The Goon Show Preservation Society

A Celebrity Speaks... Roger Wilmut. Author

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Commentary

Roger Wilmut
 
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Dirk Maggs

"The Goon Show Companion"
a book by Roger Wilmut

Who is Roger Wilmut?
Well, there's his photo over there

Of course he's known to us as the author of the best book in the World when it comes to the Goons; but we wondered what else he had done in his writing career, so here it is:

Roger Wilmut's writing career        by Roger Wilmut ©


I got into writing entirely by accident. The starting point was
The Goon Show. This famous BBC radio comedy series was running in the 1950s when I was still at school, and I heard a number of them at the time. During the 1960s I started recording repeats, and swapping tapes with other collectors: and because I like to know the original dates of recordings and any other pertinent information I set about making a list of all the shows. This was meant entirely as a private reference for myself and a few friends.
 
I managed to get some information from the BBC's files, and produced a reasonably accurate typewritten list. (I should say that it wasn't just a matter of copying out the BBC's information, which was often confused or plain wrong - hardly surprising with performers like the Goons).

There the matter rested until 1974, when I decided to update the list and correct the errors which new acquisitions had shown to exist. I, and my friends and colleagues Tim Smith and Peter Copeland, revised the information and did new research, producing another much more complete typewritten list. On the prompting of various friends I sent this to a publisher, Robson Books (choosing them because they had recently published a book of Goon memorabilia).

They showed an interest, and I set about revising the list yet again, and writing a text about the history of the show. While this was in progress I was approached by the late Jimmy Grafton, who had been involved with the Goons in their early days, and had helped to get the show on the air. He suggested combining his memoirs with my book, and this is what happened, with the book being published in 1976 under the title The Goon Show Companion.

For all I knew that was the total of my writing career - after all, I hadn't even set out to write a book in the first place. Jimmy Grafton, though an agent himself (he was Harry Secombe's agent, among others) asked his friend Roger Hancock to act as agent for both of us on the book. Roger is the younger brother of the famous comedian Tony Hancock, and the founder of a well-known agency. Roger agreed to take it on and, when the contract was ready and I went in to sign it, talked to me for a bit to find out who I was and what the book was about.
A couple of weeks after the book was published, Roger rang me up and suggested I write a similar book about Tony Hancock - "If you can write it, I can sell it", he said. Considering I had come out of nowhere, it was quite a compliment.

I set about researching Tony Hancock: this time the nuts-and-bolts research in the BBC files was easier, partly because the information contained fewer errors, but also because this time I knew how to go about it. I was also able to see all the existing telerecordings of 'Hancock's Half-Hour' thanks to the BBC Film Library (at that time few people had seen them since their last repeats in the 1960s). I did a number of interviews (the Goon book had been done without interviewing anyone), and produced a book which gave the history of Hancock's performing career, together with a complete and detailed listing of all his broadcast appearances.

The book was published in 1978 as Tony Hancock - Artiste by what was then Eyre Methuen (they are just Methuen now); I worked with Geoffrey Strachan, who has been my publisher on most of the subsequent books, and who has always been a great help.

The next book arose out of my wondering whether a book on Monty Python's Flying Circus would be a practicality. Roger Hancock, who knew the performers involved, suggested that I should cover the entire generation of comedy which arose from Oxford and Cambridge Universities after 1961, starting with Beyond The Fringe, and taking in That Was The Week That Was and The Goodies as well as the Pythons. This came out in 1980 under the title From Fringe to Flying Circus. For that book I interviewed 22 people: for the next one I got rather more ambitious and interviewed 70!

It was Geoffrey Strachan who suggested a book about theatrical Variety - the post World War One successor to the old Edwardian Music Hall - pointing out that a) there was hardly anything written on the subject, and b) that if I was going to do it I ought to do the interviews as soon as possible in view of the age of the people involved.
It was a fascinating exercise, talking to people whose experience as performers went back before the 1920s, and researching in old magazines, scripts, records and films. It also took five years to do altogether! The book finally emerged under the title Kindly Leave The Stage in 1985. I think perhaps it is my favourite of my books: the story it tells was well worth investigating, because all the usual books on Victorian and Edwardian Music Hall had dismissed the post-1919 period as of little importance, whereas I found there was a great deal of interesting material, and a complex history as the performers moved into the new media of radio and television.

The next book was a less substantial exercise, being in a way a coffee-table book. The Queen Anne Press wanted to do a book of pictures of Tony Hancock, and in view of my research into his work asked me to write a text and the captions: this was published in 1986 as The Illustrated Hancock.

The last book to date arose from an approach by an insurance salesman! Peter Rosengard, whose varied career finished up as, I gather, a highly successful life insurance salesman, had in the late 1970s been fascinated by the comedy clubs in America where new performers could try out. Against all common-sense he actually managed to open and co-run the Comedy Store, which in 1979 was the birthplace for a new style of comedy - journalistically tagged 'Alternative Comedy' - and was the start of the careers for performers such as Alexei Sayle, Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmonson, Ben Elton, French & Saunders etc., who went on to make a substantial change to the style of British comedy.

Peter Rosengard suggested a book on the subject to Geoffrey Strachan, but realised that he couldn't write it alone: Geoffrey approached me, as an 'expert' in comedy. In the end, the book emerged with a section by Peter detailing the early days of the Comedy Store, and the rest by me, tracing the careers of the leading performers for the next decade. It was published in 1989: the title may take a bit of explaining - Alexei Sayle had a routine which used 'Didn't You Kill My Brother' as a sort of sub-catchphrase: and one of the avowed aims of the 'alternative' comedians was to kill off mother-in-law jokes (and indeed any racist or sexist jokes along with them). Hence the title: Didn't you kill my Mother-in-Law?

Apart from these 'real' books, I also text-edited a couple of small books of comedy scripts, under the title No More Curried Eggs For Me (a quote from a Goon Show included in the book), and Son Of Curried Eggs. I also text-edited the script of Beyond The Fringe for publication, and the entire Monty Python scripts, under the title Monty Python - Just the Words. (You can't just type out the camera scripts - it's never that simple, what with errors, changes, and bits missing, so there was a good deal of work involved in producing texts which matched the original shows closely).

Considering I was working full time when I did all this I am not quite sure how I managed any of it! It was, on the whole, fun to do and well worth doing - particularly when you consider that all I was trying to do in the first place was type out a list of just one radio show.

Roger Wilmut.

And there you have it Goon fans - the Man Himself. You can find out lots more at Roger's web site (which is full of tons of other stuff to do with his hobbies & career in sound engineering) on
www.rfwilmut.clara.net

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Roger has kindly accepted our invitation to become an Honorary Member of the GSPS.

Hard-back version

Paper-back version