'We're not remotely bitter'
Overlooked by the BBC and overshadowed by the Pythons, the Goodies' comic legacy has been unjustifiably neglected. But, they tell Brian Logan, they're back to set the record straight
Thursday March 1, 2007
Icons of British comedy? We'd all say Morecambe and Wise, I'd guess. Dad's Army. Inevitably, Monty Python. But most of our lists would stretch into double figures before reaching the Goodies. The Goodies were prime-time mainstays for a whopping 12 years into the early 1980s, and have been paying the price ever since. The BBC has neither repeated their series nor released their DVDs themselves. The perception took hold that The Goodies was (in the barbed words of John Cleese, in a cameo appearance on the show) "a kids' programme". If the Pythons now tower over British comedy like a marauding giant kitten, the Goodies are a dead parrot.
The Python parallel is irresistible. The Goodies themselves make it, almost obsessively. As their stage show, which starts a national tour this month, makes clear, Bill Oddie, Graeme Garden and Tim Brooke-Taylor were friends, flatmates and Footlights colleagues of Cleese, Idle, et al. They performed in the same successful student revue, Cambridge Circus, which ended up on Broadway. Their members wrote for That Was the Week That Was and starred together in a BBC sketch show called Broaden Your Mind.
History could easily have panned out differently. "There's some Python stuff that any of us would have felt comfortable doing," says Oddie. "And some of the Python people would have felt comfortable doing Goodies stuff." According to Brooke-Taylor (who co-scripted the Four Yorkshiremen sketch subsequently performed live by the Pythons), the formation of the two troupes "was about who was available at the right moment. It could have gone a lot of different ways".
Really? The Pythons in dungarees, singing Funky Gibbon on Top of the Pops? The Goodies' Life of Brian? From a distance, their acts seem to inhabit distant universes. Monty Python were the clever-clever literary wits whereas, in Oddie's words, "we were intelligent, but accessible". The Goodies' heroes were Buster Keaton and Tom & Jerry. Their half-sketch show, half-sitcom format, in which the trio play an agency of three bicycling blokes for hire to do "anything, anytime", are like Warner Bros cartoons made flesh. Silly, slapstick and sped-up, the best episodes are freewheeling streams-of-nonsense in which TV conventions are upended, rugs are pulled, and every silent-movie gag in history is lovingly re-created.
Australia realises this. There, the Goodies' anti-establishment irreverence is embraced, says Brooke-Taylor, and the show is broadcast daily. It was Australia that enticed the trio back together for a theatre tour, for which 25,000 tickets sold out in one day. The UK tour of the same show (minus Oddie, who participates via video inserts) is Australian-produced. It's a nostalgic, chatty affair, which screens classic clips, including a movie- pastiche sequence from 1975 that is giddy with its own inventiveness. "Every night onstage," says Brooke-Taylor, "I think, 'How the hell did we do that?'" And a fabulously cheeky broadside against self-appointed 1970s censor Mary Whitehouse, featuring a "gender education" film called How to Make Babies By Doing Dirty Things.
That's what we tend to forget about the Goodies. They weren't silly in a vacuum. They were silly about topical issues. That may be one reason they've dated less well than the Pythons. Another is suggested by one particular episode, entitled South Africa. Ostensibly, this episode attacks apartheid (the Goodies visit South Africa, where the diminutive Oddie is persecuted under the "apart-height" regime), and the Goodies are proud of having broadcast it. But its racial stereotyping and casual use of the word "nig-nog" make it all but unwatchable today.
The trio have admitted to being "slightly embarrassed" by such scenes. "But there were only one or two of them," says Garden - who himself blacked up for the famous Ecky-Thump episode that caused a 50-year-old bricklayer to laugh himself to death. The trio are loath to think that their output has been freeze-dried because of the odd racial (and homophobic) stereotype. After all, the Pythons blacked up, and The Black and White Minstrel Show was one of the most popular broadcasts of the mid-1970s. "We did a minstrel spoof ourselves," says Oddie, "in which Martin Luther King says, 'I have a dream about a world where minstrels will be all sorts of colours, not just black and white.' If someone thinks that's un-PC, then they really are stupid."
