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The first broadcast

Updated: Oct 13, 2021

On this day exactly 70 years ago, the first Goon Show was broadcast on the BBC’s Home Service radio station.


That week’s issue of the Radio Times (available via the BBC’s Genome Project) proclaimed:

The series is based upon a crazy type of fun evolved by four of our younger laughter-makers. The members of this entertainingly eccentric quartet are old friends: they met during the wartime perambulations of the 'Stars in Battle-dress'. Since then Secombe and Sellers have joined the successful company who can top-the-bill. Ex-Etonian Michael Bentine has won his spurs in the West End and Spike Milligan is making a reputation both as a comedian and writer (it is he who has compiled the 'Goon Show' material). Now it remains to be seen what will happen when their differing brands of comedy are fused in one show.

(from the listing for 28 May 1951)


This text is accompanied by photos of the quartet, with Milligan and Sellers doing their best Hollywood heart-throb impressions, and Bentine and Secombe doing very much the opposite.


Then, at 6:45 that evening, unwitting radio listeners heard BBC announcer Andrew Timothy proclaim: “This is the BBC Home Service… What is the zaniest comedy show on the air today?”


To which Spike Milligan replied: “Er – Today in Parliament?”


“No, it’s those Crazy People, The Goons!”


And we were off.


While no recording of this seminal moment in radio comedy exists, journalist Alfred Draper recounts much of the script in his 1972 book, The Story of the Goons.


It wasn’t until the fourth series that the show settled into the single storyline plots that typify most recordings. For the first three series, The Goon Show was a series of sketches, with the actors switching voices “with the rapidity of machine gun fire”, as Draper puts it – but the Goon humour was certainly evident.

Secombe: My name is Jones. I write this programme strictly for radio – but they said as a radio show, it was ahead of its time. Sellers: When was that? Secombe: 1852... Every day I phoned the BBC in the hopes of contacting some influential person. I finally managed to get one of the heads – this I mounted on a pike. Sellers: How jolly! Secombe: Yes. At that time I was living in dire poverty. Have you ever lived in dire poverty, friend? Sellers: No, I have a little flat in Brockley. Secombe: What a merry place to be sure. Continuing my story – I was very, very poor… worry turned me grey… this gave me a peculiar appearance as I was completely bald at the time. As my last resource [sic] I opened up a little tobacconist’s shop in town. Unfortunately, the little tobacconist caught me.

(quoted from The Story of the Goons by Alfred Draper, published 1977 by Severn House)


And so on and so forth. While this may seem fairly tame in 2021, 70 years ago this – and the rest of the Goons’ oeuvre – was more than a little off-the-wall. Milligan and Bentine in particular were keen to shake up what they saw as a rather stale comedy scene reliant on corny one-liners from Variety acts.


Other programmes were lampooned too. In this first episode, they spoofed Dick Barton, Special Agent, a wildly popular radio serial of the time. It was a brave move to parody a flagship show on the network that had just given the Goons their long-desired debut, but it paid off.

Dick Barton (Sellers): Look, they’ve thrown something through the door. Snowey (Secombe): Great Scott! It’s an atom bomb! Jock (Milligan): What’ll we do? Barton: Quick men, put your fingers in your ears. FX: [Huge explosion] Announcer: Listen again tomorrow to ‘Dick Barton’s Special Funeral’.

(quoted from The Story of the Goons by Alfred Draper, published 1977 by Severn House)


The pace of the show and its ground-breaking use of sound effects (something that would become a trademark of the show in the years ahead) certainly grabbed the attention of the audience. And as if that wasn’t enough, Harry Secombe sang – in the bath.


The Goon Show – albeit billed as ‘Crazy People’ due to a disagreement with the BBC (more of that later) – was off and running. It was up to the audience to keep up.

 

Happy birthday, Peter Eton

Dennis Main Wilson was the producer of the first show, having helped the Goons finally grab the attention of the BBC hierarchy after three years (at least) of trying. He produced most of the first two series before handing the reins over to Peter Eton, who was born on this day in 1917.


In all, Eton produced more than 100 episodes and oversaw the Goons’ rise to fame (or infamy) in the early 1950s.


Peter Eton

Eton joined the BBC during the Second World War after being wounded during the Dunkirk evacuation and invalided out of the armed forces. He was a successful radio and TV producer throughout the 1950s and beyond – and was also a talented artist, as these sketches auctioned by Bonham’s in 2018 demonstrate.


Eton is also listed as the producer of a 1968 TV broadcast of ‘Tales of Men’s Shirts’, originally broadcast as the second episode of the final series of The Goon Show. This TV version featured John Cleese as the announcer (Wallace Greenslade having died in 1961) and, for some unknown reason, Christine Pryor as ‘Bikini Girl’.



Eton was also a leading voice championing Tony Hancock before the emergence of Hancock’s Half Hour in 1954. A Hancock biography (admittedly cited via Wikipedia) apparently suggests that Eton was the first to use the term “situation comedy” to describe the format best suited to Hancock’s style.


(I must confess to never having listened to Hancock, but I feel this is something I should look to remedy soon.)


As far as the Goons were concerned, Eton seems to have had an important influence on them. His arrival coincided with the departure of Michael Bentine, although the two events were otherwise unconnected. According to Roger Wilmut:

“Getting Eton was a stroke of luck for the Goons. Firstly, he had the reputation of being a hard man to make laugh, and was able to control the Goons’ tendency towards self-indulgence. He made them rehearse properly and perform to a higher standard than they had achieved before – and he was not afraid to bawl them out if he thought they needed it.”

(from The Goon Show Companion: A History and Goonography, by Roger Wilmut and Jimmy Grafton, published in 1976 by Robson Books)

“He was firm with the lads because sometimes we were a bit boisterous and over the top, and he’d tell us in no uncertain terms to pack it in. And we would! Because he had that kind of authority.”

(Harry Secombe, take from ‘At Last The Go On Show’, BBC radio documentary broadcast in 1991)


Wilmut also credits Eton with helping Milligan get the most out of the BBC sound effects department, which at the time was being underused by comedy shows (I’ll explore this more in a later blog) and improving the actors' “microphone technique” – basically, the use of being closer to or further away from the microphone to convey distance. Wilmut goes into this in some depth in his Goonography.


In all, it appears Peter Eton oversaw the Goons’ transition from a four-man off-the-wall sketch troupe to a ground-breaking comedy half-hour, making full use of the medium of radio to realise Milligan’s ideas. Without his hand on the tiller, it’s arguable that the Goons may not have hit the heights they did.

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