The Highly Esteemed Goon Show (and here is a photograph of me writing that)
by E. John Winner
(1) The perceptive reader, those having operational eyes at least (and let’s remember that not everyone does), will notice that the promise of the subtitle of this article has not been fulfilled. There is no photograph of me writing the title of this article. The phrase has been borrowed from one the many humorous introductions performed by Wallace Greenslade on the Goon Show, an English comedy-variety program broadcast roughly weekly for nearly ten years.  “This is the BBC Light Programme, and here is a photograph of me saying that.” BBC Light programming, later restructured as BBC 2, was originally the entertainment channel of the British Broadcasting Corporation, providing comedy, music, soap operas, etc., as opposed to the news and information, political opinion and more generally “elevated” content of the primary BBC channel. We are here discussing radio in the 1950’s, although even today, BBC Radio (now some eleven channels, including some in languages other than English) still provides a much broader range of programming than we have in the United States. To some extent, radio in America is a marginal medium: music, sports, religion and right-wing politics exhaust the programming one can expect. (Public broadcasting services try to push the envelope, but their programmers know the limits of their target listeners’ attention spans. A weekly cooking show, good; a weekly performance of Shakespearean plays; not good.) In England, one can still hear comedy, tragedy, history, travel, science reportage, science fiction, mystery, and so on, to an extent not available in the US. But this is just background color. The question some American or other non-English readers must still be asking is: Why would Greenslade present a photograph of himself on radio? Wasn’t radio a visual medium in the 1950’s?
“The highly esteemed Goon Show,” as it was often introduced, was primarily the work of three veterans of the Second World War, two of whom actually met in the army: Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe. The third, Peter Sellars, was introduced to the other two during a drinking session, or a bull-session with drinks (depending on how the story’s told), in a pub. (Initially there was a fourth, musician and comedian Michael Bentine, but he went solo after two years.) What bonded the team was a peculiarly absurdist sense of humor. Milligan met Secombe when an artillery piece Secombe was manning tipped over the ledge of a gun pit. Milligan went down for it and asked Secombe: “Have you seen a 7.2 cannon?” to which Secombe replied, “What color?” 
Milligan was the primary writer of the show, Sellars provided most of the voices.  We must pause to consider their personalities, because in strange ways they would both feed into the wild humor of the show, as well as leaving both performers somewhat damaged. Sellars ultimately became known in the entertainment industry for a severe personality disorder, which made him difficult to work with. I don’t think that it was ever properly diagnosed. But effectively he had failed to mature fully, and lacked a developed personality of his own. He was always the characters he played, adopting them even in social situations, sometimes inappropriately. 
Milligan’s problems had proper diagnoses. During the war he was hospitalized with “battle fatigue,” what we now know as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This not only initiated a life-long obsession with the War, it apparently triggered a manic-depressive condition. During the years of the Goon Show broadcasts, 1951-1960, Milligan suffered several nervous breakdowns, attributed to the stress of writing, organizing, and performing the shows.  Some of this might explain the frenetic pace of the broadcasts, and their nigh complete dislocation from reality. Listening to the Goon Show isn’t simply visiting a different world, but a different universe, one in which even the laws of physics are open to change as needed.
But before further exploration of that universe, we must address ourselves to the third of this dynamic trio, Harry Secombe. His personality disorder was … well …, by all accounts, he didn’t have any. He was well-loved, cheerful and charming, a devoted family man. He might have made a rather dull accountant or car-salesman, but for the fact that he was blessed with two talents: first, a beautiful operatic tenor (which provided him a side-career recording arias), and his ability to play Neddie Seagoon, the central character of the Goon Show, and its ostensible hero.  (After the Goon Show, Secombe continued work in comedy, becoming quite a popular attraction in his own right, but when he did comedy, he always played some variant of Neddie Seagoon.) Secombe seems to have provided the solid axle around which the ephemeral personalities of Milligan and Sellars revolved. Similarly, Neddie Seagoon acted as the fixed reference point to which all the other characters referred. They bounced him around, cheated him, insulted him, tossed him into various bodies of water, and blew him up on numerous occasions. Without him what would there be to refer to? No use having a Dartmoor prison without a Neddie Seagoon to assign to it. Who else would drive it to Paris? Several characters avoided any effort that might be interpreted as work in any sense, while the rest were incapable of it. Thus, the labor of moving along the stories (such as they were) fell to Neddie. Constructed as a parody of a stereotypical British adventure hero, appearing in works as diverse as the young adult stories about pilot Captain Biggles, Buchan’s Thirty Nine Steps, and the African adventures by H. Rider Haggard, Neddie was stalwart, loyal, patriotic, honest, brave, and utterly incorruptible … unless someone offered him money. Even photographs of money would do and did, more often than not. He was only nearly human, after all.
