Invited to give a talk about the Telegoons for The Goon Show Preservation Society many moons ago, naturally it developed into a performance! Here is the transcript of the talk I have also transferred a film of the event to digital. I will pop it on Youtube later. There were films of the rehearsal with my son Robin that I dreamed up for the event that I think are funnier than the end result.
I came from what I think they call a dysfunctional family!
Unaccustomed as I am to speaking in public, as a person rather than as a puppet, I would like to thank you for inviting me. Even if it did take you 40 years!
In the last 3 years I have been happily living in Puppethouse home of my wonderful website, decrepit marionettes, and the spirit of lost and abandoned telegoons.
I hear the sound of Bloodnok in the attic planning a military campaign to overthrow London’s mayor, to reinstate chaos in Trafalgar Square and stop congestion charges reaching Balham, gateway to the South. The gentle murmurs of Min and Crun happily harvesting opium in the garden, the groans of Grytpype-Thynne and Moriarty on community service and clearing the shed, the excited cries of Bluebottle and Eccles making bonfires in the shrubbery and the gentle splashing of Neddie bathing in the Japanese water feature.
But suddenly our peace is shattered, Neddie’s mobile rings incessantly. It appears this guy in the States, with no idea of time or place, by the name of Alistair, is asking for a full and frank account of the life and times of the Telegoons – and no doubt their part in my downfall. And all for a fiver in used monopoly money!
Well Neddie, full of optimism and an eye for a quick buck as usual, has visions of fame and fortune, hip replacements and expensive plastic surgery – the world is his oyster. He wrecks the place, turning over old diaries, ancient scripts, patents and pictures. Endless emails and sleepless nights ensue, until, seven months later, he has captured every detail – real and imagined – of Telegoon history, and transported it
page by page to somewhere in Oregon. Oblivious to all my efforts to earn a living, Neddie squanders his fiver on a pint of beer and a plate of whelks.
And by now, my old mate John Dudley Esquire of Devon appears on the scene. He has apparently been searching for me for 5 years. How lovely still to be wanted! But looking back, one realises, what a privilege it was to have been part of the Goon era.
My father Ron Field died 10 years ago, and I still miss him, but it is only over the last 3 years, while reviewing my long association with puppets that I discovered that my father and Spike Milligan had experiences in common as young men. They both served in the Second World War and had been in the landings at Naples. My father, like Spike, had his own dance band and entertained fellow servicemen. Ron also had a regular slot on Radio Milan and composed his own music. Later, as a comedian in his own right, he shared top billing with Norman Vaughan in Variety. Spike and my father had had a lot in common so may be that was the reason he gave the original drawings of the Telegoons to my dad.
Perhaps the sheer insanity and camaraderie of the war years heightened awareness of the totally ridiculous, and is why there will never be another generation of such luminaries in terms of entertainers, comedians and perhaps puppeteers!
My son Robin as a child also remembers Spike. He took his grandmother to hear Spike read his poetry at London Zoo on the site of the chimpanzees’ tea party – typical Spike.
Peter Sellers also played a part in our family history. We often entertained his children with our marionette theatre, usually at the Dorchester. Peter loved the show and always sat in the front row. Later we joined in with the party, meeting many of his famous friends.
So name dropping ruthlessly I moved to my own career in variety, where at 16, with cabaret marionettes, I appeared in a Summer Show at the Royal Hippodrome Eastbourne with another comedian who had goon connections topping the bill – Graham Stark (remember him? Later I shared the same bill as Max Miller and
Morecambe and Wise to name but a few. In those days the stars of the shows shared the same cafes as the rest of us. I met Graham, years later, at a beach in Bournemouth. He recognised me playing with my children, and came over to spend a happy half an hour building sandcastles.
But back to Telegoons who we are here to acknowledge and celebrate. John Dudley tells me we first met in a dustbin – which seems a perfectly normal place to hold a conversation. We got on really well, and although several other puppeteers were involved with the series John and I worked together quite a lot.
