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Remembering Sir Harry Secombe and Neddie Seagoon

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Martin Dempsey Martin Dempsey 10:00, Thursday, 8 September 2011

Tea for the Goons in 1958 Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe

Tea for the Goons in 1958 - from left to right - Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe

How would you react to the phrases "needle-nardle-noo" or "what, what, what what, what!"?

Naturally, context is everything. In response to the query "what are you doing in my bathroom?" well, they're clearly inappropriate. However, if it's an exchange from The Goon Show, it's probably the least alarming piece of dialogue on offer – and the man uttering those deathless words would be Harry Secombe, worthy of a celebration all his own.

The Goon Show is the category-defying, post-war radio comedy that has influenced everything from Monty Python to the Mighty Boosh. It was crafted by Harry together with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. But while one had the voices and the other the sheer insanity, it was Harry's cheery, indefatigable and perpetually dogged Neddie Seagoon who braced the whole show together.

Harry would have been 90 this Thursday – and The Goon Show is just part of a career which took in a generous spectrum of comedy and drama.

His showbusiness start came at The Windmill Theatre in London in the late forties, and Harry's radio career began with Variety Bandbox and Educating Archie. When the Goons took off, a parallel career as a singer beckoned. Perhaps not unusual in an age when most entertainers could warble a tune or two, but Harry studied under Italian maestro Manlio di Veroli, becoming one of a select few Bel Canto tenors.

In common with most of his peers, Harry served in the Second World War. In a suitably Goonish twist, he found himself promoted to sergeant by his old regiment while entertaining troops in the Falklands – nearly four decades after being demobbed.

In addition to a full recording career, Harry also acted on Broadway and in films, alongside Dame Sybil Thorndike and Sir Richard Attenborough - playing characters created by Charles Dickens and French writer Alexandre Dumas.

A regular comedic presence on BBC television and ITV throughout the sixties and seventies, Harry occasionally paired up not only with old cohorts Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, but contemporaries like Ronnie Barker and Arthur Lowe. A keen churchgoer in his youth, Harry's later television career saw him fronting various religious programmes and putting his mighty singing voice to good use.

Like a lot of notable creative individuals, such as Russell T. Davies, Rob Brydon and Terry Nation, Harry Secombe was a Welshman, born in Swansea in 1921. He was pretty candid, however, about not actually being able to speak Welsh. He died in Surrey in April 2001 leaving a wife and four children.

Alongside his comedic legacy, a theatre in Sutton bears his name. Fans of A Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy will have heard his son Andy as Colin the Security Robot - "Mr Prefect, sir!" - in the final radio series.

However, you needn't take my word for it. Hear the man himself talk about his life on Radio 4 Extra in Goon Abroad at 2.15pm; or pick his favourite music next Sunday on Desert Island Discs Revisited. Both will remain on iPlayer, where you may listen and blow a raspberry in Neddie Seagoon's honour.

Martin Dempsey is producer, Radio 4 Extra

Harry Secombe, Michael Parkinson and Peter Sellers on Parkinson in 1972

Harry Secombe, Michael Parkinson and Peter Sellers on Parkinson in 1972

 

Bruce Forsyth with Harry Secombe

Bruce Forsyth with Harry Secombe

Sir Harry singing with Dana on The Harry Secombe Show in 1973

Sir Harry singing with Dana on The Harry Secombe Show in 1973

Harry Secombe

Harry Secombe presenting an edition of Songs of Praise from the Haymarket Theatre Royal, London in 1999

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