Thursday, 18 November 2010

Gnome Thoughts ... 33 (fifties radio comedy)

By way of an extended footnote to the previous post, more about repression in fifties Britain, this time through the prism of radio comedy, plus further evidence of intertwangularity between John Lennon and The Goon Show

But before the Goons, The Glums.

In David Nathan's highly recommended book The Laughtermakers, Dennis Norden talks about the creation of, and intentions behind, that best-remembered strand in Take It From Here, the BBC radio series he cowrote with Frank Muir throughout the fifties.

It was about an engaged couple, sending up the relentlessly cheerful families then prevalent on radio, possibly a hangover from the wartime need to maintain morale. The comedy was fairly broad (though never coarse, with two such wordsmiths) but with an undercurrent of reality, reflecting those times when long engagements were a matter of economic necessity.

Sexual intercourse may have begun in 1963, as "Chuckles" Larkin maintained, but accordin' to Norden (right) there had already been stirrings in the undergrowth:

What we ... did … was to send up … family relationships, things that were fairly sacrosanct at the time.

Ron and Eth started from a sketch we did about an engaged couple. We suddenly realised that one of the most hilarious and ludicrous positions to be in was this state of being engaged. It doesn’t apply now. We described it in one of the programmes as driving with one foot on the accelerator and the other on the brake. Nowadays it is driving with both feet on the accelerator.

Strangely, there was something very sexual lurking behind it, though it could never be made explicit in those days. But that was what we were on about, that was what we found funny, that state of having to hold back all the time. Frustration. It was possibly the first glimmer of the permissive society struggling to be born. People sort of recognised that if you were engaged the question was why don’t you go to bed together. But one never dared say it, never mentioned it. It was just simply this blind groping, this aching state, the tension.

Of course we weren’t allowed to indicate any of this for a second, but I think it caught the public at a time when they were becoming aware of sexuality.

Ron’s voice was funny, grotesque, June's voice was absolutely true – we knew who she was founded on. There were a lot of cosy family serials and soap operas on the radio, so it was a slight send-up of them too. We wanted to make the father ghastly, an insensitive pig. It was a reaction against the non-Alf Garnettism of the time. [a reference to the loudmouthed bigot in 60s sitcom Till Death Us Do Part.]

... Eth was the sort of girl for whom women’s papers published photographs of ideal kitchens. .. we used to read them just to get the picture of Eth. .. What was extraordinary though was the number of letters we got from girls asking how we knew that when two people are alone they talk like Ron and Eth ... The obvious answer was that your fiancé is a moron, but they didn’t see it like that. They saw him as the ideal fiancé, completely infatuated and dominated by both parents and girl That was how a fiancé should be ...

The Glums … were much more comic strip [than later TV sitcom Steptoe snd Son]. They had characteristics rather than character. But we tried to slip in recognisable phrases, things we had heard ourselves or other people say. ... remember one phrase we gave Jimmy- ‘It’s not fit for ‘uman ‘abitation to live in.’ That was the kind of thing we strove for because you could think of your uncle saying it.”
A case, you might say, of It'd Be All Wrong In The Night (Or At Any Other Time). Here's an example of a complete Glums sketch from 1954:

Frank Muir, also interviewed by Nathan, adds his thoughts on The Goon Show, its wartime precursor ITMA (below), and his and Norden's own programme. Of these three longrunning series, he sees only the Goons as having any lasting value, although he says its success depended upon the happy coincidence of Spike Milligan's unique imaginings being unleashed on postwar Britain at exactly the right time to secure an audience now ready to let a bit of anarchy into their lives.

Good comedy is relevant and local and pinned to a time. … ITMA needed the war. It was nothing before the war, fantastically good during the war and awful after the war. Take It From Here could only have happened after the last war which explains its temporariness.

The best post-war show was the Goons, because they brought a new dimension into comedy. .. The Goon Show could have happened after any war. It was not the product of anything apart from Spike Milligan’s near-genius – if not complete genius.

It came about through Spike’s – everybody’s – reaction against regimentation. It happened with Lewis Carroll when he threw off the mathematician’s logic.

But it’s not only the writing end, it’s the receiving end as well. If Spike had written The Goon Show at any other time it wouldn’t have worked. The audience’s receptivity has to be right for that sort of show, or it doesn’t get off the ground.

All the same, the Goons was a far more permanent sort of humour than Take It From Here. It was a far more positive creation. It influenced the whole world of humour.
Surviving episodes of ITMA are occasionally repeated on the BBC's archive-based Radio 7. Hearing one a couple of years ago was an interesting experience: while I wouldn't be prepared to swear to it, there appeared to be moments of innuendo, although it was hard to be certain whether these came from Ted Kavanagh's script, Tommy Handley's skill as a performer in wringing what he could out of the material, or merely the audience over-excitedly picking up on the possibility of accidental rudery in a BBC broadcast.
Although the script had nothing much in the way of satirical intent, it did have a kind of musical power, aided by Handley's (and others') shotgun delivery which - a bit like those possible innuendoes - helped generate a sense of communal hysteria. It was certainly possible to see what the Goons had borrowed and capitalised on. Here's the first half of an episode from 1944:

The lack of Milliganesque bite which now dates ITMA was, as Frank Muir observed, absolutely right for its original context: simple nonsense during times which seem without explanation is an understandable human need, radiating the consoling message that at least we're all in this confusion together.

The time for that edge of cynicism and satire - the Goon Show's potshots at military incompetence or Beyond the Fringe's Aftermyth of War (extract below)- comes later when there has been the leisure to reflect on events.

And although Muir doesn't specify this, in contrast to the general audience for ITMA, I think The Goon Show attracted a predominantly young audience. At least, in a thread on the Radio 7 messageboard a while back, more than one older contributor said that their parents hated it, which seems to support Colin Hall's connection (post 31) between Lennon's love of Goonery and that other fifties manifestation of inspired disorder, rock'n'roll.

Lennon even wrote a review of the first publication of some of Spike Milligan's scripts for the New York Times in 1972.

I was 12 when the Goon Shows first hit me. Sixteen when they were finished with me. Their humor was the only proof that the world was insane. Spike Milligan's is a cherished memory for me, what it means to Americans I can't imagine (apart from a rumored few fanatics). As they say in Tibet, "You had to be there." The Goons influenced The Beatles (along with Lewis Carroll/Elvis Presley). Before becoming the Beatles' producer, George Martin, who had never recorded rock-n-roll, had previously recorded with Milligan and Sellers, which made him all the more acceptable -- our studio sessions were full of the cries of Neddie Seagoon, etc., etc., as were most places in Britain.

There are records of some of the original radio shows, some of which I have, but when I play them to Yoko I find myself explaining "that in those days there was no monty pythons 'flyin' circus,'" no "laugh-in," in fact the same rigmarole I go through with my "fifties records," before rock it was just "Perry Como," etc. What I'm trying to say is, one has to have been there! The Goon Show was long before and more revolutionary than "look back in anger" (it appealed to "eggheads" and "the people"). Hipper than the hippest and madder than "Mad," a conspiracy against reality. A "coup d'etat of the mind! The evidence, for and against, is in this book. A copy of which should be sent to Mr. Nixon and Mr. Ervin.

One of my earlier efforts at writing was a "newspaper" called the Daily Howl [doubleclick image to enlarge]. I would write it at night, then take it to school and read it aloud to my friends; looking at it now it seems strangely similar to the Goon Show! Even the title had "highly esteemed" before it! Ah well, I find it very hard to keep my mind on the book itself, the tapes still ring so clearly in my head. I could tell you to buy the book anyway because Spike Milligan's a genius and Peter Sellers made all the money! (Harry Secombe got showbiz.)

I love all three of them dearly, but Spike was extra. His appearances on TV as "himself" were something to behold. He always "Freaked out" the cameramen/directors by refusing to fit the pattern. He would run off camera and dare them to follow him. I think they did, once or twice, but it kept him off more shows than it helped him get on. There was always the attitude that he was wonderful but, you know...(indicating head). I think it's 'cause he's Irish. (The same attitude prevails toward all non-English British.)

I'm supposed to write 800 words, but I can't count. Anyway, Spike wouldn't approve. I could go on all day about the Goons and their influence on a generation (at least one), but it doesn't seem to be about the book! I keep thinking how much easier it would be to review it for a British paper. What the hell! I've never reviewed anything in my life before. Now I know why critics are nasty. It would be easier if I didn't like the book, but I do, and I'd love you to love the Goons as I do. So take a chance.

P.S. Dick Lester (of A Hard Days Night fame) directed the TV version of the Goon Show - A Show Called Fred. It was good, but radio was freer - i.e., you couldn't float Dartmoor Prison across the English Channel on TV (maybe the BBC should have spent more money). Also there is a rare and beautiful film (without Harry Secombe) called "The Running, Jumping, and Standing Still Film." Ask your local art house to find it - it's a masterpiece and captures the Goon spirit very well.
If your local arthouse failed to respond, thanks to the magic of youtube here is The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film, albeit in rather poor quality:

The Goons may have been more nonsensical than satirical, but in the Humphrey Carpenter book referred to previously key figures from the sixties boom readily acknowledge Milligan's inspiration. Private Eye person John Wells says of himself and Richard Ingrams: "The Goon Show was what we all knew by heart." And Jonathan Miller declares the Goons "did an enormous amount to subvert the social order" in its "sendup of British Imperialism", paving the way for Beyond the Fringe and, ultimately, Monty Python (Cleese and co. were slightly younger than Peter Cook).  

