Goody Goody Yum Yum

The most exciting titles ever?

Been watching a lot of The Goodies lately. This was a 1970s comedy programme which Fiona and I grew up on, and which then went away, seemingly never to be repeated on terrestrial TV. The Goodies were three comics, contemporaries of the Monty Python team, but their show was nominally a sitcom, even if it exploited the quick-change possibilities of the sketch show. The situation part of the comedy was barely worthy of the name: three guys who ran a sort of agency promising to do “Anything, Anytime.” Sometimes the week’s story wouldn’t even have anything to do with that slender hook.

The question “Which is the good-looking one?” never really applied to The Goodies, consisting as they did of grumpy, working-class, diminutive beard guy Bill Oddie, chinless toff Tim Brooke-Taylor, and sideburn-sporting brainiac Graeme Garden. Although my Mum quite liked Tim, in the same way she quite liked Graham Chapman. And he did have a beautifully-defined comic persona. As a kid, Bill seemed the funniest, or most loveable, because he was like a hobbit, and I identified, but it’s clear now that Graeme always had the sharpest delivery and an amazing gift for physical silliness.

The Timbo and Orson Show!

Tim Brooke-Taylor has an intriguing Orson Welles connection. Timbo appeared in 12+1, a dire sixties version of THE TWELVE CHAIRS, which proved to be Sharon Tate’s last film. Welles plays a magician. I guess as a result of this meeting, he went on to appear in some of the comedy sketches now gathered in ONE-MAN BAND, sketches which some Wellesians find rather embarrassing. I love them, personally. And here’s Welles, with Dom DeLuise, on The Dean Martin Show, performing a sketch originated by Brooke-Taylor and Marty Feldman. “Funny he never married.”

After a few series in which the protags would be pitted against insane enemies representing aspects of British culture (like bluenosed arbiter of public taste Mary Whitehouse) played by famous guest stars, the writers (Garden and Oddie) got tired of giving their best lines to somebody else, and worked things out so that conflict could arise within the trio. Any given week, Tim could be the fascistic villain, Graeme the power-made scientist, or Bill the vicious thug, or two of them could gang up and oppress the third. The Goodies were frequently baddies. This fast-and-loose approach to series continuity meant that they might also end an episode with all three characters dead (of old age, having been entombed in their office under tons of concrete, or slain by the Lancastrian martial art of Ecky-Thump), the office destroyed and planet Earth itself blasted into smithereens.

That Ecky-Thump episode became famous when one viewer laughed so hard he died of a heart attack. His widow wrote a fan letter thanking the boys for causing him to depart this world in such a happy manner. The main, indeed only, technique of Ecky-Thump is to bash your opponent over the head with a black pudding. I’m just warning you now in an attempt to avoid fatalities.

“Silly”, the word the Pythons used to describe their comedy, in preference to “surrreal’, fits The Goodies even better — you really have to imagine a blending of Python and Benny Hill, since a lot of accelerated-motion running about, and a lot of corny wordplay, and a lot of cornier sexism was very much in play. Racism, too, although I think this was always a result of 1970s insensitivity, rather than evil intent. The Goodies just thought it was funnier to have one of them black up than it would be to hire somebody of the correct skin tone. They may have been right, but they were also wrong.

One of their more uncomfortable episodes is an attack on the apartheidt system in South Africa, performed with blacked-up Goodies instead of proper Africans. The intent was sound, but the execution certainly led to confusion. Another episode, and I can hardly believe I’m writing this or that it ever happened, was a parody of the TV series Roots, in which each Goodie plays a member of a different British “tribe” — for instance, Garden plays a Celtic Kiltie, a stereotypical Scotsman, in “Hoots” — abducted by package tour and brought to London to be sold into servitude in the television industry.

Already quite uncomfortable, the situation takes a nosedive into queasy horror when all three are blacked up and forced to work in The Black and White Minstrel Show (a grotesque BBC variety hour which actually ran until 1980). Weirdly, this proves to be the cathartic turning point at which the show emerges from the far side of bad taste back into political correctness: all the arguments in favour of minstrelsy are trotted out and made to appear grotesquely ridiculous. “It’s equal opportunities: black AND white! Anyway, they tried it without the makeup and it was only half as popular. So that’s obviously because all the black people stopped watching it.”

Graham gets halfway through suggesting that, by that logic, the BBC should present all its programmes in blackface — and then we discover that this has happened. Cue actual BBC presenters broadcasting through the medium of burnt cork, and poorly-airbrushed images of a black Michael Parkinson interviewing a white Mohammed Ali.

