The Telegoons

A Short History of The Telegoons...

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Contents of this Chapter:
   Introduction...
   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...

Voice Actors, Puppeteers & Producers...

Commenting on the magnitude of The Telegoons production task, producer Tony Young said (Daily Mail, March 30, 1963), that it was “A tough job because everyone has his own idea of what the Goons look like. The production costs of the show will be about £250,000. Peter, Harry and Spike are getting the highest fees the B.B.C. has ever paid for 15-minute shows.” Tony further commented, “It took three years of planning to get these chaps together. They don’t work for peanuts, you know.”

Tony Young was no stranger to Secombe, Sellers, and Milligan, having previously directed them in the1951 comedy film Penny Points to Paradise (see F.A.Q.s). Now twelve years later, Tony was directing them again, although this time performing a script in a sound recording studio. These recordings were edited into the soundtrack of The Telegoons, which was filmed from January to July of 1963, in rented studio space, upstairs in the On-the-Spot Lighting building in Kensal Road, London, W10, overlooking the Grand Union Canal.

Although the above account of The Telegoons production covers the standard history, it is far from the whole story. A little known fact is that, for a while, it looked like The Telegoons project was going to be completed sans Sellers, and then only the first filming series of thirteen episodes. Due to the tight scheduling that exists around any such filming venture, and due to Peter Sellers not being immediately available, the voice recording sessions started with just Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan, assisted by an impressionist who stood in for Peter... (see the Film Production section for more details).

Peter’s arrival at The Telegoons voice recording sessions at the beginning of March 1963 marked an important milestone in The Telegoons production. Just the week before (during episode 8) the Grosvenor Films production crew had been told that filming could stop after the 1st series (episodes 1 - 13) if Peter could not be obtained. It was actually Harry Secombe who spoke to Peter and persuaded him to join the voice sessions. It is very likely that this occurred right after the announcement to the Grosvenor Films crew, since the first episode that Peter recorded with Harry and Spike was the 9th, The Siege of Fort Knight, which was filmed the next week. After the voices for the subsequent episodes were recorded, Peter to his credit went back and recorded has parts for the first eight episodes. 

The reassembly of the Goon triumvirate at The Telegoons voice recording sessions in March 1963 was not allowed to go unnoticed, since it marked the first time the Goons had worked together since the radio version of The Goon Show ended in January 1960. The presence of newspaper reporters and photographers, as well as the Telegoon puppets themselves, probably also helped Peter feel welcomed and appreciated. The occasion was given wide publicity in the press (see picture above, and more pictures here). Watching the recording session through a glass panel in the recording booth, producer Tony Young was reported as saying, “We’ve picked the best episodes from about 500 of the old Goon scripts. All the well-known characters will be there--Neddie Seagoon, Bluebottle, Bloodnok, Eccles, Grytpype-Thynne, Moriarty, Henry Crun, Minnie Bannister....” The same newspaper article captures for posterity a small part of the session, and this is presented below, edited for tense, and somewhat rearranged to conform to the actual script. Due to the presence of the press, and to properly celebrate the Goon reunion, this session was probably more wild than usual...one can always hope! By-the-way, the episode being recorded was Scradge (T.G. 2nd series, #1). A photograph taken during this recording session is shown above (source: Norma Farnes, ibid., p.62).


Peter, Spike, & Harry, back together again in a Teddington recording studio, doing the voices for The Telegoons, London, UK,
March 29th, 1963.

Source: The Goons The Story, Norma Farnes ed., (see Bibliography)

 

Mystery Female Voice Actors

In Tales of Montmartre (T.G. 2nd series, #10) the heavily accented voice of the Fifi, wife of famous French artist Neddie Toulouse-Lautrec, is played by an uncredited female voice.

The most likely candidate for this voice actor part is associate producer Wendy Danielli, who despite only a brief foray into film acting in the mid 1950s, in 1963 still retained her membership in Equity. 

