Golden Goodies: Graeme Garden looks back on a sitcom that did anything, anywhere, any time
On The Goodies' 50th anniversary, Radio Times opens its extensive archive to help celebrate the madcap 1970s sitcom.
Few comedies captured the imagination of the British public quite like The Goodies. The zany, freewheeling antics of Graeme Garden, Bill Oddie and Tim-Brooke-Taylor lodged themselves firmly in the zeitgeist of the 1970s. Audiences of 12 million switched them on, revelling in the unlikely spectacles of a giant kitten toppling the Post Office Tower, geese re-enacting The Dambusters and competitive dogs singing Anything You Can Do.
Iconic is an overused word, but The Goodies was the very definition of it. The series was also shown in the US and Canada, and became massive in Australia and New Zealand, while the trio could be found in books, comics and on records – they had five hit singles in the space of 12 months. And among their fans are Cate Blanchett, Steven Spielberg and Sir Paul McCartney.
And yet the 50th anniversary on 8th November will be a bittersweet one, due to the death in April of Tim Brooke-Taylor, aged 79, after he contracted COVID-19. Fans took to social media to pay tribute, Garden called him a "funny, sociable, generous man who was a delight to work with", and Oddie described his friend as "an extremely amiable bloke... you’d never think twice about asking him a favour".
Looking back on the show in its anniversary year, I asked Graeme Garden, 77, about their time together as the Super Chaps Three – as The Goodies was nearly called – and what it was that Tim brought to the trio.
"His floppy hair, posh voice and hyphen made him the perfect representative of the cowardly, patriotic upper-class twit. He really disliked the character he played, and claimed the only thing he had in common was that he was a coward in real life. Actually as a performer – although brilliant at playing fear when it came to the very funny physical comedy he did – he was very brave."
More like this
And does Graeme have a favourite “Tim moment” from the series? "Too many to list, but I always giggled at the sight of him in Scoutrageous [series seven; 1977], scuttling thorough darkened streets in a long mac and with a bin bag concealing his scout hat on his head. He looked like a furtive mushroom."
So while Tim was the posh one, Graeme was the "mad scientist" and Bill was the "scruffy little oik". The three, who had met as undergraduates at Cambridge University, created a broad-format sitcom with sketch-comedy leanings, with its rapid-fire visual and verbal gags.
Anyway, back to the beginning... the show launched on 8 November 1970. But positioned in the 10pm slot on BBC Two, it took a while to catch on – later series aired at 9pm – even in a pre-watershed slot.
"We started work on the show by filming the inserts before doing the studio recordings," recalls Graeme. "Nobody on the unit knew the show, and we found it hard to tell if the gags were working. Luckily the studio audience laughed at the films and also the material we did live.
"Of course for the first series nobody in the audience had seen the show before, so we had to introduce them every week to the idea behind these three idiots doing anything, any time, anywhere. In the first series we were taxi-ing down the runway at a good lick, but weren’t sure we’d taken off until the BBC commissioned a second series. Then we were flying, and reached cruising altitude around series four when we had all the elements of the show properly in place."
The show called for much outdoor filming, and it wasn't long before they were attracting a lot of attention from the public. "We often got a crowd of spectators, especially when we filmed in towns, and on one occasion the local schoolkids were given the day off so they could come and watch. It was a nightmare keeping them quiet during shots!"
It’s a great tribute to The Goodies that celebrities queued up to appear on the show, from Jane Asher to Terry Wogan. "There were many good sports who sent themselves up," says Graeme, "including Tony Blackburn, Nationwide’s Michael Barratt, and our regular BBC newsreader, Corbet Woodall.
"Perhaps the most surprising was astronomer Patrick Moore, who made several appearances and once let us give him buck teeth like a bunny rabbit [Invasion of the Moon Creatures, 1973], and in another show appeared as a punk with a safety pin though his nose [Punky Business, 1977]."
The list of famous fans is no less impressive. The roll call of contributors for a planned but then cancelled documentary about the show included Hollywood A-listers Steven Spielberg, John Travolta, Cate Blanchett, Jon Hamm and Rebel Wilson, Beatle Sir Paul McCartney, Pythons John Cleese, Eric Idle and Michael Palin, as well as Richard Ayoade, David Walliams and Simpsons creator Matt Groening.
Another animator to be influenced by the programme was Peter Lord, creative director of Aardman Animations and co-creator of '70s TV hero Morph. "It always seemed as if The Goodies had been specifically designed with me in mind," Peter told Radio Times. "I was just of an age to love the radio show I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again. Then along came The Goodies on TV. The giddy mix of surrealism, silliness and 70s-styling was coupled with lunatic ambition and surprisingly elaborate special effects. All this and a lurking underlying intelligence made me extremely happy then and now."