The real trouble is, I still find all this extremely funny, in an appalling kind of way. The gusto with which the boys plunge into absurdly inflated cartoon slapstick (a fight with black puddings, a chase through a commercial break, a battle with sentient construction machines or a giant kitten called Twinkle), the insane invention, and the delirious sense that the show basically existed to spend as much BBC money as possible (colour TV had just come in and the broadcaster was awash in cash), trump the dollybird sexploitation jokes and racial crassness, and even the visual ugliness of shiny VT interiors and zoom-happy grainy 16mm location scenes. In fact, the offensiveness just makes me laugh harder, although part of it is relief that we’re not doing quite this kind of thing nowadays.

Non-fans will point to the rudery, which goes beyond the blokey chauvinism of much Python stuff, the garishness, and the rather loud, relentless bludgeon of the action climaxes: practically every episode ends in a chase or battle accompanied by Loony Toon noises, laff track, and insistent funk score from Oddie. Buster Keaton was a key inspiration, but the end result has more in common with cartoons, panto, Carry On, music hall, The Goon Show, and the Keystone cops. I can sympathise with the haters, but really I don’t. This show just gets me.

Bill Oddie’s music was a big part of the show’s appeal/strangeness/production values. And Garden’s never really had the credit he deserves as a brilliant physical comedian.

Part of the pleasure is the way the stories go off on wild tangents, so that out of the blue we’ll end up with our heroes battling the entire cast of every British children’s puppet show, who have inexplicably become the government of the UK (“a puppet government”), or the MCC cricket club will engage in a pitched battle with a Rollerball team, or American biological warfare will mutate everyone in Britain into a clown.

The Goodies transferred from BBC to ITV, made one series and were cancelled when the bosses realized how expensive the show was.

In Invasion of the Moon Creatures, Graham takes over the lunar program for Britain after the Americans abandon it, and manages to lose two rabbits in his first launch. He sends Bill and Tim to look for them, and they land on a moon overtaken by sentient bunnies, who have bred and formed their own civilization. Peculiarly enough, this is EXACTLY the same narrative as Tim Burton’s de-imagining of PLANET OF THE APES. It all dovetails into a CLOCKWORK ORANGE parody (A Tranistorized Carrot) when Bill and Tim are brainwashed into becoming savage were-rabbits (in long johns and derbies) sent back to earth to wreak havoc (slomo battle with outsized carrots, dragging a girl into a hutch and — wait, I can’t really be seeing this???)

My short film CRY FOR BOBO really stemmed from this series, or rather, from the question, “What can we do that’s as unlike a typical Scottish short film as possible?” Co-writer Colin McLaren and I both agreed that The Goodies was not only the farthest removed point from social realist miserabilism, but the most promising direction in which to steer any artistic endeavor whatsoever. Had I remembered the clown episode, I might have balked at the idea of using costumed entertainers: I think I was trying to think of something like Minstrels, but not so troublesome. I mean, clowns are repellant to many people, but not actually morally repugnant. Come on, not actually.

What The Goodies taught me, along with Gary Larson’s The Far Side cartoons, is that beautiful things come from implausible conjunctions. Incongruity is the path to laughter.

A few episodes are screening on BBC2 this Christmas…

31 Responses to “Goody Goody Yum Yum”

  1. The Goodies have been screening here in Australia on TV for the last few months, although for reasons best known to themselves the ABC have entirely skipped seasons 1, 2, 5, and 7. On the plus side, for the first time ever I’ve got to see “Superstar” and “Hype Pressure”. The race issue is an interesting one, though. I have the “Complete Goodies” book which notes that when the Goodies episodes were being sold to a satellite TV network in the 90s, “South Africa” was annotated on the list: “Racist – Do Not Use”. I just thought, my God, if you thought *that* was racist you’ve not seen many other episodes of the show… probably never seen Love Thy Neighbour at all.

  2. It’s true, The Goodies’ hearts were always in the right place, even if they made errors of taste. Some 70s TV comedy was just plain sinister. And their take on South Africa was a lot more nuanced than Spitting Image’s “I Never Met a Nice South African” song, which seems to imply that black people aren’t South Africans too, or aren’t nice.

    Hype Pressure is an awesome one. You probably aren’t missing so much with seasons 1 and 2, but it’s a shame to miss 5 and 7, when they were at their absolute peak.