--ooOoo--

In The International Christmas Pudding (T.G. 1st series, #11) (introduction), a female voice in a posh-sounding British accent is heard over the airport public address system. A similar voice is heard a short time later from the "Prunella" puppet character.

The most likely candidate for this voice actor part is continuity person, Doreen Soan.

 

The Goons, Back Together Again, Recording
Voices For The Telegoons, March 29th, 1963

Sellers: “And now by way of hysteria, Britain’s latest deterrent....
After Blue Streak we give you Brown Stain...
” [Thynne voice]
  ...
Sellers: “It doesn’t smoke, drink, or go with women.” [Crun voice]
  Sellers fluffs a line...
Milligan, absurd in beard and
sou
’wester [See photo, above],
hurls his script in the air. Secombe laughs hysterically.
Mr. Tony Young leaps forward to restore order.
  ...
Sellers: “Standby the count-down--10, 7, 8, 11, 4, 29--Zero!” [Crun voice]
  The technicians collapse with laughter.
Secombe calls Milligan
“a bearded nit” (a line that isn’t in the script). Sellers dangles a puppet on his knee and gives a well-observed impersonation of Peter Brough and Archie Andrews.
  ...
Secombe: “I hardly recognised you in that striped moustache.” [Seagoon voice]
Sellers: “I wear it for sentimental reasons. You see, well, it belonged to my mother.” [Bloodnok voice]
  ...
Sellers: “Great naked kippers, my boots have exploded!” [Bloodnok voice]
  ...
Secombe: “Gad, that sun’s hot.” [Seagoon voice]
Milligan: “Well you shouldn’t touch it.” [Eccles voice]
  
Voice actors have always tended to enjoy the lion’s share of the media interest and hoopla that surrounds television puppetry projects. Not the least reason for this is the high degree of visibility (audibility, actually!) of the voice actors. On the other hand, the puppeteers, have done their job well only if they are not heard and certainly if they are not seen. Often they get only the very last frame of screen credits, if any at all. In some cases, the names and identities of the puppeteers have been so obscure that it has taken thirty or more years to find out who manipulated a particular puppet.

To some extent the relative obscurity of television puppeteers may be due to the common view that anyone can “wraggle” a puppet in an acceptable way, whereas actually it is a craft that usually requires many years of painstaking work and study in order to create the perfect illusion of life, drawing in the audience and allowing them, for a short time, to forget the mechanical details, and even their own lives outside the show. Realistic puppetry requires great acting skills, and due to the use of a proxy for that acting is perhaps even harder to achieve than normal live acting. In the present case, the puppet manipulation in The Telegoons, when it is not deliberately trying to lampoon life, sometimes imitates it so closely that a visitor once asked me the name of the actor I was watching. One of the objectives of this website is to showcase The Telegoons puppeteers whose degree of professionalism and skill is every bit as high as one would expect from the best live actors.

First and foremost among The Telegoons puppeteers is Ann Field (now Ann Perrin), who worked on the pilot film, and also many of the series episodes that followed. Coming from a family of professional puppeteers active since the 1940s, Ann brought a wide breadth of television and film puppetry experience to The Telegoons production. This helped ensure quicker ‘takes’, each one costing a fortune in technical support (cameramen, lighting, film stock, etc.). The Telegoons puppet character most often manipulated by Ann was Neddie Seagoon. Ann’s father Ron, her mother Joan, and Ann herself, (who in the early 1960s comprised Ron and Joan Field’s Marionettes) were instrumental in in the making and the behind-the-scenes development of the initial pilot film, The Lost Colony. After funding was secured from the BBC, Ann continued on as puppeteer for most of the first filming series, and would have seen out the whole series if the producers had seen eye-to-eye with Ann’s father Ron on the terms of use of his electronic puppet lip-synch system.

