Random on a trandem — the Goodies return
Graeme Garden, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Bill Oddie celebrate their cult comedy coming out on DVD and remember the laughs
September 18 2018, 12:01am, The Times
Goodies! The very word is like a bicycle bell to toll us back to 1975, the year the Goodies’ BBC audience hit ten million, they got their second Radio Times cover and performed their hit single The Funky Gibbonon Top of the Pops. The Goodies — anyone under 45 will sadly need telling — were three friends on a wobbly three-seat cycle who, as their show’s titles promised, would do anything so long as it got a laugh. And it usually did.
A sitcom that looked like a sketch show, The Goodies was loved by everyone with half a sense of humour, from filthy-minded schoolboys to (for a while) Mary Whitehouse. Graeme Garden, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Bill Oddie were cartoonish versions of themselves and of Englishness generally, respectively, the obsessive technocrat, the patriotic twit and the randy oik. They were the silly lining to Britain’s dark decade, the giant cat swinging off the Post Office Tower. Then, suddenly, in 1982, they were cancelled and The Goodies became as unfashionable as flares and zaniness itself.
However, despite years of obscurity and denied reruns, they are accumulating credibility. The complete collection of their 69 BBC episodes and specials is being released on DVD. A radio remake is in its early stages and in June Britain’s smartest comedian, Stewart Lee, interviewed them on stage in London, accusing the troupe of being influenced by surrealism, Fellini and Kurosawa. “What were you on?” Lee asked. “BBC Two,” Garden replied.
I meet them at the North Wall theatre in Oxford. They have less hair, bigger bellies and Garden walks with a stick, but, in their mid-seventies, they are still, immediately, the Goodies. Garden wears his trademark corduroy, Oddie is as psychedelically scruffy as ever and Brooke-Taylor’s fair locks retain a whiff of Sebastian Flyte. Hearing disabilities permitting, they still make one another laugh.
The three had worked on television comedy through the latter half of the Sixties on sketch series and came up with The Goodies when their previous series, Broaden Your Mind, ran out of steam. They approached the BBC with their idea of a three-man agency for hire. Its head of comedy told them he got the same idea on his desk twice a week, that and a German version of Dad’s Army. He trusted them, however, and commissioned seven episodes, without a pilot. The first, in which the Goodies save the crown jewels, was transmitted at 10pm on BBC Two on Sunday, November 8, 1970.
Garden was brought up in Preston, Brooke-Taylor in Buxton and Oddie in Birmingham. They had, however, two things in common: private schools (a direct grant in Oddie’s case) and Cambridge. They were members of Footlights, then the BBC’s prime hunting ground for new comic talent. Times change; this summer the BBC’s comedy chief, Shane Allen, announced: “If you’re going to assemble a team now, it’s not going to be six Oxbridge white blokes.”
“That’s like saying, ‘I’m not going to employ women,’ or, ‘I’m not going to employ black people,’ ” Brooke-Taylor protests in the middle of the sofa they share in the theatre’s dressing room. “You think, ‘Oh for God’s sake,’ ” says Oddie, on Brooke-Taylor’s right.
In fact, the Goodies were themselves a reaction to the first wave of clever-clever Cambridge satirists: David Frost, Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett. “When we were at Cambridge satire had become a byword and the theory was now ‘back to music hall’,” says Garden, who adds that topicality was still important. “We used to write a Panorama list of things that were going on in politics or the cinema or in television, and then mix them up.”
A 1971 episode, Pollution, had the trio riding their “trandem” across a field while being pelted by dead birds from the sky. Another took on artificially modified food, in this case dancing chickens. The BBC was most nervous of the 1975 episode South Africa, in which the brutal South African police were ridiculed. More often the targets were overfamiliar TV personalities. An episode about a plague of Rolf Harrises concerned his ubiquity, not his sexual conduct. The Goodies poked fun, but with something nearer Ken Dodd’s tickling stick than anything sharper.
The best jokes, in retrospect, are nearly all visual. Some, such as the giant Kitten Kong at loose over London, are painstakingly executed through puppetry, models, early green-screen video and front-axial projection, a term Garden uses to bamboozle the other two. “I remember our set designer at the end of a series saying, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t do this any more. It’s too much of a strain,’ but he was the first to volunteer for the next,” Brooke-Taylor says.
Other sequences, recalling the heyday of silent cinema, relied on the trio’s puzzling disregard for their safety. Brooke-Taylor was injured twice in a single day falling from the trandem, which had been suspended 4ft above the studio floor. The second accident tore a long gash in his right hand.
“Tim wins the prize for the most ghastly injury without a doubt. He sliced through his hand,” Oddie admits. “Mine wasn’t as good. I dislocated a thumb. Nothing to see.”
These days their lawyers would have sued, I say. “We wouldn’t have been able to do it in the first place; health and safety would have stopped us in our tracks,” says Garden, who recently signed a risk-assessment form for a voiceover.
The sung (yet unsung) highlights of many shows were Oddie’s highly crafted songs, which were played behind speeded-up film sequences and interrupted by sound effects that Oddie still resents. Some were released commercially and by 1975 the Goodies were the sixth bestselling pop group in the country. For Goodies think Monkees.
