(HOST)Commentator Willem Lange remembers the priceless gift of British humour born in the dark days of the Second World War.
(LANGE) If you’ve ever watched Leni Riefenstahl’s 1934 documentary film Triumph of the Will, you know that the members of Hitler’s Nazi party took themselves very seriously. Marching with huge, blood-red flags and eagle standards and saluting in a style reminiscent of ancient Rome and Teutonic knights, they envisioned a glorious 1000-year Reich. They seem ludicrous today; but seventy years ago nothing about them was funny.
Thus they were often infuriated that their archenemies, the British, refused to take seriously all their martial pomp. When your destiny is to rule the world, it smarts to be called “Jerry” — as in, “Oh, God! Here comes Jerry again! Scramble the Spitfires.”
Some of the funniest comedians of the century emerged from the horrors of that long, bloody conflict. Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan, a pair of British soldiers who’d served together in North Africa, began to perform satirical skits with Michael Bettine, who’d served at the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, which he’d described as his most horrific experience of the war. They were joined by a fourth aspiring actor and comedian, Peter Sellers, and started a BBC radio comedy program called “The Goon Show.”
I’ve got a bunch of their tapes. They’re frantic, high-speed, and make no sense at all. Characters like Major Denis Bloodnok and Hercules Grytpype Thyrne carom from one zany escapade to another. Brits of a certain age can to this day recite whole chunks of “Goon Show” routines. Even Prince Charles has proclaimed them his favorite comedians.
The DNA of the Goons is evident in Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which gave us the Search for the Holy Grail by a horseless knight skipping through the countryside, and The Life of Brian, the story of a hapless young man, born on Christmas in the stable next door, who lives a life reverse to that of Jesus of Nazareth.
Another set of heirs to the Goons was Beyond the Fringe, who retold the story of the war from the point of view of the common man; sent a one-legged man in a raincoat to audition for the movie role of Tarzan; and described a reporter from The Bethlehem Star interviewing the shepherds who’d witnessed the nativity scene.
Of all of them, Peter Sellers was probably the best mimic. He could become any character he played, from the idiot Inspector Clouseau to the humorless, regulations-obsessed shop steward in I’m All Right, Jack, to the affectless Merkin Muffley, President of the United States in Dr. Strangelove, which lampoons the Cold War policy of mutually assured destruction.
The film is dated and stilted now, with its B-52s and reel-to-reel computers. But watching and listening – there’s not a single opinion in it you can’t hear today somewhere – you begin to appreciate what those survivors of the Great War were trying to tell us.
This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.
Willem Lange is a contractor, writer, and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire.