Here in HMV on London’s Oxford Street, three comedians are signing autographs.
Here in HMV on London’s Oxford Street, three comedians are signing autographs. The queue of fans stretches through the foyer, almost out on to the street. Nothing unusual about that — this record shop regularly stages personal appearances by Britain’s biggest stars. What’s so surprising is that these comics are in their late-sixties, and the show that they’re promoting hasn’t been on TV for nearly 30 years. As The Goodies autograph their new DVD (a compilation of vintage shows, rereleased to mark their 40th anniversary) their greatest hits are replayed on a giant screen above their heads. Yet this isn’t just nostalgia. These old clips still feel fresh and funny. In the current 1970s revival (Tube strikes, student demos, coalition government) even their flares and sideburns look chic. After a generation of neglect, The Goodies are back in vogue.
Even in their Seventies heyday, The Goodies never took themselves too seriously. The cognoscenti dismissed them as a kids’ show, but the kids (both big and small) knew better. Ratings frequently nudged 10 million, as Bill Oddie, Graeme Garden and Tim Brooke-Taylor set out on their three-seater bike to do ‘anything, anytime’ (anywhere). The show spawned several bestselling books and five top 20 records. A joyous blend of slapstick and silly satire, it was a televisual pantomime, the Little Britain of its day. Except, unlike Little Britain, there was no cruelty whatsoever in it, and that is why its appeal has lasted. The Goodies are a daft memento of a kinder, wiser age.
After the signing session (and photos with fans of all ages), Tim, Bill and Graeme reconvene in an upstairs office, for a coffee and a chat. Nowadays, Bill is best known for his wildlife documentaries while Tim and Graeme are radio stalwarts, but they still seem like a proper trio, teasing one another in much the same way that they used to on TV. They don’t look quite the same, of course. Tim looks like a small-town solicitor, Graeme looks like a country doctor and Bill looks like a polytechnic lecturer, which is what they might well have become if it hadn’t been for the Cambridge Footlights. Tim went to Cambridge to read law, Bill read English and Graeme studied medicine, but what they really learnt about at university was comedy.
Footlights isn’t quite so trendy nowadays (younger alumni tend to keep quiet about it, for fear they’ll be accused of nepotism) but it remains a bastion of British comedy, and The Goodies were part of its Golden Age. John Cleese studied law with Tim. Graham Chapman was a medical student, like Graeme. Peter Cook had graduated the year before. ‘The Footlights had a terrific reputation at that time,’ explains Graeme. ‘It was quite something to get into it. Tim was president when I joined. I had to audition in front of him. You can imagine how scary that was!’ Yet once you were in, Footlights gave fledgling comics the confidence of strength in numbers. ‘I’d never done any performing before,’ says Tim. ‘It was purely because I met like-minded people.’ ‘I don’t know how many of us would have gone into show business individually,’ agrees Graeme. ‘When are you going to get a proper job?’ says Bill. ‘That’s a chorus which has probably gone through all our lives.’
They never did quite get around to getting proper jobs. After Cambridge, they worked with Cleese and Chapman (and most of Monty Python) in TV shows like Broaden Your Mind and Twice a Fortnight, finally joining forces as The Goodies in 1970. For a decade they were one of the best things on the box, a show for all the family – like Morecambe & Wise, but with a sharper, more surreal edge. They’re proud to have been the toast of primary schools, for kids are the best comedy critics. ‘They’ve got no preconceptions, which is a great thing,’ says Tim. Younger comics like the Mighty Boosh and the League of Gentlemen still sing their praises. They were never revered, like Monty Python, so their humour has never palled.
Watching their shows again today, what’s most remarkable is their fluent physicality. A lot of Oxbridge comics tend to act from the neck up but The Goodies had an almost continental flair for mime. ‘When we first did television, we were quite verbal,’ says Tim. ‘We gradually got to use the medium.’ ‘We were doing programmes which couldn’t work on radio,’ concurs Bill. There’s a balletic quality to their work which wouldn’t look out of place in a French circus, but beneath the anarchic knockabout was a good degree of social comment. Tim played the Little Englander, Graeme was the mad scientist and Bill was the bolshy socialist, and in these roles they poked playful fun at everyone, from Mary Whitehouse to Enoch Powell. ‘It’s actually quite anti-Establishment,’ says Tim. ‘That’s why Australia liked it.’
The BBC got in a right old tizz about their Royal Variety spoof but, like all their other skits, this regal skit was harmless fun, executed with the childlike humour that became their trademark. They even did their own stunts. ‘When people see us falling off the bike they know we’ve fallen off and it hurt a bit, and that makes it funnier,’ says Tim. Their greatest-ever accolade was when a viewer died laughing while watching their TV show. His widow wrote them a sweet letter thanking them for making his last half-hour so happy.
The Goodies’ own demise came about, like that of so many Seventies comedies, with their move to ITV. With viewing figures topping 11 million, their first series for LWT was an even bigger hit, but bizarrely LWT declined to commission a second series (‘It was too expensive,’ says Graeme) and replaced it with that excruciating sitcom, Mind Your Language. As a group, they remained tied into a three-year contract with LWT, so they had no option but to go their separate ways. Maybe it was a blessing. The last series has its moments (especially Bill as a football hooligan and Tim as Cinderella) but their best years as a trio were behind them.
This premature end accounts, in part, for the fondness with which the show is remembered. Thanks to LWT, The Goodies went out near its peak, rather than enduring a slow, dull decline. Another reason is the BBC’s strange reluctance ever to repeat the show, something that still remains a mystery. It was only (very) belatedly released on video, and now 31 episodes (nearly half the total) are finally available on DVD.
‘A lot of people buy the DVDs out of nostalgia and then watch it with their kids,’ says Tim. ‘Then they find they like it and their kids like it.’ I know exactly what he means. The Goodies are all OAPs but their playground humour hasn’t dated. My kids find them hilarious, and 30 years on, they still make me laugh just as much as they used to. They still make each other laugh too. ‘We did things which made us laugh, rather than wondering what would make the audience laugh,’ says Tim. On shows like I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, that amateur tradition endures. ‘Our attitude there is to make the other people on the panel laugh,’ says Graeme. ‘A couple of million people just happen to be overhearing it.’ So do they have any regrets about not becoming the doctors and lawyers they might have been, if Footlights hadn’t intervened? ‘Not really,’ says Graeme. ‘I think I probably saved more lives not doing medicine than by doing it.’ ‘It’s a horrific thought,’ reflects Bill, ‘waking up from the anaesthetic and seeing Graeme.’ And the years melt away as their shared laughter rings around the room.