The Laughtermakers was written in 1971 and is a great book which provided my first glimmerings that comedy was a) also important to others and b) could be discussed intelligently. It set me off on a course of reading on which I am still engaged so I am very grateful to David Nathan.

Other chapters cover Frankie Howerd, Morecambe and Wise, Pete and Dud, the early Pythons and many others. Unlike some other writers on comedy he’s not ponderous, getting to the essence of a comedian quickly, and some of the summations in the book have stayed with me for thirty five years.

There now seem to be a huge number of books written about Morecambe and Wise, (and not all of them by his son), but the twenty pages here really tell you all you need to know. A description of a TV recording, for example, reveals Nathan's understanding of the importance of the pair's background in live performance in the last tattered days of variety:
“Real hair?” scoffs Eric in the script. “Real hair? If it’s real, how is it when it’s a bit windy it moves up and down like badly fitted lino in a draughty kitchen?”

Morecambe had misgivings about this line and approached it carefully. Apart from its being difficult to say, it was, he thought, old-fashioned in its imagery and would not be understood by a lot of viewers. So on transmission he spoke it very carefully, very slowly.

“Real?” he said. “If that’s real hair – just excuse me one moment please – if that’s real hair, how come when it’s a bit windy it moves up and down like badly fitting lino in a drafty kitchen?”

He then buttressed the laugh which followed by adopting the “aren’t I a bit of a clever dick?” look that he reserves for consciously clever or witty remarks. In short, he delivered that line as if it were a crate marked “fragile” and delivered it safely.

Eric explains that he cannot take off the wig because he is wearing it as an advertisement. Ernie is shocked. “You can’t advertise on the BBC,” he says. “Nobody can advertise on the BBC. Even Lord Hill can’t say what kind of pipe tobacco he smokes.”

The script merely called for Eric to say, “No wonder, it’s mine.” What he did say was, “And no wonder – it’s mine. It is well known along the powers of corridor…”

Ernie: “Corridors of power.”

Eric stops, baffled for a split second. Then: “Ah, don’t forget – he walks backwards.”

Ernie laughs and responds: “Yes, he does.”

The audience, recognising the quickness of thought, laughed and applauded.

Eric recapped his line and finished it: “…the corridors of power…as quick fill Charlie.”

The script is momentarily lost.

Ernie: “You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”

Eric: “Well, you can’t win ‘em all. Anyway, what I thought – you looked worried there because you didn’t think I was coming in …”

Ernie: “No, I didn’t think you were. Go on.”

It is the signal to return to the script and Eric does so.

A few sentences later, Ernie falters and nearly loses the thread. “You see, the point is (pause) – what happens?”

Eric: “You’ve got to be careful – the suit drops off as well. What happens is, if you do a commercial …”

The “suit drops off as well” is almost a private joke and goes largely unrecognised by the audience. It is possibly a tag-line from some old story about a series of disasters and it taps the performer’s nightmare of appearing on stage improperly dressed. In its way it is a reassurance, one of the verbal amulets they constantly exchange in a world that could turn hostile without warning.

Sadly, I have just found out that David Nathan died in 2001; you can read his Guardian obituary here. I see that he was further involved in this story by the fact that he wrote for TW3 (That Was The Week That Was), the first and most famous attempt to put the satirical spirit of Beyond the Fringe on TV, where his main collaborator was Dennis Potter (no longer, one assumes, obliged to bellow "Permission to speak SAH!" in order to contribute to proceedings).

 To conclude, an example of Dick Lester's attempts at television Goonery in the programme Lennon cited, A Show Called Fred. It dates from 1956 and I hadn't seen it before. You can find a description on the TV Cream website here.

Most of this first clip is given over to a parody of In Town Tonight (here rechristened Ying Tong Tonight), a longrunning  magazine programme on BBC radio which stopped "the mighty roar of London's traffic" in order to interview celebrities and other interesting people who happened to be - well, you get the idea. (In Town Tonight transferred to TV in 1954 and ran for two years, so was probably still on the air when this was transmitted.) That provides a suitably loose structure for silliness. Most notable, though, is the general presentation: Milligan walks through the studio, past the crew and onto the set, showing that the idea of cameras in shot didn't start with TW3. Or the Pythons.

