The Goon Show burst on to the airwaves in 1951 and changed comedy forever. As a stage version of the classic radio series embarks on a UK tour to mark the centenary of Spike Milligan’s birth, Nick Smurthwaite relives the unique wit of the troupe
The year was 1951. Churchill was re-elected prime minister, George VI was on the throne and Dennis the Menace made his debut in the Beano. For a younger generation of radio listeners, by far the most important event was The Goon Show starting on the BBC Home Service, as Radio 4 was called back then.
Like Monty Python a generation later, The Goon Show changed the face – and the voice – of comedy forever. Its presiding genius, Spike Milligan, often boasted later in life that, without the Goons, there would have been no Python.
Ex-Python Michael Palin agreed, saying that listening to The Goon Show was like hearing Elvis Presley sing Heartbreak Hotel for the first time.
Now the Goons are being celebrated by the Apollo Theatre Company in a touring stage show to mark the centenary of Milligan’s birth.
Three actors – Julian McDowell, Colin Elmer and Clive Greenwood – are attempting to recapture the singular lunacy and brilliance of Milligan, Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe by re-enacting one of three chosen episodes, namely Tales of Men’s Shirts, The Phantom Head Shaver of Brighton and The Dreaded Batter Pudding Hurler of Bexhill-on-Sea.
Co-producer Norma Farnes, Milligan’s manager for 36 years and, since his death in 2002, keeper of the flame, gave her blessing to the show provided the company agreed to be respectful of the scripts.
“I feel strongly about Spike’s legacy,” she says, adding: “Spike himself wasn’t bothered about how other people used his material. He used to say: ‘I hope they don’t do it better than me’ and laugh.”
The show comes at a time when Farnes herself is in negotiation for a TV adaptation of her 2003 book, Spike: An Intimate Memoir, about her time with Milligan, which began in 1966 when she went to work at the house in Orme Court, Bayswater, where Milligan, Eric Sykes, Eddie Braben and Simpson and Galton all had offices. She still has an office there today.
Her “oddly compelling book”, as the Observer called it, reveals the tortured individual that lurked behind Milligan’s public facade. Farnes was often on the receiving end of his displeasure and learned to deal with him as a mother would a naughty child.
“If he was nasty to me, I’d ignore him,” she says. “I walked out on him three times in 36 years. Johnny Speight [another TV scriptwriter and frequent visitor to Orme Court] used to wind him up. Eric was usually the peacemaker.”
They called Farnes “the mother confessor”, because she would listen to all their problems and advise them accordingly.
Would Milligan have approved of a stage version of the Goons? Farnes pauses for a few seconds, unsure how to answer: “I think he’d be surprised that we were still celebrating the Goons 67 years after they started.”
She says he loved the theatre – “after radio it was his favourite medium” – and toured his one-man show in the UK and overseas for 20 years. “He loved a live audience and especially hecklers,” she says. “It allowed him to improvise, which he always enjoyed.”
The producers of the show, Apollo, also brought Round the Horne to the stage in 2016. The actor who played Kenneth Horne, McDowell, will now voice the many characters of Sellers in The Goon Show, a show he says is closer to his heart than Round the Horne.
“I was brought up on the Goons,” says McDowell. “My father was a forces radio presenter in Cyprus and the Goons were very popular with the troops. I did the voices of Bluebottle and Henry Crun [two of Sellers’ best-loved characters] in the playground to get a laugh and deflect the bullies.”
Isn’t it a massive risk trying to reincarnate a show that was so unique to the performers and so much of its time?
“We’re not attempting to bring them back to life or even pretending to be them. We’re hoping to recreate what it must have been like to be in that recording studio in that moment,” he says. “I think everybody had a different idea of what they looked like because it was radio. We’ve worked hard on getting the voices right. Colin [Elmer, who plays Milligan] has been listening to recordings of Spike non-stop for four and a half months.”
McDowell has good reason to believe the wit and writings of Milligan are as popular today as they ever were. He runs one of Pauline Quirke’s Saturday drama classes and he says his kids love Spike’s silly verses. He recently held a competition to see who could do the best recitation of a Milligan poem.
Then there are the Milligan greetings cards – one of the many ways Farnes has kept his legacy alive. “I had the idea of turning his funny little drawings into greetings cards, diaries and calendars. To everyone’s amazement, they’ve sold over two million.”
Does she expect the show to be as successful? “Who knows? The material is still funny, so it’s up to the actors. I know I got goosebumps when I heard Colin Elmer doing Eccles,” she says.
The Goon Show will tour the UK  until November 11
If you’d like to read more stories from the history of theatre, all previous content from The Stage is available at the British Newspaper Archive in a convenient, easy-to-access format. Please visit: thestage.co.uk/archive