Lending a high degree of professionalism and polish to The Telegoons puppet production was the appointment of John Dudley (30) as a senior puppet manipulator. Mr. Dudley’s own puppet show, The Dudley Marionettes, was the largest touring marionette theatre in the UK during the early 1960s, presenting a two-hour show, fully equipped with stage lighting, a sound system, and 200 puppets. In addition to being an accomplished puppeteer, John Dudley had played leads on the stage, and was also known as a comedy magician in Variety Theatres, where he also presented his act with The Dudley Marionettes. Apart from working in Nightclubs and theatres, he also specialized in children’s entertainment. The Telegoons puppet characters manipulated by Mr. Dudley were Eccles (his favourite character), Bluebottle, Grytpype-Thynne, Henry Crun, Major Dennis Bloodnok, and assorted stock extras. While most of the puppets used in The Telegoons were built by Grosvenor Films, some of the Dudley marionettes were used in background sequences. Speaking of The Telegoons a few days before the first broadcast, Mr. Dudley said, “It is the first puppet show aimed primarily at adults. It could have a great future.” John’s first task when he arrived at the studio was to manipulate the Grytpype-Thynne rod puppet for the short (10 second) linking scene (uncredited) at the end of the newly filmed opening sequence for the modified Lost Colony episode based on the pilot film.

The appointment of Violet Philpott as the third member of the puppeteer team brought a further wealth of professional puppetry experience to The Telegoons production. An established and inimitable solo performer of original puppet plays, Violet was also an inveterate experimenter, versed in a wide range of puppet types and familiar with all types of contemporary materials and techniques. As pre-arranged with Grosvenor Films’ management, after working on sixteen episodes, Violet left the production to attend the first International Puppetry Festival, in Colwyn Bay, Northern Wales. The Telegoons puppet characters manipulated by Violet Philpott included Eccles (her favourite character), Bluebottle, Neddie Seagoon, and Minnie Bannister. Neddie was principally operated by Violet.

Despite being the first television puppet series targeted at the adult viewing audience, BBCtv decided to bill The Telegoons as family viewing. Although sometimes quite adult pictures and slogans can be seen lurking in some of the film-sets, most of these went unnoticed by the younger viewers, who were enthralled by the antics of the puppets. The series was shown on Saturday evenings in the 5:40 p.m. “kiddie-slot”, right before the more dramatic (and for younger children), the much more scary Doctor Who. The programme was broadcast in two series, the first in 1963 and the second in 1964. Four episodes from the second series were repeated in 1965 (see Tele-Goonography section). The BBC’s overseas market also got to enjoy The Telegoons. Starting in 1964, all 26 episodes were broadcast in New Zealand. In contrast to the BBC, the NZBC clearly felt that the series was not "kiddie" material, and slotted it into mid evening viewing, as late as 9:24 p.m., but as the series progressed, it was shown as early as 6:22 p.m. (see Tele-Goonography section). The Australian Broadcasting Commission (as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation was then known) broadcast the series in 1964, also putting it in a late evening (10:00 p.m.) slot.

 

Radio Times Oct 3rd 1963,  The Telegoons
The Radio Times' column, Your Weekend Saturday, invited viewers to watch the telly
for the historic first episode of
The Telegoons, on Saturday 5th October 1963 at 5:40 p.m.
 
(Radio Times Oct. 3, 1963, p.11. Original provided by Nigel Knapton. Thanks, Nigel!)

