Surviving bits of Independent Television’s answer to the BBC’s radio extravaganza The Goon Show, known as A Show Called Fred. Directed by Richard Lester, who honed his appreciation of visual surrealism by working in live television, where mistakes of the most catastrophic nature were transmitted to the entire nation, without any opportunity for correction or apology. A dog might go berserk and tear down a backdrop of Versailles, leaving actors in 16th century French aristocratic gear stranded in front of a wild west town. One time a dog bit a microphone in two during a love scene and people phoned up from all over to find out what had happened. You can see this kind of chaos at work in Fred, where it’s practically become the subject: the show, like many sketch shows, is a deconstruction (or demolition) of television itself.

Of course, it helps that Lester was working with Spike Milligan, the most anarchic talent the BBC has ever known. As the series went on, in two more incarnations (The Idiot Weekly, Price 2D and Son of Fred) Milligan pushed the deconstruction ever further — no sets, just numbered flats, and actors carrying props from one sketch to another. Eventually he lost the audience, and more or less lost Lester. Leave it to Milligan to test-drive surrealist comedy to destruction years before any of the Monty Python team had even entered TV.

Some of these sketches are a little rough-edged or overlong, but we’re lucky to have them: for years the entire show, which went out live, was considered lost to history.

15 Responses to “Fred”

  1. Great clips! I like the Chateau sketch and the whole deconstruction thing. Graham Stark’s Jim Fernandel, French actor sketch is very witty. I love the way it plays with the notion of “translation” and the ‘lack of understanding’ element of surreal humour.

  2. Very Ernie Kovacs.

    Is “The Auteurs” down? Can’t seem be to be able to get in this morning.

  3. Auteurs is back now, anyways.

    Was Kovacs a parallel development, or did he come first? Lester seems to be quite aware of him, being American, but it would be unlikely that Milligan and the other writers would have seen any. Only by YouTube have I managed to catch up a bit.

    Milligan’s radio work certainly lays the groundwork for all this, but The Goons is more surreal and less deconstructionist — it tears reality apart, rather than radio.

  4. Kovacs came first. But to me it’s clearly a matter of “Great Minds Think Alike.”

  5. Then, I think Lester maybe had a Kovacs influence, although his main ones are Keaton and Tati. Milligan was keen on the Marx Bros and I think WC Fields. British comedians like the Crazy Gang would seem like possible antecedents, but I don’t think he really liked them.

    The joke with the Rank gong man is my favourite.

  6. Great scene. And what a nice set! I wonder if there were any British night club/restaurants that actually looked like that. It would be lovely to think so.

  7. Genevieve was a key film for me as a kid growing up in the 50’s. Kay Kendall was the living end.

    Plus that great harmonica score by my favorite communist (and Ingrid Bergman boytoy), Larry Adler.

  8. Some of my favourite film trumpet playing occurs in The Full Monty. The scene by the graveside was quite moving.

  9. Spike Milligan was a great character. He used to give interviews on Irish radio when he returned to Ireland. He was very talented, playing several musical instruments, including the trumpet. He wrote poetry too, some of which I thought very good, combining humour and emotional depth.

  10. Forgot to mention that I enjoyed Winterbottom’s A Cock and Bull Story.

  11. I know of The Goon Show through John Lennon. In the early days of their career The Beatles were going into the studio to record their first album, and the man chosen to produce them was a button-down suit-and-tie type, so these young scruffs were naturally wary. John in particular was being surly and difficult. Until he learned that their chosen producer, one George Martin, was the man responsible for the theme music to The Goon Show. With this knowledge Lennon saw Martin in an entirely different light, and they got on swimmingly from that moment on. Needless to say, John Lennon loved The Goon Show.

  12. Yes, that’s why the Beatles accepted Lester as director on A Hard Day’s Night, because he had worked with Milligan and Sellers on A Show Called Fred and alaos The Running Jumping Standing Still Film (also on YouTube).

    I enjoyed A Cock and Bull Story while I was watching it, but then I was hungry again half an hour later. Didn’t feel like I’d seen a film. But that and 24 Hour Party People are the only Autumnbottom films I have any time for, which must mean I like that writer. I’d probably like them better if they were directed by anybody else.

    Didn’t know Adler was a commie — helps explain his role on King and Country for Losey. I see Wikipedia claims he was “falsely accused” of communism…

  13. Well it wasn’t false.

  14. Some oversensitive fan rushing to Adler’s “defence”, perhaps.

    Was losey the onl one to work with Luther AND Larry Adler?

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