The second clip is more recognisably Goon-like, a parody of The Count of Monte Cristo (written, we are told on several occasions, not by Milligan but by John Antrobus). This is perhaps more predictable overall, but stick with it for the ending, which follows Valentine Dyall out of the studio and ... well, you'll see. The sonorous Dyall made occasional appearances in the Goon Show itself, most notably in The Canal in 1954.

[update, 28/12/10: youtube has removed the clips, which I have to admit I was rather rather surprised to find there in the first place, so perhaps I'd better describe the action at the end. If I remember correctly, the camera follows Dyall all the way to the canteen, where he appears to be moonlighting as a kitchen porter; the fun is in the consistency with which Dyall maintains his solemnity throughout the show, coupled with the fact he is in his longjohns. Incidentally, there is a brief clip of a Goonish 1955 TV show which can be accessed by UK viewers until Wednesday January 19th, 2011 as part of the documentary The Unforgettable Harry Secombe via the STV website here. If you are familiar with the Unforgettable ... series you will know that it is more about the personal life than John Fisher's excellent Heroes of Comedy, and offers little analysis, but the Secombe show is one of the better ones. What's interesting is I don't know think Lester had any involvement with the 1955 show.]

Actually, let's not stop quite yet, because I also want to recommend a book of conversations between Dick Lester and Steven Soderbergh about Lester's film and TV work which discusses A Show Called Fred and A Hard Day's Nightl. Here's a review I posted on a well-known shopping website six years ago, already  adjudged "helpful" by one reader:

It's Neither Unamusing Nor Uninsightful, Dad

Soderbergh (Sex, Lies and Videotape) interviews Lester (Hard Day's Night), interspersing the conversations with his own diary entries about writing (or more often, not writing) various film drafts and the multiple headache-related opportunities afforded by choosing to be part of the film industry. The self-deprecatory journal entries and the punitive footnotes are pretty funny - sort of a cross between Jonathan Ames (What's Not to Love?) and Simon Gray's various theatre diaries.

The interview sections take us through Lester's films one by one - not an immensely detailed, blow by blow account, but the impression of frankness and ease with the fellow film-maker suggests that you get the to essence of Lester's work: insights which might not have emerged from a more conventional, or reverential, Q and A.

Personally, I could have done without the "Where did life come from and what's it all for?" meanderings towards the end - surely The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film says all that needs to be said on that particular subject? - but overall this is, as the "publisher's" note says at the beginning, "Literature that soothes and invigorates, while accidentally stimulating the body's own defenses." (Well, it's as good a description as any.) Guaranteed free of Mark Cousins.
Well, I would have stopped there but I've just found an extract online. Lester made his own Dick Lester Show, a one-off programme starring himself and Alun Owen (then an actor) which attracted the interest of Peter Sellers: 
He said, `Either that's the worst television program that I have ever, ever seen or I think you're on to something that we are aspiring to.' And I said, `Well, if there's a choice, could it be the latter?' And he said, `Would you like to have lunch and let's find out.'

And did that lead right into Idiot's Weekly [earlier title of A Show Called Fred]?

That led absolutely into Peter and me going the next day to Spike Milligan, who lay on the floor with his head in a coil of rope. There he was, this wonderful picture. He didn't look at me or get up or do anything; he just said, `Comedy will never work on television. I can write, "Two Eskimos go outside the igloo and the number 47 bus comes and they get off in Hyde Park." You can't do that. No point in talking about it. I'm not interested.'

So we went away and then hired a group of young writers and a script supervisor and did, if you like, something in the style of The Goon Show and had very good reviews. At nine the next morning there was a phone call from Spike saying, `I've got the running order for the second show.' Not: `I was wrong; you were right.' Just nothing. It was just bang, off we go.

He came into the office and said, `Does your secretary take shorthand?' I turned to her and asked, `Do you take shorthand?', never having seen her actually take a pencil, and she said, `Yes.' And Spike said, `Come with me.' And he pulled out of his pocket a film, which we put on the telecine. He said, `I've just heard about this. I think it's supposed to be quite funny.' And it was a silent cartoon that a man called Bob Godfrey — twice an Academy Award-winner — had made.

Spike looked at it and started to ad lib a commentary on it. He hadn't seen it before, and did seven minutes of the most extraordinarily perfect vocal commentary to this piece, which my secretary managed to put down, and which we then recorded. And we were off and running. We did three series together.

[...] We couldn't use the word `Goon' because the BBC owned it. And titles were chosen just for fun. Yes. No sense of being commercially sensible. So, A Show Called Fred and then Son of Fred.

