Peter Sellers (left), Peter Medak and Spike Milligan on the set of “Ghost in the Noonday Sun,”
The Hungarian-born filmmaker Peter Medak survived Nazi occupation during World War II and communism under the Soviet umbrella. But Peter Sellers was a force of nature all his own.
By many accounts, the British comic genius severely damaged Medak’s career when in 1973 he enticed the director to make a pirate comedy concocted by friend and cohort Spike Milligan, then decided on the second day of filming he didn’t want to be a part of it. That was the beginning of a nightmarish shoot that would end with the disastrous “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” being shelved and the blame heaped on Medak, who was one of the hottest directors in the world going into the shoot, but afterward wouldn’t make another film for five years.
But Medak’s new documentary “The Ghost of Peter Sellers,” while intending to set the record straight, isn’t a hit piece on Sellers, but a nuanced portrait of a troubled, often self-destructive talent. And it is an introspective piece from a filmmaker who still, nearly a half-century later, lives with the guilt and psychological wounds from the experience that need addressing.
Despite behind-the-scenes nastiness and some very off-colour jokes, The Goon Show changed comedy forever.
The anarchy of The Goon Show was not reserved just for the BBC Home Service recording sessions. Spike Milligan, who created the show and wrote most of the scripts, was often sleep-deprived and hallucinating as he scrambled to write thousands of words every day.
By January 1952, with the hit show eight months old, he had worked himself into a paranoid frenzy. He grabbed a weapon from the kitchen and ran across the hallway into co-star Peter Sellers’s flat. “Something inside me snapped,” Milligan recalled later. “I tried to kill Peter Sellers with a potato knife. Either that or I just a wanted to peel him.”
Milligan spent the following fortnight in St Luke’s Psychiatric Hospital in Muswell Hill, London, before returning to work and resuming his hectic ways. The Goon Show lasted for another eight years, finishing its tenth and final season on January 28 1960, with an episode called The Last Smoking Seagoon.
The show started with the title ‘Crazy People’. Milligan, Sellers, Michael Bentine and Harry Secombe were billed in the Radio Times as “radio’s own Crazy Gang, ‘The Goons’”. They soon changed the name to The Goon Show, which took its name from the American cartoonist EC Segar’s character Alice the Goon. Alice was a member of a weird tribe of humanoids that lived on Goon Island. Segar used Alice in his comic strip creation Popeye, which was where Milligan first saw it in the comics he devoured as a child.
Secombe met Milligan during the Second World War, when his future comedy partner’s artillery unit accidentally dropped a howitzer they were transporting, nearly killing the Welsh comedian. The pair, along with ex-RAF servicemen Sellers, Frankie Howerd, Tony Hancock and an ex-commando called Larry Stephens (who went on to co-write many of the scripts with Milligan), used to hang out at Grafton Pub near Victoria Station. They were all desperate to get their break in the entertainment business.
Sellers, Milligan, Bentine and Secombe began tape-recording drunken conversations, in which they styled themselves as ‘The Goons’. By chance, BBC producer Pat Dixon heard a tape and persuaded the corporation to take a chance on commissioning a new radio show by this irreverent quartet.
Nearly 70 years on, it is hard to overstate the massive impact the show had when it burst on to the airwaves on 28 May 1951. This ground-breaking programme changed comedy forever – and inspired numerous shows that followed. The late Terry Jones called Milligan “the father of Monty Python”.
As the 1950s dawned, the United Kingdom was a grey, repressed place. “The Goons challenged the stuffiness with joy,” said John Cleese. “They created a sense of liberation which went beyond laughter, evoking a strange, insane energy from people who suddenly found themselves breaking through the glass ceiling of respectability that had haunted them all their lives.”
Milligan said the Goons were “shouting gibberish in the face of authority, and proving by fabricated insanity that nothing could be as mad as what passes for ordinary living”. The BBC bosses seemed unaware of just how subversive their new show was. The Goons slipped rude material past the censors through its jokey characters.
Sir Huge Hampton, for example, had a name based on the Cockney rhyming slang for a prick (Hampton Wick). Drinking alcohol was forbidden by the BBC during rehearsals, so the cast mixed milk with brandy to conceal their drinking.
Eddie Izzard believes that what makes The Goon Show “timeless” is the surreal nature of the comedy, “like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”. The imaginative, fantasy-style humour of the shows is what survives best in the recordings of the final six seasons (the BBC did not keep any archives of the show from 1951 to 1953), and the flights of fancy are wonderful.
