Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Goon Show: "A nice man wrote the time down for me this morning."


The Goon Show was a British radio comedy programme, originally produced and broadcast by the BBC Home Service from 1951 to 1960, with occasional repeats on the BBC Light Programme. The first series, broadcast between May and September 1951, was titled Crazy People; all subsequent series had the overall title The Goon Show.

The show's chief creator and main writer was Spike Milligan. The scripts mixed ludicrous plots with surreal humour, puns, catchphrases and an array of bizarre sound effects. Some of the later episodes feature electronic effects devised by the fledgling BBC Radiophonic Workshop, many of which were reused by other shows for decades afterward. Many elements of the show satirised contemporary life in Britain, parodying aspects of show business, commerce, industry, art, politics, diplomacy, the police, the military, education, class structure, literature and film.

NBC began broadcasting the programme on its radio network from the mid-1950s. The programme exercised a considerable influence on the subsequent development of British and American comedy and popular culture. It was cited as a major influence by the Monty Python team and the American comedy team The Firesign Theater.

The series was devised and written by Spike Milligan with the regular collaboration of other writers including (singly) Larry Stephens, Eric Sykes, Maurice Wiltshire and John Antrobus, under the watchful eye of Jimmy Grafton (KOGVOS - Keeper of the Goons and Voice of Sanity). However, on four occasions during the 8th series, Milligan was unable to come up with scripts, so Stephens wrote "The Stolen Postman", and Stephens and Wiltshire "The Thing On The Mountain", "The Moriarty Murder Mystery" and "The White Neddie Trade", in very convincing Milligan-esque style. In the 9th series, when a similar situation occurred, Stephens and Wiltshire also wrote "The Seagoon Memoirs" (Stephens had contributed a solo script during the 4th series). Many senior BBC staff were bemused by the show's surreal humour and it has been reported that senior programme executives erroneously referred to it as The Go On Show or even The Coon Show.

Milligan and Harry Secombe became friends while serving in the Royal Artillery during World War II; they met up with Peter Sellers and Michael Bentine back in England after the war and got together in Grafton's pub performing and experimenting with tape recorders. Famously, Milligan first encountered Secombe after Gunner Milligan's artillery unit accidentally allowed a large howitzer to roll off a cliff - under which Secombe was sitting in a small wireless truck: "Suddenly there was a terrible noise as some monstrous object fell from the sky quite close to us. There was considerable confusion, and in the middle of it all the flap of the truck was pushed open and a young, helmeted idiot asked 'Anybody see a gun?' It was Milligan..."

This show was enormously popular in Britain in its heyday; tickets for the recording sessions at the BBC's Aeolian Hall studio in London were constantly over-subscribed and the various character voices and catchphrases from the show quickly became part of the vernacular. The series has remained consistently popular ever since – it is still being broadcast once a week by the ABC in Australia, as well as on BBC 7; and it has exerted a singular influence over succeeding generations of comedians and writers, most notably the creators of Monty Python's Flying Circus and The Beatles' movies.

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