B.G. Hilton – Author

The Wreck of the ‘Saucy Gibbon’

Do you remember The Goodies? If you do, you’re probably about my age, and probably Australian. Though they were a British comedy team, their BBC 2 series only ran once in the UK, never to be repeated on British television. It was, however, run and rerun ad nauseum on the BBC’s Australian equivalent the ABC — usually in the grey zone between kid’s afternoon television and grown-up time, signaled by the evening news.

The Goodies - Bill Oddie, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Graeme Garden.
The Goodies, l-r: Bill Oddie, Tim Brooke Taylor and Graeme Garden.

The Goodies was a profoundly weird show. It starred Graeme Garden, Bill Oddie and the late Tim Brooke-Taylor, who were contemporaries of the Monty Python crew. In fact, Tim, Bill and Graeme had been working on a sketch show called Broaden Your Mind with some of the future Pythons, when Monty Python’s Flying Circus was commissioned. BBC2, deciding that they didn’t need two sketch shows running, so they cancelled Broaden Your Mind. Tim, Bill and Graeme went to BBC2 and said, if we can’t have a sketch show, how about a sitcom? And BBC2 said yes.

But here’s the trick: the sitcom they came up with, The Goodies, was barely a sitcom. The premise was that there were these three guys who would do ‘anything, anytime.’ Shows went one of two ways. One way was that a client would turn up and hire the Goodies to do a weird thing (protect the Crown Jewels, find the Loch Ness Monster, make a sex education movie without any sex) and this would lead to a series of set pieces and physical comedy. The other was that the Goodies themselves would come up with a strange idea (search for gold in Cornwall, make a kitten into a kaiju, start a disco where dancing was forbidden) and then there would be a series of set pieces, etc. This ran for nine seasons. It’s very dated, and a lot of the jokes wouldn’t fly nowadays. But there was always more to the show than there seemed on the surface, a real vein of satire beneath the silliness.

Which brings me to one of their most prophetic episodes: Radio Goodies.

In this episode, the Goodies are trying to start their own radio station. They apply to the Post Office for permission (which I guess you did in the 70s?) and are refused, because the postal service takes so long to deliver their letter, they miss the deadline. They decide to have a pirate post office instead. These were big in Britain in the 1970s – radio stations designed to broadcast from international waters, and so bypass British broadcasting regulations.  Graeme, the scientist of the group, builds a transmitter that runs from what seems like a dinghy called the ‘Saucy Gibbon,’ that secretly contains a huge base under the water. Disappointed by the speed of the post, they also use it as the headquarters of a pirate postal service, based in international waters but competing with the official Post.

A man dressed as a pillar box offering a letter/stamp combination to a woman.
The Goodies Post Office featured both walking post boxes, combination letter/stamps and, unfortunately, some 1970s comedy sexism.

The radio station works (even though they only have one tune they can play – A Walk in the Black Forest), but the pirate postal service is a success. Mail is floated to the Saucy Gibbon by balloon, and shot down with a shotgun, then delivered by Bill and Tim in a variety of slapstick-y ways. Eventually, the flow of mail gets too much for them. Finding no help from the increasingly obsessed Graeme, they announce the closure of the Goodies’ Post Office. This causes Graeme to flip out.

The Goodies
Graeme flips out.

Donning a Fascist-esque uniform and an eye-patch, Graeme addresses the people of Britain as his subjects. He announces a plan to become pirate overlord of Britain by towing the entire country into international waters. The other two flee to shore, only to see Graeme trying to tow Britain away with the oars of his dinghy. They taunt him that he’s a megalomaniac, until in his anger he sinks the boat. He comes back to his senses, shortly before drowning.

Graeme Garden, dressed in fascist/pirate uniform, stands on a sinking dinghy.
The Saucy Gibbon springs a leak.

I’ve been thinking about this episode a lot, in recent weeks. Thinking about how private communications companies seem to start off with big promises and huge enthusiasm, before turning to crap. About how high-tech systems, supposedly built by geniuses, actually only function because of shockingly overworked staff. How they try to work outside systems of laws as much as possible, with inevitable results. How they all seem to be run by megalomaniacs – except, unlike poor Graeme shouting speeches to a (presumably) non-existent audience, some of these megalomaniacs seem to have hordes of devoted followers.

Anyway, my point is: we all make fun of the 1970s, but they had our bloody number, that’s for sure. In fact, there was another episode where Graeme became so irrationally scared of feminists, he started dating his computer. That one really came to pass, too.

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B.G. Hilton - Author