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Do talk nonsense says Piers Pottinger

Blog | By Piers Pottinger | Aug 29, 2023

Shut up, Eccles! Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe rehearse The Goon Show, 1963

Throughout history, the British have revelled in nonsense. In 1846, Edward Lear published A Book of Nonsense, which captured his readers’ imagination. Lewis Carroll wrote the most famous nonsense poem, Jabberwocky, in 1871.

Almost a century later, in 1948, Stefan Themerson founded an eccentric publishing firm, Gaberbocchus. He maintained this was the Latin rendering of Jabberwocky. He published the first English translation of the absurd play Ubu Roi by Frenchman Alfred Jarry, which sadly appealed only to a tiny audience. Stefan remained loyal to all forms of nonsense until his death in 1988.

In the 1960s, nonsense came into its own, championed by the great Spike Milligan. Oldie-readers will fondly recall The Goon Show, the epitome of radio nonsense. Spike had more to offer with his seminal Silly Verse for Kids, and his brilliant television adaptation of The World of Beachcomber, featuring Dr Strabismus and the Filthistan Trio, which consisted of three ‘Persians’ and a plank.

Strabismus would try to test the truthfulness of proverbs: for example, ‘When one door closes, another opens.’ He set up 30 front doors in a field, closing one and waiting for another to open. It never did.

I loved the actor Michael Redgrave declaiming random names from the weekly list of Huntingdonshire Cabmen. Sadly, only one episode of this wonderful series still exits, and it hasn’t been shown of late.

Stanley Unwin (1911-2002) invented a nonsense language, Unwinese. It featured in many television programmes, even in Carry On films. He claimed he had learnt his unique gobbledygook from his mother, who would talk of ‘falolloping’ (falling) down the stairs and grazing her ‘kneeclabbers’. Unwin continued talking nonsense as a career into his 90s.

In 1963, Michael Codron produced a show at the Comedy Theatre called An Evening of British Rubbish, featuring a custard-pie machine and an Oriental orange joke. It ran for a year and featured the great duo the Alberts.

Bob Blackman (1926-96) had a unique act, singing Mule Train while repeatedly hitting himself on the head with a tin tray. That was it.

I once spoke to him, after he’d given the act up. Many years of battering his poor head had caught up with him, and he was forced to look for something new. He told me he had created an act where he climbed a stepladder he’d set on fire, singing I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles. Sadly, this act never made it to the stage.

One of the most nonsensical people to bring us joy was the self-styled Prince Giorgio Carbone of Seborga (1936-2009). He declared Seborga, a village in Italy with a population of 247, to be a legitimate principality, citing evidence from 954 AD. Carbone was in fact a florist from the village, but he awarded himself the magnificent title of His Tremendousness.

The villagers endorsed him, and the previously unknown Seborga became a minor tourist destination, generating good local income. Carbone received an annual sandwich and a weekly coffee in recognition of his service to the community. He was my favourite example of glorious nonsense.

Monty Python began to build its huge following in the late sixties with sketches full of magnificent nonsense, still revered today.

Then we waited until 1990, when Reeves and Mortimer’s Big Night Out gave us a proper dose of hilarious nonsense. Regular features included the two ginger-haired aromatherapists whose catchphrase was ‘You have to smell to be well’. It initially baffled the Channel 4 viewers, but soon won an enormous following, leading to ever more memorable programmes including Shooting Stars.

On the radio, Count Arthur Strong, created by Steve Delaney, first appeared in 2005. Despite threatening retirement, he will be touring British theatres in 2024. The BBC have abandoned him, but he remains a popular peddler of ludicrousness.

After Carroll, Lear and Milligan, it is hard to think of great examples of nonsense in literature today, or even in the theatre or television (Count Arthur Strong apart).

In architecture, there are plenty of visible examples. The tradition of the folly is alive and clearly evident in many great British gardens, as well as in Italy, where the tradition goes even further back. The Sacro Bosco, featuring the Villa of Marvels in Bomarzo, Lazio, was created by Prince Vicino Orsini in 1552. It fell into neglect for many years until surrealists such as Salvador Dali rediscovered this most bizarre of follies and heralded its revival and restoration.

Today, nonsense is more obvious and less funny in some of the wokery we all endure. It is normally political and, more often than not, polarising. There is little pure nonsense to raise a smile.

Isn’t it time for a nonsense revival?

Piers Pottinger is a public-affairs consultant and funster