Anarchic comedy trio The Goodies recall the golden years of doing anything, anytime...
Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie once ruled the airwaves with their popular brand of stunt-packed comedy. As their entire BBC back catalogue is finally released on DVD, Mark Braxton catches up with the trio's trusty "trandem"
It is the 1970s. A gigantic, fluffy kitten topples the Post Office tower, black puddings fly through the air, Zebedee from The Magic Roundabout trashes Chequers and a squadron of geese dive-bomb trespassers with weaponised eggs.
As far as the millions who regularly tuned in between 1970 and 1980 were concerned, such crazy flights of fancy were the norm. And now it’s yesterday once more: all 69 BBC episodes are set for release, unedited, on DVD.
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The three stars must be proud that their shows are so fondly remembered by comedy fans, and their visual iconography of Kitten Kong et al still looms large nearly 50 years on?
"I’m very proud," Tim Brooke-Taylor, 78, tells, me. "Though this is tempered, slightly, by what appear to be quite old people coming up to me and saying, ‘My parents used to allow me to stay up to watch you’!"
Bill Oddie, 77, adds, "It is always genuinely flattering when members of the public say, 'I grew up with you lot!' My coy – and perhaps graceless – reply is: 'Nobody grew up watching The Goodies!'”
When I suggest that the box set has been a long time coming, there is a little edge to Bill's reply. "I used to browse round HMV’s DVD section to see if we were there. Every other BBC comedy ever made was in stock, except The Goodies. 'Do you mean The Goonies?' 'No. Goodies.' Consults screen: 'Well it’s not listed'. So is it about time, or too late now?"
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The Goodies are often mentioned in the same sentence as Monty Python. Coexisting on television around the same time, both teams emerged largely from the fertile comic fields of Cambridge, trying out material in the fêted Footlights. And there was much cross-pollination between their members in the 1960s (At Last the 1948 Show, radio series I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again, scripts for the ITV Doctor sitcoms...).
But while Python sometimes liked to wear its learning on its sleeve, throwing in references to Proust or Wittgenstein, the Goodies were aiming for something broader. The youngster of the trio, Graeme Garden, 75, explains, "We tended to base our plots and gags around things that were going on in the world: political, social, media, entertainment, the zeitgeist. So we needed to be sure that the audience were familiar with what we were sending up."
Coming up with the goods
So what was the impetus behind The Goodies as a comedy format? Graeme continues: "Tim and I had done two series of a sketch show called Broaden Your Mind, which Bill joined. The BBC asked for a third series. We felt there were a lot of sketch shows around – The Two Ronnies, Python, Dick Emery, Arthur Haynes – so we wanted to try something different. We pitched doing the silly comedy you got in three-minute sketches but stretched into a half-hour narrative."
The show launched on BBC2 on 8th November 1970, with the trio deciding to run their own agency – supposedly in Cricklewood but early episodes were filmed in Maidenhead in Berkshire – to help people by doing "anything, any time". Their first job was to find out who was stealing the Beefeaters' beef from the Tower of London.
Episode one set the style for ensuing series, with elaborate sets, guest stars, undercranked film sequences (a process resulting in speeded-up action) and lots and lots of comedy props. But, going out at 10pm on BBC2, it took a while to catch on – later series aired at 9pm – even in a pre-watershed slot.
That first series, viewed today, looks very much like a show finding its feet. Its late-night slot also meant that there was more grown-up material, with nudity and sex and drug references. Bill was often seen sucking lemon sherbet to provide him with inspiration.
"Sherbet: clearly a substitute for hallucinogenic drugs," jokes Bill. "I was able to turn on and see useful visions on a screen. I did not inhale. Sherbet is not illegal."
Much of the humour derives from the clear-cut differences in character. Graeme says: "Tim had a hyphen so he was the posh one – but he was also supremely good at playing silly toffs. I had a sort of science background and wore glasses, so I was the mad scientist, and Bill found his natural role as scruffy little oik."
A great dynamic in terms of the show, then, but how did that work when it came to writing it? "All three of us would meet to discuss the sort of topics we would cover in the series," answers Graeme, "and suggest unlikely couplings. For example, kung fu and t’North to produce Ecky Thump. Bill and I would flesh out the storyline between us, then write half each, coming together to blend it into a whole. Subsequent editing went on involving all three of us during pre-production and rehearsal."
Tim adds: "I think the fact that we were different helped. One huge advantage of a trio is that there’s always a majority!"
A bicycle made for three
Almost another regular character of The Goodies is the specially built three-seater, but it's fair to say that the human cast were not fans.