For example, when Neddie Seagoon, one of the central characters throughout the show’s history, leaves his home in London for Africa, we hear the door slam, the car set off, the train whistle, and the steamer siren blare, only to have Neddie (voiced by Secombe) say “hang on, I’ve got my coat stuck in the door”.
When the aged Henry Crun asks Minnie Bannister what the weather is like, the decrepit OAP walks at a snail’s pace to the window before returning to her chair. “Well, what was it like, Min?” Henry asks again. “I don’t know,” she replies. “I couldn’t see through the snow.”
Eccles was hugely popular. Milligan thought the best joke he ever wrote about this idiotic character was when someone was trying to teach Eccles the Theory of Relativity.
Now look, Eccles, jump up in the air. You see what happened then? You had to come back down to earth again.
Yeah. I had to come back down to earth.
Well. I live there!
The absurdist humour of the show retains its charm, as when Eccles, told that the log he was crossing the Amazon River on was actually an alligator, says “Oh… I wondered why my legs were getting shorter?”
Milligan, Sellers, Secombe and Bentine (who left the show in 1952) were masters of the outrageous accents and comic voices that suited the bizarre humour of the show. Characters such as Hercules Grytpype-Thynne, Major Dennis Bloodnok, Bluebottle, Willium ‘Mate’ Cobblers and Count Moriarty became famous; the show’s catchphrases, such as “You filthy swine, you!”, “I don’t wish to know that!” and “we’re just good friends, I tell you”, were endlessly imitated by listeners around the world. “The Goons were huge in Ireland. Kids I grew up with talked like that all the time,” recalled musician Van Morrison, who was a fan in the 1950s.
John Lennon was also a huge admirer of the Goons. The Beatles star even reviewed them for The New York Times in 1971. “I was 12 when the Goon Show first hit me. Sixteen when they were finished with me. Their humour was the only proof that the world was insane,” Lennon wrote. Elton John was another fan. He paid £14,000 at an auction of original Goon Show scripts in 1981.
Among their most elevated admirers is HRH Prince Charles, who used to try to entertain the Queen with impressions of Goon characters. The cast even performed a private one-off show called ‘Dreaded Affair of the Pointless Crown’ at Buckingham Palace for members of the royal family.
Fellow students in the late 1960s at Trinity College, Cambridge, recalled royal undergraduate Prince Charles delivering a Minnie Bannister impression while leaping from a dustbin. In 1998, Prince Charles became royal patron of the Goon Show Appreciation Society. Charles paid tribute to the Goon Show’s “brand of humour”, which he described as “gloriously and eccentrically British”.
There is an elephant in the room with Goons humour, of course, because some of it is racist and outmoded. Milligan’s biographer Humphrey Carpenter detailed how the comedian, the son of an Irish soldier, was born and raised in India, absorbing prejudiced values at an early age. Carpenter described how Milligan was a lifelong racist and an unashamed anti-Semite.
Talking with the Monty Python member about Peter Sellers, failure, and why he prefers disrespectful interviewers.
It was absurdist. It didn’t try to be intellectual, yet it at its core it still was. I always had an affinity for the silly, and the humor of The Goon Show was just that. It was also very subversive. Spike and [co-creator Harry Secombe] were in the armed forces during the Second World War, you see, and they had developed a rather disrespectful attitude towards authority and the officers, and that was always coming through in the show — just a disrespect for the pompous old-style English guys and the upper class. And that anti-authority really spoke to us [in Python]. People used to ask us to describe what sort of humor Monty Python was because they didn’t know how to categorize us. We’re just silly. Other people who come across us can give us labels if they want.
You’d be hard-pressed to find someone working in comedy that hasn’t creatively cribbed from Monty Python. The influential British comedy troupe’s trademark surrealism, self-referencing, and artistic anarchy has been coded into the DNA of many modern architects of America’s absurdist comedy Zeitgeist, from Doug Kenney to Amy Sedaris to the minds behind Mr. Show. [ . . . ]
It was 1973 and Peter Medak was a hot director on the rise. Following the success of The Ruling Class, which had earned Peter O’Toole an Academy Award nomination the previous year, United Artists offered him Death Wish. But when the studio insisted on casting Charles Bronson instead of Medak’s pick, Henry Fonda, Medak passed on the project.
Back in London, Medak ran into his friend Peter Sellers, who asked him to direct his next film, Ghost in The Noonday Sun, which was set to be filmed on the island of Cyprus. Somehow the idea of filming a 17th-century pirate comedy aboard real ships on the Mediterranean seemed a good idea at the time [ . . . ]