Words by Ed King / Pics courtesy of Birmingham Comedy Festival & Fred Theatre
For a grown man I write this too often, ‘I’m late’. But I am. Again. So now we’re standing in the stairwell to mac’s Foyle Theatre – a bleacher seat style dance studio (at least, that’s what it used to be) – waiting for the right moment to creep to our seats.
Today, I’m late for The Goon Show – Fred Theatre and Birmingham Comedy Festival’s resurrection of the Spike Milligan cornerstone of comedy, played out with principals Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers and (for two series) Michael Bentine. Cited as the ‘sell-out success of 2014’s Birmingham Comedy Festival’, the powers that promote decided once was not enough and are touring two newly rehearsed episodes across the Midlands – coming to mac for a matinee and evening performance. Both have sold out, and as we squeeze ourselves into the back corner I’m reassured that the only empty seats are ours. The Goon Show is for me, as it will be for many, a safe little space.
“You speak to my secretary, you can’t talk to a Government Minister like that. I won’t be out of work long, you see.” Eccles is defending his corner. “I’ll get that Ministry of Fishery job, you watch. I’ve kept goldfish.” Played by Mark Earby the voice is uncanny. I smile at the familiarity, before an exchange of “shut up”, “shut up”, “shut up Eccles”, “shut up Eccles” makes the eight year old in my want to both laugh and cry. So I laugh.
The Goon Show episode being acted first, for there are two tonight, is ‘The Jet-Propelled Guided NAAFI’ – a series six adventure about the latest war effort from Prime Minister (with no fixed abode) Seagoon. After the interval its ‘The House of Teeth’, both from the final run with Peter Eton – the long standing series producer who was notorious for his strong work ethic and propelling the madcap Milligan led team into a more professional powerhouse. Both are classic Goons, with treachery, idiocy and piano references galore.
The stage is set as it would be for the original radio shows – stand up mics, a table of sound effect props, four chairs where the cast sit (with scripts in hand) and what would have been the Ray Ellington Quartet waiting patiently stage left. It is stripped back by modern production standards, but the raw humor and friendship of The Goons is always what made it stand out. That and the knowledge that as a live radio show it could all beautifully unravel. And even in homage we still are firmly ‘On Air’.
Playing The Goons, playing the variety of characters that they interchange, are Richard Usher as Peter Sellers, Mark Earby as Spike Milligan, and Stephan Bessant as Harry Secombe. Phil Hemming plays the long suffering BBC announcer, Wallace Greenslade, as well as Dr Longdongle in ‘The House of Teeth’.
Dressed accordingly – Sellers in his suit and glasses, Milligan slightly scruffy with a black peaked cap, and Secombe as the fresh faced yet well pressed Welshman – the cast bounce around and off each other with a well rehearsed ease. And just as with the original line up, it feels sincere – the friendship that brought them together (Milligan and Secombe as soldiers in WWII, meeting after a near fatal accident that could have easily been a Goon Show joke in itself) is what bound The Goons together, embracing the audience with an endearing camaraderie. And you can’t act them without it.
Peter Usher’s Gryptpype-Thynee is also uncanny, so close to Sellers’ original that it’s a little unnerving live – as Usher and Bessant dance their passive aggressive tongue in cheek fandango that will ultimately be one of their character’s undoing. The timing is superb, with the cast’s confident delivery picking up and using each misstep or production blunder that drops in their lap. It’s so good you almost want it to go wrong. As straight man Secombe/Seagoon, Besant is the perfect pompous fall guy too – gleefully stepping into whatever his more character actor companions throw in his direction.
Both scripts follow a similar Goon Show theme – a reality rooted premise made ludicrous, with absurd cameos and characters to drive normalcy into the rough sea. It’s what worked so well in the early 50’s when The Goon Show was first broadcast (under its original moniker Crazy People) and what has underpinned most revered comedy shows since Monty Python.
The reference points are not too far flung either, with enough context given for a modern audience to know which politician to laugh at and starlet to adore (my friend had no affinity with The Goon Show before today and only missed the sporadic in jokes). Its good comedy, something that will stand the test of time, and a 2017 audience should have no blank spot to fear. The biggest knife in the ribs is the racism – or what we would define as racism if written and performed, as new comedy, in front of intelligent people today.
In the original Goon Show Ray Ellington played most of the characters and bit parts that required an unashamedly accentuated African voice, whilst Sellers picked up any Indian accents. Goodness, gracious, me. Jokes about Irish and Jewish people also peppered scripts, with Milligan adopting an arguably puerile approach to stereotype, skin colour and dialect. But it wasn’t cruel or out of context. And as a white British male, from a lineage of conscription escaping Russian Jews, raised by a post-hippie lesbian mother, who lived in South India for nearly ten years, you know what offends me? Mean people. Plus in the eyes of shul Ray Ellington is more Jewish than I am. Considerably more. So throw a stone.
Plus the biggest butt of The Goon Show’s jokes are, undeniably, the British – from establishment elite to working class, home soil is the first mud slung. And Clement Atlee left office the same year The Goon Show first aired. The wider argument is whether we should perpetuate the bygone colloquialisms that are, unarguably, no matter how pertinent then, offensive in today’s society. Fred Theatre stayed true to the original scripts and their production would have arguably lost something (like airbrushing cigarettes) had lines been edited or redacted. But that’s the wider argument and this is a review.
Perhaps the best way of surmising this is from the script itself, in a scene near the start of ‘The House of Teeth’ where the pompous Lord Seagoon is “with my servants on the side of a precipitous mountain in a horse-drawn motor car.”
Secombe acted hubris to a tee, with a Welsh green light to poke holes in the English aristocracy, and after reminding his entourage – the obviously Indian Abdul, repetitively working class Willium, and incongruously African O’Brien – “remember, all of you, we’re British. Together,” receives nothing more than a disgruntled roll call.
But stiff upper lip, what what, tally ho; Milligan writes a deservedly blind response from the obnoxious Company man. “Good. Next hoist a small Union Jack and unveil a bust of Queen Victoria. Now I’ll just make a rough ‘Englishman lost on the mountainside Menu’. Brown Windsor soup, meat, two veg., cabinet pudding – boiled and jam. Heheh. Fair makes your mouth water.”
And as we can sit enjoying the freedom of comedy today, mid afternoon on a wet and windy Saturday (at mac), its worth remembering the brave places that nurtured an ‘all under one sun’ approach to humour. Because in 63 years we’ll be watching South Park live on stage having this conversation about Cartman and Kyle.
Of course, by then I’ll either be dead or late.
For more on Fred Theatre, visit www.fred-theatre.co.uk
For more on the Birmingham Comedy Festival, visit www.bhamcomfest.co.uk
For more from mac, including a full programme of events and courses, visit www.macbirmingham.co.uk