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Posts Tagged ‘Nick Newman’

I was never really a fan of The Goon Show. Well, I wasn’t born when it started and was still at junior school when it ended. Though I’ve subsequently heard repeated episodes, for me it was never able to compete with Beyond Our Ken and The Navy Lark, both of which started shortly before it ended. When Ian Hislop & Nick Newman’s show began, in a replica of the radio studio, I thought it might be just a homage to it, but its more than that, even though its the part of Spike Milligan’s life that it covers.

Each half starts with a brilliant sound effects demonstration by Janet, illustrating her contribution to The Goon Show and how this changed over time. Co-incidentally, the last show we saw at the Watermill just three months ago, Brief Encounter, used similar sound effects created before your eyes. From here we meet its principle writer, Spike Milligan (I didn’t know that), fellow performers Harry Secombe & Peter Sellers, producer Dennis Main-Wilson & his successor Peter Eton and the BBC Executive and bane of all their lives as they write and perform these madcap shows – 250 of them over nine years.

Based on this showing, they were a lot funnier than I remembered. They were ground-breaking in their surreal eccentricity, largely due to Milligan it seems, and went on to influence many that followed, including Monty Python and The League of Gentlemen. In between show recordings, we see their relationships grow and develop, and Spike’s mental health decline under the pressure of having to deliver scripts to deadlines, which made the recordings themselves seem like light relief.

Paul Hart’s production, with an authentic period design by Katie Lias, is very slick and fast paced and the outstanding cast, led by the excellent John Dalgleish as Spike, deliver with bells on. Margaret Cabourn-Smith is particularly charming as sound effects Janet and Jeremy Lloyd captured the essence of Secombe brilliantly. Peter Dukes stood in for the isolating George Kemp as Peter Sellers and did a remarkable job, without a script in sight.

A charming, nostalgic and funny show that reminds you of the manic genius of Spike Milligan, who went on to do so much more and have a profound influence on generations to come.

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I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to catch up with this, but I’m very glad I did so in its last week. Of all the excellent commemorations of the centenary of the First World War, this seems to me the most human and the most personal, a play based on a true story of some extraordinary men, which both entertained and moved me.

Ian Hislop and Nick Newman uncovered the story of a satirical newspaper published in the trenches. Captain Roberts and Lieutenant Pearson, when they are shown a working printer by one of their men, decide to produce something that would raise morale amongst the troops and provide some intellectual stimulation for them. They appear to have got away with it because at least one senior officer saw the potentially positive impact on morale, whilst others saw it as insubordinate, disruptive and potentially mutinous. Its satire targeted the officer class as well as the Germans, the French and the war itself. They managed to produce 23 issues over a two year period, despite moving location and losing the first printer, and news of it got back to blighty.

The story is framed by a post-war scene back in London, but the rest takes place in the trenches and nearby towns in an excellent evocative design by Dora Schweitzer, very well lit by James Smith, with an excellent soundscape by Steve Mayo . There are lots of short scenes, with the changes between them animated by songs of the war. It’s punctuated by comic cameos which pop up behind, and music hall turns stage front. I really liked this combination in Caroline Leslie’s fast-paced staging, which successfully blended the humour, the engaging story of the newspaper and the horrors of life in the trenches. I found myself both laughing out loud and welling up. It’s superbly performed by a cast of ten, three of whom each play three roles, led by James Dutton and George Kemp as Roberts and Pearson.

A very respectful tale of defiance and determination, which brings the story of these extraordinary men the posthumous public attention that is long overdue.

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