The Grafton Arms
Updated: Oct 13, 2021
The year was 1948. Three years after peace was declared in Europe after the ravages of the Second World War, the geopolitical landscape was still being reshaped: In Asia, Sri Lanka and Myanmar were granted independence from Britain following India’s independence a year earlier, while the Soviet Union tried to exert control over much of eastern Europe.
Not that the Brits were that bothered: the first noteworthy event of the year, according to this Pathé News clip, was Colchester United’s exploits in the FA Cup.
Incidentally, I love this clip – it is so quintessentially British. Nearly every sobering news story is punctuated with sport. The Soviets tried to starve Berlin, but it’s okay because OLYMPICS.
Against the backdrop of a country and continent trying to find its feet after seven years of horrendous fighting, newly demobilised soldiers were similarly trying to find their way as civilians – often with very little help from the government that had conscripted them. In his autobiography The Reluctant Jester, Michael Bentine recalls being offered a weekly soldier's pension of 30 shillings, equivalent to about £15 now and not even approaching recompense for what he went through.
Another ex-soldier emerging from the war and into civilian life was Major Jimmy Grafton. During the war he was awarded the Military Cross for his actions during an operation to liberate parts of the Netherlands. Post-war he took charge of his family’s pub and began writing scripts for radio, a job he sought after helping entertain his fellow soldiers while waiting for demob (in common with Milligan, Sellers and Secombe).
The Grafton Arms, located just off Victoria Street in London, played host to a range of budding entertainers in the late 1940s, including future Goon Show guest stars Dick Emery and Graham Stark.
“Anybody who played the Windmill [Theatre] went to Grafton’s, which was Mike [Bentine], Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers, Larry Stephens, Tony Hancock, Alfie Marks, Graham Stark… And in the end pretty well the whole of what was going to be show business for the next 15 years was upstairs at Grafton’s. You’ve never seen anything like it. [They were] young, mad, enthusiastic, and wild.”
(Dennis Main Wilson, taken from ‘At Last The Go On Show’, BBC radio documentary broadcast in 1991)
In his memoir, published as part of Roger Wilmut’s Goonography, Grafton explains how he first met Michael Bentine and Harry Secombe in his pub when they were commenting rather unkindly on the corny jokes being told by comedian Derek Roy on the BBC radio show Variety Bandbox. Grafton overheard them and “admitted” to being the author of this material.
“It might have been an embarrassing moment, but instead we had a good laugh and some convivial drinking, following which the pair announced that they would be back the next day. It must have come as some surprise to them when, returning the following lunchtime, they commenced a conversation with mine host, who gazed at them in amazement and with a total lack of recognition. They had unknowingly approached my twin brother Peter, who was a regular luncher in the pub.”
(Jimmy Grafton, writing in The Goon Show Companion: A History and Goonography, published in 1976 by Robson Books)
Spike Milligan spent some time living in the attic bedroom of the pub after being introduced by to the landlord by Secombe – an experience that Spike would not forget.
Grytpype: Here is a preview of next winter in Jimmy Grafton’s attic... [FX: Howling wind] Sellers (McGonagal): Oooh wind, sleet, rain and trousers are falling. The monkeys are still doing it in the soup, and the snow lies heavy on the slopes of Raquel Welch. Grytpype: Can your legs stand another recorded winter like that? Seagoon: Well, I don’t stand all winter. Sometimes I lie down. Depends on who she is.
(from ‘The Last Goon Show of All’, broadcast 5 October 1972)
The Grafton Arms became a “home-from-home” for the original quartet. They would use Sellers’ tape recorder to play about with ideas, jokes and voices, as well as trying out new material on their drinking buddies.
Milligan soon teamed up with another Grafton Arms regular, Larry Stephens, to write the scripts, with Grafton himself editing – a role he kept for the first three series. His crucial role in the formation of the Goons led to him being dubbed KOGVOS: Keeper (or King) of Goons and Voice of Sanity. He was also “keeper” of Harry Secombe, as he was his agent for 25 years.
The Grafton Arms still exists, and visitors will spy a small but significant memorial to the pub’s history on the wall outside.
Incidentally, I felt this post was appropriate for 2 June as this is the anniversary of KOGVOS’s passing in 1986. No doubt they are all now reunited somewhere in a similar drinking establishment, being just as wonderfully silly.
Seagoon: I have it on good authority that I’m drowning. Grytpype: For a fee of one and six, we can salvage you. [FX: Till] Grytpype: Thank you, and here is a waterproof receipt. Seagoon: Just the thing for my submerged accountant. Spike: (off-mic) James Grafton!
(from ‘The Rent Collectors’, Series 7 Episode 16, broadcast 17 January 1957)
Image of Jimmy Grafton comes from The Goons: The Story by Norma Farnes, via Wikipedia. Image of the plaque outside the Grafton Arms sourced from WhatPub.com.
Fast-forward to 1951, and the sixth episode of the first series of the Goon Show was broadcast at 7:45pm on the Home Service on 2 July. The Radio Times listing is here.
Those of you who are paying close attention may notice one small difference from previous shows, with Robert Busby apparently conducting the BBC Revue Orchestra – as opposed to Stanley Black and the BBC Dance Orchestra, as it was normally.
I have no idea whether this was a mistake in the listing or whether Busby did take on conducting duties this week. Very little information is available online about him, but I can see he conducted orchestras on other comedy programmes around the same time, including Take It From Here and Educating Archie.
Here's an extract, courtesy of the Larry Stephens Twitter account:
It's all rather confusing, really.