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Play Delves Inside Mind of 'Goon Show' Writer

When The Goon Show went on the air in 1951, BBC executives were reluctant to fund it, and they hated the name. So they called it Crazy People.

It was an apt description for a zany radio comedy with a cast of recurring characters who made liberal use of sound effects and music, and introduced surreal catchphrases. The Goon Show — as it eventually came to be known — went on to be hugely popular in the 1950s, inspiring everyone from The Beatles to Monty Python.

But for its chief writer, Spike Milligan, The Goon Show was anything but a joke. His struggles are the subject of a new play, Ying Tong: A Walk with the Goons, which opened this week in Philadelphia after a successful run in the U.K.

Against the Grain

The show's iconoclastic cast was revolutionary during a conservative age, says Ying Tong playwright Roy Smiles. The groundbreaking comedy's success depended on the acting of Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers and Milligan's nonconformist — Dada-esque — writing style.

"Milligan would write the show during the week," Smiles says, adding, "They'd get together on a Sunday, and they'd have a big jug of milk full of brandy — get a bit tiddly. They'd have a read-through in the afternoon and then do the show in the evening, in front of an ecstatic audience."

By the end of the '50s, The Goon Show was a major hit, and it had a lasting effect on British comedy. The creators of Monty Python's Flying Circus named Milligan and the Goons as a major influence. So did Beatle John Lennon. Lennon's impression of a German U-boat operator in the movie A Hard Day's Night could have been lifted right off the show.

'The Black Dog of Depression'

But Milligan's success masked darker demons. Milligan served at the front in Italy during World War II, was wounded and lost his will to fight, Smiles says.

"They were going to court martial him because his nerve went," Smiles says. "That experience haunted him the rest of his life, and he came out of the war determined never to take the officer class seriously again, and to attack them mercilessly."

Milligan did just that on The Goon Show, to the delight of an entire nation. But after nine seasons, the pressure got to be too much for Milligan. He behaved erratically, sometimes locking himself in his room for weeks. Speaking years later with the BBC's Peter France, Milligan said the stress of writing The Goon Show every week broke up his first marriage. In 1960, Milligan suffered a total breakdown and ended up in a psychiatric hospital.

"He wanted to kill himself. He was in there months, the black dog of depression on his back," Smiles says.

Inside a Strange Mind

Ying Tong explores what was happening in Milligan's head when he quit the show. Many of the play's strangest moments occurred in real life, including the scene where Milligan tries to stab Peter Sellers with a potato peeler. Smiles says Milligan had grown to resent Sellers, who was getting more famous from The Goon Show.

Sellers went on to fame in Hollywood, starring in Dr. Strangelove and the Pink Panther movies. Milligan eventually got treatment for what is now known as bipolar disorder. He wrote a series of books about his experiences in World War II, and produced a short-lived TV show for the BBC. But he never missed a good chance to bite the hand that fed him, and he continued to criticize the BBC long after his career there was over.

Despite his anti-authoritarian leanings, Milligan was knighted by Prince Charles, who was a fan of The Goon Show. Two years after Milligan's death in 2002, Ying Tong opened in London to rave reviews. It went on to play packed houses in Australia and New Zealand and runs through March 16 at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia.

Smiles says it's the first time audiences not raised on reruns of The Goon Show will see the play, which leaves reason for concern.

"They might greet it in total silence," he says. "You're a strange and terrible people, the Americans. But you like Monty Python, so I can't see why you wouldn't like the Goons."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.