In Memoriam: Sir Harry Donald Secombe CBE 1932 – 1937

Harry Secombe was a Welsh comedian, singer and writer who was born in rooms in the Danygraig area of Swansea, with the family later moving to a council house in St Thomas. Harry was the third child 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 churchgoers, belonging to the congregation of St Thomas Church. Becoming a choirboy at the age of seven, Harry would often perform a sketch entitled The Welsh Courtship at church socials, acting as “feed” to his sister Carol. However, Harry once blotted his copybook by reading the lesson in church in the North Country tones of the popular comic Sandy Powell. In his early years, he was so shy that his mouth went dry before every performance until he realised that, if he took off his glasses, he couldn’t see the audience – or fear them.

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. Being very short sighted, Harry asked a friend to tell him the sight test, which he then learnt by heart. When he left Swansea to “go off to war”, it was said he did so by standing on the front seat of a friend’s open top car and imitating Hitler with a comb as his moustache.

Secombe 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”. While in North Africa Secombe met Spike Milligan for the first time and they later formed a comedy duo. In Sicily he joined a concert party and developed his own comedy routines to entertain the troops. In May 1944, Harry made his first radio broadcast on a variety show aimed at the services.

Secombe was to meet Michael Bentine at the Windmill Theatre, London, and was later introduced to Peter Sellers. Together with Spike Milligan, the four wrote a comedy radio script and Those Crazy People was commissioned; this was first broadcast on 28 May 1951. This would soon become The Goon Show and the show remained on air until 1960. Secombe mainly played Neddie Seagoon, the character around whom many of 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, appearing in both films and musicals, notably Pickwick and Oliver! 

Whereas the other Goons tended to extremes of temperament and behaviour, the short and tubby Harry Secombe specialised in nothing more dangerous and subversive than endearingly gormless voices and scatological gags like blowing raspberries, at which he professed himself an expert; the only problem was their appropriate volume and duration which caused some amusement during one Royal Variety Performance in the presence of the Queen.

Returning home in 1946, Harry had met Myra Atherton at the Mumbles dance hall. They married in 1948 and were subsequently to have four children – Andrew, Katy, Jennifer and David. Lady Myra Secombe was made an Honorary Member of the Old Dy’vorians’ Association in 2011.

As his career developed, Secombe (whose brother Fred … another Old Dy’vorian … became Prebendary of St Paul’s Cathedral, London) attracted new audiences as a presenter of religious programmes; these included the BBC’s Songs of Praise and ITV’s Stars on Sunday and Highway. He also took pleasure in performing with more “serious” singers; this included the duet from Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers with Sir Geraint Evans. He also wrote two successful comic novels, Twice Brightly (1974) and Welsh Fargo (1981), as well as two volumes of autobiography and a number of fantastical stories for children.

In later life, Harry suffered from poor health, including diabetes, and became President of the British Diabetic Association. He died from prostate cancer in Guildford, Surrey, on 11 April 2001, at the age of 79. A memorial service to celebrate his life was held at Westminster Abbey on 26 October 2001 and, as well as family members and friends, the service was also attended by Prince Charles who was a very keen fan of the Goon Show.

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