The sound effects men
Updated: Oct 19, 2021
One of the big changes that the Goon Show brought to radio comedy was the advanced use of sound effects.
Spike Milligan (and Michael Bentine) had a wild imagination and wanted the audience to experience it too. Unfortunately, the sound effects department was not as well advanced as all that.
“You’d have ‘knock on door’ and ‘footsteps on gravel’, which was the limit of the BBC Sound Archive. [But I] wanted a Wurlitzer organ playing, changing gear and changing key at the same time, which is a wonderful idea and sounded very funny when it was actually done.”
(Spike Milligan, from ‘At Last The Go On Show’ radio documentary, broadcast 1991)
Spike often recounted that he had to rage and throw tantrums to get his own way with aspects of the show including effects. I have my doubts about this – for all his undoubted genius he is what is known as an “unreliable narrator”, often contradicting himself or just being wrong.
In my view at least, it’s more likely that the effects team worked hard at (and enjoyed) concocting new sounds such as a penguin playing the piano or a wall driving at speed. Eric Sykes, interviewed for the same documentary cited above, ascertains that the sounds effects team “really loved” working on the show. Sykes was also known for painting audio pictures using unusual sound effects, so likely had a strong relationship with the same group of people.
Indeed, by the late 1950s, Michael Bentine had launched his own series called Round The Bend and challenged the sound effects department in a similar fashion. One sketch that is strongly reminiscent of Goon humour involved a telephone box joining a formation of Russian aircraft after their lines of communication are crossed.
The skilled BBC sound engineers, who are probably the finest radio technicians in the world, never batted an eyelash at this sort of unusual challenge to their ability to produce evocative special effects. This series tested them to the limit, and they never once failed me.
(from The Reluctant Jester by Michael Bentine, published Corgi Books 1993)
Unlike the principal cast and main musicians, these backroom staff members are rarely named in credits. Fortunately, the wondrous research of Roger Wilmut for his Goonography includes the names of a dozen individuals from different scripts or other sources, all of whom worked on effects and other studio roles through the life of the show. In no particular order, they are:
John Browell – he was the studio manager for the third, fourth and fifth series and returned as producer for the final two series. Bobby Jaye took over as studio manager for series 6-8, and Brian Willey held the role for series 9 and 10.
Ian Cook on “grams” from the third series until the last show. (He potentially started earlier – there were no credits on the first two series’ scripts, according to Wilmut.) Grams refers to pre-recorded effects played in on tape or record.
Several people provided “spot” effects – those created live in the studio. Wilmut names John Hamilton and David Allen for series 3-5, Ron Belchier for series 6-8, Jimmy Pope for the ninth series, and Harry Morriss for the final six shows.
Thanks to Roger Wilmut, I'm delighted to be able to give proper credit to at least some of the people who created these amazing audio pictures.
To hear what a Wurlitzer organ attempting the land speed record sounds like, I refer listeners to ‘The Mighty Wurlitzer’ (Series 6 Episode 16), while those interested in a wall going at speed should try ‘The Pevensey Bay Disaster’ (Series 6 Episode 10) or ‘The Hastings Flyer – Robbed!’ (Series 6 Episode 15) – these two are pretty much the same show.
One of my personal favourites is the “phone call” at the start of ‘The Last Tram (From Clapham)’ (Series 5 Episode 9), which is a bizarre amalgamation of sounds that will one day be installed as my actual ringtone. I can’t find it on YouTube, but Spotify listeners can get the episode here – the phone call is at 4:18.