In the 1970s it was a well-known fact that the Three Degrees were Prince Charles’ favourite pop act, but he was also a massive fan of the Goons. As a kid, Charles spent many hours listening to the Goons radio shows and I’ve often said you have to be of a certain age to understand and appreciate the madcap capers of Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers , Spike Milligan and, for a couple of years in the early fifties, Michael Bentine.
The Goons came together in 1951 and the show’s chief creator and main writer was Spike Milligan who was born Terence Alan Milligan in India but hated his name, so after hearing Spike Jones and his City Slickers on Radio Luxembourg he decided to call himself Spike. In 1953, after 38 episodes, Bentine left and the remaining three stayed together for a further seven years producing a further 200 episodes and 12 specials of their radio shows.
The name Goon was inspired by two things, first in 1948 when a local paper ran the headline using that word when reviewing a Michael Bentine Picture Post show, while Milligan says it came from a Popeye character called Alice the Goon which itself originated from E. C. Segar’s 1933 comic strip Thimble Theatre.
The first shows were called Crazy People (The Junior Crazy Gang) and had the members guised as various characters with names like Neddie Seagoon which was Harry Secombe, Bluebottle, Henry Crun, Hercules Grytpype-Thynne and Major Denis Bloodnok all voiced by Sellers and Eccles, Minnie Bannister and Count Jim Moriarty portrayed by Milligan.
They recorded some songs that were featured in their sketches and found their way into the chart including The Bluebottle Blues c/w I’m Walking Backwards for Christmas in June 1956 – only the Goons would chart a Christmas song in the middle of summer, but it reached number four. Just three months later they followed it up with another double A-side – Bloodnok’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Call (The first British recorded hit with Rock ‘N’ Roll in the title) c/w The Ying Tong Song.
Now you have to remember that this was the 1950s – a time when there were no gadgets, few televisions and families sitting round a piano in the evening was the height of entertainment. Much of the music on the radio at this time were by ballad singers backed by an orchestra, American four-piece doo-wop style groups, English singers covering American teen-based love songs or novelty records as rock and roll didn’t really kick in until later in the year.
They say that genius is next to madness and never was a saying truer when it came to Spike Milligan who wrote their songs, so when it came to writing lyrics that went: Ying tong, ying tong, ying tong, ying tong, ying tong yiddle i po, Ying tong, ying tong, ying tong yiddle i po, yiddle i po, Ying tong, ying tong, ying tong, ying tong, ying tong yiddle i po, Ying tong, ying tong, ying tong yiddle i po, yiddle i po. Yiiiing, tongy, yiddy diddy da doh, ying yiddy, Ying tong diddle, yiddledy boo, Ying tong, ying tong, ying tong yiddle, ying tong yiddle i po, Ying tong, ying tong, ying tong yiddle i po, yiddle i po, oh! you couldn’t help but take notice and think, oh my God, what is he on. I’m not sure that question has ever been answered, but the words ying tong yiddle I po was an expression that various members of the Goons used in their series and became the basis for the song, but there are some understandable, albeit bizarre, words because the song starts with Harry Secombe in his best tenor voice singing: There’s a song that I recall, my mother sang to me, she sang it as she tucked me in when I was 93.
Milligan suffered with mental illness which probably have helped the success of the Goons, could he really have come up with episode titles like The Affair of the Lone Banana and The Collapse of the British Railway Sandwich System if he hadn’t? It was rumoured that he only wrote The Ying Tong Song for a bet and it is totally believable.
His whit never diminished. When Eamonn Andrews first caught Spike for This Is Your Life in April 1973 and uttered the words ‘Spike Milligan, This is your Life’ Spike’s reply was, “You call this a life”. On his second appeared in February 1995 Michael Aspel caught him on the concourse of Euston Station to which Spike replied, “You can’t do me I’ve been dead 10 years!”
In 1994 Spike received a Life-time Award presented to him by Ben Elton and Jonathan Ross, he was emotional and grateful at the time but later commented that he had been using is as a door stop. At the same ceremony, Jonathan read out a letter from Prince Charles explaining that he’d been a Goons fan as a young boy and how much Spike had made him laugh, to which Spike called his a grovelling little bastard on live television.
On 27th February 2002 Spike died at the age of 83. Unbelievably he was the last of the Goons to go. He was once asked if he wanted to go to heaven to which he replied, “I’d like to go there, but if Jeffrey Archer is there, I want to go to Lewisham.”
His headstone at St Thomas’ Church in Winchelsea, East Sussex, is a much talked about subject because of the epitaph Spike had requested which was ‘I told you I was ill’. Unfortunately the church would not permit the phrase he’d requested but they did allow the sentiment expressed in Gaelic, ‘Duirt me leat go raibh me breoite’, which translates to: ‘I told you I was ill’. Incidentally, Spike’s request is often slightly misquoted to ‘I told you I was sick’.
In 1989 when 53-year old Bill Wyman married 19-year old Mandy Smith Spike’s present to Bill was a zimmer frame.
The best measure of Spike Milligan’s genius was the number of people who imitated him. John Cleese and the entire Monty Python team freely admit that Spike inspired a number of their sketches. Basil Fawlty offers a nod to Spike and even Eddie Izzard called Milligan the Godfather of alternative comedy.