A very happy birthday to Ned of Wales, aka Sir Harry Donald Secombe CBE, who would have been 100 years old today.
There are many things happening this week to mark Sir Harry’s centenary, and I’ll list as many of them as I can at the end of this blog. Feel free to fast forward to the end if you want. I won’t be too offended.
If you were to ask me for my dream dinner party guests, Harry Secombe would be at the top of my list. His ebullient and effusive personality still echoes through his work today, from the Goon Show to recordings of his music and acting, as well as his writing.
Born on this day in 1921 in Swansea, Wales, Harry Secombe was initially a shy child by his own admission. I’ve already covered his early life adventures, including singing from the outhouse and a questionable short-lived career as an office clerk. The 30 June blog has more on his early years and his army career, and of course there was the time he met Spike Milligan via a runaway cannon.
Post-war, Secombe moved to London to pursue a career in entertainment after touring Europe with the Combined Services Entertainment unit, alongside Spike and many others. After a successful audition with his shaving act at The Windmill, he met Michael Bentine and the other Goons and, through their base at the Grafton Arms, began plotting his key role in changing British comedy forever.
His charisma and recognisable voice naturally evolved into the lead character in the Goon Show after Michael Bentine departed. Neddie Seagoon, a thinly-disguised caricature of Secombe himself, became the centrepoint around which all the other Goon Show characters rotated.
By the time Neddie had cemented himself in this role, outside of Goonland Harry Secombe was rapidly becoming a big star. He had a run starring in Educating Archie, Eric Sykes’ first big radio hit, and was a regular on shows such as Variety Bandbox. He toured the music halls of the UK, and in the mid-1950s began to explore other aspects of his talents.
Secombe’s first UK hit single was ‘On With The Motley’, released in 1955 and which made it to number five in the nascent popular music chart. Spike Milligan jumped at the chance to promote his friend’s record, doing so no fewer than eight times during ‘The Lost Year’ (Series 6 Episode 13), broadcast in December 1955.
Seagoon: Yes, there they are, clinging for dear life to that gramophone record of Harry Secombe singing ‘On with the Motley’. Moriarty: Help, throw us a gramophone, or it’ll be too late. Seagoon: Here! Catch this rope, you brave patrons of a great singer.
Seagoon: Pitch my tent. Ray Ellington: Where? Seagoon: There. By that record of Harry Secombe singing ‘On with the Motley’, ha ha. Ray Ellington: Oh, cor blimey, again?
Seagoon: Water! Water! If only I had water, water or a record of Harry Secombe singing ‘On with the Motley’. Water... Bluebottle: I have got one my capitian. Enter Bluebottle, points to cardboard record of capitan.
(three excerpts from ‘The Lost Year’, Series 6 Episode 13, broadcast 13 December 1955)
He reached number two in the charts in 1967 with ‘This Is My Song’, and number 16 in 1963 with ‘If I Ruled The World’.
Sir Harry’s first venture into film was in 1949 when he had a small uncredited role in the romantic comedy Helter Skelter. After the Goon-led short films Penny Points to Paradise and Down Among the Z Men, he starred alongside Michael Bentine and Hy Hazell in the 1953 comedy Forces’ Sweetheart about two soldiers who become infatuated with a female entertainer.
In 1958 he starred in Davy, which was designed to launch him into the film world as a serious actor. While it was only a mild success as far as I understand, it does feature this wonderful performance of ‘Nessun Dorma’.
A year later he appeared in Jet Storm alongside Richard “Monty’s Treble” Attenborough, and went on to enjoy success as Mr Bumble in Oliver! and as Mr Pickwick in, er, Pickwick. He cropped up in The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins in 1971, which also featured Spike Milligan and was directed by Graham Stark.
I’m not going to list all his appearances or achievements – Wikipedia has a fairly decent, if not exhaustive, list – but there were many, on stage, screen, radio, and non-explodable records.
Seagoon: Presenting Neddie Seagoon with his 1909-type phonographic request recital, complete with a set of non-explodable records. [FX: Bang] Seagoon: Curse! A dud.
