The Telegoons

A Short History of The Telegoons...

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A Short History of
BBC-tv logo 1962
The Telegoons
Contents of this Chapter:
   Radio's Crazy Gang--"The Goons" (...includes a list of the BBC Goon CDs)
   Goon Shows Preserved While You Wait...
   The Wonder of Ultra-Kendall-Vision...
   Running Jumping & Standing Still...  
   Let's See Them Do That On Television!  
   Telegoon Toon Time...  
   Voice Actors, Puppeteers & Producers...  
   Go Ask Eccles & Bluebottle...  
   The Persistence of Goon Memory...
   Neddie Seagoon Puppet Restoration Fund...


BBC television’s Telegoons were rod and string puppets that acted out cut-down Goon Show scripts in front of a movie camera. But this is getting ahead of the story.... During much of the 1950s, a popular half-hour radio comedy, The Goon Show, was aired weekly by the BBC, mixing anti-Establishment commentary with way-out sound effects and a totally-off-the-wall, surrealistic form of humour (“It’s all in the mind, you know,”) often delivered with such frenetic speed that it left listeners, and let's not forget the performers themselves, breathless.

The Goons were popular long before tape recorders were commonplace, so it is not surprising that the most celebrated Goon Show skit of all proceeds at a leisurely pace. The delivery of this piece is slow enough to remember easily, especially with the assistance of a piece of paper to write it down. The skit concerns time and (funnily enough) a certain piece of paper, and appeared in The Mysterious Punch-up-the-Conker (G.S. 7th series, #19, written by Spike Milligan and Larry Stephens).  As always, Peter Sellers plays Bluebottle (a pimply-faced school boy), and Spike Milligan plays Eccles (the original Goon), who we are told in the same show, is the nearest thing to being a human without actually being one.

Hear it here:

Bluebottle: What time is it, Eccles?
Eccles: Um, just a minute, I,.. I’ve got it written down here on a piece of paper. A nice man wrote the time down for me this morning.
Bluebottle: Euh! Then why do you carry it around with you, Eccles?
Eccles: Well, um, if ah,...anybody asks me the time, I can show it to them.
Bluebottle: Wait a minute, Eccles, my good man -
Eccles: What is it, fellow?
Bluebottle: It’s writted on this bit of paper - what is eight o’clock, is writted.
Eccles: I know that, my good fellow - that’s right, When I asked the fellow to write it down it was eight o’clock.
Bluebottle: Well, then, supposing when somebody asks you the time, it isn’t eight o’clock?
Eccles: Well, then I don’t show it to them.
Bluebottle: Oh... Well, how do you know when it’s eight o’clock?
Eccles: I’ve got it written down on a piece of paper.
Bluebottle: Cor, I wish I could afford a piece of paper with the time written on.
Eccles: Ohh.
Bluebottle: Here, Eccles -
Eccles: Yeah?
Bluebottle: Let me hold that piece of paper to my ear, would you? ... Here - this piece of paper ain’t going!
Eccles: What?! I’ve been sold a forgery!
Bluebottle: No wonder it stopped at eight o’clock.

Making a radical break from established forms of presentation such as variety theatre, The Goon Show was uniquely suited to radio, and changed the comedy landscape for ever, taking no prisoners. On one level it was pure unadulterated comedy based on clever word play and unexpected misuse of logic. On another level, it created a world parallel to our own, but more ideal, in which anything is possible, nobody really gets hurt, and everyone gets to go home at the end of the day. On yet another level it poked fun at the pomp and ceremony of such cherished institutions as Parliament, the British Empire, and more. But its appeal was not in what it did, but more a case of how. As so aptly put by radio historian Andrew Crisell (An introductory history of British broadcasting), The Goon Show ...was a fusion of the crass and the clever, of naivety and knowingness, which is the essence of all great clowning.... One could also see it as an endless, consummate celebration of the power and limitations of radio itself. Whatever the source of The Goon Show’s appeal, at its peak of popularity in the mid 1950s, it captured the hearts, minds, and funny bones of a significant proportion of the UK radio audience.

To the extent that Goon humour can be said to have originated with one person, that person is wordsmith and comedian extraordinaire, Terence (Spike) Milligan. Born and raised in India, by Irish parents, the young Spike Milligan helped defend the British Empire in North Africa, and lived to write about it. 

Initially unschooled in script writing and plot construction, Spike’s skills flourished under the tutelage of London pub owner, and part-time BBC comedy writer, Jimmy Grafton. Another important influence on Spike was a young radio-thriller writer named Larry Stephens, who switched to comedy and formed a lasting and productive script writing collaboration with Spike.

Hatched in the back room of Jimmy Grafton’s London pub by Spike Milligan, Jimmy Grafton, Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe, Michael Bentine, Alfred Marks, Janet Brown, Peter Butterworth, Robert Moreton and others, regular sessions of Goonery  (named after an extremely dim character, Alice the Goon, in the Popeye comics beloved by Milligan) eventually led to a script entitled Sellers’ Castle. Written by Spike Milligan and Jimmy Grafton, Sellers’ Castle tried to capitalize on Peter’s recent radio experience by making him the lead character, a certain Lord Sellers. To cut a long story short, a demo recording was made, which did the rounds for a year at the BBC before a young producer, Pat Dixon, got the go-ahead for the Goons to do a radio pilot in 1951. The rest of the story, as they say, is Goonistry. (Confused?  Try pronouncing ‘history’with a silent ‘h’)

The Grafton Arms
The former Grafton Arms hostelry, birthplace of the Goons, established 1848 at No. 2 Strutton Ground, Westminster, SW1.
The two "hang-abouts" are (L to R), Chris Smith (GSPS NL editor emeritus), and Steve Arnold (GSPS archivist & web-dude).
Photograph © Alastair Roxburgh.

The famous alcove in Grafton's
All that remains of Grafton's Goon decor are these three pictures hidden away in an alcove
The small photograph shows the original Goons: Secombe, Bentine, Sellers and Milligan (1951). The large photograph shows Royalty backstage at the Camden, after the special Goon Show performed for the BBC's 50th anniversary (1972).
Photograph © Alastair Roxburgh.

Next section in this chapter:  Radio's Crazy Gang--"The Goons"...


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