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Media Funhouse

Media Funhouse




Media Funhouse

The blog for the cult Manhattan cable-access TV show that offers viewers the best in "everything from high art to low trash… and back again!" Find links to rare footage, original reviews, and reflections on pop culture and arthouse cinema.

The Milligan in his prime.

When I interviewed Unkle Ken Russell (his chosen social media handle) in 2008, I asked him a question that couldn’t be “illustrated” by the film in question, because it was under lock and key at that time on the BFI website. That film, the 1959 TV short “Portrait of a Goon” with Spike Milligan, is now available in various places online, and so I can return to the discussion about Unkle Ken, “the Richard Lester style,” and the one and only Spike Milligan.


Let me preface this discussion by noting my deep admiration for Lester — the two Beatles films, The Knack…The Bed Sitting Room (a dazzlingly, wonderfully weird end-of-the-world comedy based on a Milligan play), and Petulia are all seminal films of the Sixties. Although his visual/editing style, which is credited as being the “beginning of the modern music video” (since Soundies were probably the first Golden Age music videos), was not as original as it seemed in 1964. Tracing influences is something I love to do on the Funhouse TV show and on this blog, so I once again want to “follow the trail” of a style back to its inception.


The Goons: Sellers, Milligan, Secombe

The “Richard Lester style” seemed to appear on the scene full-blown in the Beatles’ big-screen debut, the comedy A Hard Day’s Night (1964). Lester was not unfamiliar with madcap anarchy— his first big-screen comedy was the 1959 short “The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film,” starring two of the three stars of the milestone radio comedy show, “The Goon Show,” Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers. The film was scripted by Milligan, Sellers, Mario Fabrizi, and “Dick” Lester, and is now credited as being directed by Lester and Sellers, along with the performance artist-inventor Bruce Lacey (who was profiled in a short made in 1962 called “The Preservation Man” by none other than… Unkle Ken!).


John Lennon was reportedly very happy Lester got the assignment to direct the Fabs’ first feature, because of his love of the Goons and his familiarity with Lester’s short. One other, sorta important figure in the Beatles’ career had an intersection with the Goons — their 1962 LP “Bridge on the River Wye” was produced by some guy named George Martin. (The cast on the LP included two younger Goon fans, Jonathan Miller and Peter Cook.)



Lester’s approach in Hard Day’s Night was what was later called “an inventory of effects” (in another context, by Marshall McLuhan). Jumpcuts, oblique angles, sped-up and slowed-down action, breaking the axis (and the fourth wall). He certainly would’ve been familiar with silent comedy (the wellspring for visual invention), avant-garde shorts, Golden Age cartoons (esp. the Looney Tunes ones), and chaotic features like Hellzapoppin’ (1941).


“… Standing Still Film” has a much simpler approach. All the bits take place in a field and are filmed in long shot. The only two disjunctive techniques used are speeding up the film (from silent comedy; often confused with the way the films look when shown at sound speed) and a soundtrack that clashed with what is happening onscreen (loud bird chirping noises especially seem to have come out of the avant-garde playbook). The paucity of means — the film was made for just 75 pounds — surely led to the simple, anarchic (yet simplistic on a visual level) style of the short.




There is one element that connects this rather “flatly” shot short to the full-blown flowerings of the Lester style with the Beatles, namely the wild imagination (and surprisingly tight scripting) of Spike Milligan, who was cited by all the important U.K. comedians of the Sixties (and many of the Seventies) as a key influence. And yes, Spike was admired and loved by hoards of British musicians as well. 

The setting of moments like the "Can't Buy Me Love" scene —an open field — retains the "foolish behavior in open spaces" concept of "Standing Still." This concept was openly stolen by "Laugh-In," which, in its earliest episodes, actually had recreations of "Standing Still" gags, including a character being summoned to the camera, whereupon he is punched in the face by a hand in a boxing glove.


Milligan was one of two comedians who suffered for his brilliance by being “put away” for a time (the other being Jonathan Winters). At its best, his humor was absurd, non-linear and, most important, it was fast — to the extent that, even if it was scripted, it seemed ad-libbed. It’s no wonder that any filmmaker who tried to adapt his work for film and television felt they had to work in a similar groove.


To provide some background for the Lester/Goon connection, here is one of the surviving episodes of the TV series “A Show Called Fred” from 1956, which starred Sellers and Milligan among others (for whatever reason, the third Goon, Harry Secombe, was not included in any of the non-Goon-titled endeavors by Spike and Peter; contracts reportedly held him back, since he was a professional singer when not Goon-ing). The show is directed by one “Dick” Lester. (Born in Philly in 1932, he moved to England in 1953.)


“Fred” isn’t as miraculously weird as “The Goon Show,” but it does show Spike and company crafting a program that plays with the medium. The camera pulls back to reveal the studio during certain sketches, with other BBC cameras in view and crew members standing around. At one point (starting at 14:25) a sketch called “The Count of Monte Carlo” explodes into a weird journey one character takes off the set and around the studio, ending up in a BBC cafeteria (or a set intended to be a cafeteria).


To provide some context for this weirdness, we should note that other experimental humor was being presented at this time, but it was independent of Spike and he was independent of it. In America, Ernie Kovacs had been playing with the medium for several years by ’56 (but none of his work was seen in the U.K.). A closer (geographically) connection was that the Theater of the Absurd (which “A Show Named Fred” is very close to, in terms of its constant commenting on itself) had begun in earnest in 1950 France (with Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano).


Waiting for Godot premiered in England in 1955, but Spike’s cousin in surreal absurdity, Eugene Ionesco, didn’t have a breakthrough on the British stage until 1960, when Orson Welles staged Rhinoceros with Olivier in the lead.


Here is Spike’s Cathode Ray of the Absurd:





Back to Lester and the Goons: “Running Jumping…” was first shown in the U.S. in November 1959. A month later, on Dec. 6, another Milligan movie appeared, Unkle Ken’s promotional short “Portrait of a Goon,” produced for the culture program “Monitor.” The proximity of the projects makes it unlikely that either director saw the other’s work, and yet both films have an identical pace and rhythm (that of the Milligan).



The most interesting thing about comparing the Russell short and Hard Day’s Night is that they both contain jumpcuts, a technical “mistake” that became de rigueur in modernist cinema after Godard’s Breathless (1960) hit cinemas. Russell couldn’t have seen the film when he made his short. (Godard’s debut feature was released in December of 1960 in the U.K.) Certainly Ken had seen the “trick films” that grew out of Melies’ work, though, where magical images were achieved via jarring edits that severed the rules of continuity in time and space. (For his part, Lester used some of Godard’s techniques in his 1965 comedy The Knack and How to Get It.)


When I interviewed Unkle Ken, he was directing the off-off-Broadway show Mindgame by Anthony Horowitz at the SoHo Playhouse. At one point the Playhouse had been the Thalia Soho, which had screened a program of Russell shorts, including “Portrait of a Goon.” I was thus inspired to ask him about the short and “the Richard Lester style.”





I am very happy that the BFI finally took the short out from under lock and key and put it on their social media accounts, which led to a fan posting it on YouTube.





So, on the list of things comedic that Spike had a hand in originating, let us now add the “Richard Lester style.”


Jim Eigo Jazz Promo Services T: 845-986-1677 E-Mail: jim@jazzpromoservices.com



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