Tim recalls: "The trandem was originally a tandem with an extra seat on the back for Bill. It had no brakes and no free wheel. You had to stop the pedals in order to stop the bike. The pedals wouldn’t stop and crashed into the ankles. As Bill had no pedals he wasn’t in time with Graeme and myself and we swung around all over the place. Trying to get up to speed for a 30-yard shot usually meant the chain snapped halfway through the take. The later versions were better."
Nothing was off limits in terms of comedy targets: police brutality, gender politics, pollution, ballroom dancing, the NHS, the British Film Industry... DJ Tony Blackburn came in for plenty of stick, too. The more random the better, it seemed. As the original theme tune had it, "It's whatever turns you on."
Another striking feature of the series as a whole was Bill's musical input. An accomplished parodist, Bill wrote music for the Footlights while at Cambridge and released his own album in the 1960s. With The Goodies, Bill was keen to reinvent the language of music in comedy, and got session musicians in to play on the background soundtracks.
"For years," he says, "incidental and link music on sitcoms had sounded much the same – tubas and piccolos are funny, allegedly. We had some great electric guitar and bass players and some lively drummers. Over the series, I covered just about every style from funk to rock 'n' roll, while I varied the vocals accordingly."
So great was the show's musical dimension that the trio even became pop stars: "I loved recording. I was called a frustrated rock star. Really? Top of the Pops nearly every week, four top 20 singles and four albums? I was not frustrated!"
Their singles included The Inbetweenies, Black Pudding Bertha and, of course, Funky Gibbon, which got to number four in 1975.
What was it like to be both comedy and pop stars? "The mid-70s were ridiculous," says Bill. "Hit records, top-ten books in paper and hardback. I, particularly, was a bit schizophrenic about crowds. 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!"
One of the working titles for the programme was the rather quaint Super Chaps Three. I wondered whether they felt constrained by being Goodies. "I confess it was my title," says Bill, "and there were times I wished it was tougher, wittier, or totally meaningless. On the other hand, it sounded like a rock group – possibly the Monkees?"
The fourth Goodie
If the fifth Beatle is George Martin and the seventh Python is Neil Innes, then the fourth Goodie was most certainly Jim Franklin, a director and producer on the show with special responsibility for the action-packed location shoots and trick-photography sequences. He went on to direct Ripping Yarns for Pythons Michael Palin and Terry Jones.
"Jim was a real hero," stresses Tim. "Without him The Goodies wouldn’t have existed. Thanks to him the visual sequences were great for the time. He was a great film editor and creator and made the impossible possible."
Graeme adds, "He made meticulous storyboards so that in pre-production meetings, everyone could see and respond to exactly what was expected on screen."
If The Goodies' speeded-up shenanigans have a cartoon-like quality, that's no coincidence, as Bill clarifies when I ask what their comedy influences were.
"Saturday-morning matinees. Hopalong Cassidy, Look at Life, the Three Stooges, but best of all Tom and Jerry and Bugs Bunny: speed and violence and no one ever dies. Plus the Bugs Bunny music numbers with straw hat and cane. The next animated revelation was The Jungle Book. Fantastic music score. In fact, The Goodies became animals several times: mice, rabbits, a spotty dog, a pantomime horse..."
Dressing up was a major part of The Goodies' success – and it seems as though Tim got to be the most outrageous: "I think I drew the short straw. I had to play the female roles because the other two had strangely hairy faces."
Tim adds: "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 colourful, comic-strip nature of the show was not lost on Radio Times, which honoured The Goodies with a second cover in 1975, and a lengthy feature that went behind the scenes.
That was very much the year of the Goodie, with a run of episodes that fizzed with comic energy and crackled with imaginative gags. The opening instalment, The Movies, ends with an extraordinary ten-minute sequence that is everything that was great about The Goodies. Tim recalls, "Graeme, Bill and I are trying to make our own films at the same time as each other, and getting in each other’s way: Graeme a western, me a biblical epic and Bill a black-and-white silent movie."
It won a silver Rose at the prestigious Montreux TV festival, as did Kitten Kong.
Ratings began to tail off towards the end of the 1970s, when it was clear that tastes in comedy were shifting. The trio then moved to ITV for seven episodes in 1981 and 82 that rarely make fans' lists of favourites. I was surprised to hear Tim's response when I asked if the channel crossing was a step too far.
"We didn’t want to leave the BBC. They kept delaying the next series because the invaluable special effects department were heavily involved in making The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. This was well worth making, but there comes a time when either giving up the Goodies or accepting an ITV offer were the only choices."
That was then, this is now
Watching some episodes of The Goodies again in the cold light of 2018 does illustrate the changing – and sometimes problematic – face of comedy.