  

It is no coincidence that The Telegoons puppets bear a strong resemblance to the cartoon sketches with which The Goon Show cast adorned the studio copies of the scripts. Through their doodling, Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe, and Peter Sellers were merely trying to focus their voice characterizations of the zany Neddie Seagoon, Eccles, Bluebottle, et al. Peter Eton, in The Book of The Goons (Elizabeth Rose, ed.), recounts that when the BBC invited listeners to send in their ideas of what the Goon characters looked like, an astonishing ninety-five percent of the listener’s drawings were alike, and corresponded to the Goons’ own visualizations of them. Clearly the show’s complex word play struck a common chord, and collective consciousness did the rest. Although not everyone could agree on what the puppet versions of the Goon Show characters should look like, Spike Milligan’s own sketches were a starting point, and final approval rested with Spike Milligan. It is not clear who did the actual sculpting of the puppets, a job that was probably overseen by both Ron Field and Ralph Young. In any case, the results of their handiwork are, on-the-whole, quite close to the mind-images cherished by most listeners and especially the Goons themselves. Bill Horsman (chairman of the Goon Show Preservation Society) wrote in the April 1986 GSPS newsletter (NL#86), “...I think Ralph Young did a remarkable job in translating into puppet form the average mind’s image of what the various characters looked like. They are all highly plausible, except for Major Bloodnok of course, and he is just brilliant...”

Despite concerns in the BBC about the difficulty of trying to make visual humour out of the basically vocal Goon Show material, a lot of visual humour was successfully added, lifting The Telegoons to a much higher level than would have resulted had the films been literal translations of the radio shows. Just as The Goon Show constructed mental images that are only possible on radio, “Let’s see them do that on television!”, The Telegoons episodes frequently contained sight gags that, in the absence of a commentator, would be impossible on radio. One such example from The Telegoons has Eccles walking on screen right, carrying one end of a long object. However, once he is off screen left, another Eccles comes on screen right carrying the other end of the object. By way of contrast, Major Bloodnok’s stomach explosions, “No more curried eggs for me!” are so far beyond being literally visual, that they do not translate to television at all. Visual humour can also be found in many of the sets. For example, the chair in the Prime Minister’s office has a luggage tag attached, that reads, “To THE OCCUPANT, 10, Dowling St., London SW1, C.O.D.” A further difference between the radio and television versions of the Goons, is that The Telegoons episodes were filmed without a laugh-track. This tended to make the pace slower than the radio show, which made the humour more accessible to the average TV viewer.

Each episode of The Telegoons lasted 15 minutes and there were 26 shows in all. Once again, Milligan, Sellers and Secombe did the voices. According to Roger Wilmut (author of the highly esteemed Goon Show Companion), some of the episodes captured the characters pretty well, but the series lacked the sparkle of the radio programs. Wilmut felt that the final blow was the mistake of allowing pauses for audience reaction, in the absence of a studio audience. However, after having viewed all of The Telegoons episodes I can report that overall there are very few such pauses, if any. Also, when there is a need for an audience to react to some joke or other, an audience is often provided by means of a library film clip. Interestingly, one of The Goon Show episodes, The Starlings (G.S. 4th series, #SP) was also recorded without a studio audience and does not suffer for it. Besides, a fifteen-minute format moves quite fast, and does not need an audience to the same degree as a thirty-minute version of the same plot. Perhaps at this distance in time from the original Telegoons broadcasts, we are more appreciative. As put by Goon Show restorer, Ted Kendall, “The ephemera of one generation become extremely valuable to the next” (An Afternoon with Ted Kendall, GSPS Video, 18th Oct., 1997).

GSPS chairman Bill Horsman’s explanation for why The Telegoons were not very popular with the “heavily oiled, gin encrusted Goon addicts” of the time, was that the series was broadcast too soon after The Goon Show had ended and also while The Goon Show was still being repeated on radio. Bill further says, “The die-hards insisted, and still do..., that the Goon Humour does not translate successfully to visual--‘it's all in the mind you know’.” Nevertheless, this author has found ample evidence that the generations born after the Goons own generation have a different point of view. Today’s forty-something-year-old Goon fans, who were in the 9-and-up age-group way back when The Telegoons were shown on television, often have fond memories of the puppets. However, due to the absence of television re-runs, very few people who were too young to remember the original Telegoons television broadcasts (or who were born afterwards) have actually seen them. Those hardy few who have had this privilege (mostly on 16 mm cine or videotape) also seem to have been favourably impressed. Resident GSPS video archivist Paul Norman (who was born around the same time as The Telegoons), after watching video copies of the films, exclaimed, “...these programmes are seriously amusing!!” (NL#71, Jan. 1993). Surely, therefore, The Telegoons films are worthy of commercial video release!

