09 November 2022

A journey with the Goons
to Mornington Crescent and
a land of theatre and comedy

Mornington Crescent has become a landmark in British comedy and entertainment (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

Lunch in London last week with my ‘cousin’ Kevin Martin turned into lengthy genealogical conversations about a shared nexus of Sephardic kinships and family connections in the world of show business, from the prize fighter Daniel Mendoza (1764-1836), to the two Comerford brothers, Bert and Harry, married two Sipple sisters, Aggie and Rosina, and almost created a theatrical and movie dynasty, and the actor and Goon and Peter Sellers (1925-1980).

Peter Sellers claimed he was the great-great-grandson of Daniel Mendoza, and pursued his claim of descent from Mendoza in several films, hanging portraits of Mendoza in the background and making Inspector Clouseau an admirer of Mendoza.

Albert (Bert) Alfred G Comerford (1879-1973) was a composer and song-writer who used the stage name Bert Brantford. Bert’s wife, Aggie Sipple, was an actor who used the stage name Agnes Brantford, and played her roles in a number of films in the 1920s and 1930s. Bert’s brother, Harry Comerford (1874-1955), used the stage name Harry Ford and was a popular music hall and variety comedian and actor. He married Aggie’s sister, Rosina Sipple.

The world of theatre and comedy was still entertaining me as a walked on from Euston Station and within ten minutes found myself at both Mornington Crescent and the former Camden Theatre, two cultural landmarks in British comedy and entertainment.

Mornington Crescent was a game that featured in the BBC Radio 4 comedy panel show ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue’, a series that satirised panel games. The game consists of each panellist in turn announcing a landmark or street, most often a tube station on the London Underground. The ostensible aim is to be the first to announce ‘Mornington Crescent’, a station on the Northern line.

The game includes the panellists and host discussing the rules and legality of each move, as well as the strategy they are using. The aim of the game is to entertain the other participants and listeners with amusing discussion of the fictional rules and strategies.

Mornington Crescent first appeared in the opening episode of the sixth series of ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue’ on 22 August 1978, and was played in every surviving episode in that series.

Various claims for its invention have been put forward by Geoffrey Perkins, Barry Cryer and Humphrey Lyttelton, who said the game was invented to vex a series producer who was unpopular with the panellists.

The objective of Mornington Crescent is to give the appearance of a game of skill and strategy, with complex and long-winded rules and strategies, to parody games in which similarly circuitous systems have evolved. The rules are fictional, and its appeal to audiences lies in the ability of players to create an entertaining illusion of competitive gameplay.

Humorous variations of the rules were introduced in almost every episode. Over time, the destinations named by the panellists expanded beyond the Underground.

Mornington Crescent is an actual London Underground station on the Charing Cross branch of the Northern line, between Camden Town and Euston stations. The station is at the south end of Camden High Street, where it meets Hampstead Road and Eversholt Street.

The station was designed by the architect Leslie Green (1875-1908) in the Modern Style or British Art Nouveau style, and opened in 1907, a year before Green’s death. For many years it opened only on weekdays, and before 1966 Edgware-bound trains passed through without stopping.

The station’s location on the Northern line is unusual because of the dual-branch nature of the line. Although tube maps show Mornington Crescent to the west of the City branch tunnels, it is actually to the east of them.

The station was shut 30 years ago, on 23 October 1992, to replace the lifts. Commuters were told the station would reopen within a year, but it remained closed for six years. A concerted campaign to reopen the station was supported by frequent panellists from ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue’ who played Mornington Crescent.

The distinctive light blue tiling pattern was restored, the ticket hall was rebuilt and new facilities were provided. Eventually, Mornington Crescent was reopened on 27 April 1998 by the regular cast of ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue,’ including Humphrey Lyttelton, Barry Cryer, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Graeme Garden. A memorial plaque to the late Willie Rushton, one of the longest-serving panellists, was installed in 2002.

A blue plaque on the old Camden Theatre marks the site of the recording of ‘The Last Goon Show of All’ in 1972 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Another plaque nearby provides another BBC comedy link and brought me back that afternoon to that lunchtime conversation about theatres, comedy and Peter Sellers. A blue plaque on the old Camden Theatre, now Koko, marks the site of the recording of ‘The Last Goon Show of All’ in 1972.

‘The Goon Show,’ which I still remember affectionately from my childhood, is a British radio comedy programme produced and broadcast by the BBC Home Service from 1951 to 1960.

The show’s chief creator and main writer was Spike Milligan, who performed in the series alongside Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers and Michael Bentine. The scripts mixed ludicrous plots with surreal humour, puns, catchphrases and an array of bizarre sound effects.

Tickets for the recordings at the Camden Theatre were constantly over-subscribed and the character voices, catchphrases and words from the show quickly entered common usage. The most memorable is the dreaded ‘lurgi.’ But others include ‘Eeeeyack-a-boo’, the under-breath mumbling of ‘rhubarb’ and blowing raspberries, as well as ‘The Ying-Tong Song.’

I suppose there is a genealogy of comedy and theatre too, and the ‘Goon Show’ exercised a considerable influence on the development of comedy and popular culture, influencing many performers and artists, from the Beatles to Monty Python.

The Camden Theatre, on the corner of Camden High Street and Crowndale Road, first opened on 26 December 1900, with a production of the pantomime ‘Cinderella’.

The theatre, with interiors in the Louis XIV style, and an exterior in the Italian Renaissance style, was designed by the theatre architect WGR Sprague (1863-1933), and was built at a cost of £50,000.

Sprague was a son of the actor Dolores Drummond (1834-1926). His other theatres included Wyndham’s Theatre, the Rotherhithe Hippodrome, the paired Aldwych Theatre and Waldorf or Strand Hotel (now the Novello Theatre) on The Strand, and the paired Hicks (Gielgud) Theatre and Queen’s (Sondheim) Theatre.

The BBC converted the Camden Theatre into a radio studio in 1945, and used it until the early 1970s. The last Goon show of all, starring Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe, was recorded by the BBC in the Camden Theatre on 30 April 1972.

The theatre was later converted into a nightclub, Nero’s. It was renamed the Music Machine in 1979 and became a live music venue, and from 1981 it was the Camden Palace, a popular music venue and nightclub until it lost its licence and was closed. The theatre then underwent major refurbishment and it became the live music venue Koko in 2004.

The former Camden Theatre was designed by the theatre architect WGR Sprague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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