'Tell me more about this Go On show...'

To coincide with a Radio 2 tribute to the Goon show, the BBC released the following facts about comedy's Fab Four

The Goons joined forces in 1949 at a Westminster pub, Graftons, run by scriptwriter Jimmy Grafton, who was subsequently christened KOGVOS, or "Keeper of Goons and Voice of Sanity".

The first Goon Show aired on 28 May 1951 under the title Crazy People, "featuring radio's own Crazy Gang- the Goons".

Within a year, the title had changed to The Goon Show. The word 'Goon' was a derogatory wartime term used by the RAF to describe German guards. In 1951, the News Chronicle described a Goon as "something with a onecell brain. Anything that is not basically simple puzzles a Goon. His language is inarticulate, he thinks in the fourth dimension."

The BBC were suitably baffled by it all. At a meeting of programme planners, one elderly executive was said to have peered across the table and demanded: "Tell me about this Go On Show."

The Sunday recordings were fuelled by generous helpings of brandy and the Goons did their own warm-up for the audience. A regular diversion was for Secombe to whip away Sellers's braces, at which Sellers's trousers would fall down. Once when Sellers performed the routine, he realised too late that he wasn't wearing any underpants.

Bentine quit at the end of the second series, partly because he wanted to spend Sundays with his family and partly to pursue his own projects. Announcer Andrew Timothy - father of All Creatures Great and Small star Christopher - also left in 1953, saying he feared for his sanity. He was replaced by Wallace "Bill" Grenslade.

During series three, Milligan, who, as well as performing, wrote most of the scripts, suffered a nervous breakdown and missed 12 programmes. Sellers stood in for him, doing the voices of Eccles and Minnie Bannister as well as his own repertoire of characters. Secombe could also do a passable Eccles when pressed. On other occasions, Dick Emery or Graham Stark took Milligan's place. Milligan later said: "It cost blood to put that show on for me. Sheer agony. It wrecked my first marriage and it wrecked my health. I gave my sanity to that show."

At the end of The Flying Saucer Mystery, broadcast on 4 December 1953, there was a spoof announcement about a UFO proceeding across London in a westerly direction. Anyone spotting it was asked to ring a fictitious number. To the annoyance of the GPO, thousands of listeners tried to call.

Owing to a musicians' strike, The Great Tuscan Salami Scandal of 1956 was broadcast without the usual contributions from Ray Ellington and harmonica player Max Geldray. Instead, the musical links were supplied by Milligan (in the guise of Adolphus Spriggs), who also performed the moving ballad I'm Walking Backwards For Christmas to plano accompaniment from Sellers. The Goons's other big hit was the Ying Tong Song.

Milligan fought a constant battle with the BBC to get the sound effects he wanted. "I was trying to shake the BBC out of its apathy. Sound effects were 'a knock on the door and tramps on gravel' and that was it. I got it right in the end, but it drove me mad in the process, and drove a lot of other people mad."

When, in 1959, Milligan announced that the ninth series would be the last, students besieged Broadcasting House, waving banners reading "Long Live Secombe", among others. At the end of one recording session a group of girls handed in a petition signed by 1,030 listeners. It read: "We, the undersigned, implore you, Spike Milligan, not to leave the country and forsake England for Australia, but to remain here and continue to write, produce and perform The Goon Show for ever and ever." One final series was made.

First published: 2001

Published: 22 Mar 2009

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