Fellow Greensladers

The first of July this year marks the one hundred and tenth anniversary of the birth of the Goon Show’s demon talker, Wallace (aka Bill) Greenslade.
Minnie and Henry sing: Happy Birthday to you…

Unlike the man himself, biographical details about Greenslade are thin on the ground, so expect some speculation in this piece. He was born in Formby, Lancashire and given the name Wallace Frederick Powers Greenslade. Before joining the BBC he was a seafaring man, having served as a Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Naval Reserve and as a purser with the P&O Shipping Line. He joined the corporation announcing staff in 1945 and by 1949 he had a full time post at the Home Service.

The Goon Show was in its 4th series in October 1953 when the announcer Andrew Timothy left after only five episodes. Wallace Greenslade came in as the replacement for the sixth show, ‘Through the Sound Barrier in an Airing Cupboard’. Presumably the change was at short notice as he wasn’t even named on the script for his three first shows. Goon humour really hadn’t been Timothy’s thing, but it certainly was Greenslade’s. Very quickly, he’d cemented his place and he was a constant feature from then on. Sadly, we don’t have recordings of his earliest shows, the first time we get to hear him is on the 15th of the series, The Missing Prime Minister.

When the fifth series came around, the show had developed and it featured many classic episodes which we still love today. One of the improvements was that Spike could now write a broader range of lines for the announcer. Greenslade joined Ray Ellington in developing a character of his own, his role expanded from announcing to playing the announcer.

It was during that series that Greenslade was given short solo spots when he could address his imagined fan club of Greensladers.
GREENSLADE: (SINGING VERY BADLY) Oh, what a night! Oh, what a night it was! It really was! I believe for every drop of rain that falls, someone gets wet. (STOPS SINGING) Yes, Greensladers. It's your own Wallace Greenslade singing to you again. And don't forget, you too can have a signed photograph of Wallace Greenslade for only three guineas. So, fan clubs, keep those cheques rolling in, old Wallace will find a use for them! So, 'til next time, this is Mr. Rhythm Greenslade saying chigidi-boo-boo rock-holy-coo-coo obi-doobi-doo chiggidy-snitch. TWO! FOUR! SIX! EIGHT! WHO DO WE APPRECIATE!? GREEN - SLADE!

That example illustrates the basic joke which underpinned Greenslade’s contributions to the show. Listeners would know his voice from the Home Service. From 1954, to the minority who had TVs, he was one of the first newsreaders, the one who had a trademark knowing look as he took off his spectacles at the end of the bulletin. He was established enough to have guested on Desert Island Discs. But look, or at least listen, there was the same man, on the stage at the Camden Theatre, one of the Goons. All dignity abandoned, Wal’ of Weybridge played it for laughs. It was a bigger leap from the norm than the Angela Rippon appearance on Morecambe and Wise.

Now that the gentlemen have had pause to remember Ms Rippon’s legs, let’s carry on.

Greenslade’s parts, beyond making announcements, often involved taking the straight man role. He’d play a butler, a judge, or a lawyer, for example, and often a devoted reader of the Radio Times. He was even (spoiler) revealed to be the Phantom Head Shaver of Brighton. There were other times over the series when the joke was the delivery of lines in an inappropriate BBC announcers voice. Take the Mighty Wurlitzer episode, when he spoke posh in a thick Welsh dialect…
GREENSLADE: (USUAL POSH ENGLISH ACCENT) Good evening, Mrs. Seagoon batch. Look, it is I, isn't it, batch.
Another was playing a squaw of the Knobblyknee Indian tribe
CHIEF ELLINGTON: (very sad) Uggggh!

Sometimes Greenslade got to ham things up completely, most famously there were the occasions when he deployed his exaggerated French accent.
GREENSLADE: (FRENCH ACCENT) Ahh, monsieur le prisonnier englaise, bienvenue. Welcome to the Chateau d'If.
SEAGOON: Ahhhhh, what an honour! It is none other than Wallace Greenslade playing the part of the French prefect of police! And playing it very badly!

