Sunday, 14 May 2017

Meeting Neddy



YOURS TRULY WITH HARRY SECOMBE, BOURNEMOUTH OCTOBER 1995


A BRUSH WITH GREATNESS:

SIR HARRY SECOMBE

As an unknown freelance in the autumn of 1995 I was commissioned by BBC Radio 4 to write a feature on The Goon Show Preservation Society’s Bournemouth Convention, A Weekend Called Fred. As a Goons aficionado, meeting fans from Australia, New Zealand and the USA, plus the show’s producers and sound effects men was an attractive proposition. However, I was disappointed to discover there would be no actual Goons attending. Peter Sellers was dead. Spike Milligan was grumpy and unapproachable. Harry Secombe had been knighted and was busy in West End theatre. So unbeknown to the Society, I decided to write a letter to one of the originals, Michael Bentine.
SELLERS, MICHAEL BENTINE, & SPIKE MILLIGAN
I was surprised when Bentine phoned me to announce that he was going to California as he was dying with prostate cancer. He told me he already had the inscription planned for his gravestone; "You know I believe in the spirit world and the afterlife?" I said I was aware. "Well, on my grave I'm having "I'm sorry I'm not available just now, but leave a message and I'll get back to you." We both laughed.

     “I wish you well, but I aim to expire in the sunshine.” He died a year later. I looked at other celebrities who loved the Goons to see if I could tempt one to come along. I recalled that Dusty Springfield was a huge fan and could do all the voices. I called her manager, Vicki Wickham.
She said she thought Dusty would love it. But closer to the event, Vicki called me back to say Dusty had a gig that weekend and couldn't make it.


I had one weak option left. It was a long shot, so I wrote an unctuous letter to Sir Harry Secombe. A week later, the phone rang.

   “Yes …who’s this?” There was a giggle.

   “It’s Harry!” Stupidly, I said “Harry who?” Another giggle followed by “How many bloody Harrys do you know man? Secombe! It’s Neddy!” I was bowled over. The legendary Neddy Seagoon was talking to me. “Blimey,” he said, “just sitting here in my dressing room reading your letter. You’re a miserable bugger, aren’t you?”  I told him I was simply pulling out all the emotional stops trying to appeal to his better nature. The fact that the show was still so popular after four decades around the world, and none of us were getting any younger. He listened, and I asked “Will you come?”

   “Oh … all right then, but only for half an hour. I can’t stand those bloody Goon fans - they’re all barking mad, you know. Send me the details, time, venue, and meet me when I get there. You’d better protect me! Don’t tell them I’m coming.”

On the Saturday afternoon, I was instructed to wait for him outside the hotel. Inside, on the stage the Goons producer Dennis Main-Wilson was being interviewed before a rapt audience. Outside a large silver Mercedes, HS1, pulled up. The passenger door was flung open and I was beckoned inside. I guided the chauffeur around the back of the building. Harry shook my hand and told me I needed to go on a diet. He followed me to the stage door. I entered, blundered onto the stage and interrupted the interview, announcing

   “Ladies and gentlemen! A special guest! Sir Harry Secombe!” The crowd went wild, Harry strode up to the mike and blew a loud raspberry, and spent the next two hours talking to fans and signing autographs. Eventually, I found a quiet room, ordered tea and biscuits and sat with the great Seagoon talking about comedy. It was a wonderful afternoon, and a fine piece of radio in the company of a master clown and true gentleman. The following morning I had breakfast with Dennis Main-Wilson, discussing shows he’d produced such as Hancock’s Half Hour. The weekend ended with a batter pudding hurling contest on the beach. Every time I look at that photograph, it makes me smile.

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