Harry Donald Secombe
Secombe was born in rooms in the Danygraig Area of St. Thomas and later the family moved to a council house in the St Thomas district of Swansea, the third of four children of Nellie Jane Gladys (née Davies), a shop manageress, and Frederick Ernest Secombe, a grocer. From the age of 11 he attended Dynevor School, a state secondary school in central Swansea.
His family were regular church-goers, belonging to the congregation of St Stephen’s Church in Danygraig. A member of the choir, Secombe would – from the age of 12 – perform a sketch entitled The Welsh Courtship at church socials, acting as “feed” to his sister Carol. His elder brother, Fred Secombe, was the author of several books about his experiences as an Anglican priest and rector.
After leaving school in 1937, Secombe became a pay clerk at Baldwin’s store. With war looming, he decided in 1938 that he would join the Territorial Army. Very short sighted, he got a friend to tell him the sight test, and then learnt it off by heart. He served as a Lance Bombardier in No.132 Field Regiment of the Royal Artillery. He would refer to the unit in which he served during World War II in the North African Campaign, Sicily, and Italy, as “The Five-Mile Snipers”.
Secombe joined the cast of the Windmill Theatre in 1946, using a routine he had developed in Italy about how people shaved. Secombe always claimed that his ability to sing could always be counted on to save him when he bombed. Both Milligan and Sellers credited him with keeping the act on the bill when club owners had wanted to sack them.
After a regional touring career, his first break came in radio when he was chosen as resident comedian for the Welsh series Welsh Rarebit, followed by appearances on Variety Bandbox and a regular role in Educating Archie.
Secombe met Michael Bentine at the Windmill Theatre, and was introduced to Peter Sellers by his agent Jimmy Grafton. Together with Spike Milligan, the four wrote a comedy radio script, and Those Crazy People was commissioned and first broadcast on 28 May 1951. Produced by Peter Ross, this would soon become The Goon Show and the show remained on the air until 1960. Secombe mainly played Neddie Seagoon around whom the show’s absurd plots developed.
With the success of The Goon Show, Secombe developed a dual career as both a comedy actor and a singer. At the beginning of his career as an entertainer, his act would end with a joke version of the duet Sweethearts, in which he sang both the baritone and falsetto parts. Trained under Italian maestro Manlio di Veroli, he emerged as a bel canto tenor (characteristically, he insisted that in his case this meant “can belto”) and had a long list of best-selling record albums to his credit.
In 1958 he appeared in the film Jet Storm, which starred Dame Sybil Thorndike and Richard Attenborough and in the same year Secombe starred in the title role in Davy, one of Ealing Studios‘ last films.
The power of his voice allowed Secombe to appear in many stage musicals. This included 1963’s Pickwick, based on Dickens‘ The Pickwick Papers, which gave him the number eighteen hit single “If I Ruled the World” – his later signature tune. In 1965 the show was produced on tour in the United States, where on Broadway he garnered a nomination for a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical. He also appeared in the musical The Four Musketeers (1967), as Mr. Bumble in Carol Reed‘s film of Oliver! (1968), and in the Envy segment of The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins (1971).
He would go on to star in his own television show, The Harry Secombe Show, which debuted on Christmas Day 1968 on BBC 1 and ran for thirty one episodes until 1973. A sketch comedy show featuring Julian Orchard as Secombe’s regular sidekick, the series also featured guest appearances by fellow Goon Spike Milligan as well as leading performers such as Ronnie Barker and Arthur Lowe. Secombe later starred in similar vehicles such as Sing a Song of Secombe and ITV‘s Secombe with Music during the 1970s.
Later in life, Secombe (whose brother Fred Secombe was a priest in the Church in Wales, part of the Anglican Communion) attracted new audiences as a presenter of religious programmes, such as the BBC‘s Songs of Praise and ITV‘s Stars on Sunday and Highway. He was also a special programming consultant to Harlech Television. and hosted a Thames Television programme in 1979 entitled Cross on the Donkey’s Back. In the latter half of the 1980s, Secombe personally sponsored a football team for boys aged 9–11 in the local West Sutton Little League, ‘Secombes Knights’.
In 1990, he was one of a few to be honoured by a second appearance on This Is Your Life, when he was surprised by Michael Aspel at a book signing in a London branch of WH Smith. Secombe had been a subject of the show previously in March 1958 when Eamonn Andrews surprised him at the BBC Television Theatre.
A clip from one of many legendary performances with his great friend and fellow goon Spike milligan