In my early teens, I became obsessed by The Goon Show; the anarchic radio comedy of the 1950s starring Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Harry Seacombe that bewitched my parents’ generation and influenced artists as diverse as Monty Python’s Flying Circus and The Beatles. I used to pick up the BBC Cassettes of the shows, antiquated even then, and listen to them over and over, growing to love and understand all of the arcane references that soared over the heads of my schoolmates. On a visit to the library, I was delighted to discover a battered copy of The Goon Cartoons written by Spike Milligan and illustrated by Pete Clarke. This 1982 book adapts four of Spike’s surreal radio scripts into comic strips, giving me a visual frame of reference for much-loved characters such as Neddie Seagoon, Eccles, Bluebottle, Major Bloodnok, Henry Crun, Minnie Bannister, Grytpype-Thynne and Moriarty.
I must have checked The Goon Cartoons out of the library a dozen times or more, so much so that certain images are ingrained on my memory. But as time went on, I became less obsessed with The Goon Show and although I’ll still listen to episodes at regular intervals (and have enjoyed catching up with their few British film appearances on Talking Pictures TV) I pretty much forgot about their comic strip adventures. That is, of course, until I unexpected saw a second-hand copy of The Goon Cartoons on Amazon for quite a reasonable price and I instantly knew that I have to have it. When it arrived a day and a half later (things arrive incredibly fast at standard delivery from Amazon where I live, as there’s a depot 20 minutes down the road), the nostalgia was overwhelming. It was exactly the same imprint that I used to check out of the library (I don’t know if there was more than one edition), only without the unpleasant stain on the inside back cover.
The Goon Cartoons adapts four of Spike Milligan’s many scripts for The Goon Show: The Last Goon Show of All, The Affair of the Lone Banana, The Scarlet Capsule and The Pevensey Bay Disaster. The characteristically perverse decision to include The Last Goon Show of All first may strike you as a little odd, but it also makes a kind of sense. This episode was produced in 1972 – 12 years after the last series of the Goon Show proper – as part of BBC Radio’s celebration of 50 years on the air, with Sellers, Milligan and Seacombe getting back together for one last time for a recording that was filmed as well as being broadcast on the radio. Because of this, the story reintroduces all of the old characters, which is why it sort of works as the introductory chapter of The Goon Cartoons – because to anyone unfamiliar with the radio series, it’s a fair introduction. Though, if you’re unfamiliar with the radio series, good luck with making sense of the stories!
The Last Goon Show of All isn’t the strongest story here though, although it does have a number of very good standalone gags. The Affair of the Lone Banana is stronger, telling the tale of Britain’s dwindling empire (a topical subject in the 50s) through the story of Britain’s last surviving banana tree. Being as how this is a story dealing with matters colonial, it therefore features a little of the kind of stereotyping that might be branded as racist these days, but it’s a kind of abstract stereotyping that isn’t particularly mocking or derogatory towards any specific group. It’s hard to understand from a modern perspective, like a lot of these things – the Goons certainly weren’t prejudiced; Peter Sellers and musician Max Geldray were both Jewish and Ray Ellington, the regular singer and bandleader, was an African-American Orthodox Jew! Interestingly, the ‘black face’ character who appears in The Affair of the Lone Banana cartoon isn’t in the original radio show, produced 20+ years earlier!
The third story The Scarlet Capsule is one of The Goon Show’s occasional forays into topical satire; the subject on this occasion being Quatermass and the Pit, Nigel Kneale’s science fiction serial that was wowing TV audiences in 1957. Harry Seacombe, for one night only, plays Neddie Quartermess – ‘son of a scientist, daughter of darkness – two for the price of one!’ – who is investigating the mysterious scarlet capsule unearthed by men digging up the roads (‘in absence of a strike’). It’s a straight satire of Quatermass and the Pit, but you can still understand it if you have no knowledge of the television serial – well, to the extent that you can ever really understand any Goon Show script. It’s probably my favourite story in this collection, though I may be somewhat biased by being a fan of the original source material.
The final story is The Pevensey Bay Disaster, which concerns a snow plough clearing the railway line between Pevensey Bay and Hastings. These kind of weather-based emergencies were much more common in the 1950s, when Britain experienced far heavier falls of snow than it does in this day and age (thank you Global Warming). However, the dastardly Grytpype-Thynne and Moriarty are planning to use this inconvenience to pull off a train robbery; this is more than likely a reference to the prevalence of train robberies in Hollywood westerns, as the so-called ‘Great’ Train Robbery did not occur until 7 years after this episode was broadcast. The story ends, as so many of the Goon Show episodes did, with almost the entire cast being ‘deaded’, which is an odd end to the book, but on radio there was always a reset for everyone to return the following week.
For aficionados of the modern comic strip, Pete Clarke’s style might initially be quite off-putting; he only includes backgrounds where absolutely necessary and the characters are often oddly set in the corner of the frame, with Spike’s words taking centre stage. However, you have to remember that this is an attempt to convey radio as a visual image – and pretty surreal radio at that! The events are often so unfathomable and contradictory that you simply have to let the narrator’s words carry you through it, rather than rely on the visual image. The lack of backgrounds improves as the stories go on, with The Scarlet Capsule and The Pevensey Bay Disaster coming across a bit more like a standard comic strip. Most of the characters come across how you would imagine them, though I’m unsure why Eccles is depicted wearing a toga and years later, this is still how I imagine them.
This isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and I can imagine some younger fans of modern day humour comics regarding it with absolute confusion. Similarly, there are probably original fans of The Goon Show who shun it because it’s not quite what they saw in their head. I’m somewhere in the middle and I loved it then as I love it now; there’s a kind of gleeful innocence in the humour, though if you choose to look deep enough, some of it isn’t innocent at all, with a streak of coarse ex-serviceman’s humour that most of its original audience wouldn’t have got (if you’re brave enough, Google ‘my turn in the barrel’ and you’ll see what I mean). Yes, some of it is dated and some of the attitudes are a product of their time, but if you can get past that, The Goon Cartoons is well worth an hour of your time. Now, apparently there’s a second volume; if I can just get my hands on that…
‘The Goon Cartoons’ by Spike Milligan and Pete Clarke was published by M&J Hobbs (1982). It is currently out of print.