I gather that they were getting increasingly weird. Spike sounds like Samuel Beckett with a sense of humor.

It's a bit unfair to Beckett, who did have a sense of humor.

Well, that's true. I guess I mean Spike was a little more accessible.

Spike was a restless soul. And he found that Idiot's Weekly, which was very sketch-oriented, was easy for him to do, even in the slapdash fashion we employed. Then A Show Called Fred came, and he was starting to push and see what we could get up to, and we started doing a bit of filming, very much what you would expect from Monty Python's work. It would have been indistinguishable from Python, I think, to somebody looking back over forty years.

With Son of Fred we were now quite successful and it had a very good audience and amazingly good reviews, because all the intellectuals grabbed at it. It was the first piece of commercial television, in light entertainment at least, where there was something that was unexpected and worrying. With Son of Fred, it just became bizarre. All scenery was removed; one prop would run through the sketches. It would be one thing in one sketch and, because of its shape, it could also suddenly become a key factor in another, and that would be the only common link. Then he started attempting to remove punchlines by interlocking sketches. We are talking a long, long time ago.

[...]  It came to an end. In fact, ratings were dropping as it became more unintelligible. And it was pulled about two or three shows before the end of the thirteen that were ordered.

Also, it was very hard for Spike, because he was writing the radio shows as well. A half-hour radio and a half-hour television show on his own every week. The man was on the most massive tranquilizers. Any of Spike's daily medication would have put a troop of horses out.
There was a fairly conventional 1957 film, Down Among the Z Men, directed by Mario Zampi, which attempted to put Goon humour on the big screen; its interest now is chiefly in the celluloid preservation of some of the performers' live stage routines, such as original Goon Michael Bentine's turn with the back of a chair. Of non-Lester Goonery, the only thing halfway satisfying film is the short The Case of the Mukkinese Battle Horn, directed by Joseph Sterling. You will miss the cumulative effect of the gaggery in this short clip ...

... but you can, if so minded, read the entire script here.

And, bearing out Frank Muir's earlier comment about the Goons' influence, the film conveniently provides another example of intertwangulation which I may as well seize on as the nearest thing this post is likely to get to a conclusion.

In 1975, the Pythons openly acknowledged their debt to Spike when it played as support in British cinemas to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. And some readers will know that Holy Grail was a film financed, in part, by rock bands. And later, when establishment figures got cold feet about funding Life of Brian, Beatle George bankrolled it - for the simple reason that he wanted to see the film. Oh, and Spike Milligan appeared in Brian in a cameo, apparently because he was on holiday in Tunisia. With what may well have been intentional irony, he was cast as "the prophet abandoned by his flock."

Spike Milligan's various Q series, which ran on BBC TV from 1969, were greatly admired by the Pythons for dropping the idea of punchlines - I have vague memories of one of them, Michael Palin, possibly, commenting ruefully that Milligan had worked it out just before they had.

From my own memories of watching Q in the seventies, there were indulgent elements, but individual episodes could be very enjoyable. No Lester, however - and no Sellers. The BBC eventually pulled the plug - which was a bit like Columbia giving Johnny Cash the elbow: hey, this guy made your company.

This is not to say that I enjoyed all that much of Spike Milligan's later work. And when people like Joanna Lumley lauded him, I often wondered when they last sat down to watch or read later outpourings.

Sellers and Milligan did work together on The Great McGonnagall (above), a film directed by Joseph McGrath. For me, this was a mess (McGrath also presided over Morecambe and Wise's disastrous last film, Night Train to Murder) but when I was at Glasgow Art School in the mid seventies, it was always one of the films chosen for the annual Activities Week, or whatever it was called, at the nearby GFT (Glasgow Film Theatre), and seemingly enjoyed by everyone else in the audience. We were told that the distributor had been somewhat taken aback at the film's popularity, "I don't know why you want that f*ckin' film" being not the gist of his puzzlement.

I'd prefer to remember the earlier Milligan, so as this post started with the book which set me off on a lifetime of reading about comedy, perhaps I might be permitted to conclude - no, really this time - with one final recommendation. Actually, make that two. First of all, Roger Wilmut's The Goon Show Companion. Mr Wilmut (thankfully still alive) has written extensively on comedy (details on his website here) and he is someone else to whose industry I owe a debt. Cowritten with Jimmy Grafton, who helped nurture the young Spike's work, this takes us back to the earliest days of the Goons.

And you can buy the radio scripts for the Glums, released to tie in with a later TV revival, and interlarded with fifties advertisements. They are neatly plotted and read very well.

There. Now I'm done. "Helpful" or what?

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