Then again The Goodies was often like a live-action cartoon, and its cast were the original cosplayers. "Somewhere in the bottom of a trunk I have the one-piece trousers, shirt, tie and jacket that do up with a single zip," says Graeme. "We did have a wide range of silly costumes. The costume we all hated was when we were bouncing around on space-hoppers dressed as tubes of toothpaste. It was very uncomfortable, in fact painful, and nobody could see it was really us in there. Bill rants about it to this day. I tease him by claiming it wasn’t actually me and Tim in the other two tubes."
But dressing up was a major part of The Goodies’ success – and Tim was often called on to don frocks and wigs. As he told me in 2018, “I had to play the female roles because the other two had strangely hairy faces. I discovered women’s clothes are very uncomfortable for men, though I did enjoy playing Timita, a Margaret Thatcher version of Evita. Thanks to the make-up department I was truly lovely!”
The mid-'70s saw the three comedians at the peak of their powers, and crowds would flock to public appearances. Two years ago Bill Oddie told me, "The adulation was rather nice, but sometimes it got too claustrophobic. The crowd was so big at the Arndale Centre in Manchester, the police stopped the event!"
And it wasn't just discomfort they experienced but also, in the pre-health-and-safety era, a certain amount of danger. Don Smith, now 88, was a staff photographer for Radio Times at the time and took hundreds of pictures of the trio. He remembers one occasion, in December 1972, when they were shooting a sequence in which the Goodies were travelling to the Winter Olympics on their balloon-powered three-seater "trandem" or triplet.
"The triplet was about five feet up from the floor, and the three of them were on it, pedalling away through mid-air – this is before they put the backgrounds and snowstorm effect and everything on. And the rear suspension cable, which was attached to the back of the rear saddle, suddenly broke, and the back of the triplet just fell to the ground.
Bill and Graeme were able to step off, with no harm done, but Tim caught one hand in the brake. "He was left hanging by his hand, and I remember rushing forward, I wrapped my arms around his lower body and legs and lifted him up, which then enabled him to free his other hand from the brake, and lowered him down to the ground."
Don recalls first meeting Tim and Graeme on the 1968 pre-Goodies series Broaden Your Mind. "I remember saying I was from Radio Times, and they were both a little bit flattered that we had gone in to take their picture, because they were then at the beginning of what turned out to be very successful careers. We remained good friends from then on. They always used to call me 'Henri' after the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson."
Another star of The Goodies is not one who appeared in front of the cameras. Adds Don, "Just as George Martin was the fifth Beatle, I always think that Jim Franklin was the fourth Goodie because he was way ahead of his time with the effects, long before computers were invented and all this digital business that can be done – he was doing it the hard way with real props and optical illusions."
Graeme explains: "Jim was a brilliant film editor, with a real feel for comedy. He cut the film sequences in the first series, then became director for the second series onward. He was meticulous in his preparation and drew detailed storyboards, which ensured that all the gags worked as intended, and also saved an awful lot of time and money. We admired him greatly and were very fond of him. He lives in Spain now, sadly not in the best of health."
Franklin and his amazing outdoor sequences had a lot to do with The Goodies' success at Montreux television festival, winning the Silver Rose in 1972 for the legendary Kitten Kong episode, and again in 1975 for the homage-packed story, The Movies.
Why does Graeme think the former, in particular, became such an enduring fan favourite? "The giant kitten rampaging thorough London was visually very striking, and the show had a lot of publicity as it was entered for Montreux.
"People also remember the image of the kitten toppling the Post Office Tower because it was in the opening credits of every show and became very familiar to viewers. We had a press launch for the DVDs, held at the top of the now BT Tower. As a gift the people at the tower gave us each one of their commemorative tins of mints, on the lid of which is the image of our kitten felling the tower!"
Yes, The Goodies dressed as mice, beefeaters, cowboys, astronauts, the Marx Brothers, jailbirds, their silver-screen heroes, clowns and, for the episode voted by the fan club At No Fixed Abode as the best, black-pudding-wielding martial artists. So was corpsing an issue? "In the studio it sometimes was," says Graeme, "and Bill was an inveterate giggler. In fact, when he was really amused he would let out a small fart. When we heard that, Tim and I knew the gag was a good 'un."
The great outdoors, and the variables of the British weather, were a different matter, however. "On location, dressed as rabbits, shivering in the middle of a field waiting for the freezing rain to stop so we could fall over in the mud, there wasn’t much to giggle about."
After 10 years and 69 episodes, the trio hopped channels to ITV for one final seven-part series that aired between December 1981 and February 1982, before the boys went their own ways. It was the end of an era, as comedy tastes were inevitably changing.
Nevertheless, they left a huge and influential legacy of laughs, all of which are now captured on a Network DVD box set. So, from all of those 76 episodes, can former Goodie Graeme Garden choose a favourite? Well, probably The Movies.
But what about a favourite gag? That, apparently, is easy. "Tim as political diva Timita cheering up his supporters by singing ‘Don’t cry for me, Marge and Tina!'."
The Goodies: The Complete Collection, which includes all BBC and ITV episodes in one boxset, is available from Network on Air – for the chance to win a copy (from Tuesday 3rd November) go to radiotimes.com/goodiesDVD