(2) The comedy of any culture develops what might be considered a sophisticated or “high” comedy, which is usually held to be the mainstream standard, since it usually assumes a reasonably educated and mature audience (which any developed or civilized society likes to pretend represents the majority of its participants), and a “low comedy,” appealing (supposedly) largely to the uneducated and unrefined. In American terms, one can think of the Marx Brothers in Monkey Business as the former and the Three Stooges as the latter. In British terms, think the sophisticated Monty Python versus the fare offered by Benny Hill. High comedy draws on literary sources, including theatrical plays if they are witty enough, while low comedy belongs to burlesque and the dance hall. Comparisons can be chosen by subject matter. High comedy flatulence jokes rarely include any actual flatulence: From the Marx Brothers’ Horse Feathers:
Connie: Oh, Professor, you’re full of whimsy.
Wagstaff: Can you notice it from there? I’m always that way after I eat radishes.
When low comedy includes flatulence, the first we learn of it is by a loud fart.
Sex is also a telling subject for differentiating the two: High comedy is primarily concerned with sexual relationships. The composer of high comedy assumes we all know what couples do in the bedroom, it’s just a question of how they get there. Low comedy is about the naughty bits: it’s the peeping tom at the bedroom window; the guy ogling a woman, who later can’t remember her face, because he never looked at her face.
These differences are of course matters of degree, and in even great literature we often find them intermixed. The infamous beans-and-farting sequence in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles, actually has an amusing precursor in a passage from Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Nonetheless, it’s rather difficult to imagine anyone in Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest audibly passing gas. And I recently tried watching a young Benny Hill play Bottom in A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream; almost painfully uncomfortable, as he so clearly is playing Benny Hill. Bottom is a low comedy character in a high comedy play, but he needs a serious actor comfortable with high comedy to play him, because he has a romantic fling with the Queen of the Fairies, a high comedy concept if there ever was one.
Now, obviously, I established these theoretic thresholds as leading into further discussion of the Goon Show. The reader has every right to expect that I am now prepared to answer the question I have provided ground for: Is the Goon Show primarily high comedy or low comedy? And I am indeed prepared to answer. After having considered this question for over thirty years since first discovering the Goon Show, I have definitely determined that … I don’t know. The problem is multifold. First, there is no “fourth wall” in the Goon Show. The members of the audience are considered participants, a kind of Greek Chorus who have only two stage directions: laughter and applause. Otherwise, they are assumed to be reading the same script as the Goons, who are therefore free to incorporate their own stage directions directly into the show. (Bluebottle: “waits for applause – not a sausage,” because obviously the audience hadn’t been directed to applaud for his line.) Secondly, the Goons are performing largely for each other. Although scripted, they perform the show in a spirit of improvisation, playing off each other, frequently ad-libbing, attempting to out-do each other. The performances are not simply “over the top,” as there seems to have been no top to go over. There are a number of in-jokes, some quite bawdy. For a couple years, there were recurrent references to a Captain Hugh Jampton, until the producers learned that “huge Hampton” was soldiers’ slang for a large penis, and put a stop to it.
