The Goodies were pretty stupid. So was Monty Python, which preceded them onto the screen by almost exactly a year. It was, as Graham Chapman used to remind us when cutting short Python sketches, “all getting far too silly!” “An agency of three blokes who do anything, anytime” was the Goodies’ pitch to the Head of TV comedy at the BBC. And for a whole decade, through 77 shows from November 1970 the BBC paid them to fool about with animated film, silly tricks, daft songs and a dose of satire all built around three characters, loosely based on themselves. Tim Brooke Taylor was a patriotic coward. Not so much a cowardly lion, I suggest to him now, as a cowardly mouse. “Yes” he says, “I’ve always admired cowards. They want to live.” He wore a union jack waistcoat and for dramatic purposes had to play the right-winger. “It’s not me to be honest. We’re all left of centre. But someone had to do it.”
He is possessed of a soft face, slightly pink skin and a tongue far more barbed than one might imagine. Many years ago I interviewed him with the rest of the I Am Sorry I Haven’t A Clue team late at night in front of a live audience. Someone stood up and asked them to say who was the worst person any of them had ever worked with. Niceties were passed round about people in show business for a minute or two with much faux innocent scratching of the head in the interests of politeness until Brooke-Taylor, having just appeared in a national tour of The Philanthropist with a very famous actor, spat out his name with deeply heart-felt venom. “X is a complete c**t”. The roof lifted of the building as people laughed uncontrollably with shock and delight.
Graeme Garden on the other hand is a quieter, more restrained type. He’s watchful. He’s playing his cards close to his chest. It takes me quite a while to find out, for instance that his son John ‘JJ’ Garden is the keyboards player for the Scissor Sisters. He must feel unbearably hip, I wonder? ”Well” says Garden laconically, “he’s had to go through his life denying I am his father and now I am going through life denying he is my son”. He is softly spoken and rather given to understated gags. Is he as boffinish as his Goodies character? “Well I am scientific, but I am not a loony.” He says with a slight raise of the eyebrow, which suggests that he might be. His character was pretty megalomaniac wasn’t he, a bit of a Dr Strangelove? “I don’t think I ever tried to take over the world. I wasn’t that ruthless or amoral. I was just interested in science.” And then adds,” Which is the same thing, really”.
They are talking to me because the two of them are going to the Edinburgh Fringe with the first live show of the Goodies. They have done it twice now in Australia, first at the Big Laugh Festival in Sydney in 2005 and then on tour. And the first time they were with their third man, Bill Oddie, and the second they weren’t. He won’t be in Edinburgh. He’s too busy with Spring Watch and his BBC nature series. “If he’d been able to say some dates when he would be free, we’d have worked around that. It was fun together in Australia,” says Garden, “we stood there watching Bill just wondering what he might do next. Now we know, we’ve got him on video” So he’s not an angry refusenik about the whole thing, as some gossip has suggested? “Well he’s angry,” says Garden. But clearly that’s just a general judgment, and nothing to do with the tour.
Given the general view of Oddie as the not so funny one, it’s quite surprising to find that the two of them hold him in some awe. There was a gaggle of future comedians at Cambridge. And says Brooke-Taylor, remembering the times at Cambridge when he walked to Law lectures with John Cleese. “None of us would have gone into show business without the confidence we got from other people”. “Except Bill” says Garden, “He had enormous confidence and quite rightly so”. His music made an immediate impact on audiences. Brooke-Taylor remembers writing home to his mother from the footlights tour of New Zealand in 1964 that Bill wasn’t going down quite so well. “But I didn’t mean he wasn’t doing well, I just meant that he wasn’t tearing the place apart quite as much as he had done in London.
The Goodies came out of radio. After the Footlights, via shows like Not the 1948 Show, they had all ended up in 1965 in a sketch show called I Am Sorry I’ll Read That Again (ISIRTA). By the fourth series it was largely being written by Garden and Oddie. Why didn’t Brooke Taylor write more “Because I was too busty appearing in better shows”, he says and then adds “They write very fast. And they are very different. If Graeme and I tried to write together we just nattered”.
The Goodies to some extent was ISIRTA on TV. Tony Palmer the director had made the first stab at putting radio on telly. The show was “Twice a Fortnight”. It largely failed but Palmer encouraged the use of film inserts and Oddie and Garden took to them. Oddly the transfer of the sound of radio to the visuals of TV came out more like animated cartoons. The Goodies were the heirs of Buster Keaton and Bugs Bunny and they didn’t really have the verbal sophistication of the Pythons.
English is a culture that is, at its core, literary. In France they have an Avenue named after Gerry Lewis. We have the Royal Shakespeare Company. Visual, knock about, slapstick is for kids. It’s not taken seriously. And at one stage, the BBC scheduled The Goodies like that. The third and forth series slipped earlier and earlier, with some programmes eventually going out at 6.45. By 1975 though Monty Python had ended and the fifth series of The Goodies went out at 9pm and finally the audiences jumped from three million to ten. “We can’t say we were ignored” says Garden, but adds Brooke-Taylor “In the history of comedy we don’t come off as well as we might.”
Their comedy was visually highly inventive achieving edited tricks and stunts that no one else had really tried before. “I remember once I shook hands with myself” muses Brooke-Taylor “That was incredibly complicated”. The best one remembers Garden was when they went into a cupboard as the Goodies and came out as mice. But adds Garden with a characteristically Goodies touch. “We had a six foot hypodermic syringe and that had to go through too”
The live show will combine video of the sketches with Oddie telling stories and the rest is built round the conceit that Brooke-Taylor and Garden are answering questions put to them by the audience. “They’re the ones we have the most interesting answers to”. When they talk about the show Garden and Brooke-Taylor are affectionately very complimentary to each other about their own tour de forces. Garden does his audition form the Cambridge Footlights, called Pets Corner, of which Brooke-Taylor says, “I don’t want to embarrass him but it is a little lesson in how to do comedy perfectly.” Garden says later that Brooke-Taylor’s best bit is one they have on tape as he doesn’t do it live. He plays an automated hospital visitor who gets out of sequence. It is also perfect, he says.
Despite their achievements, the Goodies have never been repeated on the BBC. Why? “Don’t get us started” says Brooke-Taylor and skewers the previous controller of BBC2, Jane Root. “Although now she’s gone, thank God. Although that means there’s no-one to blame now.” In the intervening years however the pair they have become fixed in people’s minds as part of the I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue panel on Radio Four. Which, it comes as a surprise certainly to me to discover, Garden invented. Although he is still negotiating the royalty, despite the first show carrying his devising credit. It was awful, they remember now. They tried to improvise the whole thing. After it “Humph and I sat in the pub” says Brooke-Taylor and we said “ Never, ever again” After thirty-four years they still say that, just in case. They had a meeting recently with the Director General about it all and at the end he said “Shame we have never repeated the Goodies. When are we going to do that?” Goodies fans are waiting. Maybe the live show will jog the BBC into action.