Updated: Oct 13, 2021
A few days ago we explored the pre-Goons existence of Harry Secombe – but there was one important bit I skipped.
Seagoon: Have a care, sir, I'm not a man to be laughed at. Grytpype: I know, I've seen your act... the er, singing shaver isn't it?
(from ‘China Story’, Series 5 Episode 17, broadcast 18 January 1955)
It was while preparing to go on stage in Italy that Harry Secombe first dreamt up the act that would later get him into showbusiness back home in the UK. As he recalls, Bill Hall – he of the Bill Hall Trio, Spike Milligan’s band – “burst into laughter at my antics, and I suddenly realised that I had the beginnings of a new act”.
The act was essentially to impersonate a number of different people shaving, with lather flying everywhere. Here he is, demonstrating the act on Michael Parkinson’s talk show:
Back in London, he auditioned at the Windmill Theatre. The Windmill was known as a breakthrough venue for entertainers. Each act had to perform several times a day to an audience almost exclusively made up of men who were only there for the naked women who would come on to pose for tableaux (they weren’t allowed to move due to indecency laws).
What those dirty old men made of Secombe’s frenzy of chattering, shaving, and blowing raspberries has not been recorded, but his name was – on the wall dedicated to stars that had performed there. At the Windmill he met Michael Bentine, and it was just a short walk from there to a certain Grafton Arms pub. The rest, as they say, is history.
While Secombe’s shaving act helped him into showbiz, it wasn’t always welcomed – particularly not one summer night in Bolton in 1947.
The audience sat grimly in their seats. ‘This lad hasn’t had the decency to shave before coming on to entertain us’ seemed to be their attitude, and I went through my performance without getting so much as a titter.
(from Arias and Raspberries, by Sir Harry Secombe, published by Fontana, 1990)
The theatre owner declared, “You’ll not shave in my bloody time”, and sacked him from the show. Upon arriving home, he sent a telegram to Michael Bentine that read: “Audience with me all the way. Managed to shake them off at the station.”
Secombe had his revenge, via this advert placed in The Stage:
(from The Stage, 2 October 1947)
Bluebottle: I'm not coming out until you give me a postal order for twenty new pence made out to Molly Quotts. Seagoon: Oh, folks! How could I raise that amount? I know. I could go and do a week's variety in merry Blackpool. I can still remember that shaving routine. How does it go again, ah, Well hello there folks, everybody needs to shave... [exits]
(from ‘The Last Goon Show of All’, broadcast 5 October 1972)
Advert image sourced from British Newspaper Archive.