Given the technical virtuosity, often inspired comedic ideas and musical quality, the Goodies should have been counted among the comedy greats long ago. Forty-plus years have left the series exposed, however. The South Africa episode, while its heart was undoubtedly in the right place, references “nig-nogs” and has Brooke-Taylor blacked up as a minstrel. It is a hard watch now.
Women in this male ensemble were also victims of the time. Older character actresses such as Beryl Reid and Molly Sugden had good parts, but anyone under 30 was more likely to be cast as a dolly bird. A first series episode, preserved only in black and white in the new release, apparently reverses sexism by inventing a Playgirl Club, but it is the women’s not the men’s naked bottoms that are ogled in a shower scene.
“That is the only one I couldn’t deny,” Oddie says. “We chased three girls out of the showers at some point. Can you remember that?” he asks the others. Silence. “See? You don’t remember. You’ve blanked it, haven’t you? I’ve been dreaming about it ever since.”
On the other hand, I say, one episode has a rather sweet punchline where a bevy of lovelies come out of the office cupboard and the Goodies sit down and play chess with them over the credits. “I like that,” Brooke-Taylor says.
“I think,” Garden says, “when we had girls on the show like that, it was in some way ironic. It wasn’t quite the Benny Hill thing.”
The irony argument might, I suppose, be made for the portrayal of gay men, usually by Brooke-Taylor. He admits to being embarrassed, but cites in his defence his later role in Crossroads in the Noughties when he briefly played the motel chef’s boyfriend. “The director said thank you because I’d played it really straight and not sent it up — and he was gay as it turned out.”
Garden, Oddie and Brooke-Taylor in 1974REX FEATURES
Has political correctness made comedy too paranoid? “It’s getting very difficult now, isn’t it? There are all sorts of areas that you can’t really be funny about,” Garden says.
The truth is, however, that The Goodies is no more embarrassing in these respects than Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which, in addition, is burdened by its ridiculing of working-class stereotypes. Nevertheless, Python, and not without reason, is regarded as the more sophisticated and intellectual show. John Cleese’s jibe on The Goodies and the Beanstalk Christmas edition, that he was a guest on a “kids’ programme”, was written by Garden and Oddie, but the label stuck — despite The Goodies’ post-watershed slots, sex jokes and Whitehouse’s eventual outrage at the sight of Brooke-Taylor’s underpants.
Oddie has vented his resentment at the “schmoozing” Pythons. Today the trio maintain there was nothing to resent since their comedies were so different. It would be beyond human nature, however, had they not occasionally been envious of the Pythons’ classic films and subsequent careers in Hollywood. The nearest the Goodies came was a proposed film to be produced by Steven Spielberg. It was written, but after the failure of his comedy 1941 it came to nothing.
I ask if they were at least well rewarded by the BBC. “We weren’t actually,” Brooke-Taylor says. “We were so pleased to be doing it the way we wanted to do it and we were grateful to the BBC for that.” Is it true they got about £300 a show each? “It was at one point. It got a bit more than that. It went up to about £750 each, wasn’t it? It wasn’t well paid in television terms.”
Then relations with the BBC soured. The corporation, excited by a TV version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, prevaricated over a ninth series of The Goodies after the eighth completed its run in February 1980. London Weekend Television leapt in, offering more money (useful, says Brooke-Taylor, for Garden and Oddie, who were going through divorces) and a three-series deal. ITV broadcast six episodes in early 1982, lost viewers and paid off their contract.
Do they blame the end on ITV? “I think I do to a certain extent,” Brooke-Taylor says. “Well, the BBC blame us for leaving them. We didn’t want to leave them. A few people say, ‘Why don’t you repeat them?’ And they say, ‘Well, they left us, you know?’ What’s that got to do with it? And we didn’t leave you. You kicked us out in effect.”
He notes how well the reruns of Dad’s Army do for BBC Two on Saturday night. “That’s great. It’s wonderful, but they did it by mistake. I hope they make a mistake with us.” “Yes,” Oddie says. “Feel free.”
In the subsequent decades Oddie became one of those wildlife TV presenters whose funny voices the Goodies would send up. At the time, he says, celebrity presenters on such things were not so usual. “I think I managed to persuade them that I . . .”
“Was not a celeb,” Brooke-Taylor says.
Brooke-Taylor took stage and TV acting roles and, like Garden, became a mainstay of the Radio 4 panel game I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue. He says that each time he stands in the wings praying to God that he will be funny one last time. “And God replies, ‘You never were.’ ”
Garden, who trained as a doctor, presented the BBC One medical series Bodymatters and also returned to the stage. The Goodies’ legacy, they comfort themselves, can be seen in comedies from The League of Gentlemen to The Mighty Boosh.
I ask Garden if he had to write a new episode what his subject would be. “I guess we’d cross Donald Trump with . . . I don’t know . . . Vanity Fair. Or do something on IT. I’d invent a phone that had a little road on it showing where you were going.”
“Brexit,” Brooke-Taylor says. Would he be Boris? “I probably would actually,” he says, accepting his fate. “With a Boris haircut,” Garden decides.
Oh goody, I think. Goody, goody, yum yum.
The Goodies: The Complete BBC Collection is out on September 24 at £59.99