  3. Ilove kitten kong and the episode about the scone mines? One brilliant one has Tim dressed as a woman and Bill as a fasist military type both attempting to be voted president of the UK (what happened to the monarchy I camn’t rember through the mists of time) Their antics at campaigning were so entertaining the prog ends with both haveing to rule jointly as they were the only ones to vote as the great british public were glued to the telly instead of voting…

    The blacking up sounds a bit weird though

  4. Fascist … sorry spolling not good

  5. One independent TV station in Los Angeles used to run The Goodies and Kenny Everett on late-nite weekends back in the early 1980s. When friends arrived once from the East Coast, I sat them down and forced them to watch The Goodies: fortunately it was the ‘Invasion of the Moon Creatures’ episode. [A CLASSIC!] There’s still nothing like the Goodies’ mashup of comedy styles: snarky pop references, bad special effects, broad humor. It was a great testament to what was possible.

    As for people liking Tim: he was the smooth and blond and squeaky-clean one after all. I remember in one episode, one of the other Goonies referred to him as “Susan Hampshire over there…”

  6. I can easuily see becomign addicted to this crew.

    Mel Brooks made a teriffic version of The Twelve Chairs with Ron Moody Frank Langella and Dom DeLuise. But my favorite rendition is It’s in The Bag with Fred Allen. A radio comedian (and great comic “rival” to Jack Benny) he should have had a considerable film career, but alas did not.

  7. Thank you! PBS, in the late 70s, ran THE GOODIES AND THE BEANSTALK, then, briefly, the series. PBS seems to have thought that, if we liked Python, we might like the Goodies as well. Apparently not. A year later, they were gone from our airwaves forever. As a consolation, heaps of remaindered copies of THE MAKING OF THE GOODIES DISASTER MOVIE appeared in bookstores. Have you read this?

  8. Yes, I owned copies of all three books. I just have that one now. Features Julie Ege as a starlet who refuses to go clothed unless it’s essential to the plot.

    I saw the Fred Allen when I was a kid, and it hasn’t aired here since as far as I know. Been meaning to look it up.

  9. I had a goodies annual… I wonder if its still at my parents …

  10. Tim Brooke-Taylor actually hails from my neck of the woods – Buxton in Derbyshire. His brother still runs the family law firm (Brooke-Taylors Solicitors, natch!) in the town.

  11. Tim Brooke-Taylor was also a regular panelist on the brilliant BBC Radio 4 panel show “I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue”. That was a show that started in the 1960s and wasn’t really understood for many years – if you listen to the early shows there is the whistling cricket sound coming from the audience in response to many of the punchlines – but by the 1990s and 2000s the audience was perfectly in tune with the bizarre non sequitur gags, malapropisms, the ‘lovely Samantha’, the regular innuendo about Lionel Blair and incomprehensible games such as Mornington Crescent!

  12. A wonderful post on a group that I’ve heard a lot about but have never seen (and really should). The sexism/racism/blackface issues remind me of similar problems in Spike Milligan’s Q series, another show that bears comparison with Python (my short take is that Milligan achieved more spontaneity and near-anarchy, but with far more erratic quality).

    Speaking of Gary Larson’s The Far Side, have you seen the two “Tales from the Far Side” cartoons that aired back in 1997? Very true to Larson’s work, but a bit slow.

  13. Yes, they’re OK. But what really excited me was the notion that Alan Rudolph wanted to make a feature film Far Side. Sadly, I think David Puttnam killed that when he took over Columbia.

    Maybe the Pythons, being a larger team, exerted better quality control than Milligan or The Goodies. But the more scattershot approach also yielded highs of craziness that we couldn’t have had without the lows of self-indulgence that occasionally accompanied them. So it was worth it.

    Thanks, Colin. Ah, how we miss Humph.

  14. Oft recalled moment:
    Tim, dragged up as Evita singing to his secretaries ‘Don’t cry for me, Madge & Tina’.

  15. Christopher Says:

    The Goodies,Marty Feldman Comedy Machine and THe 2 Ronnies were on TV here in the Early 70s before Monty Python…Monty Python made its debut here in Dallas Tx in ’75 before anywhere else in the US..

  16. Texas was obviously a switched-on comedy town!

    I think Garden was responsible for many of the elaborate puns, which can be traced back to I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again, the radio series he and Timbo appeared in alongside John Cleese.

