THE BOOTLEG FILES: THE TELEGOONS

BOOTLEG FILES 363: “The Telegoons” (1963-1965 British television series starring the voices of Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe).

LAST SEEN: Individual episodes are available on YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS:
No official home entertainment release.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It seems unlikely.

One of the most thankless tasks in the creative world is adapting a well-loved work from one medium and placing it in another medium. Whether this involves turning a best-selling book into a movie, or turning a hit movie into a Broadway musical, or whether it involves adapting a Shakespearean play into an opera, it is not uncommon for something significant to get lost in the adaptation process.

Back in the 1950s, there was the problem of adapting popular radio shows into television programs. Sometimes, the visual element of television helped to expand the depth of the radio show – Jack Benny, for example, added an inventory of memorable facial and hand gestures to his television persona. But at the same time, the new medium requires the sacrifice of the magical components that made the radio show so popular – we can consider Jack Benny again, for his television program jettisoned many of the beloved supporting performers and situations that made his radio program so popular.

Over in the UK, a similar problem occurred with the hit radio program “The Goon Show.” Broadcast on BBC Radio between 1951 and 1960, the program employed a madcap whirl of puns, outlandish sound effects, zany music, light smutty jokes and an overdose of absurdist stories. But the success of the program depended entirely on its ability to tease and entertain the imagination of the listeners. Indeed, one of the trademark jokes from the radio show would be a pause after a wild bit of noisy humor and the comment,  “Let’s see them do that on television!”

Not surprisingly, the few attempts to translate “The Goon Show” brand of humor to a visual element missed the mark. A cheaply made 1952 feature film called “Down Among the Z Men” brought together the four original Goons – Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe, Spike Milligan and Michael Bentine – but placed them in a light comedy that bore little resemblance to their unique brand of audio mischief.  (Bentine would leave “The Goon Show” shortly after the film was completed.) Sellers and Milligan made two short comedies: “The Case of the Mukkinese Battle-Horn” (1956) and “The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film” (1959, which Sellers co-directed with a young Richard Lester). But neither film truly captured the wickedly warped personality of “The Goon Show,” despite trying very hard to be off-the-wall crazy. (The latter film received an Academy Award nomination for Best Short Subject, an honor that Lester would later vaguely attribute to a series of mistakes.)

Rather than leaving well enough alone, filmmaker Tony Scott (who directed Sellers, Secombe and Milligan in the non-Goon 1951 feature film “Penny Points to Paradise”) felt that “The Goon Show” could make the leap from radio to television if it was presented as a puppet show. The BBC thought it was a terrible idea and passed on it in 1959, but Scott persisted and received the green light to proceed in 1963. Secombe and Milligan agreed to return to the material and re-record the classic radio show scripts – BBC Radio refused to provide the recordings of the radio show for the program – while Sellers initially passed on the project, only to abruptly return after a few episodes were recorded with a replacement actor.

The resulting effort was dubbed “The Telegoons” and, to be perfectly cruel, it was one of the worst ideas ever put on British television. Or any television, for that matter!

The main problem was the atrocious visual aspects of “The Telegoons.” The puppets that were created to represent the beloved characters from “The Goon Show” were ugly and clumsy creations. (The designs were based on character sketches by Milligan, which emphasized grotesque caricatures that were impossible to embrace.) Even by the crude standards of early 1960s television, “The Telegoons” looked like crap.

To make matters worse, the fast-paced humor of “The Goon Show” scripts had to be slowed down considerably to accommodate the awkward puppets and Tony Scott’s lethargic direction. While certain trademark jokes and comic exchanges survived as standalone gems, the cumulative effect was dreary and slow-moving. The episodes were also half of the running time of the radio shows: a mere 15 minutes, minus the musical interludes and cast interaction with the band leaders and announcers that made the radio production so much fun.

As a result, “The Telegoons” only barely captures the fun of “The Goon Show.” One episode finds would-be astronaut Neddy Seagoon flying the Royal Albert Memorial into outer space – but the cheapo element of the production makes the endeavor look silly and not funny.  A Parisian-based intrigue involving Neddy and his adulterous French wife doesn’t work – when Neddy goes off to telephone his wife to get her attention away from her lover, it seems more fey than funny. Nutty characters and inane situations that were brilliantly funny on radio looked stupid or worse on television.

