Harry Secombe

Harry Secombe
Born Harry Donald Secombe
(1921-09-08)8 September 1921
Swansea, Glamorgan, Wales, UK
Died 11 April 2001(2001-04-11) (aged 79)
Guildford, Surrey, England, UK
Cause of death Prostate cancer
Nationality Welsh
Education Dynevor School, Swansea
Occupation Singer, actor, comedian
Years active 1946–2001
Television The Goon Show (Radio)
The Harry Secombe Show, Secombe And Friends, Highway (TV)
Sunday Morning with Secombe (TV)
Spouse(s) Myra Atherton (born 1924, married 1948)
Children Jennifer, Andy, David and Katy
Parent(s) Frederick Secombe
Gladys (née Davies)
Relatives Fred Secombe (brother)

Sir Harry Donald Secombe, CBE (8 September 1921 – 11 April 2001) was a Welsh-born comedian, actor and singer. Secombe was a member of the British radio comedy programme The Goon Show (1951–60), playing many characters, but most notably, Neddie Seagoon. An accomplished tenor, he also appeared in musicals and films - notably as Mr Bumble in Oliver! (1968) - and, in his later years, was a presenter of television shows incorporating hymns and other devotional songs.

Early life

Secombe was born in St Thomas, Swansea, the third of four children of Nellie Jane Gladys (née Davies), a shop manageress, and Frederick Ernest Secombe, a grocer.[1][2][3][4] From the age of 11 he attended Dynevor School, a state grammar school in central Swansea.

His family were regular churchgoers, belonging to the congregation of St Thomas Church. A member of the choir, from the age of 12 Secombe would perform a sketch entitled The Welsh Courtship at church socials, acting as "feed" to his sister Carol. His elder brother, Fred Secombe,[5] was the author of several books about his experiences as an Anglican priest and rector.

Military service

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 (United Kingdom). Very short sighted, he got a friend to tell him the sight test, and then learnt it by heart. He served as a Lance Bombardier in No.132 Field Regiment of the Royal Artillery.[6] 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". While in North Africa Secombe met Spike Milligan for the first time.[7] In Sicily he joined a concert party and developed his own comedy routines to entertain the troops.

When Secombe visited the Falkland Islands to entertain the troops after the 1982 Falklands War, his old regiment promoted him to the rank of sergeant: 37 years after he had been demobbed.[8]

As an entertainer

He made his first radio broadcast in May 1944 on a variety show aimed at the services. Following the end of fighting in the war but prior to demobilisation Secombe joined a pool of entertainers in Naples and formed a comedy duo with Spike Milligan.[7]

Secombe joined the cast of the Windmill Theatre in 1946, using a routine he had developed in Italy about how people shaved.[6] 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[9] 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.[6] Secombe mainly played Neddie Seagoon, around whom the show's absurd plots developed.[8] In 1955, whilst appearing on The Goon Show, Secombe was approached by the BBC to step in at short notice to take the lead in the radio comedy Hancock's Half Hour.[10] The star of the show, Tony Hancock, had decided to take an unannounced break abroad the day before the live airing of the second season. Secombe appeared in the lead for the first three episodes and had a guest role in the fourth after Hancock's return. All four episodes are lost, but following the discovery of the original scripts the episodes were rerecorded in 2017, with Andrew Secombe performing the role held by his then late father.[10][11]

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.[8]

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.[8]

The power of his voice allowed Secombe to appear in many stage musicals. This included 1963's Pickwick, based on Charles Dickens' The Pickwick Papers, which gave him the number 18 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.[8] He also appeared in the musical The Four Musketeers (1967) at Drury Lane,[6] 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.[12]

Later career

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.[13] 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.


In 1963 he was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).[7]

He was knighted in 1981,[14] and jokingly referred to himself as Sir Cumference (in recognition of his rotund figure). The motto he chose for his coat of arms was "GO ON", a reference to goon.

Later life and death

Secombe suffered from peritonitis in 1980. Within two years, taking advice from doctors, he had lost five stone in weight.[15] He had a stroke in 1997, from which he made a slow recovery. He was then diagnosed with prostate cancer in September 1998. After suffering a second stroke in 1999, he was forced to abandon his television career, but made a documentary about his condition in the hope of giving encouragement to other sufferers.[16] Secombe had diabetes in the latter part of his life.

Secombe died on 11 April 2001 at the age of 79, from prostate cancer, in hospital in Guildford, Surrey.[17] His ashes are interred at the parish church of Shamley Green, and a later memorial service to celebrate his life was held at Westminster Abbey on 26 October 2001. As well as family members and friends, the service was also attended by Charles, Prince of Wales and representatives of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, Anne, Princess Royal, Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon and Prince Edward, Duke of Kent. On his tombstone is the inscription: "To know him was to love him."

Upon hearing of his old friend's death, Spike Milligan quipped, "I'm glad he died before me, because I didn't want him to sing at my funeral." But Secombe would have the last laugh: upon Milligan's own death the following year, a recording of Secombe singing was played at Spike's memorial service.

