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Sir Harry Secombe

Updated: Oct 13, 2021

Today we look into the origin story of one Neddie Seagoon.


Born in Swansea in 1921, Secombe wasn’t a natural performer at first. He tended to play support act to his sister, and retreated to the outside lavatory to sing whenever he was asked to perform at family gatherings. Attempting to be heard at that distance possibly boosted the power of his voice early on!


Short sighted from a young age, Harry’s performing confidence improved when he realised that when he took off his glasses, he could no longer see the audience – and so was immediately less intimidated. He was inspired by radio comics – including ITMA’s Tommy Handley.

Upon leaving school, he took a job as a clerk at a mining company. In his autobiography Arias and Raspberries he recalls getting into trouble for impersonating the boss of the company, much to his colleagues’ amusement, and how he started a tea business selling cuppas and biscuits throughout the whole building.


He also recalls messing up the pay slips for the miners, and counting his lucky stars that he didn’t have to clean up said mess as his call-up papers had arrived.


Already a volunteer for the Territorial Army, Secombe signed up for the Royal Artillery when war was declared. He quickly took up the mantle of “regimental idiot”. While on leave one weekend he was arrested by military police in Swansea for being improperly dressed, and was found to be without his weekend pass or identification document. While his friend ran home to fetch them, he sat in a cell at the Military Police HQ in Swansea High Street railway station.

… the charges against me were duly read out by the Sergeant Major. ‘Improperly dressed, not in possession of his [ID] and leave pass, and insisting on whistling the German national anthem when in custody.’ The major looked down at his desk for a moment and then looked up. ‘Sergeant-Major, as you well know, Gunner Secombe is not responsible for his actions. Case dismissed.’

(from Arias and Raspberries, by Sir Harry Secombe, published by Fontana, 1990)


His war diaries, which make up a significant chunk of Arias and Raspberries, are well worth a read. He joined 78th Division in 1942 and sailed to North Africa to become part of the epic battle with General Rommel’s Afrika Corps. He was part of a failed attempt to take Tunis and narrowly escaped capture – or worse – by the Germans.


Ultimately, though, the Allies prevailed, and the soldiers were visited by General Montgomery, who addressed them from the back of a truck, and Gunner Secombe was thrust to the front.

Now, I wasn’t looking too good at this particular time. For one thing I had just had sand-fly fever, and I had also developed a fine crop of shiny boils; my glasses had been repaired with black tape… and under my beret, my hair had grown long. So it was with much trepidation that I complied with this illustrious general’s command [to remove berets]. And then he looked down and caught sight of me. He gave a kind of start of disbelief, then went on with his pep talk… every so often his eyes drilled down in my direction. I felt impelled to say something – ‘I’ve been ill, sir’ or ‘I’ll get my hair cut tomorrow, sir’. Instead, when there was a tiny lull in his speech, I called, ‘We’re with you, sir.’ He looked down at me once more for quite a few seconds, shook his head slightly and said, ‘Ye-es,’ without much conviction… I must have reminded him of Wellington’s words after a march past of his troops before the Battle of Waterloo: ‘I don’t know what effect these men will have upon the enemy, but, by God, they terrify me.’

(from Arias and Raspberries, by Sir Harry Secombe, published by Fontana, 1990)


When peace was declared in all directions, like Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe joined the Combined Services Entertainment group that travelled Europe entertaining the troops waiting to be demobilised. Milligan recalls his first peace-time meeting with Ned-to-be:

… I used to play the trumpet in a scratch combination. It led to my meeting with someone from Mars, Gunner Secombe, H., singer and lunatic, a little myopic blubber of fat from Wales who had been pronounced a loony after a direct hit by an 88-mm gun in North Africa [probably a reference to this]. He was asleep at the time and didn’t now about it until he woke up. General Montgomery saw him and nearly surrendered. He spoke like a speeded up record, no one understood him, he didn’t even understand himself; in fact, forty years later he was knighted for not being understood.

(from Where Have All The Bullets Gone?, by Spike Milligan, published by Michael Joseph/Penguin Books, 1985)


It was around this time that Secombe came up with his first solo act – but more of that later.


Neddie Seagoon as a character didn’t emerge at first, but Secombe’s distinctive voice made him the natural central character in many sketches in the first couple of series. Seagoon himself only properly emerged in the fourth series.


Harry Secombe, meanwhile, went on to become a star of stage, screen, and hit parade – in particular through Pickwick. He’ll always be Ned to me, though.


Picture sourced from the BBC.

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