The Telegoons even managed to get their own two-page cartoon strip in the (now defunct and sorely missed) TV Comic children’s weekly, which is further evidence that the actual television version of The Telegoons must have been very popular (with children, at least) across the country. In fact the comic strip lasted for several years after the actual television series ended, running for a total of 170 weeks. A sample comic strip is posted here. From time-to-time a new one will be posted.

To better understand the sustained popularity that The Telegoons enjoyed among the younger age group, there is probably no better place to start than the following eye-witness account (NL#29, Jan. 1982): “It is difficult for me to judge just how successful the two [Telegoons] series were as I was only 9 at the time they were shown. I can, however, comment on the effect they had on myself and my friends. At school, the show quickly became something of a cult. The playground soon began to echo to the sound of Goon-type impersonations, as no doubt it had done ten years earlier, when the radio show first began to take a grip on the nation.” That this is at odds with the apparently poor reception given The Telegoons, suggests that the BBC polled the parents of the program’s viewing audience and not the actual (predominantly younger) viewing audience itself. Although The Telegoons was intended for an adult audience, it was the 9- to 17-year olds that appreciated it the most. Nevertheless, Spike was so disappointed with the reception given The Telegoons that he has consistently refused to endorse all subsequent proposals (of which there have been several) to bring the Goons to the screen in animated or puppet form (Norma Farnes, ibid., p.174). This more than any other reason is probably why the BBC has not repeated The Telegoons since the original runs, nor transferred them to home video.

In an interview conducted by the GSPS at their A Weekend Called Fred annual convention, held in Bournemouth, in October 1995, Sir Harry Secombe gave forth on the post-Goon period and The Telegoons:

GSPS: What was your reaction when Monty Python came out? Did you see a connection, or a continuation of what you’d been doing?

Sir Harry: I think so, yes. I mean, the lads all say that they were in university, in public school, and they were introduced to The Goon Show... John Cleese, he did sketches with me, when he was just starting.
...
And I think they are the ones who picked up the torch where we left off. And I thought we’d go on from there. It never went on that far, I mean, in radio. It never picked up. And of course we weren’t any good visually. Let’s face it, we did one or two Goon Show things, reading from the script. The Goon Show puppets,
The Telegoons, weren’t all that clever. Because essentially [The Goon Show] was an aural cartoon, wasn’t it.

GSPS: So you found that The Telegoons particularly hit the spot, in some respects?

Sir Harry: I don’t think they did, really, because everybody had his own idea of what the Goons looked like. So, to have them up there,...they were our own idea of what we looked like, but they weren’t everybody else’s, so that was the trouble. So they were a bit of a disappointment. And of course they all moved like... [moves hands up and down as if controlling a pair of string puppets] ...as if doing a visual thing on the radio. But they all moved like the...um... [searches for a word]

GSPS: Thunderbirds!

Sir Harry: That’s it! [raises finger in the air] I knew there was an answer to my....  They all did you know [moves his hands up and down again]...there was that sort of stiff thing.

  
(The full interview with Sir Harry Secombe can be found on the GSPS videotape: A Weekend Called Fred, Manchester Hotel, Bournemouth, 20th - 22nd Oct., 1995). Given that AP Films’ Thunderbirds series was in fact incredibly popular, I think that (no offence meant to Sir Harry) what we are dealing with here, more than anything, is just the generation gap. Just as the generation before the Goons did not appreciate The Goon Show, in the same way many of the Goons’ own generation did not appreciate The Telegoons.

Next section in this chapter: Go Ask Eccles & Bluebottle...  
 

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