The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
Hey, do you know The Goon Show? It was a radio show that aired on the BBC in the fifties that was written chiefly by Spike Milligan. He was also the star, alongside Harry Seacombe and Peter Sellers. The show was drastically different form anything that had ever been broadcast before that point and featured very surreal humor — lots of wordplay, satire, and just an awful lot of silly behavior. Without The Goon Show, it’s a pretty safe assumption that there would be no Monty Python (it’s been cited over and over again as an influence on the group, although strangely enough, the Wikipedia entry makes sure to point out that Eric Idle was less influenced by The Goons) and possibly The Beatles, who bonded early-on over a mutual love of the program.
During the same period that The Goon Show was being aired on the radio, the cast made a few attempts to branch out to the medium of television. In those early days, the television landscape in England was limited to the government-created BBC channels, until Associated-Rediffusion came along in 1955 and became the first independent TV company, broadcasting primarily in London and a few surrounding areas. It was here, in May of 1956 that Peter Sellers starred in a weekly program called A Show Called Fred.
The Paley Center has one episode of A Show Called Fred in its archives, and as I was doing research for this article, I found a second episode, which has been embedded above. As a longtime Python fan, I was immediately able to see the influence this show no doubt had on those fellows. For example, both episodes of Fred begin with The Goons’ Idiot character in some sort of public situation, aware that there is a camera following him, which is not dissimilar to Michael Palin’s “It’s” Man who opens each episode of Monty Python. After this brief opening piece, in both episodes we cut to a giant gong that is about to be rung by a man with a mallet, until something goes wrong and the strange theme song begins.
It’s in these opening credits that one begins to see the difference between The Goons on the radio and The Goons on television. Spike Milligan was the primary writer on both programs, but the cast of A Show Called Fred is much more than just the three Goons. On the radio, three men can play every role, especially when you have someone as versatile as Sellers, who can expertly imitate any accent you might require. The visual medium, however, won’t allow that, and so the cast has expanded to include three more actors: Valentine Dyall, Graham Stark and Kenneth Connor.
Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers aren’t the only big names to appear in the opening credits. The director of A Show Called Fred was Richard Lester, who would later go on to direct the pair in a short film called The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (clearly the boys were fans of the meta titles), which would be nominated for an Academy Award in 1960. This little film would go on to attract the attention of John Lennon which led to Lester being selected to direct The Beatles’ first film, A Hard Day’s Night. All of this would, of course, lead to him either ruining or improving Superman II, depending on who you ask.
Anyway, back to Fred: the show opens with what is perhaps the riskiest joke of the episode, considering it was made in 1956. A man sits at a desk and addresses the audience while holding a book. “This book I’m reading tonight is ‘We Die at Dawn Tonight,’ price six shillings.” He then begins to read the book, and does so silently for at least 45 seconds before looking back up at the camera and asking the audience, “I say. Hadn’t you rather do something else?” While not the freshest joke today, one can imagine when this show was brand new that audiences became incredulous at how long this was going on. In 1956, British television wasn’t exactly known for its use of detached irony.
The next segment is “The Idiot’s Postbag,” in which strange questions are asked of the Idiot and his friend (I’m not exactly sure what to call this character, whose sole purpose seems to be to berate the Idiot, so “friend” will have to do). The main reason for this sketch to exist seems to be for the sake of one sight gag: Every time the camera cuts away and returns to the Idiot and friend, they are wearing a different hat. The segment ends with a question about flight being asked, followed by a filmed piece of a man wearing feathers, flapping his arms while running through a field, trying to take off. This is met by riotous applause by the audience, but I couldn’t make sense of what was going on in this sketch. This could be due to a generation gap or cultural differences. Take your pick.
The next sketch features Sellers as Lord Pimms of Belvedere Towers, an elderly gentleman being interviewed by a reporter. Incidentally, Peter Sellers’ old man voice in 1956 sounds exactly like Sir Alec Guinness in Star Wars. The basic premise of this sketch is the classic “innocuous question leads to crazy response.” Pimms asks if the reporter is cold. The reporter says, “It is rather chilly in here,” so Pimms calls for his servant to “come set fire to this man, please.” The reporter asks Pimms if it’s true that he is a collector of old china. Pimms walks off stage and comes back with an elderly Chinese man. And so on.
The last half of the show is made up of one extended sketch, entitled “The Escapers Club.” In it, we are taken to a German POW Camp. There are four British captives sharing a cell, but the whole sketch is just a backdrop to serve for the surreal jokes and flurry of puns that Spike Milligan was famous for. My favorite joke in this scene involves the entrance of a German officer, then another long pause as the captives eye him suspiciously until one of the men breaks the fourth wall and yells off stage, “Prompt?” A voice yells his line, “Who the devil are you?” to which the actor responds, “I’m Valentine Dyall and I’ve forgotten my line!” “Who the devil are you?” prompts the off stage assistant again. The men begin to tunnel out of their cell and years pass until the sketch is finally interrupted by an American officer, who enters and says, in a terrible American accent, “Okay, guys, you’re free now. The war’s over.” Sellers’ character begins to narrate and tell us that everyone made it home safely, except for himself. He stayed behind because he heard of his “wife’s association with a naval officer. He’s much bigger than me and I’m a coward.”
While The Goon Show has had a much larger influence on British comedy since it was broadcast worldwide, and even though A Show Called Fred never made it too much farther than London, it’s clear that the impact of Spike Milligan’s writing was long lasting. Without the Goons, there’s no Python. Without Python, we don’t get to have many of your favorite comedies. A Show Called Fred may not have aged as well as a lot of the classics, but the ability to see how one of the most important comedic performances adapts to the visual medium is truly a rare gift.