The Secombe Theatre at Sutton, London, bears his name in memory of this former local personality. He is also fondly remembered at the London Welsh Centre, where he opened the bar on St Patrick's Day (17 March) 1971.[18]


Secombe met Myra Joan Atherton at the Mumbles Dance hall in 1946. The couple were married from 1948 until his death, and had four children:

  • Jennifer Secombe, widow of actor Alex Giannini. She was also her father's agent in his later years.
  • Andy Secombe, a voice actor, film actor and author
  • David Secombe, a writer and photographer
  • Katy Secombe, an actress

Selected works



  • Sacred Songs (1962) UK No. 16
  • Secombe's Personal Choice (1967) UK No. 6
  • If I Ruled the World (1971) UK No. 17
  • Bless This House: 20 Songs Of Joy (1978) UK #8[20]
  • Captain Beaky and His Band[21]




  • Katy and the Nurgla (1980) ISBN 0140311890


  • Goon for Lunch (1975) M. J. Hobbs ISBN 0718112830
  • Goon Abroad (1982) Robson Books ISBN 0860511936
  • Arias and Raspberries (1989) Robson Books ISBN 0860516245
  • Strawberries and Cheam (1998) Robson Books ISBN 1861050488
  • An Entertaining Life, Foreword by HRH Charles, Prince of Wales, London: Robson Books, 2001, ISBN 1-86105-471-8, retrieved 24 August 2010  Alternative ISBNs for 2004 publication: ISBN 978-1-86105-811-9; ISBN 1-86105-811-X (paperback).

Selected filmography

Year Title Role Director Co-stars Notes
1947 Helter Skelter Alf Ralph Thomas Uncredited
1952 Down Among the Z Men Harry Jones Maclean Rogers
1953 Forces' Sweetheart Harry Llewellyn Maclean Rogers
1957 Davy Davy Morgan Michael Relph Ron Randell, Susan Shaw, Alexander Knox
1959 Jet Storm Binky Meadows Cy Endfield Richard Attenborough, Stanley Baker
1968 Oliver! Mr. Bumble Carol Reed
1969 The Bed Sitting Room Shelter Man Richard Lester
1969 Pickwick Mr. Pickwick Terry Hughes Roy Castle, Hattie Jacques
1970 Doctor in Trouble Llewellyn Wendover Ralph Thomas
1970 Song of Norway Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson Andrew L. Stone
1971 The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins Stanley Graham Stark (segment "Envy")
1972 Sunstruck Stanley Evans James Gilbert


  1. "BBC – Error 404 : Not Found". Archived from the original on 29 July 2012. Retrieved 2 March 2009.
  2. "Sir Harry Secombe: 1921–2001: I Married Him, Christened and Wed His Kids. Now I Must Do This Last One. Lay Him to Rest; VICAR FRED FACES TEARS AT FUNERAL OFBROTHER". highbeam.com.
  3. Secombe, Harry (1989). Arias & raspberries: the autobiography of Harry Secombe. 'The raspberry years'., Volume 1. Robson. p. 21. ISBN 0-86051-624-5.
  4. Gale, Steven H. (1995). Encyclopedia of British humorists. Taylor & Francis. p. 926. ISBN 0-8240-5990-5.
  5. Alleyne, By Richard. "Flowers and fond farewells for Sir Harry".
  6. 1 2 3 4 "Sir Harry Secombe".
  7. 1 2 3 "Die Besten Wimpern Tipps – Alles über Styling, Pflegeprodukte und vieles mehr".
  8. 1 2 3 4 5 "Sir Harry Secombe". BBC Wales. Retrieved 2 March 2009.
  9. "Comedy The Goon Show", BBC website
  10. 1 2 "Andrew Secombe cast in his father's role in new episodes of BBC Radio 4's The Missing Hancocks". BBC Media Centre. Retrieved 29 March 2017.
  11. Armstrong, Stephen (14 March 2017). "How Radio 4 is bringing Tony Hancock back to life". Radio Times. Retrieved 29 March 2017.
  12. Jack Kibble-White & Steve Williams, The Encyclopedia of Classic Saturday Night Telly, London: 2007, pp 158–9
  13. "Sir Harry Secombe dies". The Guardian. 11 April 2001. Retrieved 4 June 2006.
  14. Staff and agencies (11 April 2001). "Sir Harry Secombe dies".
  15. The Unforgettable
  16. "Television Heaven: Harry Secombe". Archived from the original on 18 November 2005. Retrieved 12 February 2006.
  17. Thomas Penny (12 April 2001). "Goon star Sir Harry Secombe dies aged 79". Telegraph.co.uk.
  18. "History: London Welsh Centre". London Welsh Centre website. London Welsh Centre. 2009. Retrieved 4 February 2011.
  19. Guinness Book of British Hit Singles, 7th ed., 1989
  20. Guinness Book of British Hit Albums 1st ed., 1983 ISBN 0-85112-246-9
  21. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 8 June 2007. Retrieved 15 May 2007.
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