    And Cleese, Feldman and Brooke-Taylor all starred in TV’s At Last The 1948 Show — there are some good sketches from that online.

  17. Tony Williams Says:

    Some episodes of AT LAST THE 1984 SHOW were issued on DVD and some more were discovered recently. I don’t know if the hilarious “I’ve got a ferret running up my nose” sung in choral seriousness by Marty Feldman, John Cleese, and others are there. Also, Bill Oddie as a policeman giving evidence in court and changing the famous aria from CARMEN to “I’ve got flat feet” remains in my memory. “The beautiful Aimee McDonald” remains the same in all episodes even playing the same role on an AVENGERS one.

  18. Colin M I think thats the episode I wrote about earlier ! someone else remembers it !

    As for ‘I’m Sorry I haven’t a Clue’ I was trilled when Mornington Crescent tube station reopened after being closed for many years and made a special stop to see it (rather lovely orginal tile work for any tube anoracks) still don’t actually understand the rules of Mornington Crescent though…

  19. or even thrilled David when will spollchecker be available to commentors?

  20. There ARE no rules to Mornington Crescent.

  21. The Goodies were another of those shows that, through incessant repeats, became more popular here in Australia than in the UK almost (The Bill, strangely, is massively popular here). It’s also one of those shows that I loved with a passion as a child but watch puzzled by how unfunny it is now. Much like The Young Ones.

    Universal Pictures Video have released a series under the title Studio Classics. Included is Love Thy Neighbour The Movie. You would expect they’d have burned the print of that. Or nuked it from orbit.

    I waited for an age one cold winter’s evening in John Smith in Renfield St to get a book signed by all three Goodies. When we got to the front of the queue I was surprised to find a choice of several Goodies books. “Which one will we get?” said my panicked sister as all eyes looked impatiently at us. “Get the cheapest one!” I replied to which Bill Oddie rolled his eyes and said to the other two, “typical Scot.”

  22. The Goodies fully acknowledge their debt to Buster Keaton. In 2008 Tim Brooke-Taylor and Graeme Garden introduced a programme of their favourite Keaton shorts at the Barbican, and discussed how Buster influenced their work. The films they chose were The Balloonatic, The Playhouse, The High Sign and One Week. I wasn’t there but other members of the BK society were.

    Apparently there is a Goodies episode in which Buster ‘appears’ but I don’t know which one it is. Do you, David?

  23. FIONA !! you have ROCKED THE FOUNDATIONS OF MY WORLD!! scuttles off for stiff drink

  24. Buster appears in ‘The Movies’, which also includes a fantastic public school telling off by TBT to a bunch of major film directors, culminating in them all being fired. “Stop that filming Warhol!…Right, hand over that camera.”

  25. “Love Thy Neighbour The Movie”

    Oh god/dess, I’ve seen that for sale just in the last day or two. The truly astonishing thing about that film (apart from its continuing availability) is that *Hammer Films* of all people made it (they were to blame for a number of such films in their declining days)… I was actually tempted to buy it (that Studio Classics line is a budget one, notable for its utter randomness), but somehow resisted.

  26. The adaptations of TV sitcoms yielded up a couple of surprises (Porridge and Dad’s Army and Steptoe and Son Ride Again are pretty enjoyable) but nothing of lasting cinematic merit. It’s a toss-up which are the more depressing: sitcom adaptations, or the British sex comedies.

    The Goodies, on the other hand, probably SHOULD have made a movie.

    Mike, I agree about The Young Ones, which hasn’t dated badly with regards to social attitudes — they were always carefully PC — but now seems far too shrill and noisy and shapeless. But I think The Goodies stands up — for every good episode there are maybe two not so great ones, but there’s always something funny and unique.

    I’ll be posting a couple of clips from The Movies episode, at Fiona’s insistence!

  27. I agree with David E. about IT’S IN THE BAG. It’s a totally insane ride.

    Did you know it was co-written by Mrs. Alfred Hitchcock?

  28. I somehow did not! I MUST have stumbled on that info during Hitchcock Year, but if so, it escaped out the back of my brain immediately. Right, that’s my Christmas viewing sorted if I can find it.

  29. David, if you can’t find It’s In The Bag, you’re just not trying :)

  30. just watched the scone mines episode on bbc 2 what a joy ! Bunfight at the OK Tearoom

  31. That donkey gag always cracks me up, even though it appears in the opening titles of subsequent series so I must have seen it dozens of times.

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