen’s coronation. Sellers can be seen in action below, and click here for the original trailer.

Michael Bentine had a minor (uncredited) role in the film as a “paper-tearing entertainer”, according to IMDB. Later in the year, Sellers co-starred alongside his hero Alec Guinness in the hit comedy film The Ladykillers.

Goons for Canada

Elsewhere in Goonland, the BBC was attempting to capitalise on the show’s growing popularity by offering the Goons to US and Canadian networks. The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer reported on 19 April 1955 that the BBC’s head of sound variety Pat Hillyard was heading off for a six-week tour of North America to promote the corporation’s entertainment programmes.

Mr Hillyard will offer the Canadians some of the BBC’s most popular programmes, which they will be able to broadcast without charge. “It is just a prestige, not dollar-earning arrangement,” he says. One of the comedy programmes which he would like the Canadians to hear is The Goon Show. “I have discussed the Goons with Americans and Canadians in this country,” he says. “Most of them told me that when they first heard the show they couldn’t understand it. They listened for two or three weeks, however, and then began to catch on. We have grown to appreciate American-style comedy, so perhaps we can get them to appreciate ours.”

(‘Goons for Canada’, from the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 19 April 1955)

Hillyard was successful in his promotional tour, as episodes from the sixth series onwards were sent to American networks such as NBC via the BBC’s Transcription Service.

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