Oddie is the most voluble on this subject, as indeed he is on all subjects. He domineers the conversation; Brooke-Taylor pitches in; Garden keeps his counsel. Brooke-Taylor has a stock line about Oddie's non-participation in the stage show - he likes the pre-recorded video Oddie, he says, because it means "we can switch Bill off". This may be a true word spoken in jest.
Reinvented as a wildlife broadcaster, Oddie was recently voted the fourth most trusted person in Britain. But it's not clear that he and his fellow Goodies have always held one another in high esteem. Witness Oddie's sleeve-notes for a CD of the songs he wrote for the series: "I would like to thank the other two Goodies, but I really can't. It would have been so much easier without them."
But today, their camaraderie seems authentic. Brooke-Taylor professes fondness for the Goodies' musical career, even if Garden's gritted-teeth tribute - "I loved every second of it" - isn't even meant to sound convincing. The Goodies were the fifth biggest-grossing pop act of 1975 - or, according to Brooke-Taylor, "the Spice Girls of the 70s". During the same period, they won a Sun award for light entertainment ahead of Morecambe and Wise and The Two Ronnies. They bagged two second-place Silver Roses of Montreux, one of which they sprayed gold on their TV show. "We were robbed," says Oddie now. "I hope you appreciate," says Brooke-Taylor, "that 35 years later we're not remotely bitter!"
Bitter is too strong a word. But they are disappointed at the BBC's disdain, and at the disparity between the Pythons' reputation and their own. Again, Oddie is nearly slanderous on the subject. "Python hoiked themselves up to a different level because of their American connection," he says. "They were financed by Victor Lowndes from Playboy magazine. This is their seedy past." Python's fame is down to their assiduous schmoozing. "I remember going to lunch with Eric [Idle] in the 70s. He said, 'Come over, I've got some friends round,' and it was Paul Simon and Mick Jagger. And John [Cleese] is very comfortable with meeting important people. If he hasn't got Steve Martin round for supper, it's a wasted evening."
The Goodies' brush with Hollywood came when Steven Spielberg, believe it or not, suggested a collaboration. So what went wrong? "I think John and Eric got together and dissuaded him," deadpans Garden. "So he made The Goonies instead." Oddie's explanation is that, unlike the Pythons, "we are a bit low-class. We are not top-of-the-league show people. None of us are natural members of the Groucho club. We do not take drugs or associate with people who do. And half of the Pythons," he goes on, rising in volume, "married big, blonde Americans. None of us married a big, blonde American." Or at least, "not yet", adds Brooke-Taylor.
Brooke-Taylor may not share Oddie's class resentment, but he will agree that "a very big plus for Python was that the viewers' parents didn't like them. Whereas the whole family liked us." Python was cool in a way that a live-action Tom & Jerry could never be. "I'm willing to bet," says Oddie, "that most heads of BBC2 down the years were Python fans who regarded The Goodies as a kids' programme. And they were not going to show us because they were too fucking hip."
I think the Goodies are justified in feeling unfairly rejected. That may indeed be because we live in a culture that prizes the verbal above the visual, the cerebral above the popular. It may also be because the Goodies (unlike Python or Fawlty Towers) overstayed their welcome. In 1982, they took their final series to LWT, where one episode discussed the fact that they were too clapped-out to be Goodies any more.
But now, a little belated recognition is coming their way. A new generation of comics hail them as major influences - the League of Gentlemen and Mike (Austin Powers) Myers are fans, The Mighty Boosh are clearly in their debt, and Little Britain's David Walliams cites seeing the Goodies chased by Dougal from the Magic Roundabout as his pre-eminent comic memory.
The Goodies are gratified by this, but they've had too many false new dawns in the last quarter century to take talk of a revival seriously. "What I find all the time," says Brooke-Taylor, "is that we're driven into this position of having to justify The Goodies." If it were shown, he wouldn't have to. It could speak for, or against, itself. "Because we don't want to oversell it," he says. "But we are very proud of it. And it's so frustrating that it's not seen".
. The Goodies Still Rule OK! is at Princess Theatre, Torquay (0870 145 1163)
on March 15, then tours. The Goodies at LWT DVD is released on March 26