by james w thomas
More September birthdays to remember (OK, it’s October – very belated) for three more theatre people: Harry Secombe born on the 8th, Desmond Llewelyn on September 12, and Donald Swann on the 30th.
Often singing “Ying tong yiddle I po,” on BBC radio, Neddie Seagoon played leading men: Caractacus Seagoon, Neddie Toulouse-Lautrec, and Winston Seagoon, or Uncle Oscar, Private Bogg, and Nugent Dirt. When knighted in 1981, he called himself Sir Circumference and chose the motto “GoOn” for his coat of arms. He was Harry Secombe. Prince Charles called him simply Ned of Wales.
Harry Donald Secombe, born 8 September 1921 in St. Thomas, Swansea, served in the Royal Artillery in World War II in North Africa, where he met Spike Milligan in 1943. A howitzer “came flying over a cliff,” just missing him. A man appeared, asking “Has anyone seen a gun?” and Secombe replied, “What colour was it?” In London after the war, this duo, back together, met Michael Bentine and Peter Sellers and together they created what became The Goon Show on BBC radio. It ran from 1951 until 1960.
Written by Spike Milligan, it was strange, surreal, or “utter and glorious weirdness,” but it was funny. It could have been Secombe’s “giggles spilling through to an inevitable raspberry,” or “needle-nardle-noo,” “rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb,” or the call for “Brandyyy!” The Goons did influence a few people’s sense of humor, such as, oh, the Beatles, Firesign Theatre, and Monty Python. “Whatwhatwhatwhatwhat?”
The operatically-trained tenor went on to star in the musical Pickwick, introducing “If I Ruled the World,” a signature song for him. He starred on BBC television in his own sketch show and the religiously-oriented Song of Praise and Highway. When he died on 11 April 2001 at 79, Milligan said he was glad Secombe went first “because I didn’t want him to sing at my funeral.” So they played a Secombe record.
James Bond: “This no place for you, Q. Go home.” Q: “Oh, don’t be an idiot, 007.” Yes, the master of the “Q-toys” for James Bond from 1963 to 1999 was the Welsh Desmond Llewelyn, who played with the official first five 007s – Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, and Pierce Brosnan. In real life, he was hopeless. In Q: The Biography of Desmond Llewelyn (1999) by Sandy Hernu, he claimed, “I can hardly put on a kettle, let alone set a video.” Ah, the magic of movies…
Desmond Wilkinson Llewelyn, born in Newport, on 12 September 1914, had his career delayed by World War II. With the Royal Welch Fusiliers, he started in France but spent five years in a German POW camp.
He co-starred as Q started in the second film, From Russia With Love with Connery. Llewelyn noted, “When I was cast, the director said, ‘Everyone loves Bond, except for you. You hate him. You’re always saving his life, and he never thanks you.” He would play Q “as long as the producers want me and the Almighty doesn’t.” Unfortunately, on 19 December 1999, Llewelyn died in a car crash at the age of 85.
And “Mud, mud, glorious mud/Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood” The best song of the bestiary might be the “Hippopotamus Song” by Flanders and Swann. They also sang along with Mozart. “I once had a whim and I had to obey it,/To buy a French horn in a second-hand shop./I polished it up and I started to play it/In spite of the neighbours who begged me to stop.” Of course that’s the Rondo from the Horn Concerto #4, aka “Ill Wind.” And there was always another animal: “g-nu, a-g-nother g-nu!”
Donald Ibrahim Swann, born 30 September 1923 in Llanelli, started with Michael Flanders in 1948, writing songs and light opera. Serious silliness continued in 1956 with two musicals, At the Drop of Hat, which begat At the Drop of Another Hat, running to 1967. A-g-nother side showed in his song cycles with lyrics by William Blake, Emily Dickinson, and Oscar Wilde. Swann’s songs from J.R.R. Tolkien can be heard in The Lord of the Rings trilogy of films, hummed by Gandalf and sung by Bilbo. Donald Swann died of cancer on 23 March 1994. “The road goes ever on and on…Let others follow it who can!”