By the sixth series Greenslade had become such an integral part of the show that Spike wrote a whole episode around him. For once, his fellow announcer John Snagge appeared in person rather than as a pre-recorded voice. The whole crew fell about as the two announcers, along with Ray Ellington, had over two minutes of airtime to themselves. The Greenslade Story is among the most popular Goon Shows.
GREENSLADE: Gad! Me, a BBC announcer!

You’d think that mixing the roles of Home Service announcer and being a Goon might have caused some of the BBC hierarchy of the day to wonder about Greenslade, but it didn’t appear to hinder his career. Perhaps the big bosses had stopped playing attention to the Goon Show. It probably helped that his immediate line-manager was John Snagge.
GREENSLADE: I have here in my hand, ladies and gentlemen, a chit… granting me a permission to sing… and the chit is signed by John Snagge.
SECOMBE: Do you have to bow your head when you mention that name?
GREENSLADE: No, but it helps.

Greenslade’s was a constant presence in the Goon Show. From his first appearance in 1953 through to the 10th and final series in 1960, he wasn’t posted missing for any episode, despite the rigours of the announcers duty rota system. Luckily, John Snagge ran that too.

Wal’ had the last words in the final episode, the Last Smoking Seagoon.
GREENSLADE: Yes, that was it, the last of them. So, bye now.

I always feel sad when I hear that line. Greenslade had, to use a modern phrase, been invested in his appearances on the Goon Show. His ‘straight’ BBC career was thriving, he’d started to make appearances on the Today programme. I wonder however, after 171 straight appearances and no shows missed, how much of a gap in his life the end of the Goons left. Then, only 15 months after that final episode, he suffered a fatal heart attack. I’d always assumed he was a lot older than Spike, Peter and Harry, so it was a shock to discover that he was only 48 years old when he died.

History has rather marginalised Greenslade since then, and I really think he’s under-appreciated. Perhaps without the Equity rule which meant he had to be listed as the announcer rather than a cast member, he’d be thought of more. Imagine if Wal’ had lived longer. He could have written a terrific memoir, he could have appeared on Parkinson and told some great stories to promote it. He could have been there on The Last Goon Show of all, instead of Andrew Timothy. That would have kept the others on their toes. His Wikipedia entry would certainly be better than “a BBC radio announcer and newsreader who is mainly remembered for being the announcer and frequently the straight man for the BBC radio comedy series The Goon Show”.

Greenslade was a big character (yes larger than XL, but besides that…). Would the Goon Show have been the same without him? Perhaps, perhaps not. Please, spare a thought for old Greenslade and just remember,
GREENSLADE: it’s all in the mind, you know.

Has there ever been another Wallace Greenslade? I can only think of one.

About a year behind Wal, Douglas Smith joined the BBC announcing staff and went to work on the Third Programme. In 1958, he took on a Greenslade-type role as announcer in a new Kenneth Horne show, ‘Beyond Our Ken’. In the absence of memoirs from the individuals concerned, it’s surely fair to assume that Smith was inspired, perhaps even encouraged by Greenslade. He certainly started with confidence, the very first show opened with a dialogue in which he sparred with Kenneth Williams. That prospect would scare most mortals.

Smith appeared all the way through the runs of ‘Beyond our Ken’, it’s successor ‘Round the Horne’ and, after Horne’s death in 1969, ‘Stop Messing About’ which continued the format with Kenneth Williams leading. The best memories are from the acting roles he took in the “Hornographic Productions” section of RTH, where was adept at playing inanimate objects such as a drophead Bentley (vvrroom), or a sacred volcano (rumble, rumble, puff puff).

‘Stop Messing About’ fizzled out after two series and after that the Smith and Greenslade stories became spookily similar. Smith died, also about 15 months after his last show, and also at the age of 48. No wonder no other announcer has played a comedy role like it. There’s a curse!