As a jobbing freelance writer in the autumn of 1995 I was commissioned by Radio 4 to write a feature on “A Weekend Called Fred” – the Goon Show Preservation Society’s Bournemouth Convention. As a Goons aficionado, meeting fans from Australia, New Zealand and the USA, plus the show’s producers and sound-effects men, was an attractive proposition.
However, I was disappointed to discover there would be no actual Goons attending. Peter Sellers was dead. Spike Milliganwas grumpy and unapproachable. Harry Secombe had been knighted and was busy in West End theatre. So, unbeknown to the society, I wrote to one of the originals, Michael Bentine. I was surprised when Bentine phoned me to announce that he was going to California as he was dying of prostate cancer. “I wish you well, but I aim to expire in the sunshine.” He died a year later. It was a long shot, so I wrote an unctuous letter to Sir Harry. A week later, the phone rang.
“Yes… who’s this?” There was a giggle.
Stupidly, I said: “Harry who?”
Another giggle followed by “How many bloody Harrys do you know man? Secombe! It’s Neddie!” I was bowled over. The legendary Neddie Seagoon was talking to me.
“Blimey,” he said, “just sitting here in my dressing room reading your letter. You’re a miserable bugger, aren’t you?” I told him I was simply pulling out all the emotional stops trying to appeal to his better nature. “Will you come?”
“Oh… all right then, but only for half an hour. I can’t stand those bloody Goon fans – they’re all barking mad, you know. Send me the details, time, venue, and meet me when I get there. You’d better protect me! Don’t tell them I’m coming.”
On the Saturday afternoon, I was instructed to wait for him outside the hotel. Inside, on the stage, the Goons producer Dennis Main Wilson was being interviewed before a rapt audience. Outside, a large silver Mercedes, with the number plate HS1, pulled up. The passenger door was flung open and I was beckoned inside. I guided the chauffeur around to the back of the building. Harry shook my hand and told me I needed to go on a diet. He followed me to the stage door. I entered, blundered on to the stage and interrupted the interview, announcing “Ladies and gentlemen! A special guest: Sir Harry Secombe!” The crowd went wild, Harry strode up to the mike and blew a loud raspberry, and spent the next two hours talking to fans and signing autographs.
Eventually, I found a quiet room, ordered tea and sat with the great Seagoon talking about comedy. It was a wonderful afternoon, and a fine piece of radio in the company of a master clown and true gentleman.
The weekend ended with a batter pudding-hurling contest on the beach.