(from ‘The Great Tuscan Salami Scandal’, Series 6 Episode 23, broadcast 21 February 1956)
Earlier this year I read An Entertaining Life, which consists of Sir Harry’s two autobiographies, Arias and Raspberries and Strawberries and Cheam. They are both great reads and very well written, with plenty of laughs, poignancy, and lots of shameless (but charming) name-dropping. The name-dropping I love, because it’s almost always written as if he is nudging the reader and saying, “You’ll never guess who that was!”, rather than being boastful in any way.
Secombe’s war memoir, contained within Arias and Raspberries, is a really good first-hand account of what it was like to be a soldier near the front lines.
The rain began in our sector on about 6 December , and it fell for three days and nights. There was no respite from it and no protection either. I had always imagined North Africa to be a hot, sandy place with oases and palm trees, but it soon became clear that the climate was more European than African. Down where the glamorous Eighth Army were fighting it was more like the popular conception of desert warfare, but where we were that December it might just have been Ystalyfera [in Wales].
(from Arias and Raspberries, by Harry Secombe, published by Fontana, 1990)
An Entertaining Life also includes tributes from his wife, Lady Myra Secombe, and his children, Andrew, Jennifer, David and Katy. Reading these had me in tears, as they were written very soon after his death in 2001 and for the family it was still difficult to come to terms with the loss.
Lady Myra – who her husband described as his “Rock of Gibraltar” – recounts how they met at a dance in 1948. They arranged to meet again the next day, but were both so nervous they hid behind pillars to see if the other one was going to show up. “We both laughed like hell when we realised what we’d done.”
It was Jenny Secombe’s tribute to her father, and account of his final days, that still makes me well up when I think about it. I’m re-reading it now and getting choked up all over again.
There were two anonymous cards we received that seemed to sum up Dad’s very special qualities. One was from a man in Wales who wrote to tell us that he had just heard one of Dad’s records played on the radio and ‘here I am, a 76-year-old, six foot, ex-Welsh Guardsman and I’m sitting in my kitchen listening to his voice and crying like a baby’. And the other contained the simple message ‘To Neddy Seagoon – thank you for making a schoolboy laugh’.
(Jennifer Secombe, writing in An Entertaining Life, by Sir Harry Secombe, published by Robson Books, 2001)
I make no apologies for being so gushing in this article. Sir Harry Secombe genuinely seems to have been a lovely person with a very positive outlook on life that he made every effort to share with the audiences that loved him. He also remained humble and appreciative of the good fortune he enjoyed, and used his platform as an entertainer to promote the work of many charities, in particular the Army Benevolent Fund.
More details on his life can be found in this obituary from The Guardian – although take the dates with a pinch of salt, as the ones relating to the Goon Show are definitely wrong.
While Sir Harry will never grace any dinner party I host, perhaps one day I will see him in that Great Variety Theatre in the Sky once more performing his famous shaving routine.
The BBC is broadcasting quite a few programmes in Sir Harry’s honour, all of which are available for a limited time via the Beeb’s website.
Harry Secombe: Unsung Comedian was on BBC Radio Wales on 3 September, with Gareth Gwynn – a successful writer for TV and radio – interviewing “family members, friends and fans about The Goon Show star’s comedic legacy”.
BBC Radio 4 Extra has a recording of Sir Harry reading his novel, Welsh Fargo, which it is broadcasting in 15-minute excerpts. Each episode of Welsh Fargo by Sir Harry Secombe is available for 28 days, according to the website.
Yesterday, BBC One broadcast Welsh Greats: Harry Secombe, with Aled Jones telling Sir Harry’s life story. Directly afterwards (and still available on BBC iPlayer at the time of publication) was a set of classic Michael Parkinson interviews with Sir Harry, fellow birthday boy Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, and Ray Ellington.
Finally, something I’ve already posted but I’ll do so again – another super documentary about Ned of Wales, featuring lots of input from the Secombe family. It’s a really nice watch, this one.