Goons

In the summer of 1951 I went to stay for a few days with the Wilkinsons. They were old friends of my parents and had been our neighbours too before we moved to London. They had three children: a boy and a girl about the same age as my older sisters and Murray, who was my age. Murray and I used to play together when we were quite small and I can remember one occasion when we decided to go carol singing. As it was some time in June or July, our efforts to gather funds by this method were not that successful. Responses from the houses we visited varied between puzzlement and tolerant amusement (does that add up to bemusement?).

I am not sure if Murray was the leader in the carols but he was in a number of other things. One was his enthusiasm for the Goon Show.

The first Goon Show, billed as Crazy People, broadcast on 28th May 1951.  Murray’s family must have been onto it quickly because he introduced me to it in July or August of that year, about two thirds of the way through the first series.  I was an instant fan.  The Goons drew me into a crazy world that was the obverse of the crazy world I was living in.  This was a world in which I could laugh.  It was built on the wild imagination of Spike Milligan, the protean acting talents of Milligan and Peter Sellers, and the manic energy that these two generated with Welsh tenor Harry Secombe.  The humour was anarchic and surreal but it was also curiously complicit.  You didn’t laugh at it or even with it.  You were there in the middle of it.  You were part of the joke. 

Radio is sound.  Silence is its enemy.  To the Goons, however, silence was anticipation and expectation.  One of the running (pun intended) gags: the sound of heavy boots pounding a pavement at about 20% faster than their normal speed, a pause of maybe two seconds, a resounding splash and, instantly, the high-pitched voice of Little Jim (Sellers) ‘He’s fallen in the water!’.  Often the silence would go on for longer and the anticipation would draw half-suppressed laughter from the radio audience or giggles from the cast (usually Secombe).  No other medium could be exploited in quite this way to draw you into it.  No other medium could hold you with, well, nothing.

When the Goon Shows were redone for television using puppets in the 1960s, they didn’t work.  One of the complaints about them is a standard response to the visual representation of characters from radio or fiction – they look different from the way I imagined them.  There are two ways to interpret this response.  One is that each of us creates our own fully rounded visual image of the character and it contradicts the image presented to us.  The other is that we don’t actually have fully rounded images at all, but pictures that are rudimentary, non-specific, flexible, and open.  The image in the new medium is not wrong but too concrete, too particular.  For me and, I would guess, for many others the second is the case.  I did not imagine Bluebottle as some small, skinny human wearing a wolf cub’s uniform, who I could have faithfully drawn if I had had the skill.  He was a voice, not disembodied because to be disembodied you must live in an embodied world.  Bluebottle lived in a world of sound.  When he got blown up in an explosion and cried, as he inevitably did, ‘You dirty, rotten swine!  You have deaded me!’, I didn’t need to picture blackened flesh or scattered limbs.  I didn’t have to picture anything at all.  On the contrary, if I had been offered a picture, it would have changed the reality and made it less than what it was.  The sonic world of the Goons was a medium in which the impossible could be made real and madness let loose.  Madness, of course, is a manifestation of the absurd.  It has a comic and a tragic face.  To hold that madness, to live in its grip, even for a little while, is to live without explanation or meaning. I have a suspicion that that is what we all must do in the end.

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