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One of the most popular radio comedies ever aired was a series called "The Goon Show." It was broadcast in the BBC in the 1950s, but you can still hear reruns across most of the English-speaking world. The program inspired The Beatles, Monty Python, and quite a few people here.

But for its chief writer, Spike Milligan, "The Goon Show" was anything but funny. His struggles are the subject of a new play opening this weekend in Philadelphia.

Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE: "The Goon Show" went on the air in 1951. At first, BBC executives were reluctant to fund it and hated the name, so they called it "Crazy People," which is not a bad description.

Unidentified Man: This is the BBC Home Service. Thank you. We now come to the radio show entirely dedicated to the downfall of John Snagge. He of course refers to the highly esteemed "Goon Show."

(Soundbite of music)

ROSE: With liberal use of sound effects and music, the cast of recurring characters, and surreal catch phrases, it's not hard to see why BBC executives had their doubts. But the "Goon Show" found its audience.

Mr. ROY SMILES (Playwright): It was just revolutionary. It came from such left field in such a conservative age.

ROSE: Playwright Roy Smiles says the show's runaway success depended on the acting of Harry Secombe and Peter Sellars - yes, that Peter Sellars, and the almost Dada writing of Spike Milligan.

Mr. SMILES: Milligan would write shows during the week and then they get together on Sunday and they'd have a big jug of milk which was full of brandy, unknown to the producers, get a bit tiddly, then have a read-through in the afternoon and then do the show in the evening in front of an ecstatic audience.

Unidentified Man: My lords, ladies, and other National Assistance holders…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man: …tonight the League of Burmese Trombonists present a bestseller play entitled…

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: …the "Terror of Bexhill-on-Sea" or…

(Soundbite of music)

Announcer: …"The Dreaded Batter Pudding Hurler."

ROSE: By the end of the '50s it was hugely popular, and it had a lasting effect on British comedy. The creators of "Monty Python's Flying Circus" named Spike Milligan and The Goons as a major influence, so did Beatle John Lennon. His impression of a German U-boat operator in the movie "A Hard Day's Night" could have been lifted right off the show.

(Soundbite of the "Goon Show")

ROSE: The creators of the "Goon Show" all served in World War II. Milligan had been making his living as a trumpeter. Instead, Roy Smiles say Milligan found himself at the front in Italy.

Mr. SMILES: And he had a terrible time there in Italy. He was wounded and got shell-shocked and they were going to court martial him because his nerve went - that experience haunted him the rest of his life and he came out of the war just determined never to take the officer class in Britain seriously again, and to attack them mercilessly.

ROSE: And that's what Milligan did on "The Goon Show" to the delight of an entire nation. But after nine seasons, the pressure got to be too much. He began behaving erratically, sometimes locking himself in his room for weeks. Speaking years later with the BBC's Peter France, Milligan said the stress of writing the "Goon Show" every week, broke up his marriage to his first wife.

Mr. SPIKE MILLIGAN (Chief Writer of "The Goon Show"): I was being abominable to her in our greatest, sometimes threatening violence and things like that.

Mr. PETER FRANCE: Were you drinking then?

Mr. MILLIGAN: No, no, just the sheer tension of the work I was working on.

ROSE: Playwright Roy Smiles says Milligan suffered a total breakdown in 1960.

Mr. SMILES: He ended up in St. Luke's Psychiatric Hospital and he wanted to kill himself and there he spent many months just a black dog of depression on his back.

ROSE: This is where the play "Ying Tong: A Walk With The Goons" picks up. Smile says it's an attempt to explore what was happening in Spike Milligan's head when he quit writing "The Goon Show." In one scene Milligan spars with the hospital psychiatrist.

(Soundbite of "Ying Tong: A Walk With The Goons")

Mr. MILLIGAN: I never wanted to be a comedian, I wanted to be a musician. I only became a comedian to avoid starvation and with skills, avocation, and dedication to my craft, I ended up starving, sharing a room above a pub with a monkey.

Hospital Psychiatrist (in Ying Tong): Do you always use jokes to deflect pain?

Mr. MILLIGAN (in Ying Tong): Only for 40 years.

Hospital Psychiatrist (in Ying Tong): That's not very healthy.

Mr. MILLIGAN (in Ying Tong): Isn't it?

ROSE: Ying Tong doesn't use actual excerpts from the Goon Show, which are under copyright, but it comes pretty close.

Unidentified Man: This is the BBC Home Service.

(Soundbite of screaming)

Unidentified Man: Here's to the happy laughter of Britain's municipal work force going about a busy day beleaguering we present The Goon Show and...

ROSE: Some of the strangest things in the play actually happened. For instance, the time Milligan tried to stab Peter Sellars with a potato peeler. Playwright Roy Smiles says Milligan had grown to despise Sellars, who is getting more and more famous thanks to the Goon Show.

Mr. SMILES: Just after the Goon he became some mega-star, which Milligan bitterly resented the rest of his days, by the way.

ROSE: Sellars went on to fame in Hollywood starring in Dr. Strangelove and the Pink Panther movies. Milligan got treatment for what's now known as bipolar disorder. He wrote a series of books about his experiences in World War II and produced a short lived T.V. show for the BBC. And he never missed a good chance to bite the hand that fed him. Here's Milligan talking with the BBC's Michael Parkinson in 1977:

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MICHAEL PARKINSON (BBC): ...your relationship with the BBC, don't you?

Mr. SPIKE MILLIGAN (Writer): Everybody does…

Mr. PARKINSON: Everybody does.

Mr. MILLIGAN: Yes. By far they said it's all those are just postmen with cameras.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLIGAN: He said they're going (unintelligible) pension, that's it, I mean.

Mr. PARKINSON: What is it about you and big organizations? I mean, it's not just BBC or the GPO or the Inland Revenue.

Mr. MILLIGAN: Well, they've lost individuality and so I'm an individual. And therefore I cannot become a big conglomerate of crap, you know.

ROSE: Despite his anti-authoritarian leanings, Spike Mulligan was knighted by Prince Charles, who was a fan of "The Goon Show." Sir Spike passed away in 2002. The play "Ying Tong" opened in London two years later to rave reviews. It went on to play packed houses in Australia and New Zealand. But now it's opening in America, where it will have to contend for the first time with audiences not raised on reruns of "The Goon Show." Playwright Roy Smiles concedes there is reason for concern.

Mr. SMILES: They might greet it in total silence, who knows? You're a strange and terrible people, you Americans. But you like "Monty Python," so I can't see why you wouldn't like the Goons.

ROSE: Smiles says he has adapted the play, slowing down the dialogue in the hope that audiences here will finally get Milligan's sense of humor. It's a trick Spike Milligan himself was never able to pull off.

For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose in Philadelphia.

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