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A CurtainUp London Review
Ying Tong - A Walk With The Goons
by Brian Clover
The BBC is one of the peculiarities of British history. For most of the last century this publicly funded monopoly entertainment broadcaster was run by a tiny coterie of Oxbridge-educated public school boys who dictated what the entire nation could laugh at. Of course this was not an accident: the British Establishment understood the subversive potential of humour. They were well aware that jokes had helped to bring about, and sustain, the Russian Revolution. (Sample gag: "Comrade, how many tsars does it take to change a light bulb?" "Comrade, your question is meaningless since light bulbs are not included in the current Five Year Plan and tsarism has been liquidated… As you will be. Ha Ha Ha!" (Extract from MI5 Dossier, with comment, "Deadly material of this nature could be launched against Britain within 45 minutes!")
The taste of this pin-striped mafia was pretty awful. But despite this, a few extraordinary comedy shows did get under the wire and none was more seditious than the Goon Show. Ying Tong - A Walk with the Goons is a fantasia on the life of its creator, Spike Milligan, a man much loved in this country, if only for insulting Prince Charles in a live TV broadcast while the heir to the throne was actually making a speech in his honour. Spike developed, wrote and starred in this surreal radio show - think the entire cast of a Marx Brothers film on LSD - from 1951 to 1960. His insight, possibly unique for a mass entertainer, was that in a psychotic world your best defence is psychosis. While the tenets of Absurdism were being solemnly declaimed to a tiny elite in art theatres, Spike was making an entire nation laugh with better material that he changed every week. (I speak as something of a fan.)
Arguably, comedians are the true artists of the troubled Twentieth Century. They certainly have a more direct relationship with the world and the audience for whom they translate its funny little ways. A novelist or playwright's decline tends to be slow and graceful: a comic's is more likely to be catastrophic. This was Spike's terror: not that he ever actually lost the love of his audience, but that he feared it would happen.
Thus the play opens with Spike in 1960 in a psychiatric hospital. He hallucinates real characters, such as fellow Goons Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe, as well as the invented ones he created for them. Can he please them, conquer his writer's block, go back and recreate the success of the Goons? Or must he pay the high price of moving on, whatever that is?
Author (the aptly-named) Roy Smiles offers one interpretation of this episode and Spike himself. Fans of the man and his show may not agree with this reading, but they will be fascinated by the presentation of it. Smiles invents and re-invents characters, and devises routines to dramatise our hero's terrors. He even has the temerity to create a good part of a Goon Show itself. One cannot doubt his courage, though perhaps not all his conceits are equally successful and at times the pace slackens.
However, James Clyde gives a powerhouse performance as Spike, not as perfect a mimicry as Christian Patterson achieves for Harry Secombe, but an awesome impression of a tortured man. Peter Temple as Peter Sellers is an excellent mover, though inevitably he is overshadowed by Geoffrey Rush's magisterial performance in the recent biopic of that equally troubled star. Jeremy Child makes you feel for announcer Wallace Greenslade, straightest of straight men, especially when humiliatingly out of his depth as a woman.
But I do wonder what a non-fan will make of this piece. Perhaps the characters need a little more, or little less, explaining than they get here. Anyone who has never heard a Goon Show may feel lost and, to be frank, some of the material, as pastiched here, sounds, well, silly after all these years. But that was part of the fun at the time and Smiles' achievement is to blend that fun with the pain that surrounded its creation.
Ying Tong is the most recent of the cycle of pieces re-working British comedy acts of the 50's and 60's. The unkind might argue that these tend towards the superficial, parochial and parasitic, however absorbing they are as performances. Smiles tries to buck this trend by opening out the action into the psyche behind the act. Whether you agree with his take or not, the attempt is worth watching.
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