Here we could bring our discussion of high and low comedy to bear; to recognize the low comic aspect of this rather rude running gag, except for this: the Goons know that they are amusing soldiers and veterans with slang reference to genitalia, but they also know that they are pulling a fast-one on their producers and on the genteel and uninformed in their audience; a high comic conceit. (Think of Dylan Thomas’ fictional Welch village of Llareggub: ‘buggerall’ spelled backwards.) A high comic conceit because it draws our attention to the interplay between syntax and semantics. It requires thinking about language as a play between form and content, rather than as packages of communicated information.
Which leads us to consider the literary antecedents for the Goon Show. Certainly, for instance, Milligan has read Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. Like Carroll, he treats his situations in the manner of the Mad Hatter’s tea party or the Red Queen’s chess match. But like Lear, he loves nonsense sentences and nonsense terms just for their own sake. “Ying tong iddle i po” shades somewhat to the positive as a vocalized response, and “needle nardle noo” shades somewhat to the negative, “but it’s all rather confusing, really,” as announcer Greenslade occasionally remarks. The “Ying Tong Iddle I Po Song” can be sung on a chain gang or a dance hall stage.  And in fact, the Goon Show has definite dance hall antecedents, particularly in its deployment of broad puns and stereotypes. Grytpype-Thynne is the archetypical melodrama villain, and Eccles is the eternal dunce. “That day in the park – do you remember, Eccles?” “Yeh, I remember Eccles – where’d he go?” So, one might think of the Goon Show as a recital of “Jabberwocky” performed on a dance hall stage before an audience of drunken soldiers better familiar with “The Owl and the Pussycat” with huge hamptons. That sentence should make a kind of sense if we don’t think hard on it, so let’s continue.
(3) I think the reader is now either prepared to consider the alternative universe of the Goon Show, or ready to throw a pie at the computer monitor. I suggest the former – monitors don’t eat pies. (Or at least, in our universe they don’t.) However: Earlier I noted that in the Goon universe even the laws of physics are malleable, open to improvement as the moment requires. There are actually covering laws here, apparently: First, anything that can be acted upon can be acted upon by any action that acts upon a thing. Eating is an action that acts upon food, say a steak. We can eat the steak because it is a thing that can be acted upon by eating. But an airplane is a thing that can be acted upon by piloting it into flight, an action acting upon it. Therefore, we should be able to eat the airplane, and pilot the steak into flight, and in the Goon universe, this is true. As Grytpype-Thynne remarks after a bite, “Your airplane is beautifully cooked.” Secondly, since machines are objects that can be acted upon, it follows that any object can be acted upon as a machine. Consequently, walls and bagpipes make good taxi-cabs, and are actually cheaper than automobiles. Third, any image, word, gesture, or other indirect representation of an object may have the full force of effect of the object represented. Hence, the value of photographs of money … unless they’re counterfeit, in which case their value is determined by whoever is willing to steal them in order to buy an airplane for dinner. And if in this universe someone points a finger at you, as children do playing “cops and robbers,” be careful – it might go off. Fourth, time is real, but utterly permeable. It is entirely possible to begin a story in one century and have it pass through another, only to end in a third. In a story about the Roman invasion of Britain, the Roman army confronts a British football team (American: soccer), who are bewildered by the Roman refusal to play by the rules. (This can cause confusion, as when Eccles, trapped in the 17th century, finds himself talking to the Bluebottle of 1957, and they try to determine whether Eccles is dead, or Bluebottle hasn’t been born yet.) Fifth, time is also malleable: it can be sped up or slowed down as the story requires. The first is accomplished through the use of previously recorded dialogue played faster than recorded, the second by the patience-trying technique of repetitive padding. In one story Neddie must find an agent in China. He comes to a door and knocks on it… and knocks on it… and knocks on it. After about two minutes of this, the door opens. Neddie asks for the agent, only to find he doesn’t live there, he’s in a shop down the street. Space is even more malleable, to the effect that one can say it lacks even the reality of time. To dig a canal through Africa, start in England. To fly to Bombay from London takes only as long as the sound of a whiplash (if by boat, a whiplash and a splash). Because the Goon Show is radio, there is one more important covering law that is almost not noticeable, because we accept it as part of the entertaining silliness of the listening experience, namely: Any event causally related to the aural effect of a sound can be reassigned a sound effected at whim. When Neddie calls for a taxi cab and we hear bagpipes, we are not sure whether the bagpipes are the taxi cab, or the taxi cab makes the sound of bagpipes. In the Goon universe, either may be true. Indeed, in one story it is the former, as Greenslade explains, but in another story it’s the latter, without explanation. Because an automobile engine simply can sound like bagpipes, after all.
