Gonk revival anyone?

May 17, 2019

So-bad-it’s-brilliant pop musical Gonks Go Beat gets the blu-ray treatment in this brand new edition from Network. But what exactly is… or was… a Gonk? The truth has become muddled over the years, with many mid-century kitsch characters now referred to, generically, as Gonks. Here we try to unravel the facts surrounding these distinctive creations…

* * *

The true Gonk was originally a stylised soft toy, first appearing in Britain in the early 1960s. The creation of London-based entrepreneur Robert Benson, Gonks quickly became a must-have fashion accessory, aimed as much as adults as at children, and were often to be seen in the clutches of contemporary celebrities.

Benson, who created the title design and Gonk characters seen in the movie, operated out of premises in D’Arblay Street, Soho, at what was then the epicentre of Swinging London. Original Gonk toys still turn up with their hang-tags intact, giving the company’s address at number 16a. Beginning as a jokey side-project, the fashion for Gonks began to take off around 1962 or 63. A collection of very Gonk-esque puppets appeared in the promotional film that accompanied Bernard Cribbins’ 1962 chart hit Right, Said Fred, and by 1964 the toys were well on their way to becoming a true pop-cultural phenomenon.

The typical Gonk was of spherical or egg-shaped appearance, with small stumpy feet, long arms and simple, stylised features, and was fashioned from brightly-coloured, sometimes patterned fabric (tartan was a popular look). Various different ‘characters’ were created, as can be seen from sewing patterns sold by Simplicity in 1964: ‘Fred Gonk’ and ‘Gone Gonk’ can both be seen in the sequences designed by Benson for the movie.

Gonk characters often resembled stylised Beatle or mod-ette characters (Ringo Starr was reportedly a fan), with huge mop-top haircuts, as depicted in the movie poster, and by 1964 an application had been made to register the term ‘Gonk’ as a trademark. From their fabric origins, Gonks began to appear in other forms: small, vinyl car mascots of the characters were produced under license by Fairchild industries, selling for 3/11, and surviving sales labels confirm that the characters and their name were by now the ‘registered design and registered trademark of Gonks Ltd.’ There were Gonk records, too – at least two different singles in picture sleeves – and by the mid-60s Gonks had, like their Beatle antecedents, crossed the Atlantic, achieving a short-lived popularity in the USA and Canada.

Like so many later examples – Furbies, Beanie Babies, Cabbage Patch Dolls – Gonks were a fashion fad, and as is the way with all such fads, their time in the spotlight was relatively short. The movie (released in January 1965) may well have been a late attempt by Benson to rekindle interest in his creations. Gonks narrowly lost out to Palitoy’s Action Man as the Toy Retailers’ Association Toy of the Year in 1966, but in spite of this, their popularity in Britain began to dwindle as the 70s approached, and they would never again attain the levels of superstardom they’d enjoyed in the mid 60s. A new lease of life awaited them down under, and the Gonks finally popped up in Australia to enjoy a late revival during the 1970s.

By this time, there were many other Gonk-like collectables on sale, some of the most popular being the Troll Doll (often incorrectly referred to as a Gonk), originating in Denmark, and easily recognised by its grotesque, simian features and shock of brightly coloured hair. ‘Glooks’ arrived somewhat later, and took the form of garishly-coloured, shapeless fur bodies adorned with owl-like eyes and small flipper-like feet. Other mid-century kitsch collectable characters are often referred to as ‘Gonks’, typically originating in Scandinavia and having carved wooden bodies, metal limbs and fur trimmings. But the bona fide Gonks were those of Robert Benson, forever enshrined in celluloid courtesy of Gonks Go Beat...

And what of the movie itself? Famously referred to by film critic Mark Kermode as ‘the Plan 9 From Outer Space of film musicals’, Gonks Go Beat was a late example of a trend for pop-exploitation movies, whose ‘plots’ were nothing more than thin threads on which to string the shiny beads of pop performances; and it is for these segments – featuring the likes of Lulu, the Nashville Teens and a pre-Cream Ginger Baker – that the movie is best remembered. But as we’ve already seen, it also affords a glimpse of an almost forgotten fashion fad.

Gonk revival anyone?

* * *

Pre-order Gonks Go Beat on Blu-ray & DVD.

Martin Cater



Comments:1

  1. JJ Marsh Reply
    19/05/27

    The mascot of ITV mime panel game ‘Don’t Say A Word’, which ran for two series in 1963 and 1964, was Ssshh Gonk, at least for the second series. As I recall its name was pronounced sh-shh (two syllables).

    There’s a contemporary piece from TV Times here, complete with photo of Ssshh posing with Harry Fowler: http://rediffusion.london/the-show-that-left-me-speechless

    According to a post on Flickr, they were one of the six original Gonks.

Leave a Reply to JJ Marsh Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *