Distant Laughter

The Goons in 1956: L-R: Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe. From a cuttings scrapbook in the Secombe family archive.

Anyone who does a job of work and at the end of the day has nothing tangible to show for it, apart from his salary, has every reason to feel insecure. All the average comic is left with at the end of his career are some yellowing newspaper cuttings, perhaps an LP or two, and a couple of lines in The Stage obituary column.’ Harry Secombe; Preface to The Hancock Companion, Roger Wilmut, 1979.

David Secombe writes:

Comedy is a fragile thing. It is dependent on context. Watching flickering footage of ʻturnsʼ from the nineteen-thirties, forties or even fifties can be a baffling experience. It is usually like watching Arthur AtkinsonThe Fast Showʼs brilliant parody of period stand-up, wherein Paul Whitehouseʼs Askey- like comic performs a routine of senseless catchphrases and arbitrary physical tics to rapturous houses. Anything from the past that still retains the power to make modern audiences laugh is rare indeed.

My father was Harry Secombe, who is remembered for three things: The Goons, his Dickensian turn as Mr. Bumble in the film of Oliver!, and singing hymns on Sunday night TV. (The latter is not comedy, except inadvertently.) He left a considerable archive of personal and show-business memorabilia, a voluminous assemblage which I have been trying to manage for about forty years. The material comprises letters, notebooks, posters and promotional materials, press cuttings, cartoons, paintings, scripts, 16mm home movies and broadcast material, audio and video tapes, and an avalanche of photographs, of him and by him. There used to be a whole room devoted to this stuff at the top of my parentsʼ house. Looking at the material now is a slightly disorientating experience: leaving aside the weirdness of seeing a close relative treated as public property decades before you were born, it is like seeing history through the prism of one manʼs career. He was really big in the fifties and sixties; he seemed to be everywhere. How did he fit it all in? Very often the press photos (there are thousands) show anonymous faces, beaming crowds, my father grinning manically if not desperately, or doing totally incomprehensible things in indecipherable situations. He poses for ill-conceived LP covers. He stands next to armies of unidentifiable people in unidentifiable locations; or with unlikely celebrities in unexpected contexts. (For instance, a celebrity canvas of The Last Supper alongside the likes of Stanley Baker, Bernard Bresslaw, Alfred Marks, Lionel Bart, John Gregson, etc., with Richard Harris as Judas Iscariot and ʻrugby starʼ Clem Thomas as Jesus Christ. The artist was Andrew Vicari, and I invite readers to look him up because his is such a strange story.)

Study photo for Andrew Vicari’s 1960 version of The Last Supper. Richard Harris is well into character as Judas Iscariot, while Bernard Bresslaw’s Simon the Canaanite is ripe forCarry On Calvary‘.

The photos and cuttings and home movies are mute souvenirs of occasions my father turned into anecdote. I grew up in a large house in suburban Cheam, a landmark property (it was on a main road opposite a bus stop) decked out with the trappings youʼd associate with late 1950s showbiz success. Notable features included a white baby grand piano, a panelled, Danish-style study with a built-in hi-fi and screen for showing movies (a room I still aspire to recreate), and a bar for entertaining. The bar was equipped with an implausibly extensive array of booze (including undrinkable display-only beverages like Bols Gold Liqueur) arrayed on glass shelves behind a counter dressed with miniature Doric columns. My fatherʼs favourite drink was Pernod: a perfect match for the décor. He was a fabulous raconteur and the bar was a little theatre for him to trot out his party pieces: Mike Bentine farting in polite company was a favourite story, as were the ones about his chaotic stint as a junior clerk in a colliery office when he was fifteen (touchingly, he kept a post-war letter from the same office, offering him his pre-war job back), as well as countless soldierʼs tales. When I was young my father hosted an annual charity cricket match on the sports ground opposite the house, and the bar was the focus for the evening’s socialising, with all manner of personalities barnacled around its embossed leatherette finish. The sheer glamour and excitement of those times is so remote now; that was the mid-late seventies, but it was a throwback to early sixties style. Who has a bar in their house now?

My fatherʼs career was sparked by the fact that at the warʼs end he couldnʼt believe he was still alive; and the archive reflects the intoxicating excitement as his career gathers pace and begins to shape the post-war moment. The Goon Show catered to an audience that had survived the war only to find themselves stuck in the drab fifties. ʻYouʼve no idea how grey the fifties was‘ my father said, and the decade had been conspicuously good to him. The fifties seems impossibly remote now, an impoverished era when opportunities for fun seemed to be on ration along with just about everything else. The fact that the Goons made it onto the BBC at all is a kind of miracle, and itʼs no wonder that contemporary audiences were either deliriously thrilled or utterly baffled. But young people loved it. The Beatles were awestruck when George Martin told them, during Abbey Road sessions for their first LP, that heʼd produced records for The Goons. (Jane Milligan has a nice family photo, taken in the 1970s or 80s, of George Harrison kneeling in homage at Spikeʼs feet.)

But all things fade. The house in Cheam was pulled down in the early eighties, shortly after my father sold it, and somehow an era went with it. I am always happy to hear The Goons repeated on Radio 4 Extra, and today the BBC broadcast The Last Goon Show Of All, a 1972 reunion special which, perhaps, has a slightly rueful quality, given that the seventies werenʼt working out as well for the participants as the extravagant success of the fifties and sixties seemed to predict. Ten years later, Peter Sellers was dead and my father started doing those Sunday night religious TV shows which killed off any chance of a return to comedy. (He was teetotal by then too.) That the Goons remain funny is largely a testament to Milligan’s genius; but Spike knew he was supremely lucky to have Peter and Harry on hand to people his enchanted world. But there is something unnerving about hearing joyous studio laughter coming from beyond the veil: a kind of memento mori I suppose. Thereʼs my dad laughing on the radio: younger then than I am now. Anyway, to mark my fatherʼs centenary, the archive is being shipped to The National Library of Wales, and I am sure that they will take very good care of it. I leave you with a portfolio of unexplained images, snapshots from another era, another world, and if you have any idea what is going on in any of them, please let me know.

David Secombe is a writer and photographer.