Sticking the boot into white South Africa, and apartheid in particular, was quite the rarity back in 1975. But viewed today, such laudable intentions are let down by some of the methods, as well as the language. The trio also satirised the then-popular but now reviled Black and White Minstrel Show in a 1977 episode. But the message tends to get lost when the stars black up themselves.
So is it fair to say that not all of the gags work now? "Not all of the gags worked then!" says Graeme. "But we haven’t edited them because the show was of its time, and I think it would be dishonest to tone down anything that may cause a jolt to the modern viewer. I think it’s really interesting historically to see the attitudes and conventions of the 1970s in a modern context."
The new Goodies box set contains an illuminating interview with Bill, Tim and Graeme in front of a studio audience in Leicester Square in June. It's conducted, perhaps surprisingly, by caustically brilliant stand-up Stewart Lee, who's been a fan since childhood.
Discussing the apartheid episode, Graeme tells Lee, "Somebody recently said, 'You couldn't make that show now'. To which the reply is, 'You wouldn't have to'."
Expanding on this theme, Bill tells me: "My first job in London was writing for That Was the Week That Was. So I was used to annoying audiences by being 'satirical'. Compared with TW3, the Goodies were like The Beano, but we did often deal with social, political and racial issues. The fact is that there are some subjects that you only have to mention and somebody will be offended even if no offence is intended or – if they really listened – they might actually agree with us.
Bill cites an example of when the boot was on the other foot, following congratulations from a well-known broadcasting standards campaigner: "We were offended when Mary Whitehouse called us a 'nice clean show'. For weeks we tried to come up with something she would be horrified by. We did it with Tim’s underpants with a carrot on the front. She was outraged. Result!"
If the past is a foreign country, then Health and Safety were the outer solar system. One of the most entertaining aspects of watching Goodies episodes now is seeing the stars perform many of their own stunts. One early episode sees a sleepwalking Bill atop a moving double-decker bus, for instance.
Which did Tim consider the most dangerous moment? "We were on the trandem hanging from wires in the studio, as you do, escaping from a giant kitten. One of the wires snapped and I fell but was still attached to the brake – we had a brake by then, but it wasn’t much use in mid-air.
"I was safely lifted down and taken to the BBC nurse. She was French and her English wasn’t great. I tried, ‘Une bicyclette pour trois, avec un grand, mais petit chat...' She wasn’t impressed, but safely treated my wound."
It was actually Radio Times photographer Don Smith who saved Tim from more serious injury that day. When the cable broke and Tim was left dangling, Don raced over to hold his legs, thus enabling him to free his pinched hand.
And now, the $64,000 question: which is their favourite episode? The aforementioned The Movies is one. But another theme emerges. Tim: "I also love the episodes where, because we’d already spent the budget, we had to do the whole show in the office – no visual effects, just tight individual dialogue."
Bill agrees. "I like the episodes when we had to do the show in the studio. It made a change to have to act a bit instead of being human cartoons. My favourite is when we were trapped in our office faced with the end of the world. Its title was Earthanasia. We may all be about to experience it."
Speaking of planetary concerns brings me to the trio's post-Goodie careers, which have taken off in diverse and interesting ways.
Graeme, a qualified doctor, and Tim are regular panellists on Radio 4's I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue. Graeme has written extensively for television and radio and now appears on ITV's The Imitation Game.
Tim went from The Goodies into another successful sitcom – "I loved doing Me and My Girl with my good friend Richard O’Sullivan; although Richard and I took part in the editing of the shows, they weren’t our creations" – and since then has been in the likes of One Foot in the Grave, Heartbeat and Doctors.
Bill became a TV expert on wildlife issues, presenting shows including Springwatch and Wild in Your Garden. Can we expect to see him back with his binoculars any time soon?
"The truthful answer is 'I doubt it'. I have to be asked, by someone who has the power to employ me. 'We won't be asking you to do Springwatch this year' I was told. No explanation. Never has been. I still feel that a large chunk of my working life – and my personality – was taken away.
"Fortunately, I have a fabulous family, a great wife, and some lovely friends. Mainly from the world of conservation and animal care. Frankly, that is a kinder world than the BBC."
Nevertheless, all three are united in their pleasure that their madcap capers in the 1970s can be seen again. The Goodies were once the talk of the school playground and the office watercooler alike, and the recent Leicester Square audience showed how much love remains for the comedy trio.
Indeed, one incident from the noughties has stayed with Graeme. "We toured a stage show in Australia, and after one performance outside the stage door was a huge Australian bloke, shaggy beard, torn vest, towering over me. He whispered, ‘Thanks for making a pretty sh***y childhood bearable’ and vanished into the night."
But back then, the Goodies went to great lengths – and pains – to gain approval. As the theme tune had it, "We're with you right to the end/Everyone needs a friend."