Wednesday, 22 July 2015

THE GOON SHOW GUIDE: Series 4

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Welcome to another edition of The Goon Show Guide, the weekly series in which I pay tribute to one of my favourite radio comedies. This week we're diving into what will become the regular template for this feature, tackling Series 4 as a whole having handled Series 1 to 3 last week.

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I should state at this point - perhaps disappointingly - that I don't own the complete Series 4 recordings. I've accumulated my collection of Goon Show episodes through various means - monthly downloads from TheGoonShow.net, downloads from other fansites, and being given compilations by good friends (Thomas Wales, I thank you handsomely). I am always striving to expand my collection - fanatical completist that I am - but I don't think this matters too much in relation to this feature. Unlike certain TV shows or films, I don't think you need to have heard every Goon Show episode either to call yourself a fan or to get an idea of how a particular series feels.
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As I mentioned last week, Series 4 for me is where the show really crystallised into the form that make it so successful. If anything, the amicable departure of Michael Bentine caused the remaining trio to focus more and develop their characters to a more satisfying degree. Despite having suffered a nervous breakdown, Spike Milligan's writing is much more structured and inventive, so that the anarchy was being channeled into some of the most brilliantly absurdist comedy you will ever hear.
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One of the big developments that came with Series 4 was basing each episode around a single concept or joke, from which everything else emanated. These were not 'high concept' episodes, in which the title was the entire story; rather, they were hysterical starting points to a journey which was always unpredictable, and though the show played with various generic structures, where you would end up was still anybody's guess. Spike would take a fantastic idea (for instance, a man hitting people on the head with a piano) and run with it as he saw fit, something you cannot imagine happening in this day and age.

Here, then, are my brief thoughts on episodes from Series 4:

The Dreaded Piano Clubber
A really good one to kick off the series. A murder mystery without the murder, this contains clear hints of Spike's future miniseries, The Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town, which was written for The Two Ronnies. Both have Gothic elements and a villain with a bizarre form of attack, but this is consistently funnier and more efficient than its Hammer-inflected TV cousin. The banter with Eccles near the end drags a little bit, but the inquest scene earlier on more than makes up for it.

The Man Who Tried to Destroy London's Monuments
Like many of the early episodes, the sound quality is a little off with this one. After the initial skit, which is pretty unremarkable, the main story is top notch. Peter Sellers' impression of Sir Winston Churchill is really well done, as is Spike's take on the poet McGoonigall, but the highlight is the "someone knocking at the door" sequence, which gets progressively more hysterical. The running joke about the little green pins is also pretty well-executed.

The Ghastly Experiments of Dr Hans Eidelberger
A bit of a dud. Dr Hans (or Justin) Eidelberger was always one of the more forgettable occasional characters, and his counterpart Yakamato is an unfortunate stereotype in the mould of Fu Manchu. Components of this episode - chiefly mad scientists experimenting on Neddie Seagoon - would later resurface in The Great Regents Park Swim in Series 8, which is much funnier and far more memorable. The audio quality is very poor on this one too.

The Giant Bombardon
Arguably the highlight of the whole series. Original announcer Andrew Timothy had left, "fearing for his sanity", to be replaced by Wallace Greenslade, whose chemistry with the cast was so much better. The plot is a corker on its own - Neddie Seagoon trying to build a cannon to win the Crimean War - but the whole thing is lifted by the first appearance in the series of Valentine Dyall, whose oppressive voice makes the jokes hit all the harder. Watch out also for a coconut gag early on, which may have inspired a certain routine in Monty Python and the Holy Grail...

The History of Communications
This one is a bit of a grower. The opening sketch is funnier than its counterpart in 'Monuments, but the rest of the episode takes a while to settle in. Doing a parody of the fateful Siege of Khartoum is fitting given the Goons' military background, but the comedy doesn't gel together as well as on other military episodes, like Shifting Sands from Series 7. The football jokes are pretty dated too. One for hardcore fans who are willing to give it the time.

The Case of the Vanishing Room
A murder mystery, this time with a murder and a really neat central conceit. The idea of a whole room vanishing and re-appearing in Paris is a neat twist on the 'locked room' sub-genre (which later gave us Jonathan Creek). But there's plenty of standalone jokes if that's not your bag, particularly the routines involving the library and the doorbell. The ending is a bit abrupt, but up until then it's very hard to fault.

The Greatest Mountain in the World
Another of the weaker episodes of the series. The central plot - building a new mountain to be taller than Everest - definitely has potential, but the jokes aren't good enough to make it go the distance. The mole routine early on is overplayed, as are the later sequences involving the trip underwater. It's not an awful episode, just an underwhelming one whose sporadic moments of great energy aren't enough to hold our attention.

The Silent Bugler
The other major highlight of Series 4. An excellent parody of spy fiction which pokes fun at the Cold War and the ridiculousness of the genre. Sellers is on top form here with his various accents, but funnier still is his lengthy period of corpsing around 5 minutes in, showing how much fun he was having on the show. The musical gags are great, as is the immortal line about its titular villain: "If ever you hear nothing, like that, look out!". Definitely recommended.

The Saga of the Internal Mountain
The better mountain-based episode of this series, which this time finds Neddie trying to climb Mount Everest from the inside. While the resolution of the plot is trite - perhaps deliberately so - the build-up is well paced and has some very good gags. Sellers is on fine form here too, particularly the sequence featuring Grytpype-Thynne as a crooked money-lender. The comments about "having a sound mind" are also good fun.

The Great Bank of England Robbery
This is a really fine episode. The scope of the plot is pretty small - it's like a heist film in miniature - but Spike's script manages to wring every last drop of comedy out of these limitations. What really makes the episode is the underlying melancholy during the scenes in the pillar box: it's hilarious, but you could also make a really good dramatic play out of these characters being stuck there. From there the circumstances become all the more bizarre, and the last line is a killer.

The Starlings
An anticlimax to end the series, which suffers from not having an audience. The big idea this time is a weak one - fighting off starlings just doesn't have as much legs as some of the other plots. Spike tries hard with jokes at the expense of Parliament and the police, but this episode really drags and the running jokes about rice pudding all fall flat. One for completists only.

Join me again next week when we'll be moving onto Series 5. See you then!

Daniel

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