Written by Judith Proctor, bagman of Anonymous Morris
This article would never have happened without the knowledge and Google skills of several members of the Morris Dancers Discussion email list. (For those who are not familiar with classic radio/TV comedy, I recommend going and listening to surviving episodes of Hancock's Half Hour and the Goon Show. You'll enjoy yourselves and get much more out of this article as well.)
The Goons and the East Acton Stick Dance
Anonymous Morris started life in 2010 as a very small side with one dancer and four musicians. This meant that we were desperate for dances that could be done with a very small number of dancers and discovering the East Acton Stick Dance, which only needs three dancers, was manna from heaven. We copied it from Oldstar Morris and Wickham Morris and maybe a couple of others beside. Along the way, we learnt that it had come from an old episode of the Tony Hancock Show - the likely source being Roy Dommet 1997, What You Didn't Know About The Morris - “The teams have been very creative with their dances and adaptive of ideas from all sources, for example, The East Acton Stick Dance is from an early Tony Hancock ITV broadcast!”
The Tony Hancock story seemed pretty widespread, so, being a morris history buff, I tried to find out more, but without any success in tracking down the episode. So much had been lost and wiped of early TV that the odds were never going to be good. I decided to ask for help on MDDL, the morris discussion list and it soon became clear that I wasn't the only person seeking the origins of the dance.
With the collective efforts of the members, we soon hit pay dirt; from an old internal newsletter of the Hills Group (Hills Group do things like concrete and waste management) came the discovery that John Cleese (of Monty Python, etc, fame) had written an East Acton Stick Dance sketch.
“Mike is not the first member of the Hill family to be attracted to the stage – his father and Group Chairman, Robert, could be found nowhere else during this school and university days. At school Robert was partly responsible for introducing John Cleese to the stage. “Cleesey was extremely shy, but ‘Goon mad’,” recalled Robert. “I was asked to get a couple of friends and put a sketch together for the end of term party and managed to convince Cleesey to write the sketch and actually perform it with us, which he had never done before. It was called the ‘East Acton Stick Dance’ and was a take off of Morris dancing. As soon as Cleesey stood on stage everyone just fell about, and the rest is history.”
However, this isn't the end of the story; the dance didn't originate with John Cleese. The clue here is in the phrase 'Goon Mad'; a second clue comes from the Log Book of the Thames Valley Morris Men (you can find and download it via Google).
11th December (1964). What set out to be a rehearsal at Christopher's home for a later show became a very careful and enjoyable demonstration at Brooklands Technical College to the music club there. Christopher lectured and commented on the morris, particularly the music. As it happened, five original members of Thames Valley plus Jim Barclay demonstrated. We captured our real style and old form. Very enjoyable and satisfying. Local resident, comedian Eric Sykes, made a draw and referred to the Goons East Acton Sword Dance!
The reference to the Goons East Acton Sword Dance is an interesting one and makes better sense in context than Hancock: Hancock lived in 'East Cheam', but the Goons used to rehearse in a room over a greengrocers in East Acton and often mentioned East Acton in the show. (I suspect Dommet may have confused East Cheam with East Acton)
Now, our story focuses ever more closely on the Goons: Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers. (Michael Bentine had left the Goons by the time of our story.) If you don't know who the Goons were, shame on you, go and listen to them on You Tube. Even after 60 years, they're still funny.
Humphrey Carter's biography of Spike Milligan tells us: “In June and July 1054 he went with Harry Secombe and Max Geldray on a tour of Moss Empires theatres, and there was also a legendary week in which all the Goons appeared at the Coventry Hippodrome...” (Max Geldray was a jazz player who appeared in nearly every episode of The Goon Show, providing one of the musical interludes and the closing music for each programme.)
The year was actually 1955, not 1954. See the note below about the Umbrella Club, the date for the Harry Secombe Show a bit further down, and the date for the Bluebell Polka.
“The Umbrella Club opened in November 1955 by Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan. The trio were presenting their Goon Show at Coventry 'Hippodrome' Theatre, now demolished.”
