It’s been 20 years since the whirlwind that was Spike Milligan died, but in Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s wildly joyful recreation of the early years of The goon show it travels – or rather circles – the earth. John Dagleish captures his savage unpredictability perfectly, both engaging to an audience, yet potentially infuriating to the powers that be at the BBC – and even on the home front, his wife is banking on June (sympathetic Ellie Morris).
Designer Katie Lias artfully conjures up a post-war BBC sound studio, dominated at the start of the action by sound artist Sylvia’s huge table of ‘tools’. A smiling Margaret Cabourn-Smith positively asserts herself as she shares her arcane artistry to set the stage for the kings of comedy, recreating sounds including 11 different “rests”… The sound effects are uh, actually, the fourth Goon!
Sylvia’s comic sketch of Cabourn-Smith also sets the stage for a heightened retelling of the Goons’ early years, delightfully in the style of Private Eye, Hislop’s organ and Newman celebrating his debt to Milligan with this show.
However, not everything is festive. Although Dagleish’s wonderfully mobile face is a joy to behold, as his smiles and laughter envelop the audience, a key thread running through the action is the constant struggle of the Goons and in particular Milligan with his “overlords” of the BBC, here represented by Robert Mountford’s unnamed “BBC”. Executive’. Scary and contemptuous, and constantly exasperated to the point of coughing up blood, Mountford stops short of earning his living. Spitting image figure.
George Kemp and Jeremy Lloyd have the seductive challenge of “being” Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe. I should rather say evoke, because that is what both achieve. Kemp’s capture of Sellers and Lloyd’s slightly sinister genius, warm, expansive and exuberant, makes it clear what a perfect film Secombe was for Sellers and Milligan.
James Mack clearly relishes the creation of the two producers trying to keep order in the studio and keep the scripts from the tortured Milligan during those early years of ‘Goonery’: the first, Dennis Main-Wilson, nervous and often negative, very comfortable under the influence of the executive; succeeded by Peter Eton, fresh out of the drama department, so rather a breath of fresh air for the Goons, especially Milligan. Mack succeeds in making this pair an essential part of the narrative.
Also, an essential part of high comedy is the brilliantly funny cartooning of TV and radio shows featuring noble eggheads speaking out about high culture with a capital “C”. Cabourn-Smith, Mack and Mountford are having fun with this opportunity to be heard as “The Critics” in what is effectively a “runner” as they reappear more than once during the action.
The Cabourn-Smith pundit happens to dub the Goons’ joke a “shock comedy”, which brings us back to the eponymous Spike, with Hislop and Newman not shy away from the challenge of showing the lows in his mental state that pursued him even before the shock of the shell he suffered after the bombardments in Italy during the war. The conundrum now was that he was only happy when he was writing, but writing on time was stressing him out. As the entire edifice of Goons comedy was built on his writing (as Lias’ design cleverly demonstrates, with a messy pile of discarded paper sprouting above the studio ceiling), it’s easy to see why this was a perfect storm, especially in Dagleish. nuanced performance. From Spike’s point of view, just as the callous officers weren’t supportive of him in the field, the BBC executives weren’t sympathetic either. Particularly telling was the revelation that writer-performer Milligan only earned half of Sellers and that Secombe earned significantly more than Milligan.
Fortunately though, the play is not, I don’t think, a thinly veiled critique of BBC governance, but a complete celebration of Milligan, and when Dagleish picks up a trumpet as he did, the celebration of comedy reaches new heights.
Watermill Artistic Director Paul Hart holds all this carefully calibrated mayhem together, demonstrating his own deep affection for Spike and co and his keen understanding of how best to share fun and love with Watermill audiences, who have smiled, laughed and cried. through those two ultimately vital hours.