(4) In semiotic terms, for Spike Milligan the signifier’s relationship to the signified isn’t arbitrary only in historic terms (as all language was developed for the sake of communication), but absolutely. Basically, any noun or verb can designate any thing or action, limited only by our common expectations of possible things or actions within a given situation, but this limitation itself is recognized as arbitrary and thus flexible. “Have a gorilla.” “No, thanks, I just smoked one.” “Having” is ambiguated to include the acceptance of a cigarette, but the word ‘cigarette’ gets replaced with a gorilla; yet the reply remains that of rejection of an offered cigarette, while confirming that gorillas can be smoked.
Or perhaps we can get at this from another direction: For Milligan, language is primarily sound. All animals relate to others of their species by producing sound. Before there was language, our ancestors related to each other through sound. Milligan seems to have intuited that the structures of language are simply means of organizing pitch, frequency, rhythm. If this contains any truth, language isn’t just “like” music, it is a kind of music, which is why it integrates so well with the undeniably musical sound effects deployed in the program. Well, I don’t know how far I myself am willing to go with this, but some such assumption seems to be at work in Milligan’s approach to language, and to the sound design of the Goon Show.
(5) The Goon Show was one of the most important – and popular – phenomena in the history of British comedy. Prince Charles was a big fan, and even made a short film playing Bluebottle.  John Lennon wrote two small volumes in imitation of Milligan. A generation of aspiring comics achieving public attention in the 1960’s and beyond were influenced by them: Monty Python, Cook and Moore, Marty Feldman, Laurie and Fry, Dave Allen…. It’s easy to see why. The Goons were never overtly political – speaking strictly, they were entirely apolitical. Nonetheless, as anarchistic iconoclasts (and they were certainly that), they gleefully debunked every assumption of social class or of British Imperial power, party politics, Anglo-centrism, the historical narratives of British identity, as if these were just so many pimples to prick on a face suffering a serious case of acne. And yet they did so without leaving wounds and without closing off the future. They assume their audience is in on the joke (and if they’re not, the next joke flies by so quickly, they won’t have time to think on it). They are cheerful grave diggers tossing dirt on the collapsing British Empire following WW II. They are reminiscent of Beckett’s cast from Waiting for Godot, only they aren’t waiting. They’re out in search of him, if only they could remember his name, and Eccles hadn’t eaten the map for dinner. Maybe this photograph will do….
I have chosen not to link to any individual Goon Show programs; most of my quotes are actually from memory anyway, and I take the hit if my memory is faulty. However, I can suggest that interested readers search out programs available at Youtube, many of which are BBC recordings, and of high quality. Alternatively there is the Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/TheGoonShow1950to1960 – but these are evidently home recordings and hence not of high quality. I should caution: listening to a Goon Show takes some practice for Americans, because the Goons often speak rapidly, or are slightly off-mic, or cross-talk in the background when their character isn’t on.
 Before going further, we should familiarize ourselves with some of the primary characters of the series; from http://www.thegoonshow.net/characters.asp:
Neddie Seagoon: “An honest but gullible idiot.” (Voice: Secombe.) Hercules Grytpype-Thynne: “A sleazy, well-educated and scheming cad.” (Sellars.) Bluebottle: “A young, lustful boy scout with a squeaky voice who normally gets blown up in each episode.” (Sellars.) Eccles: “An amiable, well-meaning man with no wits or understanding.” (Milligan)
 Roger Lewis, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers. London: Arrow Books. 1995. This is a long book, and I admit I only browsed it after watching the film made from it. But for a briefer read, try this television portrait of Sellars by Milligan, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_f8M8hL-OWA
 In His Own Write, and A Spaniard in the Works; 1964; recently reprinted in one volume by Pimlico.