It all started with a Second World War TV docu-drama in which a gaggle of soldiers (mostly female, I noted, dressed in the kind of uniform that would today almost certainly be sold by Ann Summers) pushed wooden ships and tanks around a map of Europe using what looked like croupiers rakes, when a sudden memory of Michael Bentine’s Potty Time flashed across my mind:add a soundtrack of silly voices and dozens of mini-explosions and you were there in all the sense and purpose of war.

Thoughts of Bentine, of course, brought me onto the great Milligan.  The two of them (together with Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe) co-created the seminal radio comedy The Goon Show, but sadly quarrelled in the 1950’s reportedly after Michael Bentine attempted to have Spike removed from the show due to his ‘erratic behaviour’.  Neither, it would appear, was able to forgive and according to Spike, they did not speak again until the day before Bentine’s death by which time, I fear, it was too late for either of them to rebuild burned bridges.  The genius Milligan continued to write and star in The Goon Show until some years later when, as it was concertedly trying to kill him, he moved into TV and books, where he did ok, all things considered.

My own connection to Mr Milligan is via a gossamer thread which, not unusually for me, also suspends the indomitable Crispin Underfelt.  We were writing a radio series together at the time and, young, green and fearless as we were, we wrote to Spike to ask if he would read what we had written.  Amazingly, he replied immediately saying that he would be happy to read a script and he would comment and advise where he could.  Overjoyed we parcelled up the single episode that he requested and, with a prayer to the Gods, sent it on its way.  Alas, when the MS arrived back a few days later, clearly unread, it was accompanied by a letter from Norma Farnes (Spike’s minder, agent, manager and later, biographer) stating that Spike did not read or comment on the work of other writers, end of.  We were upset at the time by the terseness of the response, but later came to realise that Spike was having one of his difficult times mentally and Ms Farnes was doing what she always did: keeping the lid on.

It was during one such ‘difficult time’ that Spike famously threw a heavy paperweight at his then co-writer, Eric Sykes, which missed its target, smashed through the office window and crashed down onto the thankfully empty pavement five stories below.  Sykes had been drafted in to help a then ailing Milligan with Goon Show scripts for series 5 and 6 and was, in fact, the sole writer on many episodes.  (Sykes commented that he always felt that with Spike, madness was only ever an arm’s length away.)  The paperweight incident was precipitated by a disagreement over a single word – neither of them could remember which – but anybody who has ever co-written anything with anyone will understand the tension only too well*.  

Unlike the poor, benighted Messrs Bentine and Milligan, Mr Sykes (as he sometimes allowed me to call him) did occasionally have the pleasure of my company.  Our first meeting was at the back door of my father-in-law’s pub, which was directly across the road from the theatre and a regular haunt of those performing there – largely long after what was then a legally enforced ‘closing time’.  When the pub was closed at night, the back yard was tar-black, unlit, and all-in-all not the place to be, so I opened the door with some trepidation in response to the insistent knocking, to be faced by a tall man in a black homburg hat and full-length black, astrakhan-collared coat.  All I could see was the glowing tip of a cigar, the size and intensity of a fallen sun.  ‘Is Bri’sy in?’ said the voice which I immediately recognised as not being that of Hattie Jacques, in a tone not unlike a five year-old asking a friend’s mum if he could come out to play.  I ushered him in.  Brian (my father-in-law) and Eric were golf pals, playing along with Jimmy Edwards who, my father-in-law swore, had a small trolley attached to his golf bag in which he carried around a fully-stocked array of his peri-round liquid ‘fortifications’.  Eric Sykes was the antithesis of erratic: always Sykes, always amusing and always at the very epicentre of any group of which he was part, despite being almost completely deaf.  I suppose that genius always has its price…

…And then I awoke mid-reminiscence, to find myself mid-Newsnight instead, with Kirsty Wark presenting stories from Ukraine and allowing me to witness for myself the kind of monstrous harm and destruction that can be released by one unhinged man, and I couldn’t help but wonder when the croupiers rakes might come out again…

*I don’t think, incidentally, that Mr Underfelt and I actually ever ‘fell out’ over a script.  We often had different ideas, which we were prepared to argue in favour of, but ultimately we always reached a settlement with which we were both happy, nary an angry word passed between us.  Mad ideas man and embittered old hack in perfect accord…

A couple of weeks ago I lamented that, other than John Junkin, I had no names to ‘drop’, when I suddenly remembered Eric.  It doesn’t matter that nobody who remains within their first half century of life will remember either of them.  I do…

N.B. I cannot recommend highly enough, for people of a certain age, Eric Sykes’ Autobiography ‘If I Don’t Write it, Somebody Else Will’ – even though he doesn’t mention Brian – and Norma Farnes’ (who, incidentally, was also Sykes’ manager) record of her thirty year relationship with Spike, ‘An Intimate Memoir’.  Although neither of them mention me…


18 thoughts on “Serendipity

  1. You may also remember that Eric was staying at a hotel where we both worked and first met. If you recall, you lent me your waiters jacket and I took afternoon tea up to his room. He was entertaining some friends, and when it was him who opened the door, I was like a gibbering idiot. I don’t recall receiving a tip either!

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    1. Ha ha, yes, I do remember that. I also remember I took him breakfast the following day, but I brought it back to the kitchen because he (stone deaf) didn’t answer the door.

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  2. “Mad ideas man and embittered old hack in perfect accord…” Which one was which?
    I think I’ve heard a few episodes of the Goon Show on the shortwave when I was a kid but don’t really recall a lot of it.

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      1. Shortwave radio was nerdy & cool when I was a kid and I know I have heard Hancock’s Half Hour and Round the Horne a few times. I loved my shortwave. I know Goon Show and Marty Feldman go together somehow too, but this conversation is off the cuff and not Googling it to spark any memories, lol.
        In answer to your question, you don’t seem very bitter, lol…😉

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  3. I was removed from Britain when quite young, but I do remember the Goon Show though I suspect I did not really “get” the humour then. Periodically, I came “home” for short visits and it always struck me that British humour was unique and un-matchable. Is it still? It’s a long time since I was there and these days it seems as though no-one is laughing much, anywhere.

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  4. I grew up with “The Goon Show” and “Life with Dexter”. I preferred Dexter to the Goons, but remember well the Goon show in which they put a lift up through the centre of a mountain in order to be the first in human history to get to the top.

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    1. It was the weird and unexpected shifts in perspective that always appealed to me. When they did The Last Goon Show Ever a friend and I learned and performed for tape the whole thing, word for word, in all the voices. Wish I’d kept the tape!

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  5. The Goon Show was a little early for me, although I know my Dad was full of reverence and enthusiastically encouraged me to sit in front of Michael Bentine’s Potty Time… I remember that being hilarious, but dare not see if mid-fifties me finds it as good as five year old me did… Eric Sykes used to do a sitcom with Hattie Jacques about then, if I remember right… Ahh.. ‘Sykes’? Dimly remember my folks watching that, probably in B/W then (it was a long time before our family could afford the more expensive colour TV license!) although again, I suspect its time will probably not show it in a good light now. Some things *have* been learned.

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