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…