My experience in TV, commercials and my own family’s TV pilot films also meant I knew the importance of getting a shot in ‘one take’ essential to a company on a small budget… so now…Tony Young. He was the Telegoons director who approached my parents about actually making the Telegoon characters. At the time my father had developed a lip-synch system with Chris Meader an engineer and close friend, applied for a patent. This kind of puppetry was in its infancy and Gerry Anderson, unbeknown to us, was also working on similar technology.
Tony was a visionary but with a very low budget who wanted everything done for next to nothing, or less. And although we gave what time we could and shared much of our puppet film expertise, we still had to eat on a daily basis. But Tony always held out the possibility of being part of the film company.
Despite all this, it was my father who convinced Tony that we would need two sets of characters – rod as well as marionettes – which initially he had tried to avoid. He also became a regular visitor to our workshop in Highgate, where we made rubber heads for our own film characters. It was here we produced rubber hands and the prototype for Telegoon boots – and all for gratis, and, for nothing.
Apparently Tony’s father, brother and others were also drawn into various developments; which is why there are so many ‘grey areas’ about who made what. It is a pity however that Tony did not commission Ron to pour the Telegoon heads as our rubber heads have lasted 50 years while the Telegoon rubber was not properly cured and the heads have disintegrated over the years.
The dastardly rubber experience is perhaps one best forgotten. We did it in a minute kitchen at the back of our studios. I can still recall the smell of it baking, the fumes – probably toxic – explains a lot. Joan Field, my mother, endlessly advised and altered puppet costumes. Bloodnok arrived at our studios in a uniform beautifully tailored but so thick and stiff he could hardly move! Joan sorted out this and other such problems; but again it was a labour of love. Eventually everything was ready to film and at this
stage my family were the only puppeteers involved. We worked all day, and after that, into the night! But it was this PILOT that sold the series to the BBC!!
Spike did call in on the set, but filming only ever stopped for a short tea break. The Goons had had to re-record the scripts as they were too fast for the puppets and although Spike liked the puppets he felt the company itself was trying to cut corners.
In reality a puppeteer is a master of puppet manipulation – an actor of sorts – which is why many of them were also members of Equity. Puppetry has its roots in Greek and Italian theatrical traditions and John said to put on a mask is to change identity, a marionette is a manifestation of that tradition.
So to the Telegoons again. We actually became the characters, which was indeed quite stressful by the end. I was the only puppeteer in our family to be given a properly paid contract. But on with the motley, the paint and the powder! As previously mentioned, I met John in the dustbins belonging to the Shanghai Borough Council,
Scene 9, Exterior wall, night, rod puppets; or so he tells me. And then followed a life of being whizzed around day after day, hanging onto a camera dolly, with my hand up Neddie’s jumper.Not an experience one cares to recall. Puppet films require scenes with wind machines, dust and spider-web sprays, smoke and water. Seldom does anyone give a thought to the person with the rod or at the end of a marionette string.
Most directors even talked to the puppets and gave them directions as though they were on their own. Of course the whole crew became besotted with Goonery, we all mimicked their voices in cafes, pubs and in taxis when we went to see the rushes in London.
Other anecdotes come from notes on my scripts. Apparently I made a scarf for Neddie for the Canal scene, helped to paint Grytepipe-thynne as a werewolf, dressed Neddie in a damp nightshirt after his fell into the canal and many other riveting events.
Sadly, however, although my dad’s lip sync system was used it was never paid for and in the circumstances I left after 15 episodes.
Our whole family went on to even greater things making and performing with the marionettes for the feature film ‘ Oh What a Lovely War’ on Brighton’s West Pier where we were directed personally by ‘Dickie’ now Lord Attenborough. But that is another story.
Now you all know that famous gatherings are now plagued with imposters and the Goon Society is no exception. So, if you’ll gently whisper 4 lines of the Ying Tong song we now have a small demonstration especially constructed for you. One character was made by my father 50 years ago. The other one was made by me 3 weeks ago for this event. I wonder if you will be able to tell the difference, and who is impersonating whom.
Link to film.