Harry Secombe gives us more detail: Strawberries and Cheam Vol2, pages 12-13 (Just in case you're wondering about the Cheam connection and whether Hancock was involved after all, I should mention that Secombe lived in Cheam Rd, Sutton).
“The only time the three of us appeared on stage together was at the Hippodrome in Coventry. It was the policy of the theatre to put on what they called a birthday show in the run-up to Christmas, and we were booked as the headliners.
"I was to do my usual performance – a mixture of gags and straight songs; Spike was at that time still working on his act; and Peter, who was completely without nerves, was experimenting with all kinds of comic ideas because he hated doing the same act night after night. The only piece of material which we did together was a skit on Morris dancers (called the East Acton Stick Dancers) which Eric Sykes had written for one of my television shows. For this we wore farmers' smocks and shapeless hats and had bells round our ankles and waists. For some reason best known to himself, Peter appeared as a hunchback, a la Charles Laughton in the film The Hunchback of Notre Dame. We also carried sticks will bells attached, with which we bashed each other in time to the music of the 'Blue Bell Polka'.”(The Bluebell Polka was a big hit for Jimmy Shand and his orchestra in 1955).
So, in 1955 in the only stage show the Goons ever did together, in the only act in that show they all did together, they did a skit called 'The East Acton Stick Dancers' which had been written by Eric Sykes. This isn't just morris history, it's Goon history!
We don't just know it happened, we even know the costumes and the music! Sit back, listen to the Bluebell Polka and use your imagination.
I also like to visualise a 16 year old John Cleese sitting in the Hippodrome audience in 1955, going back to school and using the inspiration of that performance to kick-start his own career as a comedian.
Was Cleese there? It's certainly possible. We know he was a big Goon Show fan. He could have seen the Hippodrome show (he lived in Bristol at the time, so it wasn't an impossible trip to see his favourite comedians in Coventry). Alternatively, he might have seen the TV show that Sykes originally wrote the sketch for. (Probably 'The Harry Secombe Show' 24 Sept 1955. It ran for 45 mins on ITV and Eric Sykes IMDB entry lists it as a show he wrote for. All other Harry Secombe shows were after 1955)
The cast for the first Harry Secombe Show were Harry Secombe, Norman Vaughan, Johnny Vyvyan and Wilson, Keppel and Betty. (Wilson, Keppel and Betty are the original group who performed the 'Sand Dance'. Go watch it on YouTube or catch the Fezheads performing it.)
The actual dance?
I suspect that three Goons on stage did something that looked a bit like what the audience might expect from a morris dance, possibly involving a forward/back movement with a hey and some stick bashing (on people's heads).
I can see a morris-dancing Goon fan in the audience thinking: “I can do something with that” and writing a three man homage dance that involved a chorus with a forward/back movement, a hay and some stick-bashing – but decided that hitting his fellow dancers over the head was probably best replaced with some tip/butt striking.
It's quite possible that the dance was taken from the Harry Secombe Show, but televisions were a lot thinner on the ground in 1955 than they are now. Besides, it's three man dance, clearly written by Sykes for three Goons and my imagination prefers the stage show.
My last thought is whether the dance can be considered traditional.
Morris dancers have been performing the East Acton Stick Dance for over 60 years. That's enough to make it traditional in my book.
Next time I perform it, I'll raise a glass to Sellers, Secombe and Milligan, not forgetting Eric Skyes and the unknown morris dancer who recorded and preserved the dance.
Ironically, I finally located a Dommet document from 1994 (three years earlier than his article mentioning Tony Hancock), where he does mention Secombe:
“Just because a dance has been created to support a comedy show or as a comic interlude in a folk based entertainment, that is no reason to ignore it or its ideas as they reflect an image of the morris to which the public is supposed to relate. An example was the morris dance in Dad's Army which became a whole act in the touring stage version. The extracting of ideas for and from such material is probably in the tradition of 19th century theatrical morris. At least one such dance, the East Acton Stick Dance, taken from an early Harry Secombe TV show is proving very popular.”
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