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Summer ’56 (part I): The Goons take over

With the top-notch musical gag that ended ‘The Man Who Never Was’ still echoing in the public’s ears, series seven of the Goon Show drew to a close in March 1956.

After a week’s hiatus the show returned to its 8:30pm Tuesday evening slot on the BBC Home Service with a string of repeats, including ‘The International Christmas Pudding’ and ‘The Greenslade Story’, before being replaced by Bernard Braden’s new show in late April. (Other repeats continued on Sunday afternoons at 3:30pm on the BBC Light Programme.)

The Goons did not rest on their laurels. In fact, the summer of 1956 was when the Goons really took over.

Hit Parade

Having conquered radio, Spike and co launched an assault on the music charts and television almost simultaneously.

‘I’m Walking Backwards For Christmas’ hit the charts in June 1956 and reached number 4. It was swiftly followed by ‘The Ying Tong Song’ in September.

Excerpts from the Bedfordshire & Hertfordshire Pictorial, 3 July 1956

Marcel Stellman, the producer of those first Goon records with the Decca label, recalls in this 2007 interview with the Goon Show Preservation Society how he persuaded Spike to record his songs (“I said that they were brilliant and he agreed with me!”) and negotiating with Philips to get permission for Harry Secombe to blow raspberries. (He wasn’t allowed to sing.)

Stellman also explains that the orchestra played live with the Goons in the studio, demonstrating perfect timing to almost cut off the last note of the verse in the first instance.

As this H2G2 article points out, it’s interesting to think of this song as having an orchestral accompaniment given its roots as a replacement for striking musicians.

“In ‘I’m Walking Backwards For Christmas’ and ‘Bluebottle Blues’ they have managed to capture the zany, illogical behaviour heard in their radio shows,” wrote the unnamed music columnist for the Arbroath Guide on 21 July 1956.

Comedy, British variety, bursts forth from the Goons—at last recorded in ‘I’m Walking Backwards For Christmas’ (Spike Milligan, vocal, with Peter Sellers on pub piano) and ‘Bluebottle Blues’ (the duo plus Harry Secombe). The record has already taken off fast, but I warn you that a goonish sense of humour is needed to raise a smile over it. Many readers will prefer Harry Secombe straight, loud and clear in vocal interpretations of ‘The World Is Mine Tonight’ and ‘We’ll Keep A Welcome’.

(from the Daily Herald, 12 July 1956)

As Marcel Stellman also explains here that ‘The Ying Tong Song’ – which has its roots in a mispronunciation of the name of Spike’s wartime comrade and longstanding friend Harry Edgington – was fuelled by beer and cheesecake. Which apparently ended up all over the studio.

The soprano who sings the “take me back to Vienna” bit before being exploded (Footo, again?) is apparently the wife of either Marjan Rawicz or Walter Landauer, the famous piano duo. Unfortunately Marcel Stellman doesn’t specify which, and I can’t find either of their names online.

Stellman also says Spike provided a tenor voice in ‘I’m Walking Backwards For Christmas’, but as he’s using his Adolphus (Jim) Spriggs voice throughout, I wonder whether he means the male tenor introduction to ‘The Ying Tong Song’.

The newspaper cutting from the Daily Herald pictured shows 'I'm Walking Backwards For Christmas' propping up the top 10 best selling records as of 12 July 1956. I can't be the only one whose mind boggled at the song at number 6.

(Side note: I also can’t be the only one who saw the book Walking Backwards to Christmas and was thoroughly disappointed with the serious theological premise. But! According to this, the Goons’ hit was a direct inspiration.)

The small screen

An unemployed television

Meanwhile, Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers led a team of fellow Goons into the TV studio to create The Idiot Weekly, Price 2d. This was a hit when it aired in February and March, overlapping with the end of the sixth series of the Goon Show.

Its success led to A Show Called Fred in May and Son Of Fred in September ahead of the start of the seventh series of the radio show.

I wrote about these series in detail in September last year, but there are a few reviews and details I wanted to add.

The Goons were obviously male dominated on radio, with the exception of the occasional guest star. TV brought a tad more gender diversity to the cast, with June Whitfield and Patti Lewis joining the fun.

Come September, and despite the appearances of the aforementioned Whitfield and Lewis, the Leicester Evening Mail declared that Jennifer Lautrec was “the first-ever regular woman Goon”.

Lautrec had apparently come out of “retirement” to appear on the show, having previously appeared in the radio series Meet The Huggetts. She was married to Reg O’List, a longstanding friend of Milligan and a successful comedian and entertainer.

Now Spike has persuaded Jennifer to make her comeback in Son Of Fred, and she says: “I think it is a wonderful opportunity for me. I’ve really been longing to get back to the stage.” [...] Posing for a picture, she said: “I’m afraid I can’t very well make it a Goon-like one – I haven’t got my false beards with me.”

(from ‘The first regular woman Goon’, Leicester Evening Mail, 21 September 1956)

Some more reviews:

(from the Weekly Dispatch, 19 August 1956)

(from the Yorkshire Observer, 24 September 1956)

(from the Evening Sentinel, 26 September 1956)

There's so much more to explore from this transformative summer. We haven't even touched on Harry Secombe's multiple engagements, Eric Sykes' burgeoning schedule, the touring commitments of Max Geldray and Ray Ellington, or the Goons' success on the big screen - and the art studio (kind of).

Stay tuned, folks.

Greenslade: Mr Seagoon - pull your trousers up at once. This is not ITV television!

(from 'The Mystery of the Fake Neddie Seagoons', Series 7 Episode 9, broadcast 29 November 1956)


Gramophone image by Skitterphoto via Pexels; television image by Rene Asmussen via Pexels. Newspaper cuttings sourced from the British Newspaper Archive.

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Trying to find out the identity of that operatic lady. Walter Landauer was married to a Jane Morrison in 1948. She had been crowned Miss Scotland the previous mention of her operatic prowess is known, it seems. By default, I'd love to say it was Marjan Rawicz's wife (and I believe he had one!), but the trail indeed goes cold there...

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I've found something else...a YouTube comment, 13 years ago, on the Ying Tong Song itself - from a gentleman by the name of Phil Homewood: 'I can confirm that the lady singing the opera section on this tune is my late mother, Eileen Byrne, sadly she passed away in 1981'. OK...the only other mention I can find of this possibility is a Brazilian Amazon page with the Wiki entry modified (without punctuation, possibly by the same gent mentioned above) to that effect. Fascinating, and a large bucket of salt to be taken with it as well...I'll keep digging.

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typo alert, dear nit. series six ended with "was never who man the".

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