Perhaps realizing the limits of the production, the BBC slotted “The Telegoons” on Saturday at 5:40pm, as the lead-in to “Doctor Who,” which was popular with youthful audiences. A comic strip based on “The Telegoons” was also published at this time. Yet British kids of the era, who were embracing the Beatles and other societal shifts, were cool to “The Telegoons.” Even worse, adults were not interested in a crummy puppet show.

Twenty-six 15-minute episodes were produced and broadcast, but the BBC never repeated the series after it ran its course in 1965. The failure of the show soured Milligan, who authored most of the Goon scripts, refused to consider plans of adapting “The Goon Show” into an animated feature film.

To date, there has been no official home entertainment release for “The Telegoons.” All of the episodes survive, thanks to their being shot on 35mm film and later resold to the pre-video home entertainment channels as 16mm and 8mm films. (Too many 1960s-era British TV productions are considered lost due to a lack of prescient preservation – a tragedy, considering that this rubbish survived intact.)  Some die-hard Goon addicts have posted episodes on YouTube, while others have gathered “The Telegoons” together as unauthorized DVD anthologies.

However, “The Telegoons” is strictly a dull footnote in the history of “The Goon Show.”  Anyone who wants to seek out pure Goon magic would do better to focus on the original radio episodes and steer clear of the lousy puppet version.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!




Posted on February 18, 2011 in Bootleg Files, Features by
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5 Comments on "THE BOOTLEG FILES: THE TELEGOONS"

  1. Matt Sorrento on Fri, 18th Feb 2011 5:23 pm 

    Wow — I had no idea that the Goon Show was brought to TV…especially as this kind of mess. Thanks for docuementing, Phil!


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  2. sefton tagliaferro on Mon, 5th Nov 2012 12:29 am 

    This smacks of the furore when[ Dylan went electric] Iliked the tellygoons because it

    added body to the voices literally and metaphorically and with Dylan it gave it that rock n roll get my drift folks regard all


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  3. Al Roxburgh on Sun, 10th Mar 2013 4:54 pm 

    Phil, Tom Scott’s “lethargic direction”? Where on Earth do you get this supposed fact from? Who is the lethargic, barely awake Tom Scott? This faux pas casts your whole review into a big hole of doubt, and strongly suggests that you have never actually watched the credits for either “Penny Points to Paradise” or “The Telegoons,” for if you had, you’d know that the director was Tony Young. His bio is on my website. I also have another Tony Young B-film gem, “Port of Escape.” Having talked to many of the film crew and puppeteers who made The Telegoons, the main problem wasn’t one of “lethargy” but of the director talking to the puppet, rather than to the puppeteer. Perhaps addressing the puppets, ugliness and all, prevented lethargy from setting in, as it appears to have in your otherwise passable review. Please come clean and let us know your sources and the names of your Tom Scott informants. P.S. The ugliness of the Telegoons puppets is just how they looked in my mind’s eye when I started listening to repeats of the radio Goon Show around 1960. Ugliness is definitely in the eye of the beholder, and is a traditional puppetry theme. For myself, I think they look wonderful!


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  4. Phil Hall on Mon, 11th Mar 2013 9:19 am 

    @Al – I actually had the director as “Tony Scott,” not “Tom Scott.” Still, my bad for mixing up his surname. However, I sat through all of the available Telegoons episodes that I could locate, and I stand by criticism that the series was lethargically directed. I am a huge fan of the radio show, but the TV puppet show barely captures any of the manic energy of the original source.


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  5. David Tattum on Mon, 23rd Sep 2013 12:15 pm 

    Being born in 55, had I not had an elder brother with a reel to reel tape recorder, I may have missed the goons entirely, though oft repeated on the radio, I was ahead of the game, for my time!??

    Didn’t I laugh as a 12 year old, at an old serious black and white film – “Bridge On The River Kwai” my brain substituting Spikes words and phrases in place of the film script playing!

    I must disagree with your conclusion that the Telegoons didn’t work. As a child, with a background of comedy, I found it met my needs by upsetting the adults around me, and giving me something I could relate to, and laugh at.

    However, perhaps you can advise why I have a memory of a pen and ink, narrated, TV cartoon, white background with minimal sketching, allowing the mind to paint the pictures just as radio, which I thought was the Telegoons? Was there a forerunner to those shows now available, I wonder?


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