In 1945, while still in uniform, Secombe linked up professionally with Milligan
, with whom he would later co-found the comedy performing group the Goons
. Once out of the service, Secombe began establishing himself as a singing comedian, turning professional during a three-month engagement late in 1946 at the Windmill Theatre in London, where he was on a bill with acts that largely consisted of women in various stages of undress. By 1947 he was touring Germany, and in 1948 he began appearing on radio, on the BBC program Listen My Children. During 1950, he became the resident comedian on the Welsh Rarebit radio show. Secombe and Milligan
had been zigging and zagging in and out of each other's orbits for years when, in 1950, they began a collaboration, leading to a demonstration record that became the basis for the Goon Show. The Goons, which also featured Michael Bentine and Peter Sellers
, were the radio era's equivalent of Monty Python's Flying Circus, and went on to become Britain's most popular comedy group on radio and on record during the 1950s. Sellers
became an international star during the 1960s, but during the early days, Secombe was the star, principally portraying a character called Neddy Seagoon.
Secombe gave his first Royal Command Performance in 1951, by which time he'd already appeared in his third motion picture, and he remained a comedy star of unique stature, until the mid- to late '50s, when the British public discovered that Secombe also had a singing voice. Although he always sold himself short in this area (saying his singing was "less bel canto than can belto"), he charted two Top Five singles in England in 1955, and later recorded a hit album of religious material, Sacred Songs. A devoutly religious man, he became closely associated with sacred music in many of his broadcasts, though Secombe never gave up comedy entirely, merely branching into other areas of entertainment as his stature grew. He became an established stage star with the success of the British production of Pickwick, whose cast also included a young Davy Jones
, and also enjoyed a hit single in 1963 with a song from the show, "If I Ruled the World." His later hits included a huge selling rendition of "This Is My Song" in 1967, which reached number two on the British charts, after Petula Clark
's version had already topped the charts. That same year, Secombe played the role of Mr. Bumble in the film Oliver!, based on the hit musical. The late '60s marked his heyday on the big screen, with parts in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (directed by one-time Goon
director Richard Lester), Song of Norway, and The Bed-Sitting Room (also a Lester movie).
Secombe, who counted John Lennon
and Prince Charles among his fans, never lost popularity. In 1978, his album 20 Songs of Joy reach the British Top Ten, right in the middle of the heyday of the Sex Pistols
and other iconic figures on the U.K. punk rock scene. In 1981, in recognition of his many years of charitable work, Secombe was knighted -- friends rather jokingly referred to him after that as "Sir Cumference," in recognition of his girth. He continued working into the 1990s and was only slowed by a stroke late in the decade, and announced his retirement in 1999. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi