Updated: Oct 12, 2021
Episode 16 of the first series was broadcast on 13 September 1951 and can be found on page 32 of the Radio Times.
Grytpype: Now then, Seagoon, what made you join the army? Seagoon: An armed escort and two military policemen.
(from ‘The Nasty Affair at the Burami Oasis’, Series 7 Episode 1, broadcast 4 October 1956)
The Second World War forms the backdrop to the emergence of the Goon Show, and indeed all comedy shows of that era. The writers, performers and many of the backstage crew had all served in some capacity, with many seeing front line action.
As Michael Bentine explained in the BBC radio documentary At Last The Go On Show: “We were all ex-servicemen. That was a big bond in those days. I don’t mean a jingoistic bond, it really was a bond of mutual suffering – we’d all been through it.”
As we know, Secombe and Milligan met in North Africa when Spike almost dropped a large gun on his future collaborator. Sellers, while a few years younger, was conscripted to the RAF and posted to east Asia. (It must have been a big par- no, wait, I’ve made that joke already.)
Bentine, meanwhile, had quite a staggering run of misfortune despite earnestly wanting to join the Royal Air Force. As he recounts in his autobiography The Reluctant Jester, he was initially turned away by the armed forces on account of his father being Peruvian – the government was supremely suspicious of foreigners at the time. I’m glad that’s changed.
Disappointed, he started acting and began appearing in a production of a Shakespeare play. Halfway through a performance, he was accosted backstage by military policemen who had been sent to arrest him for desertion. While sitting (in full Shakespearean garb) in a police cell, he demanded to speak to the Peruvian ambassador, who knew Bentine’s father. The ambassador appeared and lambasted the police for their behaviour.
Bentine was then fast-tracked into the RAF recruiting process where he performed well. He went for a routine medical examination and to receive his vaccinations – only for the person administering the jabs to give him an undiluted dose of typhoid, which almost killed him, and did indeed kill at least one other recruit. It took him months to recover and ruined his eyesight, ruling him out of becoming a pilot.
Finally, though, he did indeed get his role at the RAF, in the intelligence section – helping bomber squadrons prepare for their raids and advising on what to do if shot down and how to escape if captured.
Bentine told Roy Plumley the story on Desert Island Discs on 11 February 1963.
The war, and the shared experiences of suffering and the very real threat of death, thus meant a great deal to the Goons and their audience. As Denis Norden – co-creator of Take It From Here and another ex-RAF serviceman – explained in the 1997 TV documentary Heroes of Comedy: The Goons:
“The audience treated [the Goons] as a regular event in their lives, and they had shared experiences with the audience. The audience and the Goons had been through the war together. Now that was an experience in which we all could have died.”
Understanding this is a key to understanding the historical context of the show and in particular the war-themed episodes. We’ll be returning to this theme a lot in the next few months.